The book: “Perfect: The Rise and Fall of John Paciorek, Baseball’s Greatest One-Game Wonder”
The author: Steven K. Wagner
The vital statistics: Breakaway Books, 224 pages, $12.95
Find it: On Amazon.com, on Barnesandnoble.com, on Powells.com
The pitch: Maybe the last place John Paciorek thought he’d be on the final day of the 1963 major-league baseball season was on a major-league roster. But the 18-year-old was picked by the Houston Colt .45s to join up-and-coming players Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub and Jimmy Wynn and give fans a glimpse of the franchise’s future.
He didn’t really know the future would be now, and only now.
Paciorek, hitting seventh and playing right field, and in a big-league park for only the third time in his life, saw 23 pitches. He went 3 for 3 with three singles, two walks, four runs scored and three RBIs in a 13-4 win. Fewer than 4,000 were on hand at Colts Stadium to see it.
And without the help of the official scorekeeper ruling a hit instead of an error, this whole thing would likely not be worth the trouble to revisit.
“The rest of (Paciorek’s) career may be an anticlimax,” a story in the Houston Post declared, while also naming him the unofficial batting champ of that season.
We acknowledged in a story we did on the 50th anniversary of the feat that “by perfect illogical fate, he never played in an MLB game again.”
But with all that came a lifetime 1.000 batting average, for trivia purposes or worse, because of back injury issues and failed comeback attempts. His life led him to San Gabriel and a teaching career, as well as publishing his own book about hitting.
Wagner’s drive to bring this back to life is a little tricky. One problem is that Paciorek’s memory isn’t all that clear about what actually happened, and the older brother of eventual Dodgers outfielder Tom Paciorek is far too reluctant to play it up. With some digging, however, Wagner ended up excavating a tape of the game, from the visiting New York Mets’ call by Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy and Lindsay Nelson, that had been sitting in the Library of Congress.
Wagner didn’t have that in 1991 when he got ahead of the curve on this story and wrote about it for the L.A. Times, “the first such piece written about Paciorek’s short career,” as he noted in the book’s prologue. Since then, Sports Illustrated has been one of those who followed up on Paciorek in a 2012 version of “Whatever happened to …?” edition.
The approach that Wagner smartly crafts now is to put Paciorek’s day into the context of three others who were also playing in their last big-league game on Sept. 29, 1963. One knew the end was here. Three others, including Paciorek, didn’t.
This was it for Stan Musial, a Hall of Fame career closing at age 42 with more than 3,600 hits. This would also be the curtain call for Jim Umbricht, Paciorek’s brief Colt .45s teammate and relief pitcher who actually was credited for the victory in that same win over the Mets. He lost his battle to melanoma in April, ’64 at age 33.
And then there’s Ken Hubbs, the Chicago Cubs’ 22-year-old second basemen a year removed from an NL Rookie of the Year honor, who would die in a plane crash in Feb., 1964.
The apparent moral to this story: Baseball, and time, doesn’t discriminate. And who says anything is fair? It’s how you deal with it afterward that shows your character.
“I wanted to be the best there ever was,” Paciorek says on page 71.
He, and the rest of us, have to accept this version of the story instead.
An author Q-and-A with Wagner, who lives in Claremont:
Q: You explain in the prologue how you came across the story of John’s “perfect game” by reading the Baseball Encyclopedia. After bringing it to the public’s attention almost 25 years ago, and now have seen it come to this point, do you feel as if you were some kind of gold miner who happened to come across a nugget of baseball history that really hadn’t been explained?
A: I think most stories, including newspaper articles and books, evolve in odd ways and usually reflect a writer’s interest and his ability to convey a story in a way that draws readers in. Perhaps another writer mining the pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia might not have noticed one-game wonders like Paciorek as I did. I let the story simmer for 30 years because I wasn’t sure there was enough there for an article, let alone a book. Once The Times ran my story and I decided to do the book, my challenge was to present John’s story in a way that readers might find interesting. I thought that weaving it around the play-by-play of the game would achieve that. However, I wasn’t there yet: I tell people that the hard part is writing a book, the harder part is finding a publisher. Breakaway Books of New York was kind enough to give the book a look.
Q: Do you come away from this feeling more sad or more OK with how Paciorek’s life ended up after that day? Does the fact he seems good with everything add to your emotions tied to his story?
A: I’m not sure Paciorek was the loser, because he did make it to the major leagues — the pinnacle of baseball. And, today he’s a happy person, someone who has contributed positively in the lives of thousands of boys and girls. The real losers are the fans, who missed seeing what could have been a truly fabulous, Mantle-esque career. I am less sad because John is at peace with his life. And I’m glad that after 50 years he’s finally getting a little recognition for his accomplishment. His record is one of the few in baseball that will never be broken—a player would have to go 4 for 4 in his only big-league game, and in today’s environment no club brings a player up for just a game.
Q: What other projects are you working on, if you don’t mind revealing anything?
A: I’ve just finished a manuscript on Arcadia High graduate Bill Seinsoth, who was CIF most valuable player in 1965 and College World Series MVP in 1968 from USC. The Dodgers were grooming him as their first baseman of the future, but he died in a car crash after one year in single-A ball. A tremendous slugger, he lived life under a black cloud: chased from Little League for being too good, stabbed twice, suffered a serious beaning that may have contributed to the fatal accident, three broken noses, fell from a bleacher. Some felt he may have had Hall of Fame potential. I like to take people with great potential but who few remember or have heard of and bring their stories to light. Seinsoth was the best college player in the world in 1968, a big, strong, handsome, personable and charismatic person who had a great future but died way too young.
More to know:
== Paciorek’s page for the ages on BaseballReference.com
== On his 70th birthday last February, Paciorek did an interview with the MLB Network’s “Hot Stove” show. (Nice homework by Harold Reynolds, who didn’t even know that John was related to Tom, who overlapped Reynolds’ own MLB career in the 1980s)
== In the 1998 book, “Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors,” Paciorek’s day is chronicled by author Richard Tellis on 239-249. “John Paciorek’s performance in his one game in the major leagues almost makes you shake your head in disbelief,” begins this chapter.