Only A Game Only A Game

Support the news

MLB's First Bonus Baby And The Hollywood Big Shot Who Changed Baseball12:01
Download

Play
Paul Pettit (left) signed with the Pirates, who were partially owned by Bing Crosby (right). Some clubs suspected Bing Crosby had orchestrated a scheme involving a Hollywood bigwig to sign the pitching prospect. (David F. Smith/AP)
Paul Pettit (left) signed with the Pirates, who were partially owned by Bing Crosby (right). Some clubs suspected Bing Crosby had orchestrated a scheme involving a Hollywood bigwig to sign the pitching prospect. (David F. Smith/AP)

Here's a story about how the film industry helped change the way baseball does business.

"I didn’t think it was going to be such a big deal," Paul Pettit says. "I mean, over the years, it just keeps coming back."

Pettit is 88 now. I grew up with his youngest daughter, and when we were kids, I called him Mr. Pettit.

Until recently, I had no idea that Mr. Pettit was important to the history of baseball. I only knew that he had played the game when he was younger.

"I was kinda good at throwing a ball, and I always threw it a little bit harder than most kids, so I just automatically gravitated to pitching," Pettit says.

Pettit wasn’t yet in high school when people first started noticing his talent.

"There were a lot of leagues at that time in Southern California — amateur leagues," says Dan Taylor, author of the baseball book "Fate’s Takeout Slide."

A High School Phenom

"His best friend was his catcher later in the high school team, Gar Meyers," Taylor says. "And Gar had gotten on an amateur team and encouraged Paul to come to a tryout, which Paul did.

"The coach of this team was a scout for the St. Louis Browns, and he changed Paul’s pitching mechanics. Almost instantly, Paul went from kind of a mediocre type of talent to a phenom."

Pettit’s style was similar to that of baseball great Sandy Koufax, who would come along much later. Once he got to high school in the mid-to late-1940s, Pettit helped his school’s baseball team go to several citywide championships. He pitched six no-hitters and struck out 390 batters over 140 innings, including 27 in a single game.

"I didn’t lose a game the last couple years, myself," Pettit says. "I was fortunate enough to be one of them that didn’t lose."

Legendary scout Rosey Gilhausen, then with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, heard about Pettit from another scout.

"Paul went from kind of a mediocre type of talent to a phenom."

Dan Taylor

"When Rosey saw Paul, he was certainly sold on him and befriended him," Taylor says. "And Gar and Paul really took a liking to him. And, after school, they would ride their bikes to Rosey’s house, and Rosey would regale them with baseball stories. And he would take them to Gilmore Field, and take them to Hollywood Stars games. And he would take 'em downstairs into the VIP lounge."

"He just showed us, you know, baseball attracts some real successful people," Pettit says. "And that’s what's so exciting to me."

Little did Pettit know that he’d soon have his own fans.

"When Paul was in his senior season at Narbonne High School in 1949, the administration of the school had to bring bleachers from the football field over to the baseball field, because there were so many people coming to watch him play," Taylor says. "You go back and you look at the six daily newspapers in Southern California at that time and, you know, Paul was written up as much as any of the Rams, any of the Hollywood Stars, any of the top athletes of the day. I contend that Paul was the greatest amateur player in America at that time. And teams had multiple scouts following him.

"And the scouts weren’t just evaluating him. Scouts would go out, and they would go to the coaches at [U]SC and UCLA and arrange for Paul’s high school team to play them, so that they could gauge Paul pitching against stronger competition. And all the players on both teams were told, 'Not a word of this is ever to be breathed to the media.' And I think the college coaches were most appreciative of that, because Paul’s team beat ‘em."

Pettit says the scouts and all of the attention didn’t make him nervous.

"I worried more about winning the games and pitching well than I did the scouts," Pettit says.

Before his senior year of high school, as Pettit was warming up for a game, Pittsburgh Pirates scout Babe Herman came over and watched him pitch for a while.

"He says, 'You know, you should get at least $90,000 to sign.' And he says, 'If you don’t, there’s something wrong,' or some words to that effect," Pettit recalls. "And I kept that in my mind. So, right after that, I started getting offers. I used that knowledge not to sign with them."

This was before Major League Baseball had a draft. Instead, teams would lure top amateurs with signing bonuses.

"He says, 'You know, you should get at least $90,000 to sign,' and he says, 'If you don’t, there’s something wrong.' "

Paul Pettit

But while Pettit was in high school, the Major Leagues passed something called the "Bonus Rule."

"The objective was to level the playing field to prevent the big-money teams at that time — the Yankees, the Detroit Tigers, for example — from spending lavishly and corralling all the best amateur players," Taylor says. "So, as kind of a penalty, any player out of high school, college who signed with a team, received a bonus of $4,000 or more, had to spend their first season in professional baseball in the big leagues."

These "bonus babies", as they were called, often warmed the bench and lost out on valuable playing time they could have had on semi-pro teams.

That’s when Frederick Stephani comes into this story.

Stephani was a Hollywood producer, best known for co-writing and directing a popular science fiction serial film in 1936, "Flash Gordon."

This was an era full of baseball movies like"The Story of Babe Ruth," "It Happens Every Spring" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly.

Stephani wanted to make a baseball movie.

"He couldn’t get Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio or any of the big stars," Pettit says. "They wanted too much money. So he tried to pick somebody else while they were an amateur before they got into pro ball."

"And, of course, reading the newspapers every three or four days, they were seeing the name 'Paul Pettit,' " Taylor says. "Paul’s father received a telegram one day, and it was from Stephani, wanting to arrange a meeting. And they didn’t know what it could possibly be about. So Paul and his dad and his mother and his girlfriend, Shirley, all went to Stephani’s office. And Stephani told him that he wanted to lock up Paul on a multi-year contract to do exclusive pictures for Stephani's company. The contract called for $85,000."

But Stephani didn’t plan to pay Pettit the money called for in that contract himself. He planned to get baseball to do it.

The First '$100,000 Bonus Baby'

"It basically gave Stephani the rights to negotiate on Paul's behalf with big league teams, which had never been done before," Taylor says. "There was no such thing as player agents at that time. Paul was really the first player ever to be represented by an agent."

So Stephani shopped Pettit around to teams.

"And Paul and his dad went to Frederick Stephani’s office," Taylor says. "And, when they were ushered in, there were executives of the Pittsburgh Pirates there — the general manager Roy Hamey and a few of the scouts. And Hamey reached out to shake their hand and said, 'Congratulations, we've purchased your contract.' And I believe he made mention of the $85,000 figure and Paul’s father said, 'Not so fast. My son's not signing for a penny less than $100,000.'

"Not so fast. My son's not signing for a penny less than $100,000."

Paul Pettit's father

"The men got very surprised looks on their faces, and they adjourned to a private office and came back a little bit later and said, 'OK, you’ve got your deal.' And Paul, in talking to one of the scouts a couple of years later, the scout said, 'Boy, were we glad you accepted just $100,000. Because we were actually prepared, if you guys were tougher negotiators, to go to $125,000.'

"Still, it was a record signing. There had never been a player signed for a six-figure bonus before, so Paul was the first in baseball history to sign for $100,000."

Stephani got to keep the movie rights. The Pittsburgh Pirates got a top prospect. And Pettit came to be known as the first "$100,000 bonus baby."

And, since Pettit's contract was technically a personal services contract with Stephani and not a regular baseball contract, it got around the bonus rule. He could start his career in the minors instead of taking up valuable space on Pittsburgh’s Major League roster.

The Bing Crosby Conspiracy

"That created a lot of outrage in the game," Taylor says. "The Cardinals, the Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to name three, they screamed bloody murder. They wanted investigations launched."

The teams figured that Stephani — an independent producer — couldn’t possibly have pulled this off on his own. And, of course, they blamed the most logical person.

"They pointed a finger at Bing Crosby," Taylor says. "They felt, because Bing Crosby was a part owner of the Hollywood Stars, that he had in some way utilized Stephani to be able to angle Paul toward the Pittsburgh Pirates."

Crosby also happened to be a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He even posed with Pettit at his first spring training with the Pirates in 1950.

"So the feeling was that this Hollywood involvement in Paul Pettit, it could only have come from Bing Crosby," Taylor says.

The league investigated and turned up nothing, but Taylor says there’s still speculation.

"And I’ve read and talked to a few people who felt that it wasn’t Bing, but there was a Hollywood involvement to it," Taylor says.

Injury

Pettit started his Major League career by pitching a perfect inning as a relief pitcher in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. He was then assigned to the Southern League's New Orleans Pelicans. Things were going great. He was on his way to a long Major League career.

"But it was about that time, a number of coaches began to tinker with Paul," Taylor says. "They started to tinker with his motion. And Paul said almost immediately [that] he began to feel a little stress.

"He had had an injury in his next-to-last high school game. He was playing center field, and he made a diving catch and landed on his left shoulder. And he came up and, from his knees, he threw out the runner, who had been trying to tag up and go from second to third.

"And the next time out, the final game of Paul’s high school career, he really didn’t have the same movement on his fastball, and his curve didn’t break as well. And his catcher questioned him on it and said, 'Are you hurt?' And Paul insisted that he wasn't."

Still, Pettit got off to a good start with the Pelicans.

Paul Pettit was with the Pittsburgh Pirates when he started to have elbow issues. (Walter Stein/AP)
Paul Pettit was with the Pittsburgh Pirates when he started to have elbow issues. (Walter Stein/AP)

"And then in, I believe it was his third game of the regular season, he was in the second inning of the game, and he just felt a pop and a pain in his left elbow," Taylor says.

"I called the trainer out and I said, 'I think I hurt my arm.' And he says, 'Well, try another one or two.' And I tried one or two more, and I said, 'That’s it. I can’t pitch anymore,' " Pettit says.

"And for all practical purposes, his career was over," Taylor says.

"The fast ball was gone. He had a lot of pain. By then, Branch Rickey was in, running the Pittsburgh Pirates. And he didn’t have a lot of tolerance for players that talked about injuries. And he questioned whether Paul just wasn’t tough enough to play."

An Overlooked Legacy

Pettit played two seasons with the Pirates, and even pitched for the Hollywood Stars in an early live televised game in 1952, which attracted a record half-million viewers at a time when TV sets were not common. He tried to shift his focus to batting and did well, but never got another shot at the big leagues. In 1961, after he received his last bonus check, Pettit retired and became a teacher and coach.

Even though Paul Pettit’s baseball career was short, baseball author Dan Taylor says he changed the sport.

"Paul was obviously the first to use an agent, and I think that was significant," Taylor says. "His signing bonus, obviously, met a very unique benchmark. Paul was the glaring sign that the bonus rule was not going to work."

And that led to the draft, which started in 1964 — shaping Major League Baseball into what we know today.

And Frederick Stephani’s baseball movie about Pettit?

"No, it never happened," Pettit says. "Because I didn’t happen."

This segment aired on February 8, 2020.

Related:

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news