Rams didn’t get the best version of ‘Porky’ Pawelek

Ted Pawelek in 1940 with the Anniston Rams. (Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County)

After he’d played for the Anniston Rams, served three years in the U.S. Marines, participated in the bloody Guadalcanal landings and taken four meaningless at-bats with the Chicago Cubs, catcher Ted “Porky” Pawelek faced a transcendental problem: his imposing left-handed swing couldn’t ameliorate his profound defensive liabilities. 

He couldn’t catch a cold.

“Pawelek,” wrote Fred Russell, sports editor of The Nashville Banner, “is not a good receiver. He drops too many balls. He’ll never make the majors as a catcher.”

A clipping from the Chicago Tribune.

That Pawelek, a Cubs late-season call-up in 1946, had already made the show didn’t neuter Russell’s thesis. In the spring of 1947, the 30-year-old Pawelek had proven that he epitomized the all-hit, no-glove label hung on certain American League hitters after the designated hitter’s implementation in 1973. But in baseball’s second post-war season, Pawelek’s stone hands were threatening his ability to stick in the higher levels of the minor leagues.

A clipping from the Nashville Banner.

Prior to World War II, the Chicago Heights, Illinois, native made 46 errors in 219 minor-league games. (Pawelek’s defensive statistics from the 22 games he played with the Rams in 1940 aren’t known, though Anniston ranked last defensively in the Southeastern League when he was optioned out in June.) He made 11 errors in 89 games with the Vols in 1946 before the Cubs promoted him in September, and the one inning of defense he played with Chicago contained a misplay — a passed ball in a 13-0 loss to Pittsburgh.

Those numbers were embedded in Russell’s thesis, which suggested that the Nashville Vols — with whom Pawelek in 1946 had hit .355, led the Southern Association in home runs and made the All-Star team — should install the catcher in right field in order to preserve his lineup thump. Russell certainly knew that Pawelek had showed up for spring training at 240 pounds after his discharge from the Marines and still weighed more than the average outfielder. But the Vols had other, and better, roster options at catcher, Russell mused, and Pawelek wasn’t going to again emerge from the Cubs’ farm system. That the Cubs had sent Pawelek to Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League after spring training was one of the two flaws in the journalist’s suggestion. 

A headline from the Nashville Banner.

The other — Sulphur Dell, the Vols’ home park — revolved around its sloping outfield terrain that created a grassy “shelf” in center and right near the outfield wall. Right field was particularly odd; the fence was only 262 feet from home plate, and fielders often stood on the elevated shelf. Russell figured the Vols didn’t have much to lose, given the inherent peculiarities of right-field play at the Dell. 

“Why not (put) Porky as the Vol right-fielder this year, playing the Sulphur Dell ledge?” he asked. “… Defensively, he might hurt the club to some extent on the road in the bigger parks, but his bat could cover up many a deficiency.” Vols Manager Larry Gilbert, while noting that Pawelek remained in Los Angeles’ spring camp, admitted he’d considered such a radial idea should the catcher be returned to Nashville’s roster. “It might work out OK,” he said.

Ted Pawelek with the Chicago Cubs in 1946.

For two weeks, Gilbert tested Russell’s thesis after Los Angeles optioned Pawelek in late April. “Ted is a catcher,” Gilbert told The Banner the day before the experiment began, “but I’m plenty satisfied with Walker and Easterwood. What we need most is hitting, also a few home runs for a change. Pawelek ought to be able to hit some for us.” In his column, Russell tried to better explain his cheerleading for putting a slow-footed catcher in Sulphur Dell’s quirky right field by hoping Pawelek’s defense would prove acceptable enough to catch the eye of Major League scouts.

His outfield debut, in an 8-1 loss to Birmingham, happened as skeptics of Gilbert’s plan would have expected. As a hitter, Pawelek hit cleanup and went 1 for 4. On defense, he made four putouts, including “one ‘look-what-I-found’ catch of an almost overrun liner,” The Banner reported. But The Tennessean explained what The Banner did not. The game was tied 1-1 entering extra innings, and the Barons’ leadoff hitter in the top of the 10th hit a towering fly ball to right that should have been caught. It instead fell up on the Dell’s ledge at the base of the wall. “A fleet-footed outfielder would have taken it,” the paper wrote, “but Ted Pawelek … lacks mercury in his heels.” The Barons’ seven-run 10th sealed the Vols’ fate.

Sulphur Dell in Nashville, with its prominent ledge in the outfield. (Wikipedia)

Two weeks later, on May 11, Nashville optioned Pawelek to Tulsa in the Texas League. The outfield experiment was a dud, likely doomed to fail from the start. Pawelek was a catcher, and that’s the position he’d play for the Oilers. “He can hit,” Gilbert told The Banner after shipping Pawelek west, “but we didn’t need his hitting enough to offset his fielding. He let balls get by him out there. To make an outfielder, he needs weeks of practice on fly balls and line drives.”

The Ted Pawelek who played for the Rams wasn’t the Ted Pawelek who terrorized the Southern Association and hit better than .300 in a majority of his minor-league stops. Just 20 years old when he went to camp with Anniston in the spring of 1940, Pawelek hit a meager .250 (6 for 24) and recorded only one extra-base hit in his 22 games in a Rams uniform. Class B pitching simply overpowered the young Illinoisian, who bookended his short Anniston stint with better showings with a pair of Class D teams, hitting .311 for Huntingdon and .383 for Fulton. His swing, and especially his power, wouldn’t reach its apex until after he returned from World War II.

A headline from the Pampa (Texas) Daily News.

By 1953, Pawełek was 33, working in steel mills near his home and refereeing basketball games during the offseason; his bat had aged and his offensive swagger had sagged as he worked his way through rosters in the Piedmont, Carolina, Florida International and Texas leagues. Nonetheless, a team in the Class C West Texas-New Mexico League, the Pampa Oilers, signed him to manage the club and provide veteran pop to the lineup. It was his first dugout assignment, which he openly welcomed. “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity,” he told his hometown paper, the Chicago Heights Star. “I don’t know much at all about Pampa City playing personnel, but I’ll promise you one thing. Pampa City may not win a pennant next year, but it will be a club that hustles from start to finish.” The paper published a photograph of Pawelek signing his contract. By his side were his wife, Dorothy, and their children, 5-year-old Susan and 4-month-old Kathy. He guided the Oilers to a winning season, 77-65, and hit .366 with nine home runs, but they failed to make the playoffs. Pampa didn’t bring him back in 1954, a decision that ended his professional career and returned him full-time to his family in Chicago Heights. He eventually found work in baseball when the Detroit Tigers hired him as a regional scout.

Pawelek, the son of Polish immigrants who’d settled in Illinois, was only 44 when he died. He and his wife were killed Feb. 12, 1964, when a truck collided with their car as they were turning into a driveway in Chicago Heights. Dorothy was 37. The Paweleks are buried in Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleums in Calumet City, Illinois.

Ted Pawelek’s World War II draft registration card. (Ancestry.com)
Ted Pawelek’s American League baseball questionnaire. (Ancestry.com)

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