Paul Popovich will forever be associated with one of the most memorable achievements in professional baseball history.
The date was June 4, 1968, and Popovich’s Los Angeles Dodgers were facing the Pittsburgh Pirates at old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh.
On the mound that night for LA was 6-foot-6-inch flamethrower Don Drysdale, the righthander on the verge of throwing his sixth straight shutout to break Walter Johnson’s 55-year record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched.
But in the sixth inning with one out, the Bucs began a rally when pinch hitter Gary Kolb blooped a double to left and then moved to third on a ground out. Up came the speedy Maury Wills, who hit a slow roller to second that was clearly going to be an infield hit that would have easily scored Kolb – that is until Popovich raced in, pounced on the ball and in one motion threw across his body to get Wills out at first by an eyelash.
Had Popovich not made that great play, Drysdale’s consecutive scoreless streak would have ended at 51 innings instead of the 58 2/3 innings that he went on to achieve, and The Big Train’s record would have lasted another 20 years until 1988 when Orel Hershiser pitched 59 scoreless innings.
After the game, newspapers across the country ran a wire photo of Drysdale in his Dodger blue warm-up jacket in front of Popovich’s locker thanking him for his streak-saving play.
“I remember that very well,” Popovich said from his home in Northbrook, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. “It’s incredible – 58 2/3 innings against major league hitters is pretty unbelievable. It was a night game and I was going to the ballpark around 2-2:30 in the afternoon and the cars were already lined up for miles trying to get to the stadium to watch that game.”
Popovich, a reserve infielder for the Dodgers that year, was filling in at second base for injured Jim Lefebvre.
“It was pretty exciting, but it was also kind of nerve wracking for the defensive players because nobody wanted to make an error that would cost this hall of famer the streak,” said Popovich. “Fortunately, it ended (three days later against the Phillies) legitimately and that was it.”
Popovich is one of seven former Mountaineer athletes and coaches being inducted into this year’s West Virginia University Sports Hall of Fame, the group announced last Sunday.
For Popovich, the face of WVU baseball for many, many years, the honor was probably long overdue. He may have made a name for himself as a utility infielder for the Dodgers, Cubs and the Pirates during an 11-year major league career from 1964-75, but the Flemington, W.Va., native actually came to West Virginia University as a high-scoring guard in basketball.
Popovich set a state record by averaging 41.3 points per game during his senior year at Flemington High in 1958, and he was one of the area’s most sought-after roundball prospects that spring when coach Fred Schaus convinced him to become a Mountaineer.
Popovich was also a coveted second baseman and he turned down a $12,000 offer from the Cleveland Indians to instead go to college. Popovich said he equally enjoyed playing baseball and basketball at the time.
“During basketball season I liked basketball the best and when baseball season came around I liked baseball the best,” he said. “I didn’t really have a preference at that point. But I thought my future was probably better in baseball than in basketball, though.”
Popovich fit the profile of the type of basketball players Schaus was recruiting to WVU at the time – athletic, intelligent, versatile and local – joining outstanding guards such as Bucky Bolyard, Ronnie Retton, Lee Patrone and Joedy Gardner who helped West Virginia rise to the top of the national rankings.
“Most of the players that went to the University at that time were born and raised in West Virginia,” said Popovich. “My sophomore year we were ranked in the top 5 in the country almost all year.”
Of course, everyone remembers what Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley and Rod Thorn did during that great era of Mountaineer basketball, but the late Schaus never failed to point out the important contributions made by the complimentary players he unearthed to surround West, Hundley and Thorn – most of them coming from places in West Virginia that other college coaches had never heard of.
Popovich, from tiny Flemington, was one of them and he would have likely helped continue that trend of great basketball success at WVU had he stuck with it. But he played just one year on the hardwood for Schaus and one year of baseball for coach Steve Harrick in 1960 before a number of professional baseball teams once again began pursuing him.
Prior to 1965, there wasn’t a major league draft, which meant organizations competed against each other to sign top prospects. The Chicago Cubs eventually landed Popovich for $42,000 in the spring of 1960.
“To me, that was a lot of money,” admitted Popovich.
It was, about $325,000 when adjusted for inflation in today’s dollars, but money was not the overriding factor in Popovich’s decision to pick Chicago over the 10-12 other ball clubs that pursued him.
“I thought my chances for getting to the big leagues were a little bit quicker with them because at the time the Cubs weren’t very strong,” Popovich explained. “Back then they expected the players they signed to go to the minor leagues for five or six years. It wasn’t like they signed somebody and in a year they were in the big leagues – it just didn’t work that way.”
Popovich first made it to the majors in 1964 and he also had a brief stay in the bigs in 1966 before making it for good with the Cubs in 1967 as a utility infielder.
“It was after my third or fourth year in the Texas League (Double-A) and I was in Amarillo, Texas and I had a good year there – I hit .313 with 17 home runs and that’s when I really thought my chances were pretty good (of making a big league roster).”
Popovich was traded to Los Angeles after the 1967 season and spent two years in LA before the organization decided to go with young prospect Ted Sizemore at short and Lefebvre at second. Popovich was shipped back to Chicago in a complicated three-team deal with the Montreal Expos that included Maury Wills, Manny Mota and Ron Fairly.
Popovich spent six seasons in Chicago and two additional years in Pittsburgh as a backup middle infielder before being waived during the ’75 season when the Pirates decided to make room on their roster for touted second-base prospect Willie Randolph to play behind Rennie Stennett.
Popovich could have signed with the Milwaukee Brewers and extended his career by a few more years, but he chose to retire when his second son was born. Following retirement, Popovich spent 10 years in the Dodgers organization as a minor league instructor.
He says he still enjoys watching the game today, despite baseball being a much different game than the one he played in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Back then there were no middle relievers or all of the specialty players that teams carry on their rosters today.
“The thing that surprises me most today about the players is the amount of injuries and surgeries with the pitchers getting hurt,” he said. “I just don’t recall that happening during my time and I can’t account for it. I don’t know what’s behind that.
“Starting pitchers, when I played, they’d pitch on three day’s rest. An example was Ferguson Jenkins. There were years when he started and completed 30 games a year where now it will take a team maybe the whole year or two for the entire pitching staff to get 30 complete games,” he said.
One thing hasn’t changed, though, according to Popovich – and will likely never change - the best players transcend eras.
“I think the stars that played back when I played would be stars today and the stars today would have been stars back then,” he said. “I think the biggest difference is the size of the players today. The training they have and the conditioning makes them much bigger and stronger than we were.”
Considering that Popovich played in a true Golden Era of professional baseball when there were fewer teams and many, many great players, he has a unique perspective on some of the best of the best.
The most intimidating pitcher he ever faced?
“Probably (Bob) Gibson or Drysdale,” said Popovich. “But there were guys like Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver who could bring it in there close to 100 miles per hour.”
The pitcher with the best stuff?
“Some of those guys who weren’t overpowering had pretty good stuff – straight change, slider, sinker or whatever – but I would have to maybe give it to Seaver,” said Popovich. “He could throw the ball pretty much wherever he wanted to – 95 miles per hour on the outside part of the plate or on the inside corner. He had location, plus speed.”
The greatest player he ever saw?
“Willie Mays,” answered Popovich before I could even finish the question. “There were a lot of great ones – Hank Aaron, (Roberto) Clemente, Mike Schmidt and (Willie) Stargell, but when you talk about the five tools – he could do everything very well.”
Indeed, Mays could.
As for being recognized by WVU more than 50 years after he last played for the Mountaineers, Popovich said he is extremely grateful it is finally happening.
“I’m really honored that this happened and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
Induction ceremonies will take place on Saturday, Sept. 14 prior to West Virginia’s home football game against Georgia State at Milan Puskar Stadium.Check out Antonik's book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores and online at your favorite retailers. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.