Baseball history was made last night, as the Rays and Cardinals made the playoffs—and the Red Sox and Braves didn’t—in stunning fashion. Though nobody knew it at the time, baseball history was also made 48 years ago today. That’s when 18-year-old outfielder John Paciorek, making his major league debut for the Houston Colt .45’s, went 3-for-3 at the plate. He never again stepped foot on a big league diamond, earning him the distinction of the only career 1.000 hitter with as many as three hits.
Growing up in Detroit, Paciorek idolized Tigers star Al Kaline but wanted to look and play like Mickey Mantle. “The thing that always impressed me about Mantle was his neck,” Paciorek said in a phone interview earlier this year. “I used to do some crazy exercises to build up my neck. At one point I had a 19.5-inch neck, but I would do so many stupid exercise that I’d actually hurt myself. You know how people do handstands? I used to do headstands—sometimes I’d slip and be incapacitated for a couple of weeks because I couldn’t move my neck.”
Paciorek would lift chairs and even his brothers—two of whom would also play in the majors—to bulk up, unconventional exercises that you have to assume were at least partly responsible for his future back injuries that kept him from reaching the majors again. After finishing his minor league season in Modesto, Calif., Paciorek was sent to Houston to see a doctor about his back. When the big league club asked if he was well enough to play on Sep. 29, 1963, the final day of the season, Paciorek ignored the pain and suited up, thrilled to be in the majors.
The Colt .45’s (in just their second year of existence and two years before becoming the Astros) started eight rookies that day, including Joe Morgan and Rusty Staub, against the New York Mets in Houston, with Paciorek batting eighth and playing right field.
Neither team had anything to play for—the Mets, also in their second season, had just 51 wins and were in last place in the National League; Houston was one spot above them in the standings. Paciorek walked in his first plate appearance in the second inning against Larry Bearnarth. He recorded his first hit in his next at-bat, driving in two with a single to left field. He finished the day 3-for-3 with three RBI and four runs scored. He also made two catches in right field without an error. Houston won 13-4.
The Associated Press would write that “John Paciorek was the game’s star in his first big league appearance. He had a perfect afternoon.” The New York Times noted that Paciorek “found nothing difficult about the majors—or at least about the Mets.” (That last phrase still rings true in 2011.) In the Times sports section, right beside the Houston-New York game story, was an article about St. Louis slugger Stan Musial, who had just played his last game. Paciorek outperformed Musial that day (three hits to two), but Stan the Man finished with 3,630 hits for his career.
The Houston Postsuggested “the rest of [Paciorek’s] career may be an anticlimax,” not knowing how true that statement would be.
Paciorek was given every opportunity to make the big league club in spring training the following year, but his injured back limited his performance. He finally gave in to surgery, but was never the same. He gave up baseball in 1969.
Paciorek, 66, is now an elementary school physical education teacher in San Gabriel, Calif., where he coaches several different teams. He has fond memories of his big league career, despite its brevity. “The thing that was the most exciting was that my last at bat they gave me a standing ovation. I was surprised when I’ve been told there were only 5,000 people there [the recorded attendance was 3,899] because I was thinking 100,000.”
Asked if he ever cites his perfect batting average and claims to be the best hitter of all time, Paciorek laughed and said, “That’s what I tell all my kids at school. ‘They say I’m the greatest guy that ever played.’ I joke with them about that.”