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He had a fastball that hopped, a movie contract before his 18th birthday and a wonderfully euphonious name, Paul Pet-tit. Back home in Lomita, Calif., just south of Los Angeles, he was known as the Wizard of Whiff. He pitched six no-hitters, three of them in a row, and struck out 945 batters in 549 innings of high school, American Legion and semipro ball. He fanned 27 batters in a 12-inning high school game. In 1950 he became baseball's first $100,000 bonus baby.
But for all his early success, baseball stardom eluded him—in fact, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who signed him to that six-figure contract, got only one career victory out of his expensive left arm. Now 53 and still married to his high school sweetheart, Pettit has been teaching typing, accounting and other business skills in Southern California high schools for more than 20 years, and, surprisingly, he credits baseball with having had a positive influence on his life.
"I owe practically everything I have to baseball," says Pettit. "I've tried to put something back into the game, and I'm not through yet." He managed for one season at Class A Dubuque in 1968 and doesn't rule out coaching or scouting one of these days.
The son of an English-born milkman and a registered nurse, Pettit began attracting scouts at 15 while pitching as an amateur for the semipro Signal Oilers in nearby Torrance. In 1949, still in high school, he was approached by an enterprising movie producer named Frederick Stephani. Stephani wanted to film the life story of an athlete but couldn't afford to sign an established star. Convinced that Pettit eventually would make it big, Stephani signed him to a 10-year personal-services contract for $85,000. Three months later Stephani sold Pettit's contract to the Pirates for $100,000. The Cardinals and other teams cried foul, but baseball commissioner Happy Chandler's subsequent investigation concluded that there had been no wrongdoing. The movie was never made.
The six-figure contract made Pettit an instant media figure. Years later, Carl Yastrzemski admitted that, while Ted Williams and Stan Musial were his boyhood heroes, "the guy I really envied was a pitcher named Paul Pettit...when scouts came around to watch us play, that magic figure was on my mind." Pettit recalls that when he reported for spring training in 1950 with the Double A New Orleans Pelicans, "There wasn't a day for three weeks when my picture wasn't in the paper. I guess the name Paul Pettit has a certain ring to it."
But Pettit's fame was short-lived. After he shared a no-hitter with Bob Purkey in the exhibition season, his fortunes ebbed. In the third week of the season he hung a curve and injured his elbow. Favoring the elbow, he hurt his shoulder and lost his pitching motion. He finished the year at 2-7. He spent part of the '51 and '53 seasons with the Pirates, going 1-2 with a 7.34 ERA.
His arm spent, Pettit turned to hitting in 1954 and became a respectable minor league hitter. He played first base and outfield and hit .382 for the Mexico City Azuls and led the Mexican League in batting until the last day of the '55 season. He had 102 RBIs for the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League in '57. "I was a bona fide Triple A player when there were only 16 major league teams," Pettit says. "That's major league caliber today." But it wasn't then, and he retired in 1961.
Pettit had been attending college in the off-season, and by the time he left baseball he already had his degree in physical education, with a business minor, from Long Beach State. Foreseeing an increase in local property values, he had also invested his bonus money wisely in California real estate. Pettit began teaching and coaching baseball in the L.A. area in 1962 and has been in the classroom ever since. He has been at Leuzinger High in Lawndale for 17 years.
Pettit told his sons that baseball "would do great things" for them, and all of them have played the game. Two of the four played in college and a third, Michael, 17, hopes to do the same. Paul, 33, caught for Loyola Marymount, and Tim, 27, pitched for Nebraska. Mark, 31, and Tim had brief minor league careers, Mark as a shortstop.
And what advice does Paul Pettit, bonus-baby pitcher, have for a young phenom pitcher? "Don't do too much too soon," he says. "Learn. Try hard." Sound advice from Paul Pettit, teacher.