I was doing some research and something on baseball-reference.com caught my attention. I knew that former Dodger outfielder great Willie Davis and former Reds pitcher and Orioles great Mike Cuellar had passed away recently. Baseball Reference has always had an area devoted to “In Memoriam” for players who’ve recently passed and when I opened the website today I noticed that another player, former Pirate catcher Jim Pagliaroni, had passed on too.
Pagliaroni was never a great player, but he was a good catcher who played 11 seasons in the majors. What makes Pagliaroni special to me was that his was one of the first “old” baseball cards that was ever given to me.
I don’t remember how I got it or who even gave it to me, but Pagliaroni had retired from baseball before I became a baseball fan. My first Topps baseball cards were of the 1970 season variety, featuring stats from the 1969 season. The Seattle Pilots have been special to me ever since, and I even have a special place in my heart for catcher Ron Brand of the Montreal Expos (lifetime batting average of .239). Brand’s card is the first baseball card I remember seeing; the second was of Pilots pitcher Fred Talbot (you may remember has as a Jim Bouton nemesis in the book “Ball Four”).
Other favorites of mine were from the 1971 set, infielder Ken Szotkiewicz of the Detroit Tigers (lifetime batting average of .107…but a first round draft pick) and catcher Tom Tischinski of the Minnesota Twins (lifetime .181, free agent from 1962). I also had a Tischinski card from the 1970 set. Neither were good players, but both had names vastly different and seemingly more complex than mine (Steve Price) and I was proud that I could spell their names. May be it was because we shared similar batting averages since I batted .150 in my 11-year-old Little League season, but, for whatever the reason, they’ve stayed with me all these years.
It’s been forty years, nearly a generation, since I purchased these cards; I used to buy two packs a week (10 cards each pack with the plank shaped stick bubble gum inside) with my 25 cents a week allowance (that was my allowance then, lukeukcrazy). And, there were times I used to walk two miles each way next to a major highway to reach the nearest convenience store to feed my weekly addiction. (Darn the 1971 set…I got every Red from the 1970 World Series team except for that .237 batting and my compadre second baseman Tommy Helms…).
It seems very odd now that I see my childhood heroes passing on. Many of you will share my same feelings, and it just doesn’t seem right. Am I getting that much older?
Well, baseball-reference keeps a list of where players died (here’s a list of all the states’ of players births and deaths). As serendipity would have it, I came across another chart moments later, this one from Baseball-Almanac.com which is a composite by month of when baseball players die. Would you believe that fewer players seem to die in summer, especially at pennant race time? The death rate spikes in winter and in April as the season begins. Is this a coincidence? I really don’t know, and I don’t how it compares to the general populace. However, it really didn’t surprise me. Could it be that those are the times when retired players miss the sport they love the most? Are the players broken-hearted?
I’m not one to be caught up in morbid curiousity…I don’t watch “CSI” or “Bones” or any of the other crime dramas that are shown on television. To me, those shows breed fear and, at worst, form an open classroom for other future perpetrators. However, baseball mirrors life…and it’s hard to see those memories fade away.
I never saw Jim Pagliaroni play baseball. As I mentioned, Pagliaroni retired after the 1969 season, the year before I started collecting. My memory is that of Paglaroni, in full catcher’s gear (except no mask), holding a baseball in his right hand, ready to throw, and with his cather’s mitt swinging to the left to give him leverage and balance…with a HUGE smile on his face. He seemed to have deep wrinkles on his face, but he looked to be in love with the game. And, oh…he died on April 3 of this year, the day before the 2010 season began. Coincidence? I don’t think so.