On June 11, 1967, Reds’ bonus baby Don Pavletich hits a grand slam home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to cap a five run rally and salvage the second game of a doubleheader. The Reds’ 8-4 win over the Houston Astros maintained the Reds 2 1/2 game 1st place over the eventual World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The Reds had entered the day with a 3 1/2 game lead over the Cardinals after rookie lefty Mel Queen had raised his record to 7-1 (2.20 ERA) following a 9-4 victory over the Astros. However, as the Cardinals swept a doubleheader from the Dodgers, the Reds and Milt Pappas (6-4) had lost the first game of their doubleheader to the Astros and Mike Cuellar (7-2) by a score of 7-4. The Reds reached Cuellar for 14 hits, but scored only four runs, one on a home run by backup catcher Pavletich, his second of the year.
The second game wasn’t faring much better for the Reds. With the score tied 1-1 in the third inning, the Astros’ Jim Wynn (a former Reds’ farmhand) blasted a two run homer off Reds’ starter Sammy Ellis to give the Astros a 3-1 lead and the Astros’ Bob Aspromonte had a solo homer in the fourth to make it 4-1. The Reds had been in first place since April 23rd, and were in danger of seeing their first place lead drop to 1 1/2 games if they were to be swept by the Astros on this day.
The Reds began chipping away the lead in the 7th. Backup catcher Jimmie Coker (the Reds used four different catchers during the year, including late season callup Johnny Bench) hit a one-out homr to make the score 4-2. They scored once more in the eighth when a Pete Rose sacrifice fly scored Vada Pinson.
With the heart of the Astros’ order (Wynn-Rusty Staub-Eddie Mathews) due to bat in the ninth , Reds’ manager Dave Bristol decided to come back with first game starter Pappas to pitch. He retired the Astros without allowing a run despite a two-out double by Mathews setting the stage for the Reds’ ninth inning heroics.
Facing the Astros Carroll Sembera, the Reds’ Deron Johnson reached on an infield single to third base. Dick Simpson entered the game to pinch run for Johnson as the potential tying run. Coker bunted to the first base side and beat it out for a single and now represented the winning run in the game. Tommy Helms bunted to the third base side, and he, too, beat out the play, loading the bases with no one out, all on infield hits. Leo Cardenas then walked to score the tying run.
The Reds called on lefty swinging former White Sox star Floyd Robinson to pinch hit for Pappas. The Astros countered with lefty reliever Dan Schneider. The Reds called back Robinson and went with Pavletich, who had homered in the first game. Pavletich greeted Schneider with a grand slam home run to left field and the Reds won the game, 8-4.
However, the Reds could not build on the momentum. By June 19, they had lost their first place lead and faded down the stretch. They finished fourth, 14.5 games out of first place. Through June 11, the Reds played at a 38-21 pace (.644), but went 49-54 the rest of the way as they faded from the pack.
Pavletich was a “bonus baby” signee for the Reds in 1956. Bonus babies were amateur free agents that were signed by teams and required to remain on major league rosters for a specified period of time. They could not be sent to the minor leagues without teams risking the loss of the rights to the player. The bonus rule changed over time, but was essentially in effect from 1947-65 when the amateur draft was implemented. Any player receiving a signing bonus for $4000 or more (approximately $39,000 in today’s money) could not be sent to the minors for two calender seasons from the signing date. The rule was implemented to limit the number of free agents some teams were acquiring and stockpiling in the minors to maintain competitive balance.
The rule was a big mistake for baseball as it limited the development of some of their best prospects. Three Hall of Fame players emerged from bonus baby signees, Harmon Killebrew, Sandy Koufax, and Al Kaline, a surprisingly low total for the game’s best prospects over nearly a twenty year period. Kaline had immediate major league success, but it took Koufax a couple of seasons to become effective with stardom nearly seven seasons away, and Killebrew did not get more than 110 plate appearances in a season (with a low of 15) for five seasons. Killebrew eventually spend some time in the minors after the initial two year requirement expired. Koufax nor Kaline ever played in the minors.
The Reds/Redlegs signed four bonus babies from the 1954-57:
Al Silvera: An outfielder signed as a bonus baby in 1955 after one year of college ball at USC. He went 1-7 in 1956 and 0-1 in 1957 before the Redlegs released him. He played in the minors through 1958 in the Kansas City Athletics system never rising above A Ball.
Bobby Henrich: Shortstop signed in 1957 right out of high school. He went 2-10 in 1957, 0-3 in 1958, and 0-3 in 1959, but played in 48 games in those three seasons as he had exceptional speed and was sometimes used as a pinch runner. The Redlegs sent him to the minors in 1959 hoping he would develop and he had some moderate success at the AA level. He retired from baseball at age 21 in 1960.
Jay Hook: A pitcher signed in 1957 from Northwestern University. Hook had some major league success and is known as the pitcher to get the first New York Mets victory in their history after the 1962 expansion team started 0-9. In Hook’s first two years with the Redlegs, he pitched in four games (three starts) totaling 13 innings with an 0-2 record. He went 5-5 with a 5.13 ERA in this third season before becoming a rotation starter for the 1960 team finishing the season 11-18 with a 4.50 ERA. The Mets selected him in the expansion draft and he pitched 2+ seasons with them. Hook finished his career 29-62 with a 5.23 ERA.
Don Pavletich: A catcher signed out of high school in 1957 for $30,000 who may have been the Reds’ most productive bonus baby signee. (count–that’s three roster spots committed for 1957-58: Henrich, Hook, and Pavletich). Pavletich went 0-1 in 1957, didn’t play in 1958 due to military service, and did not bat in 1959 (he pinch ran in one game). He went on to play a total of 12 major league seasons with the Reds, White Sox, and Red Sox, batting .254 with 46 homers and 193 rbi. He played nine seasons with the Reds as a semi-regular catcher/1b/pinch hitter. His best seasons were 1965 (.319, 8 homers, 32 rbi) and 1966 (.294, 12 homers, 38 rbi). He was the offensive bat to balance with Gold Glover Johnny Edwards.
Pavletich did get some minor league experience. The Reds arranged to get him parts or all of five seasons in the minor leagues, with his 1961 AAA season being his best (.295 and 22 homers for Albuquerque).
In retrospect, Pavletich was not pleased with the bonus baby designation. From baseball-reference.com
“I wasn’t going to play, I knew that, and I went into the service from May of 1957 to February of 1959. When I came out in 1959 the bonus rule was gone. (Pavletich was on the military list from May 1957 to February 1959, missing all of the 1958 season and all but 1 appearance in 1957.) I got to play ball in the service and then had a chance to develop in the minor leagues. So it worked out for me, but I don’t think there should have been a bonus rule.”