Most Cincinnati Reds fans have probably never heard of Don Pavletich.
Signed by Cincinnati as a “bonus baby” in 1957, the 5’11” and 190 pound right-handed hitting Pavletich was a catcher/first baseman and signed as an 18-year-old out of Milwaukee. He played some years in the minors, was in the Army from 1957-1959 as a medic, and he finally stuck with the Reds in 1964.
Pavletich’s best years with the Reds were in 1966 and 1967. In ’66 he batted a career high .294, hit 12 home runs, and drove in 38 runs in 83 games played.
But Don Pavletich, who passed away earlier this month, is the only catcher in Reds spring training history to beat out Johnny Bench for the job after breaking camp.
How about that? And, in my humble opinion, Johnny Bench was the greatest catcher of all time.
That was 1968 and while Bench was a rookie and only 20-years-old, Pavletich got the call for Opening Day of 1968 as the starting catcher when the Reds took on the Chicago Cubs at Crosley Field before a crowd of 28,111 on a 65-degree day in the Rhineland.
“Don helped me win the pennant in San Diego for the Reds Triple A team in 1964,” said Dave Bristol, who was the Reds Manager in 1968. “He was a great low fastball hitter.”
The Reds beat the Cubs in the opener by the score of 9-4. Milt Pappas got the win but was knocked out in the 6th inning and George Culver pitched the rest of the game and got the save. Tommy Helms and Tony Perez belted home runs that day. Pavletich was 0 for 3 (he reached on an error by right fielder Lou Johnson and also had a sacrifice) and would get injured just weeks later. Bench became the starting catcher and the rest is history.
“No one beats out Johnny Bench, right?” laughed Bristol. “But Johnny was so young then…. Pavletich had a great spring training but the thing about Don was he was injury prone. He was always getting hurt.”
“I loved the guy. He was very quiet and didn’t say too much. Everyone knew Johnny was the future. But even before Johnny got to us, Pavletich backed up Johnny Edwards who was a pretty good catcher for the Reds too. He was always behind a great catcher. With Johnny, it was one of the best ever.”
In 1968 for the Reds, Pavletich played 46 games and batted .286 while backing up Johnny Bench for most of the season.
“I was sad to hear he passed away,” continued Bristol, who now is in the Reds Hall of Fame. The Reds eventually traded Pavletich to the White Sox for right-handed pitcher Jack Fischer after Bench won the NL Rookie of the Year Award by barely edging out Mets lefty Jerry Kossman.
“Fischer originally pitched for Baltimore and when he got to us, he was always ready to pitch which is what we needed because we had a lot of sore arms in 1969,” said Bristol. “Guys like Fischer and George Culver, they would take the ball anytime. They were always ready to pitch.”
A year after being with the White Sox, Pavletich was traded to Boston where he backed up Carlton Fisk – another pretty good catcher. After the 1972 season, he was part of a 10-player trade between Boston and the Milwaukee Brewers and he was going back home, but the Brewers cut him before he could play a game. “I got fired by the Brewers in May that season,” said Bristol, “so I never saw Don in Milwaukee.”
With the Reds, Don Pavletich went through a lot. The torrid 3-team pennant race in 1964. The tragic loss of Manager Fred Hutchinson to cancer. The disastrous trade of Frank Robinson. The short-lived regime of Manager Don Heffner. But he also was a teammate with Vada Pinson, Perez, Bench, Lee May, Culver, Gary Nolan, Jim Maloney, Helms and Pete Rose. Don played with the ’65 Reds, one of the best hitting teams in the history of the Reds.
Let’s have Johnny Bench have the final word on this former Reds catcher.
— Johnny Bench (@JohnnyBench_5) March 8, 2020