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Paul Pettit, phenom who earned MLB’s first $100,000 signing bonus, dies at 88

Former high school pitching phenom and major leaguer Paul Pettit sits in his home in Canyon Lake, Calif.
Former high school pitching phenom and major leaguer Paul Pettit sits in his home in Canyon Lake, Calif., in May 2019 holding photo of himself from his playing days. Pettit died Thursday at age 88.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Paul Pettit, the Harbor City Narbonne pitching phenom who struck out 27 batters in a game in 1949 and was the first player to receive a six-figure signing bonus from a major league team, died of natural causes at his home in Canyon Lake, Calif., on Thursday, his family announced. Pettit was 88.

Nicknamed “Lefty” and the “Wizard of Whiff,” Pettit combined a mid-90s fastball with a slow curve to throw six no-hitters and strike out 390 batters in 140 high school innings, according to the Society of American Baseball Research.

Pettit was thrust onto the national stage as the most sought-after amateur pitcher in America at age 18. Former Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey compared Pettit to future Hall of Famer Bob Feller, who was pitching for the Cleveland Indians at the time.

Pettit was courted by a Hollywood movie producer who offered him $60,000 for the rights to his life story in 1949, and he signed baseball’s first $100,000 bonus with the Pittsburgh Pirates that year. He rubbed elbows with Bing Crosby and Jayne Mansfield, and retained Rickey as an informal advisor.

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“He definitely lived life to its fullest,” Tim Pettit, Paul’s 63-year-old son, said on Friday. “He didn’t get cheated at all.”

Pettit reached the big leagues as a 19 year old, and he pitched in 12 games for the Pirates in 1951 and 1953, going 1-2 with a 7.34 ERA. But a serious elbow injury he suffered in a minor league game in 1951 derailed his pitching career.

Pettit reinvented himself as a first baseman and outfielder as he played parts of five seasons (1952, 1954-57) with the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. He played his final four seasons (1958-60, 1962) with triple-A Columbus of the International League and triple-A Salt Lake City and Seattle of the PCL.

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Pettit earned a college degree in education during baseball’s offseasons and enjoyed a 30-year teaching and coaching career at Lawndale, Lawndale Leuzinger and Long Beach Jordan high schools. He also served as a scout and minor league instructor for the Kansas City Royals.

Paul Pettit, right, sings with actor Bing Crosby at Pirates spring training in San Bernardino on Feb. 13, 1950.
(David F. Smith / Associated Press)

“When my brothers and I got to high school, he walked away from baseball to spend time with his kids,” said Tim Pettit, who pitched briefly in the Angels’ farm system. “It gave us unfettered access to one of the best coaches I had in baseball. We got all of him. We didn’t have to share him with MLB. That was a cool thing.”

Tim Pettit said his father was slowed since last year by a nerve disorder that limited his mobility and some cardiac issues, and he suffered a stroke on Sept. 18.

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Pettit was predeceased by Shirley Pettit, his high school sweetheart and wife of 65 years. He is survived by his wife, Sally, six children — Paul (68), Mark (66), Cynthia (65), Tim (63), Mike (53) and Stephanie (48) — 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Services are pending.


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