In October 1960, with just 62 major league at-bats to his name, Jim Pagliaroni was already drawing comparisons to New York Yankees greats Bill Dickey Yogi Berra But his career in Boston was short-lived after management grew weary of the joke-a-minute Californian.
Pagliaroni was born on December 8, 1937, in Dearborn, Michigan. Around 1940, following the birth of their son, the small family made the short move to Detroit. A few years later a much longer jaunt ensued, to Long Beach, California.
At 14 he went to work at a fish cannery and spent any spare time on varied ball fields. He briefly tried football before a broken collarbone in either his sophomore or junior year of high school dissuaded him further. But Long Beach, a breeding ground for baseball, proved a perfect fit for the athletically inclined youngster. Jim excelled at all levels of play and in 1955, his senior year at Woodrow Wilson High School, he earned All California Interscholastic Federation honors with a .456 batting average. Throughout this time major-league scouts were swarming all over the right-handed hitter.
His most aggressive suitors were the Red Sox, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the Milwaukee Braves, but in fact there was little competition. A lifelong fan of Ted Williams, Pagliaroni was determined to sign with the Red Sox even in the face of more lucrative offers. Shortly after his high-school graduation he signed for an eye-popping $85,000, to be paid out over 10 years. Because of his bonus-baby status, the Red Sox were required to place him on the major-league roster and on June 23, 1955, the club sold veteran outfielder Sam Mele to the Cincinnati Redlegs to clear space. Two months later Jim made his major-league debut in Fenway Park.
In 1956 he was among 31 select prospects reporting to the club’s specialized training school in Sarasota, Florida, in advance of spring training. The Red Sox were still required to keep him on the major-league roster but, as opposed to watching him while away the time on the bench, management persuaded the 18-year-old to enlist in the US Army to complete his service hitch before settling down to his career.
He began basic training at Fort Ord in Monterey, California. This was followed by an assignment outside Frankfurt, Germany. In 1957 he led the 87th Regiment Conquerors with 17 homers before a fractured right wrist abruptly ended his play.
Jim received his military discharge in time to join the Red Sox in the 1958 spring camp, but with Sammy White and backup Pete Daley in front of him, the Red Sox assigned their prized prospect to the Memphis Chickasaws in the Double-A Southern Association. In July he was demoted to the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Red Sox in the Eastern League (Class A) and finished the year with a combined .243 BA with 10 homers.
Despite the disappointing season, his explosive potential and defensive prowess garnered an off-season promotion to the Triple-A Vancouver Mounties in the Pacific Coast League. Despite the paltry numbers, the Red Sox selected him among their September call-ups. That plan fell astray when, in his last appearance with the Mounties, he suffered a severe ankle sprain that prevented him from reporting.
In 1960, five years removed from signing his first professional contract, Jim remained the youngest player on the Red Sox’ 40-man roster. The 22-year-old reported to spring training restored to full health and immediately opened a lot of eyes with his long home runs.
But the Red Sox catching corps underwent a sea change in March when the club traded Sammy White to the Cleveland Indians for catching prospect Russ Nixon. Though the trade was voided nine days later when White announced he would not report to the Indians, the Red Sox eventually acquired Nixon in June, in a four-player swap. In the interim the Red Sox pursued a platoon of two 29-year-old rookies and assigned Pagliaroni to the Spokane Indians.
In Spokane he helped lead the Indians to their first league title. Months before the club basked in postseason glory, he was back in Boston in July. He finished the season with 19 hits in 62 at-bats (.306 BA) with nearly half the hits for extra bases. He was selected to The Sporting News’ 1960 All-Rookie team
In 1961 he earned the bulk of play in a platoon with Nixon, as his long-ball potential made it impossible to keep him out of the lineup. By season’s end he trailed center fielder Gary Geiger for the team lead in homers (18-to-16) despite 161 fewer plate appearances. The only blemish to his season was a league-leading 10 errors, one more than Russ Nixon. These defensive lapses appear to have contributed to the Red Sox’ decision to elevate catcher Bob Tillman to the major-league roster in 1962.
Jim missed nearly two weeks behind the plate after he was plunked on the elbow by Kansas City Athletics righty John Wyatt The injury, combined with the club’s apparent decision to go in a different direction, limited him to just eight appearances (12 at-bats) over the season’s last 33 games. On November 20th he and righty Don Schwall were traded to the Pirates.
Jim connected for his first home run as a Pirate, a towering shot over Forbes Field’s left-field scoreboard that stirred the 18,000 fans in attendance in 1963. But nagging injuries spelled much of his first season in Pittsburgh, as jammed thumbs and sprained ankles resulted in intermittent stays on the bench. Then he broke his right ring finger and missed six games in September. He was later hospitalized for days after taking a foul tip to the Adam’s apple and ended up batting .230.
He went to the Arizona Winter Instructional League where he was instructed to hit to all fields. Initially the instruction yielded little as Jimi opened the 1964 season 1-for-15., but in May another story emerged, as he exploded with a .362 average in 47 at-bats, including his second career grand slam. He finished the season with a career-high .295 average
More disturbing was the neck injury sustained in August, as he slid into second base. This injury would resurface three years later, contributing to a sharp career decline and eventual retirement.
The 1965 season would prove the exception when, save for a pulled knee tendon in July, he remained relatively healthy. He established single-season marks across the board including a franchise record 17 home runs for a catcher.
To start 1966, he placed among the NL leaders with 22 hits, three homers and eight RBIs, in his first 60 at-bats (a brisk .367 BA). But injury found him when he hurt his right side in a throw to second. He tried to play through the pain, but it eventually affected his game. He rebounded in July before suffering yet another injury, a severe bruise to his right foot. Unable to shift his weight properly, he became mired in another slump.
Jim's leadership qualities were not limited solely to his on-field generalship. The following spring, on his own initiative, he attended the MLB Players Association meeting in Miami, where Marvin Miller was chosen as executive director. A week later he was elected the Pirates’ player rep. Teammates noted his conscientious approach to the job and honored him for services above and beyond the call of ordinary duty. It was a role Jim took very seriously. In 1967-68 his advocacy for players’ rights helped spur many of the nascent union’s earliest gains.
A surprisingly different environment greeted him in the spring of 1967. Jerry May won the starting role and he requested a trade. In July of 1967 after May went on the disabled list, the Pirates called up 23-year-old Manny Sanguillen to share the catching duties. With intermittent play, Jim struggled far below the Mendoza line, finally creeping above .200 in August.
His season ended when the neck injury resurfaced. In November, while he underwent surgery to repair two ruptured discs, rumors surfaced of his imminent trade to the Minnesota Twins. Instead he was sold to the newly relocated Oakland Athletics in December.
In 1968 Jim’s spring training accomplishments included two walk-off hits in Grapefruit League competition. With an eye toward the AL Comeback Player of the Year award, he began the regular season. The 30-year-old backstop admitted he’d lost arm strength but he felt he could still contribute.
In June his right wrist was broken by a pitched ball. Upon his July return he was upset to discover he would be sharing the catching duties with 22-year-old Dave Duncan. By September the writing was on the wall when Jim had a mere six appearances over the last 27 games.
In May, 1969, after just 27 at-bats with the Athletics, he was traded to the expansion Seattle Pilots and arrived having already been assigned to the disabled list with a fractured finger sustained in his last game with Oakland. On September 30th he collected a hit in his last official at-bat. It proved to be his last appearance in the majors. Two months later he was released.
Throughout his playing career Jim dabbled in varied business ventures with his father-in-law: an A&W Root Beer franchise beginning in the mid-’60s; selling and investing in real estate thereafter. After his career he entered the food industry as a sales representative and eventually rose to an executive position handling multimillion-dollar accounts in the Northwest. Years later he became a partner in U.S. Science & Technology (USST), a renewable-energy project development company.
Always willing to give of his time, Jim became the marketing director for the “Catfish” Hunter Chapter of the ALS Association. He also was inducted in to the Woodrow Wilson High School Athletics Hall of Fame in Long Beach, California, and his contributions as a player rep yielded benefits enjoyed by professional players to this day.
Around 2002 health issues began to overtake him as he fought off varied forms of cancer, while the radiation and chemotherapy started to take a toll on his heart. Four months after his 72nd birthday, Jim Pagliaroni died in his sleep on April 3, 2010.