Knuckleballer Al Papai.

Al Papai went 21-10 & 23-9 for the 1947 & 1951 Houston Buff Champs.

Al Papai brought two things to every game I ever saw him pitch: a dead pan facial expression and a knuckleball that floated all over the place. When it floated near the plate, he was often virtually unhittable as a 21-game winner for the Texas League and Dixie Series champion Houston Buffs of 1947. Returning to the Buffs in 1951, Papai went even deeper into the win column, finishing a second Texas League pennant season for the Buffs with a record of 23-9. At 6’3″ and 185 pounds, Papai resembled a string bean vine that  delivered unhittable grapefruit pitches. They twitched, wobbled, and floated, but you didn’t hit ’em far.
Papai pitched two additional years for less talented Buff clubs. He was 14-13 for the 8th and last place 1952 Houston Buffs and 11-16 for the 6th place Houston club. Over the course of his 14-season minor league career (1940-1958), Al Papai compiled a career record of 173 wins, 128 losses, and an earned run average of 3.29. His four 20 plus win seasons as a minor league pitcher all came late at ages 30, 34, 38, and 39. His last two big years came as a 23-7 mark for Oklahoma City of the Texas League in 1955 and a fine 20-10 record for Memphis of the Southern Association in 1956.
Al started late, but he was a gamer. During his four major league seasons (1948-1950, 1955), Al Papai never could find the consistency that would have allowed him the career path of the great Hoyt Wilhelm. He was just too out of control too often and too hittable to make it in the big leagues. In his various time with the Cardinals, Browns, Red Sox, and White Sox, Al Papai compiled a career major league record of 9 wins,  14 losses and an earned run average of 5.37. In 239.2 innings of major league work, he walked 138 and struck out only 70.
Papai did possess a dry sense of humor. Former ’51 Buff teammate Larry Miggins tells the story of how Al Papai served as escort to one of several young bathing beauties at Buff Stadium in 1951 who were competing for the title of “Miss Houston Buff.” Papai’s responsibility was for a beautiful girl named Kathryn Grandstaff, the eventual winner. That same girl went on to Hollywood from her bathing beauty days at Buff Stadium to become an actress named “Kathryn Grant” and the eventual new wife of singer Bing Crosby. Advised of her success at a later meeting with Miggins, Papai commented that “I just hope she remembers that I made her what she is today.” – That must have been one powerful walk, Al!
This memory is trying to conclude on a sad note. In 1995, I was helping the late Allen Russell locate the addresses of his former players for an invitation to a “Last Roundup of the Houston Buffs” in early October 1995. Papai’s was one of the last addresses we located, but his invitation went out in early September.
We soon learned that Al’s invitation had arrived on the afternoon of his funeral in Springfield, Illinois. He had passed away on September 7, 1995 at the age of 77. His lovely widow came in his behalf and I refuse to be sad about Al Papai. He was a great guy who gave it all he had. With a little more relaxation in his inner temperament, he might have had a career equal to Wilhelm’s. He certainly had the mechanics of the knuckleball in place. He just seemed to falter in the bigs from that old bugaboo of trying too hard.
Anybody out there ever run into that problem?

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2 Responses to “Knuckleballer Al Papai.”

  1. Alexis Says:

    Hello! I simply want to give you a huge thumbs up for
    the excellent info you’ve got right here on this post. I am returning to your web site for more soon.

  2. David Says:

    Hello, I live next door to Al’s widow Claire. She has given me a scrapbook and some pictures of Al. If you would like I could email some to you. Thank you for such an awesome blog and write up!

    Email me at if you want!

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