Buff Biographies: Al Papai

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Al Papai

Al Papai

In his four seasons as a Houston Buff (1947, 1951-53) knuckleballing ace Al Papai (6’3″, 185 lb.) (BR/TR) was a 20 plus win guy for two Texas League championship clubs (1947, 1951), tagging a 69 win, 48 loss total as his Buff career record. As a 14 season minor league pitcher (1940-41, 1945-48, 1951-58), Al Papai complied a career record of 172 wins, 128 losses, and a 3.29 ERA. He also had a 4 season major league record (1948-50. 1955) with the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Browns, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago White Sox, mostly as a reliever, for an MLB total of 9 wins, 14 losses, a 5.37 ERA, and 4 saves.

Papai’s knuckler too often escaped his control in the big leagues, but it served him well as a Texas League starter, allowing a 38-year old Al to go 23-7 for a 1955 Oklahoma City TL club and 20-10 at age 39 for the 1956 Memphis Chicks of the also AA class Southern Association.

Papai was also a droll, strange-looking character. Born May 7, 1917 in tiny Divernon, Illinois, Al had keen sense of irony and humor about everything that was going on around him – and for years after the fact of whatever it may have been. In 1951, for example, Al Papai had to step in at the last-minute as the escort for bathing suit contest contestant Kathryn Grandstaff at a Buff Stadium presentation walk when teammate Larry Miggins bailed out as her assigned escort because he was too embarrassed to walk in public with a woman he thought was “almost naked”.

Kathryn Grandstaff went on from her walk with Papai to win the Houston Buff and Texas League beauty queen contests. From there, she went on to Hollywood to pursue an acting career as “Kathryn Grant”. She ended up meeting and getting married to superstar Bing Crosby – and making several now forgettable movies that drew some attention at the time, partially because of her famous husband.

The former beauty queen’s success wasn’t lost on the mind of Al Papai. When asked what he thought about her later success, Al Papai replied: “I just hope she remembers that I gave her the start long ago that made her what she has become today!”

Unfortunately, Al Papai missed the late September 1995 Last Round-Up of the Houston Buffs that former Buffs President Allen Russell staged at the Weston Galleria Hotel in Houston. I was helping Russell search and find the former Buffs whose addresses or whereabouts had fallen off the cliff somewhere. As a result, it was the first week in September before our invitation went out to Al Papai’s home address in Springfield, Illinois.

The Buffs Reunion invitation ended up reaching the family’s residence on the day of Al Papai’s funeral. Al Papai had passed away on September 7, 1995 at the age of 78. His wife Claire came alone to the Houston reunion and was warmly greeted by old friends. Claire said she wanted to make sure that Al was represented at a homecoming that only death could have kept him from making.

That old Houston Buff and minor league baseball veteran blood bond was some mighty powerful stuff.

Goodnight, Sweet Buffs, wherever you are! ~ Away from our hearts, you will never be far!

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One Response to “Buff Biographies: Al Papai”

  1. Bill McCurdy Says:

    “I would like to note that Kathy Grant appeared in a classic service comedy, “Operation Mad Ball” with Jack Lemmon, Enri Kovacs and Mickey Rooney. By today’s standards, it is very innocent, but it’s also still very funny.”

    submitted by Anthony Cavender

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