Posts Tagged ‘Al Papai’

Buff Biographies: Al Papai

July 20, 2013

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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!

Papai Was a Rollin’ Stone

August 26, 2010

Al Papai Won 20+ For Both the '47 & '51 Champion Buffs!

Al Papai was a rolling stone. Wherever he worked his knuckleball magic was his home.

In ten of his fourteen-season minor league career (1940-58) years, the wobble-ball expert worked in different cities beneath the major league level, building a career mark of 178 wins, 128 losses, and an ERA of 3.29.

On four occasions, Papai won 20 plus games in minors. His first two big years found him going 21-10 for the 1947 Texas League and Dixie Series Champion Houston Buffs, returning to post a 23-9 mark with the 1951 Texas League Champion Buffs. Papai also pitched for the Buffs in 1952 and 1953, but failed to come close to 20 wins. His other two 20 plus win seasons came about for Al with the 1955 Oklahoma City Indians (23-7) and once more in 1956 with the Memphis Chicks (20-10).

In four seasons at the major league level (1948-50, 1955) with the Cardinals, Browns, Red Sox, and White Sox, Al Papai also chipped in another 9 wins and 14 losses with a 5.37 ERA. Papai’s control and the character of his wobbler pitches were a little too hittable at the major league level, but he was hell on wheels in his four seasons as a minor league big-time winner. Papai definitely had the stuff against the much tougher high minor league competition of that era to have become a big time winner in the big leagues of that time. It just didn’t happen.

At 6’3″ and 185 pounds, Al Papai was a popular Buff during his Houston days – and a guy with a droll sense of humor that everyone seemed to appreciate. Example: Al Papai escorted a beautiful young lady in a bathing suit named Kathryn Grandstaff to home plate at Buff Stadium in 1951 to be honored as “Miss Houston Buff.” The club had asked teammate Larry Miggins to do these honors originally, but the very modest and bashful Mr. Miggins was too embarrassed to escort what he considered a “nearly naked” young woman into a public appearance under these circumstances. The absence of much clothing did not bother Papai in the least.

Later, when Kathryn Grandstaff changed her name to Kathryn Grant and went on to Hollywood as the new wife of singer Bing Crosby, Papai called up the memory of that time he escorted the beautiful young actress at Buff Stadium. “Hope she remembers who made her what she’s become today,” Papai offered.

Al Papai passed away at his home in Springfield, Illinois on September 7, 1995 at the age of 78. That was the around the same time we were preparing in Houston for “The Last Round Up of the Houston Buffs” and I was helping former Buffs President Allen Russell with putting together his mailing list to all the former Buffs we could locate.

Sadly, we learned from Al Papai’s widow that his invitation had arrived on the day of his funeral. Allen Russell was so touched by the irony of this near miss that he brought Al’s widow to Houston to represent him among all the former teammates who were left behind to grieve his loss.

In addition to Papai, we’ve lost most of the former Buffs who were alive and able to attend that 1995 great reception at the Westin Galleria in late September 1995. including Allen Russell himself. Among the players who made it there that day, only Solly Hemus, Larry Miggins, and Russell Rac, plus program emcee, Milo Hamilton. After the Sunday lunch and reception, the last of the old Buffs went together to watch the Astros take on the Cardinals at the Astrodome. The spirit of Al Papai was very much present with all of us that afternoon.

As a kid, I really woke up to baseball in 1947. Al Papai, the original old knuckleballer, is the first pitcher I ever saw. He had a lot of influence upon my later interest in the careers of Joe and Phil Niekro.

Chalk that one up to the “small wonders” category of explanations. And have a memorable Thursday, as long as the memories are worth keeping.