The Times West Virginian

Mickey Furfari

April 12, 2013

FURFARI COLUMN: Popovich had great big league career

MORGANTOWN — Did you ever hear of a Major League player with a perfect batting average of 1,000 for a season?

Well, meet Paul Edward Popovich, a native of nearby Flemington in Harrison County. He made his debut in the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs by hitting the first pitch into centerfield for a clean single against Philadelphia.

That was his only at-bat in the 1964 season, and he was 24 years old. Manager Leo Durocher lifted the 6-foot, 175-pound, Popovich from the Cubs’ lineup after that one-pitch, one-bat appearance and shipped him back to the Triple-A farm club for more seasoning.

So the young man, who had played two years of both basketball and baseball at West Virginia University in 1959-60, is listed in his 11-year Major League resume as one hit and a 1,000 batting average for 1964.

Popovich had signed a contract with the Chicago organization in June 1960 while in Morgantown with a Cubs scout for a bonus of $40,000, which was a lot of money then. He bought a home for his parents in Morgantown so they could be closer to WVU Hospitals.

How did Popovich feel getting that first hit as a Major Leaguer? “It truly was beyond description,” he recalled recently. “Nobody could have understood the thrill that was for me.

“The pitcher threw me a fast ball and I hit the very first pitch to center field. The fielder threw it back in and I was given the ball.”

But Popovich said he has no idea where that ball is now. It eventually got lost in the shuffle of souvenir-savings.

After more seasoning in Class AAA, Popovich returned to the Majors for six at-bats in 1966 (no hits), and then finally to stay up there in 1967.

He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers with whom he spent two years, then rejoined the Cubs in 1970 for another four-year hitch.

Popovich retired after playing two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1974 and 1975. “I really enjoyed playing closer to home before family and friends,” he said.

Popovich, who recalled having played on a great Babe Ruth team that reached the world series as a kid, feels fortunate that he played second base or third base for three great managers in the Major Leagues.

Besides Durocher, those were Walter Alston of the Dodgers and the Pirates Danny Murtaugh.

Popovich, who averaged 41.3 points per game at Flemington High to set a state basketball record, played one year of varsity basketball and baseball after a year on a freshman team in each sport.

In baseball, he led the WVU varsity in batting (.427) in 1960 and also was tops in home runs and runs batted in.

He and pitcher Steve Kline (1993) each played 11 years in the Major Leagues. Charlie Hickman (1898-1906) logged the most years of any former Mountaineer in the Major Leagues with 12.

Hall of Famer Don Drysdale of the Dodgers set a record pitching 58 2/3 innings without giving up a run in 1968 or 69, and he said Popovich was a major contributor with his plays at second base.

“That’s the equivalent of six complete games,” Paul noted. “Nobody made an error to spoil that feat.”

During his Major League career, Popovich played 682 games, had 1,732 at-bats, 176 runs, 403 hits, 505 total bases, 42 doubles, nine triples, and 14 home runs.

He also logged 134 RBI, 127 walks, four stolen bases, and had a .233 batting average.

Paul and Susan Popovich have been married 42 years and still reside in the Chicago area.

They have two sons, Paul and Damon. They also have three young grandchildren, all boys.

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Mickey Furfari
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