It was in 11 years as an outstanding infielder in Major League Baseball that Paul Popovich made a name for himself.
But the Harrison County native had left a short but striking mark at West Virginia University not only in baseball but basketball in 1958-59 and 1959-60.
Popovich, who now lives in the Chicago area, had played one year on a freshman team in each sport before moving up to the varsity team as a sophomore.
He posted a school-record .427 batting average in 1960 when WVU went 17-9, and it was not broken until several years later.
Old-timers will tell you that Popovich was one of the greatest second basemen who ever put on a Mountaineer uniform.
In basketball that year, he played in 26 games at 6-0 and 170 pounds. He shot 45.5 percent from the field, scored 87 points and had 33 rebounds and 11 assists as a reserve guard.
But Popovich had led the freshman team in scoring with 18.8 points per game. He also set three state scoring records at Flemington High School, including 41.8 ppg.
Baseball was his favorite sport, though, and in the spring of 1960 Popovich signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs. He received a signing bonus of $40,000.
That was a lot of money then, and enabled him to purchase a house in Morgantown for his parents, Charles and Violet Popovich.
In all, he played 11 years in the major leagues. Besides Chicago, he served stints with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates before retiring as a player in 1975.
Popovich, who’s now 70, said recently:
“I really enjoyed playing basketball for coach Fred Schaus and baseball for Steve Harrick. I learned a lot from both of them.
“But playing in the major leagues is every kid’s dream, and I really loved playing baseball. I had a great opportunity and turned it into a wonderful career.”
He had extensive learning experiences from an early age to prepare himself. That not only bolstered his knowledge but his confidence and poise. That included participation with four state champion Babe Ruth teams, the Hearst National All-Star Games in New York, the Little Pittsburgh Pirates camp and others.
Don Drysdale, a nine-year All-Star pitcher with the Dodgers, paid tall tribute to Popovich in 1968. He had set a
record with 58 consecutive scoreless innings, and Popovich was credited with being instrumental as the starting second baseman who also saw some action at shortstop and third base that season.
Ironically, Popovich had career highs in most fielding stats in 1968. He logged 232 putouts, 349 assists and 68 double plays in 141 games.
For his 11 years in Major League Baseball, Popovich played in 682 games and had 1,782 at-bats, 176 runs, 408 hits, and 134 runs batted in. His hits included 42 doubles, 9 triples, and 14 home runs. He had an overall batting average of .233.
After retiring as a player in 1975, Popovich spent more than 10 years as a coach with the Dodgers.
“I never did go back and finish college for a degree,” he said. “But I do have extensive experience traveling all over the country. That’s an education in itself.”
He and his wife Susan have been married for 40 years and have two sons and two grandchildren with a third on the way.
Paul Jr., 38, played third base at Illinois State. Son Damon, 34, was a shortstop in high school, but not in college. Both have master’s degrees.
Popovich, who moved to Morgantown from Flemington in 1961, was named the state’s high school basketball player of the year in 1958.
In semi-retirement, he instructed youngsters planning to play baseball in college. He also did some part-time promotional work for a hotel chain in the Chicago area.
“I’ve played in a lot of charity golf tournaments, for which I have more time now than I did when playing baseball,” Popovich said.
“But I’m completely retired now and spending more time enjoying my family.”