MORGANTOWN — Paul Popovich grew up in the small town of Flemington, West Virginia, as a young athlete who excelled in both baseball and basketball.
Popovich enrolled in West Virginia University on a scholarship in the fall of 1958, but he stayed just two years before he was called up for a Major League Baseball team in the summer of 1960.
“It was truly a dream come true,” Popovich said.
He will turn 75 in August. He’s now retired and living in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Illinois, with his wife, Susan. The two have been married about 41 years.
Popovich said his sister and brother-in-law, WVU professor Joe Nemeth, took him when he was about age 10 to see his first Major League Baseball game. That was when Pittsburgh was playing St. Louis at old Forbes Field.
“That’s really when I thought I’d love to be a Major League player,” he remembered.
Paul got the opportunity in June of 1960 when he signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs. He signed his contract for $40,000.
Besides playing two years as an infielder for WVU, he led all players on the 1958-59 freshman basketball team in scoring with 18.3 points per game. He then played 16 varsity games and earned a letter to go with his 1959-60 season as a teammate of Jerry West.
Popovich had been known as a superstar with basketball himself at Flemington High. He averaged 41.3 points per game. That set an all-time state scoring record.
He not only made the All-State team in his day, but sport writers voted him the West Virginia High School Basketball Player of the Year.
While at WVU, Popovich also played independent baseball on the Morgantown American Legion team.
As a Mountaineer, he played for basketball coach Quentin Barnette (freshman coach) and Fred Schaus (varsity coach). Steve Herrick is thought to have been his baseball instructor.
As a varsity player, he admittedly did much better at baseball than he did in basketball. Popovich set a school record by batting .426 in 1960. He also had 43 hits, five home runs, 15 extra-base hits and 26 RBIs in 101 at-bats that last season here.
In basketball, he contributed to WVU’s 26-5 record and appearance in the NCAA Tournament. His team also captured the Southern Conference in 1960.
Popovich was inducted into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame on Sept. 14, 2013.
“I absolutely enjoyed my two years at WVU,” he said. “Those were two of the best years of my life. When I was a sophomore on the varsity basketball team I got to take my first airplane ride.”
He could not count the number of flights he’s taken since then as a baseball big leaguer.
As for playing basketball one season with Jerry West, Popovich said, “He was such a great player; every game was just a treat to watch him play. He was such a terrific basketball player.”
In addition to the Chicago Cubs, for which Popovich played two different spells, he squeezed in a season and a half in 1968-69 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He ended his 12-year career close to home with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1974-75.
The Bucs won the National League’s Eastern Division title both seasons he was with the team.
It was after he had been traded to the Dodgers that Hall of Famer Don Drysdale pitched 58 2/3 scoreless innings over six games. Drysdale said Popovich’s play at second, shortstop and third helped make it possible.
In his Major League debut in 1964, he got a hit in his only at-bat and the Cubs inexplicably sent him to the Cubs Triple-A team the rest of the season. But he did not stay down there for long.
He did some coaching in the winters in Sarasota, Florida, for the Dodgers organization.
Paul and Susan Popovich have two grown sons, Paul and Dammon, and three grandchildren.