John Leovich

This article was written by Eric Vickrey

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, John Leovich excelled at baseball, football, and hockey with the talent to play each sport professionally. He made national headlines in 1941 when he decided to leave college to pursue a baseball career with the Philadelphia Athletics. That same summer Leovich joined the elite fraternity of players who have made it to baseball’s highest level when he appeared in a game versus the Cleveland Indians. Leovich, a catcher, played four innings, batted twice, and hit a double off one of the greatest pitchers of all time in what was his only major-league game.

John Joseph Leovich was born on May 5, 1918, in Portland, Oregon. He was the youngest of five children born to parents Michael and Theresa (Mladanov), who had immigrated from Croatia. John grew in Slabtown, a neighborhood in northwest Portland that largely comprised Croatian and Yugoslavian immigrants. The name Slabtown came from term slabwood, the leftover wood from milling that residents used to heat their homes.1 Like many in the neighborhood, Michael worked in a lumberyard, as a foreman. He died when John was just 5 years old.

John was a natural athlete and played baseball, football, and hockey throughout his youth. Among his childhood friends and classmates at St. Patrick School were Johnny Paveskovich and Mike Stepovich. Paveskovich later legally changed his last name to Pesky. Johnny Pesky went on to have a successful major-league career with the Boston Red Sox while Stepovich would eventually become governor of Alaska before the territory gained statehood. The trio played baseball together and formed a double-play combination of “Leovich to Paveskovich to Stepovich.” Pesky later reminisced: “We all grew up around the old Vaughn Street Stadium (home of the Pacific Coast League’s Portland Beavers). In the summertime you had to be a ballplayer to be someone and in the wintertime you played hockey at Marshall Street Ice Arena.”2 Leovich worked as a clubhouse boy for the Beavers during his grade-school years, and Pesky was a batboy.3The boys got to see many future big leaguers come through Portland, and Leovich recalled seeing Joe DiMaggio during his 61-game PCL hitting streak in 1933.4

Leovich played shortstop through his freshman year of high school. He switched to catcher when his team needed a backstop, and Pesky shifted from second base to shortstop. It did not take long for Leovich to become the top young catcher in Oregon. As a 16-year-old he was named to the Portland American Legion all-star team. A year later he caught for Astoria in the Oregon State Baseball League, and according to one Oregon newspaper “was offered contracts by several professional clubs.”5 The following season he played for Hop Gold, a Portland-based team sponsored by Star Brewery. According to a 1936 article in Salem’s Capital Journal, Leovich was considered “a likely prospect for major league service.”6 Vince Paveskovich, Johnny’s brother, recalled Leovich’s impressive physique: “He was built like a brick shithouse. Wide shoulders, big bottom, strong and very knowledgeable behind the plate.”7

After attending Lincoln High School in Portland, Leovich transferred to Lakeside Preparatory School in Seattle for his senior year. He was a star player on Lakeside’s football team as a fullback and, according to one report, “the greatest line smasher and passer off the west slope of the Cascades.”8 After the football season, Leovich put on ice skates and was “one of the finest amateur hockey players in the northwest,” playing defenseman for a Seattle All-Star team.9 In fact, both he and Pesky were both offered professional hockey contracts.10 Ted Leovich, John’s son, recalled that hockey was his favorite sport.11

In the fall of 1938, Leovich enrolled at Oregon State College in Corvallis as a physical education major. He was elected freshman class president and played football and baseball for the Beavers. Listed at 195 pounds, he played left end on the gridiron and catcher on the baseball diamond. In his sophomore year, Leovich led the team with a .423 batting average; the Beavers finished as conference champions.12 After his junior-year football season he was given honorable mention when the Associated Press named its All-American team.

On February 7, 1941, Oregon State athletic director Percy Locey announced that Leovich was withdrawing from the college to sign a professional baseball contract with the Philadelphia Athletics. Locey issued a statement criticizing major-league baseball for luring athletes away from college before graduation: “It is regrettable, to say the least, that a boy who is earning his way through college should be tempted by all the money a big league baseball club can offer him.”13Connie Mack, owner and manager of the Athletics, responded to this criticism by explaining that Leovich was signed at the encouragement of a Portland-area scout and claimed he was not aware he was still in school. “I don’t know if he has signed the papers we sent him yet, but if he has, we’ll tear ’em up if he wants. I hope the kid finishes school,” said Mack.14

George Vranizan, who signed Leovich, had “ascertained beyond all doubt that Leovich was determined to quit college sport for a professional contract and decided as long as the die was cast the A’s might as well grab the boy.”15 Leovich later confirmed that his decision to leave Oregon State was due to his financial situation: “I was going to take any job – day labor if necessary – but because I had some ability at baseball I turned to that,” he said.16 His contract with the A’s was reported to have paid him $4,000.17 Leovich also received a contract offer from the Detroit Tigers. He later explained why he chose the Athletics: “Tom Turner, the owner of Portland, had a working relationship with Philadelphia, and I was familiar with them.”18

Leovich reported to training camp with the A’s later that month in Anaheim, California. An Associated Press photo of Mack, wearing his trademark suit and bowler and instructing a group of players that included Leovich, was published in newspapers across the country. Leovich explained the financial challenges he faced in college to a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His words gave some context to why he decided to leave college for professional baseball: “There are no scholarships, and the most conference officials will allow an athlete to earn a month is $50. To do this he has to work at least 60 hours a month – two hours a day. This means that the young man has to get up at 5:30 A.M., do janitor service for an hour, eat breakfast, go to classes, study, participate in his sport, eat dinner, work, try to study – and go to bed.”19 At the end of spring training, it was announced that Leovich would remain with the A’s heading into the 1941 season. “He ought to hit where I wind up puttin’ him,” said Mack.20

With Frankie Hayes and Hal Wagner ahead of him on the catching depth chart, Leovich did not see any action during the first 13 games of the 1941 season. He spent time working with coach Earle Brucker, warming up pitchers between innings, and serving as the bullpen catcher.21 He would also sit next to Mack in the dugout and relay steal signs.22

On May 1 the Athletics played Cleveland in the final game of a three-game series. The A’s were off to a rough start with a record of 4-9 and had lost the first two games of the series to the red-hot Indians. To make matters worse, they were tasked with facing one of the game’s best young hurlers, Bob Feller, in the series finale. Feller, just 22 years old, was already a veteran with 85 career victories and three All-Star Game appearances under his belt. Jack Knott started the game for the Athletics.

A crowd of 4,000 showed up to League Park II for the Thursday afternoon tilt. The game went as one might have scripted with Feller shutting down the A’s through five innings without allowing a hit. His strikeout of Knott in the fifth inning was the 1,000th of his career, an astonishing number for a 22-year-old. Feller helped himself with the bat and gave his team an 8-0 lead when he hit a three-run home run off Knott in the bottom of the fifth.

With the game seemingly out of reach against Cleveland’s ace, Mack replaced starting catcher Hayes with Leovich in the bottom of the sixth. Leovich caught A’s relievers Rankin Johnson and Herman Besse. In the eighth inning, with Feller still on the mound, the rookie catcher stepped up to the plate in a major-league game for the first time. With a runner on first, Leovich hit a groundball to shortstop Lou Boudreau, who stepped on second and threw to first for a double play. Later in life, he recalled facing the Hall of Fame pitcher: “I had faced kids in high school and college who were just as fast as Feller although they didn’t have the good curve he had. I was not overawed and was able to relax.”23

Staked to a 13-3 lead heading to the ninth inning, Feller took the mound looking for a complete-game victory despite having walked eight batters. Possibly tired or perhaps pitching to the score, Feller allowed the first four batters of the inning to reach before Bob Johnson hit a grand slam to cut the Cleveland lead to 13-8. After the next two batters were retired, Leovich got another opportunity against Feller. The rookie made the most of his second chance and doubled to right field. The game ended when the next batter, Pete Suder, lined out.

A week later, Leovich was optioned to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia farm team in the International League. This was the first of many stops for Leovich that summer. On May 21 he was optioned to Wilmington of the Class-B Interstate League after the team asked Mack for a right-handed-hitting catcher.24 The Corvallis (Oregon) Gazette-Times reported that Mack thought Leovich was “about two years away from big league form.”25 Through 25 games with Wilmington, Leovich was hitting .239 with no extra-base hits and nine runs batted in.26 He was again on the move in July when he was sent from Wilmington to Class-C Newport News when the teams exchanged catchers. In eight games with Newport News, Leovich was 6-for-22.27 After serving as the A’s bullpen catcher in late July and early August, Leovich found himself back in the Interstate League when the A’s sent him to Lancaster.28 In 54 games played between Wilmington and Lancaster, Leovich finished with a batting average of .190.29

Leovich was released by the Athletics after the season. A newspaper report said Mack wanted to give the catcher “ample opportunity to make other connections.”30 Mack was later quoted as saying that Leovich “wasn’t quite as advanced as I expected him to be, and I paid him a large salary last year – more than I felt was justified. When it came to deciding whether to sign him again I mentioned I couldn’t possibly continue to pay that amount. Had he said he would take half, I would have signed him.”31 The Los Angeles Times reported that a shoulder injury suffered playing football for Oregon State hampered his throwing ability and “quite likely ruined his major league career.”32 Later in life, Leovich had nothing but good things to say about Mack and said he was a real gentleman.33

That fall Leovich went to work in the Portland shipyards. In early 1942 he signed a contract with the Portland Beavers. He played in 117 games, hitting .190 with one home run and 31 runs batted in. The Beavers finished last in the eight-team league with a record of 67-110. Though he and the team failed to have much success on the that season, Leovich had a highlight off the field: On June 20, 1942, he married Janet Goresky of Portland.

After the 1942 season, Leovich enlisted in the US Coast Guard. During the summers of 1943-1945 he played for Coast Guard baseball teams in Portland and Seattle. He also saw action for the Norvans in the Vancouver (British Columbia) Senior League when time allowed. The Seattle Coast Guard team he played for in 1944 finished with a record of 55-5 and at one point won 30 consecutive games.34

In early 1946 Leovich lived in Eugene, Oregon, and worked as a hockey referee. That spring, he moved back to Seattle to work for Solo-Tone, which marketed jukeboxes for restaurant tables.35 He also worked with his sister and brother-in-law in their Seattle tavern business. In June of 1946, he appeared in a handful of games with the Vancouver Capilanos of the Class-B Western International League. Later that summer he made his last appearance in professional baseball playing for another WIL team, the Bremerton Bluejackets. Bremerton manager Sam Gibson, whom Leovich played against in the PCL, recruited him to play.

John and Janet later moved back to Portland. John played some semipro ball, and for a time, he worked for a beer distributor. They had a son, Ted, who attended Lincoln High School and the University of Southern California. Along with an Italian partner, the Leoviches operated two Portland restaurants: Il Trovatore and Tony’s. In a 2020 interview, Ted recalled helping at the restaurant as a child, and on Sundays when the restaurant was closed, his job was to go around and remove gum from under the tables.

In 1970 John and Janet purchased a restaurant in Lincoln City on the Oregon coast that they reopened under the name Captain John’s. They operated the business until they retired in 1979. John still went to the restaurant every morning to have coffee with friends. He also enjoyed trout and salmon fishing and watching sports on TV in his later years.

Though his major-league career lasted just four innings, Leovich looked back fondly on his time playing baseball and, according to Ted, was very proud of getting a hit off Feller. In an interview conducted more than 50 years after his baseball career ended, he said the lifelong relationships he made in the game were the most enjoyable part of his career.36

John Leovich died on February 3, 2000, at the age of 81.



Special thanks to Ted Leovich for sharing his memories and helping with details about his father’s life off the field.



In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author relied on



1 Donald R. Nelson, The Sons of Slabtown and Takes of Westside Sports (Self-published, 2016): 3.

2 Bill Mulflur, “Slabtowners’ Reminisce with Johnny Pesky,” Oregon Journal (Portland), January 15, 1974.

3 Richard Tellis, Once Around the Bases: Bittersweet Memories of Only One Game in the Majors (Chicago: Triumph Books 1998), 37.

4 Tellis, 39.

5 “Hop Golds Open Season in Bend,” Bend (Oregon) Bulletin, May 19, 1936: 2.

6 “‘Red’ Miller Scheduled to Face Solons,” Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), June 13, 1936: 7.

7 Bill Nowlin, Mr. Red Sox: The Johnny Pesky Story (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Rounder Books, 2004), 22.

8 “Lakeside Looms as Real Threat,” Spokane (Washington) Spokesman-Review, November 18, 1936: 31.

9 “Shining Stars of Amateur Ice Game Coming Saturday,” Spokane Chronicle, February 11, 1938: 20.

10 Tellis, 39.

11 Author’s telephone interview with Ted Leovich, October 6, 2020.

12 “Berry, Leovich Top Collegiate Batters,” Corvallis (Oregon) Gazette-Times, June 4, 1940: 5.

13 “Locey Condemns Signing of Star,” Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal, February 9, 1941: 6.

14 Al Wolf, “Connie Mack Pauses Here, Explains Leovich ‘Kidnap,’” Los Angeles Times, February 10, 1941: 27.

15 Fred Hampson, “Oregon Sports Notes,” Klamath News (Klamath Falls, Oregon), February 14, 1941: 11.

16 Paul Zimmerman, “Sports Postscripts,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1941: 22.

17 Hampson.

18 Tellis, 39.

19 “Jimmy Wilson Say He’s Through, But –,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 7, 1941: 35.

20 “Baseball Briefs,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Evening News, April 4, 1941: 22.

21 Tellis, 39.

22 Tellis, 40.

23 Tellis, 41.

24 “Blue Rocks Get John Leovich,” News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), May 21, 1941: 23.

25 Fred Hampson. “Army Taking Toll of Oregon Prep Coaches; Medford Has Only Bowerman, May Lose Him,” Corvallis Gazette-Times, July 1, 1941: 7.

26 Interstate League Statistics, Harrisburg Telegraph, July 7, 1941: 15.

27 “3 Builders Post Averages of .338; Madden Up 21 Points,” Newport News (Virginia) Daily Press, July 27, 1941: 19.

28 “Roses Cop Twin Bill, Aim at 6th Place in Series with Trenton,” Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era, August 6, 1941: 10.

29 “Cox Takes Inter-State Batting Title for 1941 With His Average of .363,” Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call, September 7, 1941: 14.

30 “Hadley Released by Athletics,” New York Daily News, October 21, 1941: 153.

31 Fred Hampson, “Durdan Enters New Field of Athletics; Other Sports Notes,” Corvallis Gazette-Times, May 7, 1942: 7.

32 Zimmerman.

33 Ted Leovich interview.

34 The Sporting News, November 2, 1944: 12.

35 Dick Strite, “Highclimber,” Eugene (Oregon) Guard, May 5, 1946: 18.

36 Tellis, 43.

Full Name

John Joseph Leovich


May 5, 1918 at Portland, OR (USA)


February 3, 2000 at Lincoln City, OR (USA)

If you can help us improve this player’s biography, contact us.