Johnny Podgajny (AUTHOR'S COLLECTION)

Johnny Podgajny

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf

Johnny Podgajny (AUTHOR'S COLLECTION)Bespectacled right-hander John Podgajny jumped from a Class C league to the Philadelphia Phillies as a 20-year-old September call-up in 1940. He completed three of his four starts and issued only one walk in 35 innings, suggesting a bright future. The Phillies, however, were at the nadir of their long history, in the midst of five consecutive seasons with at least 100 losses. Thrust into a difficult situation without the chance to develop in the minors, Podgajny won 20 and lost 37 in parts of five seasons.

John Sigmund Podgajny was born on June 10, 1920, in Chester, Pennsylvania, 18 miles southwest of Philadelphia, on the west bank of the Delaware River. His parents were John and Mary (Savorska) Podgajny, both of whom emigrated from Poland in the first decade of the twentieth century. They married around 1915 and had two sons: Thaddeus, known as Ted, and John, three years younger.

The Polish-speaking Podgajnys pronounced their surname Pod-GUY-neh in their mother tongue. However, the pronunciation was butchered throughout Podgajny’s professional career. It was once described as a “nightmare to many a radio announcer.”1

Chester’s population boomed from 38,000 in 1910 to 58,000 in 1920. Immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe poured into the burgeoning factories and shipyards before World War I, followed by an influx of African Americans. Tensions between new arrivals often flared, which led to a violent four-day race riot between Whites and Blacks in July 1917, after which racial groups were clearly segregated in Chester.

The Podgajny family lived in a sturdy working-class neighborhood on Chester’s near west side along the river. Father John was a carpenter and built houses; Mary raised the children and also worked as a machine operator in a tube mill, probably at industrialist John Roach’s Chester Pipe and Tube Company, which produced iron products for steamships built in his massive shipyards. The family attended Resurrection of Our Lord Catholic Church. By 1931, John and Mary Podgajny had separated and eventually divorced.2 Divorce was still a taboo topic then, especially among Catholics. Newspaper reports about young John’s baseball career typically mentioned that his father had died.

Two medical situations marked John’s childhood. He contracted measles, which affected his eyesight and forced him to wear glasses for the remainder of his life. At the age of 12, he suffered a serious injury when he fell and lacerated his right hand on a milk bottle, requiring 12 stitches.3 That injury to the right-handed youngster did not affect his desire to play sports.

John attended Chester High School, where he excelled in baseball, basketball, and football. Already 6-feet-2 by his junior year, the rail-thin, 150-pound teenager earned his reputation as a hard thrower in various local and Delaware County summer and fall, church, industrial, and American Legion leagues. Podgajny was also a graduate of the Chester Times baseball training school, founded by the newspaper’s sports editor, Bill Burk, and coaches Lou Buchy and Turk Long.4

Podgajny tossed a no-hitter, yet lost 1-0, in a Legion playoff game on July 31, 1938.5 Two days later, the Chester Times suggested that the highly touted prospect change his surname. “[T]o be a star in baseball it is necessary for your name to appear quite often in print and to have fans passing it about by word of mouth,” opined the local paper. “[It is] hard to put Podgajny in the headlines when you are not even certain as to the spelling.”6

Podgajny credited two coaches for his development as a pitcher. The first was Edward “Red” McGuire, a Chester police sergeant and former low-level minor-league pitcher, who tutored young prospects. “McGuire likes to tell how I knocked the boards loose from the fence in the backyard of his home — until I learned to control the ball,” recalled Podgajny. “When he suggested I could pitch a slow ball I thought he was kidding me.”7 The other was Buchy, who had briefly played in both the Athletics’ and Phillies’ farm systems in the early 1910s, and had maintained close contacts with both teams. In 1938 Buchy arranged a tryout for Podgajny with the St. Louis Browns, who were in town to play the A’s at Shibe Park. According to Podgajny, he worked out with Browns coach Fred Hofmann for about 15 minutes.8 The moribund Browns subsequently offered Podgajny a contract, but he turned it down.

The Phillies had been tracking Podgajny’s progress since he’d graduated from high school in 1938. He was scheduled to face the big-league club in an exhibition between his Sun Oil nine in a highly anticipated exhibition game in Chester on August 8, 1938.9 That game was rained out, but Podgajny showed his stuff a few days later against the barnstorming House of David. That fall the Phillies signed Podgajny on scout Patsy O’Rourke’s recommendation. “My mother signed my first contract, as I was only 18 years old,” remembered Podgajny.10 Though sportswriters (and their editors) spelled the pitcher’s name right, the pronunciation was an ongoing source of confusion. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, it was “Po-johnny.”11 Another paper claimed it was “Po-go-ny.”12

Podgajny got off to a rousing start in his professional career. Assigned to the Moultrie (Georgia) Packers in the Georgia-Florida League, one of 22 Class D leagues in Organized Baseball in 1939, the 19-year-old hurler went 15-10 for a fifth-place club. Moved up a notch the following season, Podgajny emerged as one of the best pitchers in the Class C Canadian-American League. He led the Ottawa-Ogsdenburg Senators to the league championship, and ranked in the top three in victories (18), ERA (2.57), and fewest hits per nine innings (7.7). The Phillies called up their top prospect in September 1940.

The 20-year-old Podgajny made an immediate impact for the cellar-dwelling club. In his debut, he tossed eight innings, yielding three runs in a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the second game of a doubleheader on September 15 at Shibe Park. Beat writer Stan Baumgartner raved that Podgajny “showed a splendid curve, a change of pace and a corking fastball” and predicted that he would be a “splendid addition to [skipper Doc] Prothro’s staff.”13 Podgajny finished the season with three consecutive complete games, including his first victory, a six-hitter with no walks against the Boston Bees. Ottawa sportswriter Jack Kauffman had noted that Podgajny “wastes little time once he steps to the mound.”14 Podgajny continued his quick work with the Phillies; his four starts averaged just 94 minutes per game.

Praised as a “sensational young pitcher” by Baumgartner, Podgajny participated in his first spring training with the Phillies in 1941.15 Prothro confidently claimed, “I have the best young pitching staff in the major leagues,” pointing to his three Pennsylvania hurlers: Podgajny, Tommy Hughes, and Lefty Hoerst.16 Hyperbole aside, Podgajny joined a club that was in seemingly perpetual crisis and had had just one winning season since it traded star pitcher Pete Alexander after the 1917 season. Coming off a 50-103 record in 1940, the Phillies would be even worse in ’41.

Podgajny missed two weeks near the end of camp because of a tonsillectomy and began the season in the bullpen. On May 17 he tossed a six-hitter in his second start of the season, to outduel Bucky Walters of the World Series champion Cincinnati Reds. That kicked off an impressive stretch of four complete-game victories in five starts, the last of which included an ugly brouhaha with a teammate. Still thin (170 pounds) with round, wire-rimmed glasses, Podgajny “does not look very rugged on the mound,” Baumgartner observed.17 However, that schoolboy appearance cloaked a fiery temper, which manifested itself in a tumultuous scene on June 15 at Wrigley Field. During a rough inning of a game he eventually completed and won, Podgajny “almost came to blows” with teammate Pinky May, whose words of encouragement on the mound he misinterpreted as criticism.18 The two were separated by teammates and umpires. Podgajny lost his momentum after that game, losing five straight decisions between June 25 and July 22, and endured a long season.

The Phillies’ quarter-century stretch of futility had eroded their fan base. “There has been no attendance to speak about,” remarked Philadelphia scribe Cy Peterman.19 The club finished last in attendance in the NL for the 10th straight season, averaging just over 3,000 spectators per game. The big exception was Chester Day on September 21, when three special trains brought more than 2,000 fans to watch the Phillies celebrate Chester locals Podgajny and Danny Murtaugh.20 Shibe Park vibrated with a “World Series atmosphere,” reported the Inquirer, primarily because the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers brought 20,000 screaming fans for the Sunday afternoon twin bill.21 The result was the “largest throng ever to see a National League game” at the ballpark, continued the paper, with standing-room-only attendance of 35,909. Podgajny was chased after 4⅔ innings to lose the first game; Murtaugh went 0-for-7 in the twin bill.

While the Phillies limped to one of the worst seasons in NL history (43-111), doomed by the league’s lowest-scoring offense and the highest team ERA, Podgajny (9-12, 4.62 ERA) tied Hughes for the team lead in wins and led the staff with 181⅓ innings. In his final start of the ’41 campaign, he flirted with a no-hitter for 6⅔ innings, even though he’d been suffering from bouts of appendicitis down the stretch. Podgajny had his appendix removed in October.

In the offseason Podgajny married Chester local Catherine Prendergast. Together they had five children, Mary Pat, Eileen, Stephen, John, and Joseph.

Despite incessant trade rumors throughout the offseason, Podgajny was surprisingly still with the Phillies when spring training kicked off in 1942. Phillies owner Gerry Nugent was in serious financial straits, needed a cash infusion from the NL to meet basic expenses, and was behind in rent at Shibe Park.22 For years Nugent had sold his brightest players and prospects, resulting in horrible teams. “There’s no surplus cash with which to build,” reported the Inquirer. “The sale of players has run its course, destroying public loyalty over the years. … The club is now stuck with minor leaguers.”23 As bad as 1941 was with a franchise-record 111 losses, it got even worse in 1942, at least from the perspective of winning percentage.

Podgajny was expected to be an anchor of the staff. However, he struggled in camp and was bombed in his first two starts, yielding 10 earned runs in nine innings. He registered his first victory, 4-2, on May 5, tossing a complete game and yielding just one earned run against the Chicago Cubs. A personal nemesis of the North Siders, Podgajny duplicated his feat of the previous season by beating the Cubs four times in ’42. He won only two other games — both against the Pittsburgh Pirates — and finished with an unsightly 6-14 record and subpar 3.91 ERA. He started 23 games as part of skipper Hans Lobert’s five-man rotation, which also included Hughes, Rube Melton, Si Johnson, and Hoerst. Podgajny’s 43 total appearances ranked third in the NL and pointed to his future successes in the minors as a rubber-armed, versatile pitcher. For the second straight season, the Phillies staff posted the NL’s highest ERA while the offense ranked last, scoring just 2.6 runs per game — the fewest in the live-ball (post-1920) era. That dubious double feat resulted in the lowest winning percentage — 42-109, .278 — in Phillies franchise history in the modern, post-1900 era.

Podgajny did not possess the natural ability or physique to be overpowering. Instead, he depended on guile and an array of off-speed pitches thrown from a confusing side-arm delivery. Chester sportswriter Bill Burk proclaimed, perhaps with a dose of homerism, that Podgajny had “the best change of pace in baseball.”24 Lobert boasted, “I think he’s one of the best slow ball pitchers in the business. Johnny has a curve and fast ball, and when he mixes up his slow pitches it makes his fast one more effective.”25

Podgajny was a spirited and temperamental player who got rattled easily. Burk argued that he “needed some bench psychology” and more encouragement from Lobert, whose coaching approach mimicked his mentor John McGraw’s aggressive and confrontational style.26 On the other hand, Podgajny was defensive and bristled when criticized.

The 1942-1943 offseason proved to be tumultuous for the Phillies and baseball. As Rich Westcott explained in his groundbreaking history of Phillies ownership, Nugent owed the NL an estimated $160,000.27 NL President Ford Frick ultimately forced Nugent to sell the club to the league in February. About a week later, Frick sold the Phillies to 33-year-old businessman and lumber baron William D. Cox.

World War II had decimated rosters across baseball, as players enlisted in the armed forces or were drafted en masse. Podgajny was classified 4F (not fit for military service because of medical reasons) because of his nearsightedness. He had a war-related job as a welder at Sun shipyards in Chester. Wartime travel restrictions also forced all big-league teams to move their spring training closer to their home city. Consequently, the Phillies conducted camp in Hershey, Pennsylvania, about 100 miles west of Philadelphia.

Podgajny was expected to pick up the pitching slack with the loss of the club’s top two hurlers, Hughes (12-18), who had joined the Army, and Melton (9-20), who had been traded to the Dodgers. The Phillies invited only 20 players to camp, including nine pitchers. “If these 20 men were all major leaguers, the Phillies would not have a problem,” quipped Stan Baumgartner, “but only four of the hurlers … can be classed as having anything like big-league stuff. The rest are rookies or semi-pros.”28 The staff was so thin and the offense so weak that Baumgartner predicted that they might not win 40 games for new manager Bucky Harris in 1943. “If the Phillies suffer losses through injuries, sore arms, or further calls to the service, the team is going to look like the cat that was machine-gunned on the back fence.”29

Podgajny enjoyed the busiest and most productive month of his big-league career in May as the Phillies surprisingly played competitively against talent-poor teams. In that month, 22-year-old “Specs” logged a club-high 52 innings and won four of seven decisions, including two against the Cubs. His trade value once again elevated, Podgajny was shipped to the Pirates in a deal for reliever Dutch Dietz just hours before the trading deadline on June 15. In parts of four seasons with the Phillies, Podgajny had gone 20-33 with half of the victories against the Cubs.

Pittsburgh sportswriter Harry Keck lauded the acquisition of Podgajny, whom he described as “a good pitcher” on “poor” Phillies teams.30 The slender right-hander’s tenure with the Bucs, however, proved to be brief. After losing all four of his decisions (each in a start) in just over three weeks with the club, Podgajny was banished to the bullpen, where he made just nine appearances over the final 2½ months of the season. On September 30 he was released and sold outright to the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association in partial payment for the acquisition of Preacher Roe from the Cardinals.

After spending the first three months of the 1944 season with the Red Birds, Podgajny was sold to the Baltimore Orioles of the International League in late July.31 He embraced the move to be closer to his family in Chester, located about 90 miles northeast of Baltimore. Podgajny served as a swingman, helping the Orioles to a first-place finish and league championship in the four-team playoff. The Orioles defeated the Louisville Colonels of the American Association to capture their first Junior World Series title since 1925. In one notable game, Podgajny hurled 5⅓ innings of relief, yielding four runs in Game Four, which set a new attendance record for Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium (52,833).32

Over the next four seasons with the Orioles (1945-1948), a Cleveland Indians farm team, Podgajny enjoyed a career resurgence as a “fireman,” able to pitch in any situation. His success points to what might have been had he not been rushed to the majors from a Class C league and had more time to develop as a pitcher. Podgajny emerged as a “sensation with his rubber arm and great competitive spirit,” gushed Baltimore sportswriter Randall Cassell.33 Nicknamed “The Arm” by his teammates, Podgajny pitched in eight straight games that July (1945), during which he retired 32 straight batters.34 He set a new International League record with 66 appearances, including 15 starts, won 20 games, and logged 226 innings.

Podgajny was also a popular player with Orioles fans. The president of Pimlico horse racetrack in Baltimore, Harry Parr, named a race after him, the “Podgajny Handicap.” In August 1945, the Baltimore Fire Fighters Association made him an honorary fireman, capitalizing on his role with the club, in a pregame ceremony at Municipal Stadium.35

Podgajny earned an invitation to the Cleveland Indians spring training in 1946 and made the team. He made six relief appearances, including four scoreless ones, but was hit hard in the other two. He was optioned to the Orioles by May 15, when major-league teams had to reduce their rosters to 25 players.

Back in Baltimore, Podgajny picked up where he left off, averaging about 48 appearances and 173 innings per season over the next three years. He twice led the circuit in appearances. Podgajny’s success as a fireman might have contributed to the decision to convert another seemingly over-the-hill, bespectacled hurler in the International League into a similar role. In 1948 the Toronto Maple Leafs used 31-year-old journeyman Jim Konstanty as a fireman. Two years later he was the NL MVP with the Phillies, setting a new major-league record with 74 appearances and helping the Whiz Kids to an unlikely pennant.

After two mediocre seasons with two teams in different leagues and little chance of making it back to the majors, Podgajny retired after the 1950 season. According to his Sporting News record card, in 1952 he had a one-month stint with the Class-B Miami Beach Flamingos, skippered by Pepper Martin. Released in early May, Podgajny served as a coach for the remainder of the season.36 He went 20-37 with a 4.20 ERA (83 ERA+) in 510 innings in parts of five seasons in the big leagues. He won 103 games while logging 1,396 innings in the minors, though his statistics may not be complete

Accolades aside, Podgajny’s transition to life away from baseball was difficult. He resided in the Chester area with his wife, Catherine, and their five children. According to his obituary, he “switched from job to job” and worked in various sales positions, including the steel industry.37 By the late 1960s he suffered from poor health. On March 2, 1971, at age 50, Podgajny collapsed at the Adams Hotel in Chester, where he had been living. He was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital and pronounced dead on arrival. The cause of death was a heart attack. He was buried at St. Francis de Sales cemetery in Lenni, Pennsylvania.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Rory Costello and Len Levin and fact-checked by Evan Katz.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author accessed Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com, SABR.org, The Sporting News archive via Paper of Record, newspapers via Newspaper.com, and Ancestry.com.

 

Notes

1 Bill Burk, “Sport Shorts,” Delaware County Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), July 14, 1941: 12.

2 The 1940 US census also lists Mary Podgajny as divorced. According to John’s obituary from 1951, he had been a resident of Miami, Florida, for 20 years. See “Obituary,” Miami News, September 12, 1951: 23.

3 Don Basenfelder, “Podgajny, a Policeman’s Prodigy, Who Puts the Pinch on National League Batters with Sinker and Fast Ball,” The Sporting News, March 11, 1943: 3.

4 “Podgajny Will Hurl Final for Phils Sunday,” Chester (Pennsylvania) Times, September 28, 1940: 14.

5 “Podgajyny Beaten Despite No-Hitter,” Chester Times, August 1, 1938: 7.

6 “Sports Shorts,” Chester Times, August 2, 1938: 10.

7 Basenfelder.

8 Basenfelder.

9 “Sun Oil Nine Meets Major Leaguers Under Lights Tonight,” Chester Times, August 8, 1938: 11.

10 Basenfelder.

11 The pronunciation is according to “Tonsils Removed,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1941: 25.

12 The pronunciation according to AP, “Podgajny Rated Best Relief Man,” Hagerstown (Maryland) Morning Herald, July 13, 1945: 23.

13 Stan Baumgartner, “Phils Lose 2 More, 7-0, 3-1, to Cardinals,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 16, 1940: 23.

14 Jack Kauffman, “Along Sport Row,” Ottawa (Ontario) Citizen, August 12, 1940: 10.

15 Stan Baumgartner, “A’s Hurlers Will Get Head Start This Time,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 8, 1940: 26.

16 Perry Lewis, “Phils’ Hoerst Breaks Ankle,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 20, 1941: 25.

17 Stan Baumgartner, “Litwhiler’s Homers Aid Phils; Rain Halts A’s; Play Sox Tomorrow,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 3, 1941: 23.

18 “Phillies Pair Near Blows,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 16, 1941: 19.

19 Cy Peterman, “Phils Sabotaging Selves, but It’s Not Intentional,” Philadelphia Inquirer, July 14, 1941: 19.

20 “Sell-Out Expected for Podgajny-Murtaugh Day Sunday,” Delaware County (Pennsylvania) Times, September 20, 1941: 14.

21 Stan Baumgartner, “35,909 Watch Phils Bow, 8-3, Win 6-3 as Brooklyn Lead Drops to One Game,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 22, 1941: 22.

22 Rich Westcott, “Philadelphia Phillies Team Ownership History,” SABR.org. https://sabr.org/research/philadelphia-phillies-team-ownership-history.

23 Peterman.

24 Bill Burk, “Sport Shorts,” Chester Times, September 22, 1942: 12.

25 Basenfelder.

26 Burk, “Sport Shorts,” Chester Times, September 22, 1942: 12.

27 Westcott.

28 Stan Baumgartner, “Phils Left Leaning on Lean Manpower,” The Sporting News, March 18, 1943: 18.

29 Baumgartner, “Phils Left Leaning on Lean Manpower.”

30 Harry Keck, “Keck Says,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, June 17, 1943: 18.

31 Randall Cassell, “Orioles Get Podgajny for Cash and Burkart,” Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1944: 22.

32 C.M. Gibbs. “52,833 See Louisville Beat Orioles to Even Series,” Baltimore Sun, October 10, 1944: 1.

33 Randall Cassell, “Podgajny Is Workhorse of Thomas’s Hill Staff,” Baltimore Sun, June 26, 1945: 15.

34 Hugh Trader, “Fireman Podgajny Setting Blazing Pace as Rescue Specialist with Baltimore,” The Sporting News, August 23, 1945: 9.

35 Trader.

36 The Sporting News player record card.

37 Harry Maitland, “John Podgajny, former Phillies’ Pitcher from Chester, dead at 50,” Delaware County (Pennsylvania) Times, March 3, 1971: 18.

Full Name

John Sigmund Podgajny

Born

June 10, 1920 at Chester, PA (USA)

Died

March 2, 1971 at Chester, PA (USA)

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