This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Mike Paxton, a right-hander for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, pitched for parts of four seasons in the major leagues and never had a losing record. Like most pitchers in the 1970s, he began his career as a starter. Once in the majors, he split time as a starter (63) and reliever (36). He was initially drafted by the New York Yankees, selected in the 13th round of the June 1971 draft, but the team that ultimately first signed him, four years later, was the Red Sox.
Paxton was a native of Memphis, Tennessee, born there on September 3, 1953, as Michael DeWayne Paxton. The oldest of four children, he had two brothers and a sister. His parents were Richard and Hazel Paxton. Both were from the Memphis area, “raised in the country,” as Mike put it in an April 2020 interview. “They’re retired now. He worked for the railroad — the Burlington Northern. He was an engineer. My mom worked for Kellogg’s. They had a processing plant here and they made Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes, I don’t know what else. They produced them there and she worked in the plant. They worked a lot. It’s just what we did. We’re from here, born and raised here. After the season, I’d always come back here. I’ve never found a place I liked better.1
Mike attended Oakhaven High School, and it was from Oakhaven — where he was a fullback on the football team, as well as a pitcher in baseball — that he was drafted by the Yankees. In May 2020, Paxton remembered a time in Legion ball. “The summer between my junior and senior years at Oakhaven, I played for Frosty Acres which was Oakhaven’s American Legion team. One night I pitched 14 innings and struck out 35 batters and walked 15. Needless to say, pitch counts weren’t big back in those days.”2
Though drafted by the Yankees, he didn’t let it go to his head. “I could throw hard. I wasn’t a pitcher, but I could throw pretty hard. I guess they figured they could teach me how to pitch, but I just decided that I wasn’t ready to take off and go play. My game wasn’t to that point. Maturity-wise, I probably wasn’t ready for that, either. I went to school.”
He received a baseball scholarship to Memphis State University (known as the University of Memphis since 1994). He chose not to sign with the Yankees, and put in a full four years at Memphis State. The 5-foot-11,190-pound Paxton had some pop in his bat, as well as being a good pitcher for the Memphis State Tigers. On May 5, 1975, he hit two home runs against Arkansas State, the first of them a grand slam.3 Asked about his hitting, he said, “I played some outfield when I wasn’t pitching, but I wasn’t a real good outfielder. I couldn’t judge balls like that, but I could hit pretty well. We had a DH and so I usually DH’d when I wasn’t pitching.”
The Red Sox selected Paxton in the 23rd and last round of the June 1975 draft. He was signed by Sox scout Milt Bolling. Paxton was placed with the Elmira Red Sox, where he didn’t lose a game (5-0, 0.74 ERA) and was promoted to the Carolina League’s Winston-Salem Red Sox. There he was 5-3 (1.41).
In the Florida Instructional League that fall, the “Baby Boston Red Sox” were 35-17 and won the pennant. Paxton worked out of the bullpen and was 7-0 with an earned run average of 0.88.4 For the year, that made him 17-3, with an overall 1.03 ERA.
Paxton started 1976 with the Bristol Red Sox of the Double-A Eastern League. He was 4-3 with a 2.65 ERA and advanced midseason to the Pawtucket (RI) Red Sox, where he was 7-6 (4.14). There had been some thought about bringing him up to the big leagues in 1976, but that would have left him exposed to the October 1976 expansion draft; keeping him in the minors afforded the Red Sox protection from having him claimed.
Even before joining the Red Sox, he had married Julia Ward in October 1973. “I was a junior in college and she was right out of high school. I was 20. She was 18. We’d dated for three or four years before that. We were broke as could be and stayed broke for a while. Still married to the same girl. This [the year 2020] will be 47 years. We have four children: Josh, Courtney, Colby, and Zach. And nine grandchildren.”
Paxton didn’t spend nearly as long in the minors as some, but he still gave a glimpse of the nomadic life that he and his wife experienced. In a 1977 interview, he said, “Packing and unpacking. For the four years my wife and I have been married, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve packed and unpacked.” Furniture? “Oh, we’ve got a few pieces. I’ve got a trailer we hook up and we throw whatever we have into that. If the place we rent has furniture, that’s fine. If not, we’re all right, too. We make do with what we have.” Then there was the matter of finding places willing to rent to them. “Always a problem. Landlords always are looking for people who are going to stay in one place for a while. They want you to sign a lease, the whole thing. We’re just not in a position to do that.”5
In the interview for this biography, he explained, “[My wife] went to work for Holiday Inn, which was based here in Memphis. She worked there while I was finishing up the last two years of school. She didn’t go with me the first year after I signed but she went with me the next year and every year after that. We had no money. You don’t make any money in the minor leagues. You got a little dab of money when you signed, and as bad as that was, what you made every month was even worse than that. And you got paid for when you played, not for the whole year. You got paid for the season and that was it. You had to get a job in the wintertime to make it until spring training.” Mike worked carrying mail one offseason, and a number of other jobs during the others. Their first child was born in 1978.
Paxton was placed with Pawtucket to begin the 1977 season and was 5-0 in his first seven starts, with an ERA of 0.82. Three of the games had been shutouts, two in succession and the third one a two-hitter against Toledo. When Boston pitcher Jim Willoughby broke his right ankle running in the Fenway Park outfield during batting practice on May 22, Paxton was the pitcher called up to take his place. He was deemed capable of either starting or (like Willoughby) relieving.
He had, said Red Sox farm director Ed Kenney, “a fastball that rides in on right-handed batters. He has a good slider, and he keeps the ball down most of the time and he gets it over the plate. In a word, he’s a pitcher, not just a thrower. In fact, he might be a better pitcher in that respect than Bob Stanley. Stanley has more stuff, but Paxton has a better idea where the ball is going and how to set up a hitter. Oh yes, and even when he’s losing, he hangs in there. He’s tough.”6
Paxton’s major-league debut was a start in the second game of the May 25 doubleheader against Minnesota. He didn’t last long. He struck out the first batter he faced, prompting a roar from a Boston crowd that had seen the Sox staff surrender 13 runs in the first game. But then a double and two singles let the Twins score twice in the top of the first. He got out of a first-and-third with nobody out jam in the second, and the Red Sox scored four times to stake him to a lead. He allowed three runs in the top of the third, however, and was relieved by Reggie Cleveland, who allowed five more. Paxton absorbed the loss. His next 15 appearances were in relief. He picked up three wins, his first major-league win coming on June 1 when he pitched 1 2/3 innings of relief against Texas.
His second start came on July 28 against the Brewers in Boston. He threw a four-hit shutout. His teammates helped with four homers and 12 runs. After the game, he acknowledged, “I was more nervous my first start. Now I’m used to the big crowds, and Pudge Fisk knows me better now.”7 He admitted to pitching coach Al Jackson that he was tired after seven innings. “I said I was tired, but I could still get ‘em.” With an 8-0 lead, on a mound visit during the eighth, Fisk joked, “If you’re tired, let me pitch. There’s only six outs to go.”8
Rico Petrocelli wrote a column for the Boston Herald at the time. In mid-August, he wrote, “Paxton is a smart pitcher, particularly for a rookie. It’s very rare for a rookie to step in and pitch with Paxton’s amount of intelligence…Unlike most youngsters, Paxton never falls into a pattern with his pitches, he is always mixing. Mike doesn’t have real hard stuff, but he is sneaky fast, and he’ll win if he can avoid hanging his breaking pitch.”9 Manager Don Zimmer was happy to see how much poise was shown by the rookie trio of Paxton, Don Aase, and Bob Stanley during the 1977 pennant race. “It’s one thing when you come up with a losing club and pitch. But when you’re with a contender, facing sellout crowds everywhere, and still pitch the way they have. it’s really something.”10
He got 10 more starts in 1977, including a 2-1 win over the Rangers in Texas on his 24th birthday. Ray Fitzgerald wrote a piece for the Globe, with a subhead reading, “Paxton is 24 Going on 40.” His point was how calm and unflappable Paxton appeared on the mound. For his part, Paxton confessed, it was partly due to a determination not to appear to let things bother him. “What good does it do? The other club sees you’re upset, so I try not to show it, even if I am.”11
He finished the season with a 10-5 record and an ERA of 3.83.
Zimmer, as one would expect, immediately penciled in Paxton as one of his starters for 1978. Both he and Aase were selected as co-rookies of the year by the Boston chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Paxton went to play winter ball, but decided to cut his work short because of an arm that had begun to feel tired. Aase was traded to the Angels in December for Jerry Remy. Paxton himself was looking forward to helping the Red Sox compete for the pennant in 1978. The Sox had traded Aase but had their eyes on Dennis Eckersley.
The Boston Globe’s Ray Fitzgerald offered a terse summary of Paxton near the end of spring training: “Disappointing in first few outings. OK yesterday.”12 Three days later, Paxton was part of a sizable six-player trade. The Cleveland Indians sent Eckersley and Fred Kendall to the Red Sox for Ted Cox, Bo Diaz, Paxton, and Rick Wise. Carlton Fisk spoke up and was wary: “Eckersley’s going to have to win 25 to make it even. Wise has been our best pitcher down here. Rick was in the doghouse last year, Paxton came up in midseason, and they still won 21 between them.”13
Indians manager Jeff Torborg initially planned to use Paxton in long relief.14 Paxton himself was hoping to be used as a starter, and for the most part, come May, he was. He started 27 games (and relieved in six others), finishing 12-11, just one shy of tying Rick Waits (13-15) for the team lead in wins. The 69-90 Indians finished sixth in the seven-team American League East. Paxton’s 3.86 ERA was marginally better than the team’s 3.97 overall mark. He threw five compete games, which included two shutouts in the month of July. In five games against the Red Sox, he was 1-1 but with a 7.30 ERA. The Red Sox and Yankees ended the regular season tied in wins and losses and had to play a single-game playoff for first place. Stretching a point, one could suggest that the difference might have been partially Paxton. In his final four starts in September, Paxton had beaten the Red Sox once and lost to the Yankees twice.
The 1978 season saw him strike out 96 batters, a career major-league high. His WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) was 1.267, the best of his four years in the big leagues. Dan Coughlin of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer was impressed by how voracious a reader Paxton was, writing at one point that he “might lead all of baseball in books read this summer.”15
Looking to 1979, Indians GM Phil Seghi said he was putting Paxton down to win 16 games.16 He won half that many. It wasn’t a satisfactory season. Paxton was hit hard, and for multiple runs, in each of his first four starts, and had an ERA approaching 10.00 at the end of April. The lowest he ever got it was to 5.45 after a 9-8 win on July 11 (the four runs he gave up that day were all unearned). He finished the season 8-8, with a 5.92 ERA.
Dave Garcia had replaced Torborg in midseason and had a 38-28 record. The team finished in sixth place again, 22 games behind the Orioles, with a record just barely over .500 (81-80). Both managers had tried Paxton as a starter and in relief. He appeared in 33 games, 24 of them starts. The team leaders in wins were the two Ricks — Waits (16) and Wise (15). Paxton was third among the starters. There hadn’t seemed to be a clear understanding of why he was less effective. He was, wrote one sportswriter, simply a “continuing puzzle.”17 After the season was over, Coughlin characterized him as the “most inconsistent pitcher on the staff.”18
Despite his struggles on the mound he was making a name for himself in the Cleveland community. He was honored by the Cleveland Basebelles booster club with their Humanitarian Award for 1979.19
Garcia named Paxton as one of his starters near the end of spring training 1980. “Mike Paxton has to be a member of our team,” he declared, “He has done all right this spring and has a winning record in the majors. Not many of our pitchers have a better big-league record than Paxton.”20
Paxton relieved in the first game of the season, working 3 2/3 innings and giving up three earned runs. He worked in three other games, on April 22, 29, and May 3, for a total of 7 2/3 innings. His ERA climbed from game to game, peaking at 12.91. On May 4, he was optioned to the Tacoma Tigers.
Boston’s Don Zimmer wanted to trade for Paxton. He’d always admired his pitching and was “convinced that he can straighten Paxton out.”21 The Tribe wanted Jack Brohamer, but the two teams were unable to come to agreement. Paxton got in a full season of work with the Triple-A Pacific Coast League club. There he started 21 games and relieved twice. His record was 6-10, with an ERA of precisely 5.00. For the only time in his career, he walked more batters than he struck out. He was only 26 years old when optioned. He had pitched his last major-league game.
The Indians offered to deal him over the winter, but if there were any takers, they weren’t offering enough. In spring training, Paxton simply said, “I lost what I once had and I am trying to find myself.”22
He had indeed been successful at the major-league level — though his ERA had gone up from year to year over the course of his four years. After two scoreless innings in an exhibition game, he said, “I’m just happy that I threw the ball over the plate. I don’t know where I will pitch or how I will do. I am still feeling my way.”23
Sportswriter Hal Lebovitz felt he was on track: “Better than last spring. Got racked up only once. Knows how to pitch. Appears to be on his way back to the majors.”24 On sending him out to the International League with the Charleston (West Virginia) Charlies for 1981, Garcia said, “Paxton is a mystery. He never hurt his arm. At one time he was a fine major league pitcher. At Charleston he’ll have a chance to start and work out his problems. I think he needs to get back some of his bulldoggedness.”25
He got off to an 0-2 start, then evened it up. Bone chips in his right elbow in August curtailed his season. He’d started 19 games and was 6-9 with a 4.62 ERA.
“I ended up having elbow trouble,” he explained. “I had bone chips in my elbow and the doctor — the head of Campbell Clinic, the orthopedic place around here [near his home in Tennessee] — he did my surgery after the ‘81 season. He told me, ‘Look, you got these bone chips for a reason. It’s what you do for a living. If you keep doing it, you’re going to come back and see me again.’
“They offered me a contract to come back. It wasn’t much, and I wasn’t getting any younger. So I just stayed home. I couldn’t play for that, so I just stayed home. It was time to get a real job.” The Paxtons at this point had two children. He had to provide for the growing family.
That final year in baseball did provide him with an enduring memory. “At the end of my career — I had gone from prospect to suspect, when I was playing for Charleston, I pitched in Rochester one night. Pitched pretty good for seven innings except for one guy I couldn’t get out. He hit three home runs off of me in seven innings. His name was Cal Ripken Jr. After the game I called home to Julia who listened to it on the radio. She said, ‘You know you could have just walked him after the first one.’ Aaahhh, true love!!! She was right, though!”26
Like many ballplayers, Paxton needed a little time to adjust to the regular 9-to-5 working world.“When you’ve been playing ball all your life, you don’t know what you want to do. There was a couple of jobs. I worked for a food service company — Swift — for a year or two. A friend of mine that I played ball with for the Red Sox in the minor leagues was working for Nike at the time. Sam Bowen. We talked a lot. He called me. He said, ‘Do you think you’d be interested in working for Nike?’ I said, ‘Sure. It’s kind of along the lines I’ve been in, involved with sport. Good company. Makes a good product.’ So I started with him in 1985. I was a sales rep. Thirty-three years later, I retired from it.”27
His background in baseball helped with the work at Nike. “It helped me get the job. One of the guys I met with was a huge Red Sox fan. I never knew him before then, but he grew up in Boston and he remembered me. It doesn’t hurt, to get your foot in the door. Yeah, it did help. No question about it. With Sam’s influence — he had a lot of influence with other people at Nike — it just kind of worked out. It was a good place to work.” He didn’t try to climb the corporate ladder and go into management. He preferred to be able to stay home in the Memphis area.
Two of his sons took up pitching and earned themselves scholarships, Josh to Kentucky and Colby to Auburn. “They were pretty good in their own right. They didn’t go any further than that, but they were good players and we had a lot of fun watching them. My youngest played in high school. He didn’t pitch. He didn’t play in college, but it was fun teaching them the game and watching them.”
Mike Paxton was inducted into the M Club Hall of Fame at the University of Memphis, in 1982, and into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.
He appreciates the time he spent in baseball. “I was one of these guys, I wasn’t a big guy. I wouldn’t even get picked now. Back then, they’d take a chance on a guy 5’10”, 5’11”, if he could throw pretty hard. I averaged 85. I could hit 90 from time to time if I needed to. I pitched and I just relied on movement and control. Let the guys behind you help you. I was just one of those guys. And then when you have surgery and lose [velocity]…I didn’t have a lot of that (chuckles). And then you’re right-handed. You just say, ‘I see the handwriting on the wall. I can’t do what I used to.’ Life goes on. You can’t play ball. It happens to everybody — sooner than they want it to — but it does. For me, it was 27 and I was out and ready to move on.
“I was around for a while and had a pretty good run. Short, but it wasn’t bad while I was there. But it wasn’t anything special. I enjoyed my time but you move on. Life takes over and you just move on to other things. But I enjoyed it.”
Reminded that he did win 30 major-league baseball games, he allows, “I guess. I did, but there’s a lot of people who did a lot more than me.”
He remains humble, while keeping busy in his retirement. “I stay home and I stay pretty busy. Doing stuff, church stuff, grandkids stuff. My kids always have a project they want to try to do and they don’t have time to do it. I kind of like doing it. Landscaping or something. We find a way to stay pretty busy. Not too much down time.” The Paxtons are involved with church. He says, “God has blessed us far more than we ever deserved. We are grateful,” adding, “Last summer, Julia and I took a trip with our church to Israel. What an awesome trip to see where Jesus walked. Julia and I have had a wonderful life together. She stuck with me in the good times and the not quite as good. We have four great kids and nine fantastic grandkids.”
Last revised: July 29, 2020
This biography was reviewed by James Forr and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin. Thanks also to the Boston Red Sox and to Rod Nelson of SABR’s Scouts Committee.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Retrosheet.org, and the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball.
1 Author interview with Mike Paxton on April 26, 2020. Unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations attributed to Mike Paxton come from this interview.
2 Mike Paxton email to author, May 2, 2020.
3 “Memphis State Sweeps ASU,” Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), May 6, 1975: 22.
4 Garry Brown, “Baby BoSox Shine in Florida League,” Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), November 21, 1975: 29.
5 Leigh Montville, “Mike Paxton,” Boston Globe, July 9, 1977: 18.
6 Tim Horgan, “…Unless Paxton Pitches In,” Boston Herald, May 25, 1977: 11.
7 Bill Liston, “Sox Win One for the Road,” Boston Herald, July 29, 1977: 19.
8 Bob Ryan, “Youth Serves: Paxton Wins A Four-Hitter, 12-0,” Boston Globe, July 29, 1977: 25.
9 Rico Petrocelli, “Paxton, Sox Ship Our Mariners as 10-TimeLosers,” Boston Herald, August 15, 1977: 17.
10 Larry Whiteside, “Youth Corps Raises Red Sox Hopes; Zimmer Still Cautious,” Boston Globe, August 2, 1977: 23.
11 Ray Fitzgerald, “Red Sox Rookie in Armageddon,” Boston Globe, September 13, 1977: 1.
12 Ray Fitzgerald, “Taking Sox One By One…Do They Add Up to A Pennant?” Boston Globe, March 27, 1978: 21.
13 Peter Gammons, How Red Sox Players Reacted,” Boston Globe, March 31, 1978: 39. Eckersley was 20-8 in 1978; the Red Sox couldn’t have been much happier with their acquisition.
14 Rick Stewart, “Mike Paxton,” Boston Herald, April 23, 1978: 7.
15 Dan Coughlin, “Batting Around.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) September 6, 1978: 78
16 Hal Lebovitz, “Can the Indians Count on Garland?” Plain Dealer, February 15, 1979: 110.
17 Rick Passan, “Barker Clicks As Tribe Splits,” Plain Dealer, August 6, 1979: 35. A couple of weeks later, Don Coughlin called him an enigma.
18 Dan Coughlin, “PD Baseball Writers Grades the Indians,” Plain Dealer, October 21, 1979: 52.
19 Chuck Heaton, “Purdue Favored by 19, But Wary,” Plain Dealer, September 8, 1979: 27.
20 Terry Pluto, “Garcia Includes Paxton Despite Shelling by A’s,’” Plain Dealer, March 29, 1980: 71.
21 Terry Pluto, “Indians Shopping to Beat the Clock,” Plain Dealer, June 14, 1980: 47.
22 Terry Pluto, “Mystery Man,” Plain Dealer, March 10, 1980: 40.
23 Pluto, “Mystery Man.”
24 Hal Lebovitz, “How Can You Cut This Squad?”, Plain Dealer, March 22, 1981: 50.
25 Terry Pluto, “Tribe Sends Pitchers Paxton, Narleski, and Puryear to Charleston,” Plain Dealer, March 25, 1981: 84.
26 Mike Paxton email to author, May 2, 2020.
27 Bowen and Paxton had played together both in the minors and in Boston.