Paciorek overcame difficult childhood to enjoy long career in baseball

Detroit native Tom Paciorek had his best seasons with the Seattle Mariners.

I have always enjoyed Tom Paciorek’s work as a color analyst on Chicago White Sox broadcasts, dating back to his early days as an announcer in the 1990s. Now retired, he was funny, upbeat, and insightful, a pleasant voice in many ways. Yet, it was only recently that I learned about his connection to Detroit, which motivated me to write about him.

Paciorek was born and bred in the Motor City, where he endured a difficult upbringing. Once I started doing some research into Paciorek’s background, I uncovered a fascinating and troubling backstory that made me wonder how I could have known so little about this outfielder-turned-broadcaster.

One of eight children, Paciorek grew up in considerable poverty in one of the most underprivileged sections of Detroit. He, his parents, and his many siblings (including two other future major leaguers in John and Jim) lived in an overcrowded three-bedroom house. Given his parents’ limited income and the presence of so many children to feed and clothe, the Pacioreks lacked the money to purchase even a television set. According to Paciorek, his family became the last one in the poor neighborhood to obtain a TV, a further commentary on the dire economic circumstances that the Pacioreks faced.

As if their monetary situation wasn’t bad enough, Tom and several of his brothers also faced an additional problem. They attended high school at St. Ladislaus in Hamtramck, an institution that was run by Catholic priests. As Paciorek revealed many years later, he and three of his brothers were subjected to sexual abuse by a priest at St. Ladislaus. Given the culture of the 1960s, when it was difficult to challenge the authority of the clergy, Paciorek and his brothers felt powerless to register complaints against the priest, Reverend Gerald Shirilla. Paciorek said that the repeated incidents with Shirilla traumatized him, affecting him for years. By the early 1990s, Paciorek became motivated to file a lawsuit against the priest at St. Ladislaus (which is now defunct), but by then the state of limitations on sexual abuse had expired.

“I was molested by him for a period of four years,” Paciorek told the Detroit Free Press in 2002. “I would refer to them as attacks. I would say there was at least a hundred of them.” The situation reached its culmination during a three-day period in which Shirilla obtained permission to have Paciorek stay with him for an entire weekend. “For 72 hours, I felt like I was under constant attack,” Paciorek said. “It was relentless. I mean, I felt like I was a prisoner at his house… I remember saying in a moment of silence, when I maybe slept just a couple of hours, ‘God, is this ever going to end? When is it ever going to end?’ ”

Remarkably, Paciorek remained a capable student at St. Ladislaus, where he became a star baseball and football player. He earned an opportunity to attend the University of Detroit, where he starred on the football team. As further misfortune would have it, the university dropped the football program after Paciorek’s freshman year. Not wanting to miss out on a promising college football career, Paciorek transferred to the University of Houston, where he not only played as a defensive back, but also emerged as a standout outfielder on the baseball team.

In 1967, Paciorek and the Cougars advanced to the College World Series, which provided him with exposure to major league scouts. Then came more adversity. As a senior, Paciorek ran into an outfield wall, injuring his leg. The injury curtailed the quality of his play, but didn’t discourage the Los Angeles Dodgers from selecting him in the 1968 major league draft. The Dodgers selected him with their fifth-round pick. That same year, the NFL’s Miami Dolphins selected him with their eighth-round choice. Not wanting to lose out on what they considered a legitimate prospect, the Dodgers convinced Paciorek to make baseball his sport of choice over football by offering him a $20,000 bonus. Foregoing football, Paciorek accepted the offer and took his first minor league assignment, reporting to the Dodgers’ rookie ball affiliate in Ogden, Utah.

Paciorek quickly proved himself capable of handling professional pitching. He batted .386 and slugged .653, while also playing reliably in the outfield. During his 29-game stint with Ogden, Paciorek learned about the game from a young manager named Tommy Lasorda. It was Lasorda who would give Paciorek his famous nickname. One evening, Paciorek and several of his teammates dined out at a restaurant. All of the players ordered steak, except for Paciorek. He opted for a hamburger. When Lasorda found out, he dubbed Paciorek “Wimpy,” a reference to the character from the Popeye cartoon.

Now known for his love of hamburgers, Paciorek proceeded to make a quick climb through the Dodgers’ farm system. In the middle of the ’68 season, he earned a promotion to Bakersfield, where he would post huge numbers in 1969. Then came a promotion all the way to Triple-A Spokane in 1970, where he calmly hit .326 with 17 home runs and 101 RBIs. So impressed with his easy transition to Triple-A, the Dodgers rewarded him with a late-season call up to Los Angeles.

Clearly, Paciorek seemed ready to handle the transition to the major leagues. But the Dodgers had a minor league system loaded with talent, and already featured established outfielders like Willie Crawford, Willie Davis, and Manny Mota. After the 1970 season, the Dodgers added to the mix by acquiring Richie Allen, another player capable of playing the outfield, in a blockbuster trade with the St. Louis Cardinals. Facing a logjam of competition, Paciorek would spend most of 1971 at Triple-A.

After the 1971 season, the Dodgers parted ways with Allen, but added Frank Robinson to their outfield picture. Once again, Paciorek was frozen out, forced to spend additional time in the minor leagues.

In 1972, the Dodgers moved Paciorek to first base, where he would play at Triple-A Albuquerque. Of course, the Dodgers had just as much of a logjam at first base, where Gold Glove winner Wes Parker was entrenched, and where a prospect named Steve Garvey would soon play because of shoulder problems that would end his days as a third baseman.

By 1973, Paciorek’s minor league apprenticeship came to a finish, but he would have to settle for a role as a part-time player and backup outfielder. Unable to crack the Dodgers’ everyday lineup, Paciorek played sporadically over the next three seasons. In 1975, he bottomed out with a .193 batting average. Now soured on their onetime top prospect, the Dodgers made a huge trade that winter, sending Paciorek, fellow outfielder Jimmy Wynn, and infielders Lee Lacy and Jerry Royster to the Atlanta Braves for outfielder Dusty Baker and infielder Ed Goodson.

The move to Atlanta helped Paciorek. Not only did it open the door for more playing time, but it gave him the chance to play in Fulton County Stadium, a far better hitter’s ballpark than Dodger Stadium. Given more playing time while filling in at three outfield positions, first base, and third base, Paciorek appeared in 111 games and hit an impressive .290, though he failed to take advantage of the friendly dimensions at the “Launching Pad.”

Paciorek hoped for an even more regular role in 1977, but he flopped at the plate, his batting average falling to .239. Paciorek’s stock with Atlanta fell so much that the Braves released him at the end of spring training. Then, about a week later, the Braves resigned him, but gave him limited at-bats as a pinch-hitter. In late May, the Braves released him for a second time, bringing a bizarre end to his fractured stay in Atlanta.

His career now at a crossroads, Paciorek found work eight days later, when the Seattle Mariners signed him as a free agent. As a recent expansion team, the Mariners needed help at many positions, so they were thrilled to add a player with Paciorek’s hitting potential.

For the next three and a half seasons, Paciorek played left field for the Mariners, while showing increased power production almost every year. His tenure in Seattle reached a high point during the strike season of 1981, when he batted .326 with 14 home runs and a career-best OPS of .888. As late as the final week of August, Paciorek was the leading hitter in the American League, though he eventually finished second in the batting race. For the first time in his career, Paciorek made the All-Star team. At the end of the season, he received some consideration for league MVP, finishing 10th in the balloting.

Most players do not have career years at the age of 34, but Paciorek had done just that for the Mariners. Rather than hold on to the late-blooming Paciorek, the Mariners decided to capitalize on his sudden trade value. After the ’81 season, they traded Paciorek to the Chicago White Sox for a package of catcher Jim Essian, shortstop Todd Cruz, and outfielder Rod Allen.

Over the next two seasons, Paciorek remained a productive player for the White Sox, who shifted him from the outfield to first base. Paciorek’s play finally started to slip in 1984 and ’85, understandable given that he was now in his late thirties. In the middle of the ’85 season, the Sox dealt him to the New York Mets for minor league infielder Dave Cochrane. Paciorek batted a respectable .284 over the balance of the season, but still drew his release that winter. He signed a free agent deal with Texas, where he played surprisingly well as a backup over his last two seasons, managing to keep his average above .280 both years.

Paciorek’s career, which lasted 18 years, stands as a testament to his perseverance. He was that rare player, ala Mike Easler and Bill Robinson, who was better in his thirties than he was in his twenties. Paciorek managed to prolong his career until the age of 40, despite the disappointments of the Dodgers years and the multiple releases given to him by the Braves. He also made enough contacts within the White Sox’ organization to secure a job as their broadcaster, a position that he held off and on. In addition to the White Sox, he has also broadcast games for the Tigers, Mariners, Braves, and Washington Nationals.

Even more impressively, Paciorek overcame two childhood problems that often ruin people for the rest of their lives: family poverty and sexual abuse. His willingness to talk about the molestation at St. Ladislaus, along with his willingness to confront his tormentor, speak to the character of Paciorek.

A proud son of Detroit, Tom Paciorek has done very well.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.