Pap reminds me of Cleveland great

Tryve Brackin

LSU’s Michael Papierski reminds me of Jim Hegan. Who?

Papierski, the LSU Tiger catcher, stepped it up in the latter part of the SEC baseball season to help ignite his team to a regular season co-championship with Florida.

Papierski, considered one of the top prep catchers and a top recruit out of Illinois for Coach Paul Manieri, came through in the final weeks of the regular season, raising his batting average from below .200 more than 50 points last weekend, while showing he was one of, if not the best, defensive catcher in the SEC. 

The Tiger catcher, batting eighth in the lineup, began to hit with power when not walking a team third-best. Only power hitter Greg Deichmann (43 BBs) and leadoff hitter Kramer Robertson (32 BBs) walked more during the season than Papierski’s 31 times. And, over the final-four season-ending series sweeps against Alabama, South Carolina, Auburn, and Mississippi State, “Pap” consistently got on base, drove in runs, and blasted timely home runs. He finished the regular season by lifting his batting average to 258, slugged 7 home runs, and had an on base percentage of .406, third best behind team standouts Deichmann and Robertson.

All that noted, the Tiger catcher threw out an amazing 40 percent of base stealers and consistently came up with ball thrown in the dirt by a LSU pitching staff known for breaking balls.

So who is Jim Hegan?

Hegan was considered by many to be the best defensive catcher in the major leagues during the late 1940s to the mid-1950s. During that era of MLB, Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees was a slugging star in the great championship lineups of the franchise. And, as described by Manager Casey Stengel, he was a “ballerina” behind the plate. However, Hegan was the most complete defensive catcher of his time, rarely allowing pass balls, while handling one of the most dominant pitching staffs in the league.

Hegan was a workhorse for the Cleveland Indians, but he rarely hit for average (career .228). However, he helped lead the Indians to the franchise’s only World Series championship in 1948, then, in 1954 helped get Cleveland back to the finals and a record 111 American League season victories.

I read three baseball books back in my younger years that turned me into a baseball fan (of course, along with watching 1950s games on TV with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese as the commentators).

Pitcher Jim Brosnan’s account of a Cincinnati Reds’ run to a 1960s era championship, and Jim Bouton’s crazy account of a 1960s season with the Yankees, captured my imagination. But the book I read about the Indians’ 1948 title season really impressed me.

The Indians had the best pitching staff in the AL during those post World War II years. Hegan was masterful handling Hall of Famer Bob Feller, rough-n-ready Bob Lemon, one-year 20-game winner Gene Bearden, and 48-year old rookie Satchel Paige (who was a legend in the old Black baseball leagues of the 1930s-40s). Note: Paige alone is a baseball story worth reading.

While he kept the outstanding Indian staff grounded and throwing strikes for outs, Hegan had the finest year of his career at bat. He started slow (like “Pap” this spring), but got hot when it counted the most. He climbed up to a .248 average with 14 home runs and 61 RBI. He also led the league’s catchers in double plays, assists, and putouts.

The Indians ended up beating the old Boston Braves franchise in the World Series four games to two. Lemon won two games, while Bearden and Steve Gomek won one apiece. Hegan turned in a dramatic home run and a team-high five RBI on four Series hits. He came around in the clutch.

Both LSU’s Papierski and the old Cleveland Indian Hegan are, and were, solid players at the toughest position in baseball. And both got hot at bat when it came down to winning at the season’s end.

Here is hoping “Pap” continues to get on base and come up with clutch hits as LSU makes a bid for a Super Regional host at this week’s SEC baseball tournament.  

Under Manieri Tiger teams in recent years have shown consistence when it is needed the most…down the stretch of the campaigns. Perhaps, even better news comes out of the tourney this week and into the NCAA playoffs.