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Cubs historical sleuthing: September callup edition

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Here’s a Cub who was supposed to be somebody. Hint; He wasn’t.

Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

This handsome fellow is Karl Pagel, who was supposed to be the next great Cubs power hitter in the late 1970s.

He was the Cubs’ No. 1 pick (20th overall) in the “secondary phase” of the 1976 draft out of the University of Texas. The “secondary phase” back then was for high school and college players who had been previously drafted, but had not signed. Now, players like that simply go back into the draft pool for the following year.

Pagel seemed like a can’t-miss prospect. He hit .334/.451/.637 with 28 home runs in Double-A in 1977, .268/.389/.498 with 23 home runs in Triple-A in 1978, and .316/.436/.617 with 39 home runs in Triple-A in 1979.

Numbers like that would make you an absolute darling of front offices today — power AND a great OBP. His career OBP in the minor leagues was .424 over more than 3,500 plate appearances. It wasn’t a mirage, he had great plate discipline.

And yet, all Pagel got from the Cubs was two September callups (1978 and 1979) in which he got three at-bats, and he struck out all three times. The Cubs traded him to the Indians in June 1980 for Cliff Johnson, and the question must be asked: Why? Pagel had a similar skillset to Johnson, was considerably younger, and could actually play a decent left field.

Pagel never got much of a chance in Cleveland, either. There, he had just 64 plate appearances from 1981-83 in which he hit .245/.375/.377 with one home run. It’s not like the Indians were a great team in that era, either; they certainly could have given someone like this a chance. Why they didn’t is a great baseball mystery.

What isn’t a mystery is the date this photo was taken. Even though part of the scoreboard is covered up by Pagel, most of the matchups are easily read. The only date that matches all the games visible is Sunday, September 17, 1978. The Cubs and Cardinals were wrapping up a three-game series that afternoon, and the reason I know it’s the Sunday date rather than the other two is that’s the only day of those three in which all the MLB games were afternoon games (no “NITE GAME” visible on the board).

Pagel did not play in the September 17 game, which the Cubs won 4-2. He didn’t make his MLB debut until September 21, a day game against the Pirates at Wrigley with just 2,423 as witnesses. Pagel batted for Dave Geisel in the bottom of the 13th with a chance to be a hero and win the game (runner on first, two out), but Pirates reliever Ed Whitson struck him out. The Cubs lost that game 3-2 in 14 innings.

Many times, players like this fall into obscurity and we don’t know what became of them following a brief MLB career. In Pagel’s case we absolutely know, because this article says he was inducted into UPS’ “Circle of Honor” in 2015 for 25 years’ worth of accident-free driving:

UPS drivers Karl Pagel of Chandler; Darin Salgado and Mark Weaver of Gilbert; Neil Mellon and Brad Thompson of Glendale; Dale Taylor of Mesa; Michael Diaz De Leon, Andres Guerrero and Michael Touvell of Peoria; John Galvan and John Torrez of Phoenix; Lance O’Donnell of Sun City and Leanne Jordan of Tempe were all recently inducted into UPS’s prestigious Circle of Honor for achieving 25 years of accident-free driving.

That’s definitely him; he went to high school in the Phoenix area and this article confirms that he was working for UPS in 2012.

Pagel is 65 now; he might well be retired as a UPS driver. He coulda been somebody in baseball. Instead, he might have delivered a package to your house, if you live in the Phoenix area.