One Day In the Sun: Baseball’s Top One-Game Wonders

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For most baseball players, the end goal is obviously to make it to the major leagues. Hundreds of players, though, suffer the cruel fate of reaching the mountaintop only to see their Major League Baseball career end as quickly as it started, with exactly one career game to their name.

Some of those players, however, made the very most of their fleeting moment of glory, performing well enough to deserve a second shot—one that ultimately never came. We look at five of the players who shined the brightest during their one day in the sun.

Chris Saenz

The most recent name on the list is also the most productive by wins above replacement. Chris Saenz‘s one shot came by happenstance on April 24, 2004 against Saint Louis. Chris Capuano was hurt and Saenz, a 22-year-old who was toiling at Double-A Huntsville, happened to have his spot in the rotation line up with the date the Brewers needed a spot starter.

As a result, the former 28th-round pick was asked to face a Cardinals juggernaut that was in the early stages of a 105-win season that culminated in a National League pennant. They were no match for the unknown right-hander.

Saenz tossed six shutout innings, allowed two hits, and struck out seven—the most strikeouts by any person to pitch just one MLB game. Despite some bullpen hiccups, the Brewers hung on for a 3-1 victory and Saenz earned the win. With it, he also earned 0.4 WAR for his efforts. Nonetheless, the next day he was back in Huntsville.

What Happened to Him?

Saenz finished the 2004 season in Double-A, going 5-5 with a 4.15 ERA in 14 starts and striking out 84 batters in 84.2 innings. However he blew out his elbow in late July and needed Tommy John Surgery, which cost him the final two months and all of 2005…And all of 2006.

He never really recovered and by the time he returned in 2007, it was in the Los Angeles Angels organization. He cratered to a 1-7 record with an 8.41 ERA and more walks than strikeouts in 46 innings. He finished the year in independent ball (also with an ERA over 8).

His last professional action was for the 2008 Schaumburg Flyers of the Northern League. Now exclusively a reliever, he notched an 8.42 ERA over 25.2 innings and his career was over at just 26 years old. Not a lot is known about his post-baseball life, but it is known that he still lives in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona.

Nonetheless, with his WAR of 0.4 for his one day of work, he equaled the mark that Jamie Moyer compiled in 202 innings that same year.

Aubrey Epps

A Depression-era catcher, Audrey Epps had spent most of his three-year career with the Southern Association’s Birmingham Barons by the time the 1935 season came to an end. In 1935, the Barons were a farm club of the Pittsburgh Pirates, so after a season where he hit .288 split between Birmingham and Fort Worth (both Single-A clubs then, but akin to Double-A today), the Pirates called him up.

The 23-year-old, armed with the nickname of “Yo-Yo”, earned the start behind the plate in the second game of a season-ending doubleheader on September 29, 1935. Batting eighth, he went 3-for-4 with a triple and three RBI, setting a record (since matched twice) for RBI in a player’s lone MLB game. Alas, the Pirates lost 9-6, and with the season over, Epps had to wait for spring to impress further.

What Happened to Him?

A few weeks after his debut, Epps underwent a routine tonsillectomy. However, he underwent hemorrhages which forced him back into the hospital, leading to pneumonia and being placed on oxygen.

Fortunately, Yo-Yo recovered and returned to Class-A for the 1936 season (which was now three steps below the majors, not two), this time with Scranton in the New York-Penn League. A .332 campaign earned him a promotion back to the Southern Association in 1937. After going up and down, he made it to Double-A Jersey City in 1940 and Milwaukee in 1941—at the time the highest level of minor league baseball.

However, he finished the 1941 season back in the Southern Association, hitting .305 with 14 homers for Knoxville. With World War II breaking out, this would prove to be his final season and he left the game at 29 with a career .290 average over 944 minor league games. He served in the Marine Corps for three years, including the Battle of Iwo Jima, before returning to his home in Mississippi, where he died in 1984.

Ray Jansen

Few people ever burst onto the scene the way Ray Jansen did. On September 30, 1910 debuted at third base for Saint Louis Browns, who were near the end of a rotten 47-107 season. Truly coming out of nowhere, he had finished his first season of pro baseball at Class D Paragould—a level of baseball so low that his stats from that season are not known.

Nonetheless, the 21-year-old, who was batting second, went 4-for-5, making him the first person to collect four hits in an MLB debut. Alas, it was not all roses, as he committed three errors out of the seven committed by Saint Louis. In addition to the seven miscues, the Browns stranded 13 runners, turning 16 hits into just one lousy run in a 9-1 loss. For reasons unknown, despite his 4-for-5 effort, Jansen did not play in any of the final six games of the season afterwards.

What Happened to Him?

Jansen returned to Class D in 1911, but batted just .222 in 42 games. He was out of baseball in 1912, returned in 1913-14, before disappearing again in 1915. He returned in 1916 and by 1917 reached Class-A Mobile, two steps below the Majors. After batting .249 in 1917 and .252 in a truncated 1918 season, his baseball career ended at the age of 29, with a known career batting average of a modest .266.

A Saint Louis native, he died in 1934 at the age of 45 in the same city he was born in and played his one MLB game in. He holds a bizarre place in MLB history for having a higher career batting average (.800) than fielding percentage (.700)

Bert Shepard

Out of all MLB players, very few can hold a candle to what Bert Shepard had to overcome just to get to the majors. He reached the majors as a 25-year-old with the 1945 Washington Senators. He was called in to put out the fire that was a 12-run fourth inning of a 15-4 drubbing by Boston on August 4, 1945. Relieving Joe Cleary (also making his lone MLB appearance), who allowed seven runs and recorded just one out, Shepard threw the final 5.1 innings, allowing just one run on three hits. Even more impressive? He did so with one leg.

Shepard was signed by the Chicago White Sox before the 1940 season, but failed to distinguish himself as he pitched just 11 innings above Class D in three years before World War II broke out. He enlisted in the US Army Air Force in 1943 and soon was piloting Lockheed Martin P-38 bombers over Nazi Germany.

On May 21, 1944, he was shot down at the tail end of a raid against Hamburg, Germany, crash-landing despite being knocked unconscious by enemy fire. Amazingly, he survived the landing and a group of a German farmers who tried to kill him but were stopped by German soldiers and a doctor. After German doctors amputated his right leg below the knee, he spent eight months as a German P.O.W. where he learned to pitch again on a crude prosthetic made by a Canadian medic being held at the same camp.

After returning stateside in early 1945 in a prisoner exchange, he met Robert Patterson, the U.S. Undersecretary of War, who happened to be a friend of Senators owner Clark Griffith, who arranged a tryout. While intending to only use him as a coach and batting practice pitcher, he pitched well enough in exhibition games to be added to the active roster, leading to his moment of glory, albeit in a blowout game in August.

What Happened to Him?

The Washington Senators were battling for an American League pennant (eventually finishing 1.5 games back of Detroit), so despite remaining on the active roster the rest of the season, management was reluctant to use him in important games. He was released a week following the regular season.

Even before the war, he battled command issues, which returned along with the regular major leaguers after the war. In 1946, pitching in Double-A Chattanooga, he walked 27 batters in 29 innings, pitching to a 7.45 ERA. He didn’t re-surface until 1949, where he was a player-manager for Class-B Waterbury, going 5-6 with a 6.16 ERA. His only other action was three games for Class-C Modesto in 1955. He posted an ERA of 5.11 over 65 minor league games in his career.

Post-baseball, Shepard won two U.S. Amputee golf championships. Amazingly, in 1993, Shepard travelled to Austria and met the German doctor who pulled him from his plane and saved his life in 1944. He died in 2008 at the age of 87.

John Paciorek

The gold standard of one-day big-leaguers probably belongs to John Paciorek. While his younger brothers Jim (48 games for the 1987 Brewers), and Tom (18 years in the majors and an All-Star nod in 1981) enjoyed more big league time, John Paciorek at least got to enjoy the best “perfect” career of anyone in MLB history.

What does that mean? In his debut on September 29, 1963, Paciorek played right field and went 3-for-3 with two walks, four runs, and three RBI; five plate appearance, five times on base. His team, the Houston Colt .45’s, then in their second season (and two years before becoming the Astros) defeated the New York Mets 13-4 to cap off a 66-96 season.

To say the entire nature of the day was out of the blue would be accurate. Paciorek was coming off a season in Class-A Modesto where he batted just .210 with nine homers and 94 strikeouts in just 78 games. He was in Houston to have an aching back examined when the Houston brass instead asked if he wanted to play. Answering that question with a resounding “yes”, he shook off the pain and suited up.

On a tragic note, Paciorek’s debut was also the final game for relief pitcher Jim Umbricht, who earned the win that day. Battling melanoma throughout the season, he died less than six months later and his ashes were scattered at the Astrodome construction site. Umbricht’s uniform number (32) was the first to be retired by the Astros.

What Happened to Him?

Unlike the rest of this group, there were expectations of Paciorek, and he came into spring training in 1963 with a legitimate chance of making the MLB roster. However, his back issues had not gone away. In fact, playing every day in the spring made them worse.

In 1964, he played just 49 games split between two Class-A teams, Durham and Statesville. He batted a miniscule .135 before undergoing spinal fusion surgery, which cost him the entire 1965 season. He returned in 1966—still just 21 years old, but hamstring and arm injuries further derailed his career. Two more seasons hitting below .200 in the low minors led Houston to give up on him.

He finally put it together in 1968 in Cleveland’s system, hitting .268 with 20 homers in just 95 games, but after batting just .214 in 29 games at Double-A in 1969, his career was over at just 24 years old. He eventually became a P.E. teacher and moved to California. He will turn 77 years old on February 11.

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Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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