Don McMahon (Part 1)

A big, burly right-hander with a quick, compact motion, Donald John McMahon pitched in exactly 1,100 professional games over a 25-year span. Never once did he spend a day on the disabled list.

McMahon was born in Brooklyn in 1930, and spoke in a straight-out-of-the-movies New York-Irish brogue. If not a ballplayer, the only other way one can possibly imagine him is as a tough-but-fair neighborhood cop, snagging some juvenile delinquent by the collar and letting him know that if there’s a next time, he won’t be gettin’ off with just a warnin’. Understand me now, young fella?

“I grew up in Brooklyn. I hated the Yankees and I hated the Giants. I played high school ball at Ebbets Field, and I could stand out near the wall and gun the ball to home plate same as Carl Furillo. He could throw it harder than me, but I could gun it in there on one hop, too.”

But McMahon didn’t hit like an outfielder, so his cannon was deployed on the pitchers’ mound. In the spring of 1950, the 20-year-old McMahon was signed by the Boston Braves, and assigned to the Owensboro Oilers of the Class D Kentucky-Illinois-Tennessee (“Kitty”) League. There the young fastballer was an immediate success, going 20-9 and leading the league in wins, ERA (2.72), and strikeouts (143).

But his rise to the major leagues wouldn’t prove to be meteoric. The following spring he was drafted into the Army for a two-year hitch. Following his discharge in May of 1953, the Braves (now relocated to Milwaukee) assigned McMahon to Class B Evansville, and he spent the season struggling with his control (77 walks in 114 innings), and was able to forge just a 6-5 record with a 4.50 ERA.

The crucial conversion

The following year McMahon was at the double-A level, with the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. There manager Whitlow Wyatt made a decision that would make McMahon’s career: he converted the 24-year-old flamethrower into a full-time relief pitcher.

“I was one of the first pitchers to get groomed in the minors as a reliever. That was the only way I knew I could get to the major leagues because I only had one pitch. I relied completely on the fastball and sheer strength … and I saw what happened when I started facing the guys the second and third time around, they started rapping me pretty good.

“So I was very happy to be a reliever, it was just like fighting a one-minute fight. You just go in and throw as many punches as fast as you can and as hard as you can. Just try to overpower them. I’d get bruised on my arm from trying to throw too hard. But that’s all I did, there was no finesse about it.”

All but one of McMahon’s 46 appearances in 1954 were out of the bullpen, and he was effective in the role, striking out 90 in 91 innings (while walking 64), and going 8-5 with a 3.56 ERA in a very high-scoring league. The Crackers won the pennant.

But, again McMahon’s path to the big leagues would take a detour. In 1955, promoted to the Braves’ triple-A farm club, the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association, McMahon had a disastrous season. Manager George Selkirk didn’t stick with the relief-specialist plan, giving McMahon 17 starts along with 25 relief appearances, and the results were ghastly: 95 walks against 93 strikeouts in 142 innings, and a 2-13 record with a 5.01 ERA.

So for 1956, at the age of 26 it was back to double-A Atlanta for McMahon, and the odds of his making it to The Show were getting rather long. But, returned to the bullpen by manager Clyde King, through the season’s early weeks McMahon pitched extremely effectively, notching 34 strikeouts while allowing just 23 hits in 36 innings, and most notably, cutting his walk rate to less than 1 per 2 innings for the first time in his career. By June he was re-promoted to triple-A, this time in Wichita.

Over the balance of that season, deployed primarily but not exclusively as a reliever, McMahon was so-so at the triple-A level (4-4, 4.35 ERA). But he did well enough to keep his spot on the team into 1957. And that year the 27-year-old McMahon, deployed in an interesting manner by manager Ben Geraghty—20 of his 21 appearances were as a reliever, but he was stretched out to 71 innings—was now reliably retiring the triple-A hitters, with a 6-2 record and a 2.92 ERA.

The big time

So it was that in late June of 1957, the big league Milwaukee Braves, embroiled in a tight battle for first place against the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, decided to shore up their bullpen by promoting the minor league veteran.

“My first major league appearance was against the Pirates. We were losing four to two, second game of a doubleheader in Milwaukee. I was up maybe four days and here we were losing, top of the ninth, and they brought me in to pitch. And I struck out two of the three guys I faced. It was the perfect day for me to come in, six thirty at night, the first week in July, the shadows were all over the place. I had five or six days rest, I was very strong, I got the ball over the plate and was extremely fast.

“In the bottom of the ninth Felix Mantilla hit a home run with a man on to tie it up. And then I pitched the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. And Eddie Mathews won the game for Dave Jolly with a home run off Luis Arroyo. We won the game and I got all the headlines.”

Other than getting the date slightly wrong—it was the last day of June, not the first week in July—McMahon’s decades-later memory of this ballgame is precisely correct. In his four innings of shutout work, McMahon allowed just two infield singles and no walks, while striking out seven, including Bob Skinner and Bill Virdon back-to-back with a runner on third in the 11th.

It was a smashing debut, but just the first of many sterling appearances by the 27-year-old rookie. He would record four saves before he allowed his first big league run. McMahon instantly became the ace of the Braves’ bullpen, compiling a 1.54 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 46 innings. The team pulled ahead over the summer and won Milwaukee’s first National League pennant, in front of league-record home attendance of 2.2 million, and then defeated the favored New York Yankees in a close-fought seven-game World Series. McMahon contributed five scoreless innings.

In 1958 McMahon spent his first full season in the majors. He wasn’t worked as frequently by manager Fred Haney, as this year the Braves’ Warren Spahn-and-Lew Burdette-led pitching staff recorded 72 complete games, but McMahon was still the undisputed ace of the bullpen. He went 7-2 with 8 saves, though his ERA was only so-so at 3.68. The Braves rolled to their second straight pennant.

In that fall’s World Series, re-matched against (of course) the Yankees, the Braves won the first two games, and three of the first four, but the Yankees roared back with three straight victories to claim the championship. This time McMahon took some lumps, surrendering a two-run homer to Hank Bauer in the third game, and an RBI single to Bill Skowron in the 10th inning of Game 6.

In 1959 McMahon stepped forward as one of the premier relief pitchers in the game, tying for the major league lead in games finished (49) and saves (15). Things didn’t go as easily for the team that season; as of Sep. 5 they found themselves in third place, 4.5 games out. But then the Braves got hot, winning 15 of their final 20 regular season games to finish in a tie for first place with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and McMahon’s contribution to the final push was a win and four saves.

In the best-of-three playoff against the Dodgers, McMahon worked three shutout innings of relief in the first game, but was bested by Larry Sherry’s scintillating seven-and-two-thirds shutout innings of relief as the Braves lost 3-2. And in the do-or-die next game in Los Angeles, the Braves took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but starter Lew Burdette tired, allowing three straight singles to load the bases with no outs. McMahon was brought in, but he too allowed a single to Norm Larker, making it 5-4. Warren Spahn then came in, but he couldn’t nail down the save, as the Dodgers tied it, and would go on the score the winning run on a throwing error in the bottom of the 12th.

Bullpen espionage

McMahon would suffer an off-year in 1960, but bounced back with a solid performance as the Braves’ bullpen ace in 1961. Among his games in 1961 was the day the Giants’ Willie Mays hit four home runs in Milwaukee.

“The Cubs were stealing signs, we stole signs, and I guess the Giants stole signs. We did it with field glasses from the bullpen, the Cubs did it with field glasses from the scoreboard, and the Giants, I don’t know how they did it. Our bullpen was in right-center and [Bob] Buhl could lay on the ground in the bullpen and peek through the fence with the field glasses, we’d only use one eye. And he would tell me what was coming, and I, with signals, would give it to the hitter. For three years every day game, and for some reason they didn’t buy us a pair of night field glasses, but for every day game we’d give them.

“But we didn’t have many fellas that would take them. [Joe] Adcock and Johnny Logan were the only two guys that would take them regularly. Eddie Mathews might have took them once or twice …

“We only did ours at home and I’m sure the Giants only did theirs at home. But [Giants’ coach] Wes Westrum told me that when Mays hit the four home runs in Milwaukee they stole every sign from us behind our bullpen. The two bullpens were together and the visiting bullpen was behind the other bullpen. So they stood in the runway with the field glasses and yelled the signs up to Wes. And when he took off his towel it was a breaking ball, when he left the towel on it was a fastball.

“And Mays hit four home runs. In fact, he hit the fourth home run off me. We were losing by a big score and they said, ‘Why don’t you walk him when you go in there? When he comes up walk him.’ I think it was going to be the second hitter in the inning. I said, ‘I’m not walking him, what the hell am I going to walk him for? If he hits it, he hits it.’

“And he hit it. He hit it with two balls and no strikes and hit the ball in the left-center field seats. I wasn’t going to pitch around him, I’d like to take every bet on anybody that wanted to get up and hit a home run off of me. I just went right after him. Thing is, he said he hit a slider, and I think it was a fastball.”

Turning point

In 1962, McMahon was 32 years old, and in early May he’d appeared in just two of the Braves’ 25 games.

“In ’62 I got into an argument with the general manager [John McHale], and the manager [Birdie] Tebbetts didn’t care for me that much either, so after a month into the season they sold me to Houston …. If I would have stayed with the Braves, the way I was getting used, I would have been stuck way back at the end, and they would have said, ‘Well, he’s finished.’”

He wasn’t finished.

Next time

We’ll follow McMahon through the nomadic phase of his career.

References & Resources
The McMahon quotes are from Mike Mandel, SF Giants: An Oral History, Santa Cruz, California: self-published, 1979, pp. 175-176.

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