Don McMahon (Part 2)by Steve Treder
May 19, 2009
Last time, we met the muscular, hard-throwing right-hander Don McMahon, and took him from the start of his professional career up to May of 1962. At that point, the Milwaukee Braves, the only organization for which he’d ever pitched, suddenly soured on McMahon, believing him washed up at the age of 32.
“They sold me to Houston, which was a big break because then I got to pitch regular … I had a big park in Houston, enormous, probably the biggest park in the majors, three-sixty down the line and four-thirty to center. I was a high-ball pitcher and that big outfield enabled me to have a good year for them.”
Indeed, McMahon had a terrific year for the first-year expansion Colt .45s, posting a glittering 1.53 ERA (245 ERA+) in 51 games and 77 innings. And while clearly his success was enhanced by the pitcher-friendly conditions of Colt Stadium (quite deliberately designed that way by GM Paul Richards)—McMahon’s home ERA was 1.16 in 39 innings, allowing an OPS of just .509—he pitched quite well on the road as well, with a 2.20 ERA and a .616 OPS allowed.
“The Houston club had three guys from almost every club in the league on it. And nobody liked the Dodgers. They were good, they had everything going for them, and nobody liked them. Except Bobby Bragan, he was a coach and he loved the 'royal blue.' And Norm Larker loved them, but he wanted to beat them because they got rid of him. Bobby Lillis was a Dodger. So every time you went in you had three guys pumping you up to beat the other team, but you didn’t have to get pumped up to play the Dodgers …
“The heat won an awful lot of games for us. We were the only team in ’62 that (Sandy) Koufax didn’t beat. He came out in the sixth inning and started to warm up and he went over to (manager Walt) Alston and told him he just couldn’t pitch."
McMahon was probably thinking of the game of June 8, in which Koufax actually pitched to two batters in the sixth inning before bowing out with a 2-1 lead.
“It really drains you. I pitched short relief, and I pitched with no sweatshirt, nothing, just as light as I could. If you got used to it, it helped you. And the other teams, it just ate them up. Especially the Giants, when they’d come in from the cold weather and get in there they’d just pass out.”
Houston pitcher Hal Woodeshick, who suddenly blossomed into a relief star during his stint with the Colt .45s, had this to say:
Don McMahon helped me become a good reliever. He taught me how to prepare to go into a game and stressed that I had to go in and throw strikes without being intimidated by anybody.
But in 1963, still with Houston and under even more pitcher-friendly conditions, as MLB expanded the strike zone, McMahon was less successful. He didn’t have a bad year, but just wasn’t especially effective, as his BABIP leapt from .250 to .292, he surrendered 10 homers in 80 innings, and his ERA+ plunged from its stratospheric height of 1962 to a lowly 78.
Perhaps as an issue of his decreased effectiveness, in 1963 McMahon was deployed by Houston manager Harry Craft as a starting pitcher for the only two times of his long major league career: on July 2 against Cincinnati and on July 6 against Milwaukee (oh, might he have been pumped up for that one). He wasn’t bad in either start, working into the seventh inning in the first game and completing seven innings in the second, but neither was he good: His combined record in 13.2 innings was 14 hits allowed, eight runs allowed (all earned, for an ERA of 5.27), three walks, 11 strikeouts and two home runs, and he was the losing pitcher both times.
At the close of the 1963 season, for the second time in 18 months, McMahon’s ball club figured he was done. On Sept. 30, 1963, Richards—without question the single sharpest eye for pitching talent of his era—put the 33-year-old McMahon on waivers, and allowed him to be claimed by the Cleveland Indians.
One can question not only why Richards was so quick to discard McMahon, but also why no other National League team claimed him—not just the Mets, the team most obviously in need of help, but some contender looking to bolster its bullpen (I’m looking at you, Giants). Nevertheless, every team let him through, and the explanation may be as simple as their figuring that if Richards, the Wizard of Waxahachie himself, the all-knowing seer of pitching talent, had decided to flush him away, then this guy must really be done.
In his long career, Richards didn’t make many mistakes in the assessment of pitchers, but in this case he committed a doozy. Give Cleveland GM Gabe Paul full credit for taking advantage of it. For the Indians in 1964 McMahon at age 34 wasn’t just not “done,” he was tremendous, achieving career highs in appearances (70), innings (101), and saves (16), along with an ERA+ of 149.
In 1965 he was solid, but nothing like the previous year, and in the early weeks of 1966 he’d receded to the back end of the Cleveland bullpen (and it’s worth noting that the Indians’ manager in these years was Birdie Tebbetts, with whom, we’ll recall from last time, McMahon hadn’t gotten along in Milwaukee). In June of ’66 Paul traded McMahon, along with swingman right-hander Lee Stange, to Boston in exchange for the fireballing reliever Dick Radatz.
Or, perhaps more accurately, the once-fireballing reliever Dick Radatz; after dominating the league in 1962-64, “The Monster’s” performance had spiraled downward. Yet Paul traded two useful pitchers to get him, and Radatz would prove to be fully washed up. It was among the more one-sided trades in history.
The contrast between Radatz and McMahon is intriguing. McMahon was seven years older than Radatz, and in 1966 was in his 17th year of professional ball, and through the entire time had been, just like Radatz, a one-pitch pitcher who relied entirely upon overpowering hitters with his fastball. Yet Radatz was flaming out at age 29, while McMahon assumed Radatz’s spot as the ace of the Boston bullpen and pitched extremely effectively for the rest of the season.
But things didn’t go as well in 1967. That was the year the Red Sox hired a rookie manager who would go on to the Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t get along with Dick Williams at all. There was one game when I was pitching against the Yankees, I was trying to save a game, but I was extremely wild. I was wild high. I walked two or three guys. And I couldn’t understand why he was leaving me in. I was saying to myself, ‘Get me out of here!’
“(Joe) Pepitone was hitting, but he left me in. And Pepitone swung at a three-one high pitch and popped up. And Williams even said, ‘Well, you were lucky there.’ Well, what the heck was he leaving me in there when I didn’t have it? Get somebody else in there and win the game."
McMahon's recollection is almost right: Pepitone didn't pop up, he grounded out with the bases loaded.
“I’ve seen it happen when a manager wants to make someone look bad, he wants to get rid of somebody, so the guy’s having a bad day. Boom! Here’s the time. Smear him. And I didn’t care for that.
“There was one thing in my mind, to get the W, win. And when they’re going to do other things, that I didn’t appreciate. And that stuck in my craw all my career.
“Any time I could pitch against him I just zoomed myself up. Tebbetts or Williams. I went to the extreme, any little efforts I could extend on the bench to push the guys on, where maybe before I’d sit back and not say much. But when we’d get in a situation where we had a chance to beat those two. I would extol myself to these guys, screaming.”
On June 2, 1967, exactly one year after he’d been acquired by Boston, the Red Sox traded McMahon to the White Sox for middle infielder Jerry Adair. So it was that McMahon missed the opportunity to play a part in Boston’s “Impossible Dream” pennant run; they were 22-21, in fourth place when they traded him, their dramatic mid-to-late-summer push yet to come.
As for the White Sox, the decision to acquire McMahon was curious. They were a ball club abundantly rich in pitching and poor in hitting. Their bullpen was so deep, with Hoyt Wilhelm and Bob Locker as ace right-handers, that in June of 1966 GM Ed Short had opted to expend another top reliever, Eddie Fisher, in order to acquire the versatile, slick-fielding Adair. Yet just a year later, with the Chicago relief corps already enriched yet further by the arrival of Wilbur Wood, Short swapped Adair for McMahon.
Nevertheless, the 37-year-old McMahon shouldered his way into the crowded White Sox bullpen and made his presence positively felt. He was a middle reliever on this staff, rarely getting closing opportunities, but he delivered the invariably low-scoring White Sox games to the late-inning care of Wilhelm and Locker in brilliant fashion: In 52 appearances and 92 innings, McMahon was 5-0 with an ERA+ of 180.
The “Hitless Wonder” White Sox spent most of the summer of 1967 in first place, pursued by the Red Sox (and Twins and Tigers in perhaps the most scintillating pennant race of all time). But they were unable to find a hot streak in the season’s closing weeks, and wound up in fourth place, though just three games behind the victorious Red Sox.
McMahon continued to perform splendidly for the White Sox in 1968. But this season Chicago got off to a dreadful start, and by mid-summer the team was hopelessly out of contention. In July Short dumped McMahon off to Detroit in another curious trade, exchanging him straight up for a 26-year-old soft-tossing journeyman, Dennis Ribant, who was already with his fourth organization.
Yet again the team acquiring McMahon would come out ahead in the deal. While Ribant flopped in Chicago, the 38-year-old McMahon was first-rate in Detroit over the balance of the 1968 season. Tigers manager Mayo Smith deployed his bullpen in extreme “committee” style, with nothing resembling an ace, but in the generally sixth-to-eighth-inning opportunities provided, McMahon’s fastball was as effective as ever.
That was the season, of course, that Denny McLain won 31 games and the Tigers ran away with the AL pennant. So, for the first time in a decade, McMahon was in the World Series, this time facing the St. Louis Cardinals. He pitched a scoreless inning of mop-up relief in Game 1, but in the third game he served up a three-run homer to Orlando Cepeda. He watched the rest of the Series from the bullpen bench, as the Tigers, down three games to one, came back to win it with consecutive complete game victories by Mickey Lolich, McLain and (on two days’ rest) Lolich again.
In 1969 McMahon was the closest thing the Detroit bullpen had to an ace. He was effective overall, but streaky.
“I was pitching real good in the beginning … and then I went into a streak where I couldn’t get anybody out. And it was all against the Washington Senators. Three times in about eight days I pitched against them. And I must have pitched a total of an inning, gave up about eight or nine hits and about seven or eight runs, and I couldn’t believe it because I was throwing the ball good.”
McMahon’s memory is almost accurate: He actually faced the Senators three times in a month’s period, working a total of one inning while allowing seven hits and eight runs.
“And then we were playing in Washington, playing them again. And the manager called me in to pitch, and it was first and third, tying run on third, and (Frank) Howard was hitting. I said, ‘What the heck is he bringing me in?’ (Catcher Bill) Freehan says, ‘Throw this guy a curve.’ I said, ‘No, I want to throw him the fastball.’
“Well, I threw the curve ball, he topped it to shortstop and we got a double play. And that set me off, I went about another eleven or twelve games in a row where I didn’t give up anything. It was a turning point for me right there, with a lousy pitch.”
Again, McMahon remembered it almost precisely; it was nine straight scoreless appearances.
“And then we were playing in Chicago, the White Sox, and they had an all-right-handed-hitting lineup and he gets a lefthand pitcher to warm up in the second game of a doubleheader. And I said, ‘I can’t believe this, what’s going on? Where am I going, Mayo? I must be traded.’ Mayo Smith. And he started laughing.
“He said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to the Giants. We sold you to the Giants.”
McMahon spends seven seasons in San Francisco, three of them as a relief pitcher/pitching coach.
References and Resources
The McMahon quotes are from Mike Mandel, SF Giants: An Oral History, Santa Cruz, California: self-published, 1979, pp. 176-177.
The Hal Woodeshick quote is from Danny Peary, editor, We Played the Game, New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 1994, p. 567.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.
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