Don McMahon (Part 3)by Steve Treder
June 02, 2009
In our first installment, we met Don McMahon and followed him from the start of his professional career to the point, 12 years later, at which his first organization gave up on him. Then we followed the resilient fastballer through eight subsequent seasons in which he was acquired, and subsequently let go, by five additional clubs, despite a nearly unblemished record of effective performance.
It was in August of McMahon’s 20th professional year, at the age of 39, that the San Francisco Giants purchased him. The Giants did so because their bullpen could use some help, and they were embroiled in a furiously close four-team division race, while Detroit, the ball club that surrendered McMahon, was hopelessly trailing the runaway Orioles.
The Giants wasted no time tossing McMahon into the fray, immediately bringing him in to preserve a 4-3 lead over the Cardinals in the top of the ninth. Alas, the veteran right hander’s San Francisco debut was a disaster: With one out he surrendered a game-tying home run to Mike Shannon, and proceeded to lose the game.
“But luckily I had Clyde King as my manager, and he had me in Double-A ball ... and he was a supporter.”
King relied on McMahon, and was rewarded with strong work over the season’s hectic closing weeks. The Giants played well overall, but couldn’t catch the Braves.
“The end of ’69 Atlanta didn’t lose, they won about ten straight. We played the Padres down in San Diego at the end of September, I got the win in one game when [Willie] Mays hit his 600th home run, he pinch hit for George Foster, and we won four to two.
“Then we lost the next two. And then we went to the Dodgers, and I remember losing one throwing a base hit to Len Gabrielson. They wanted me to throw him a curveball, but I went with the hard stuff, because he never hit my hard stuff and I had faced him quite a bit. Then, I threw him the breaking ball and he didn’t hit it good, he just hit a fly ball into right-center field, and it wasn’t deep enough to be caught, fell in for a base hit. And that was good enough to knock us out of a pennant that year.”
Solid as McMahon had been for the Giants down the stretch in ’69, he was the No. 2 man in their bullpen, behind longtime ace Frank Linzy. But for the 1970 season, Candlestick Park installed artificial turf (and, it seemed, a particularly concrete-hard version at that), and the sinkerballer Linzy found himself swamped by a torrent of ground ball base hits (the Giants’ slow-footed infield didn’t help). In the early weeks of 1970, as Linzy’s ERA spiraled into the stratosphere, it was McMahon—the hard-throwing flyball-and-strikeout pitcher—who stepped forward as the Giants’ ace reliever, and the Giants traded away the 29-year-old Linzy.
At no less than 40 years old, for the umpteenth time in his long career, the big, muscular-but-never-overweight McMahon was out-competing younger pitchers by virtue of his superior velocity. The ultraveteran had never developed much of a breaking pitch, yet remained consistently successful while relying almost entirely on the explosiveness of his heater, and in his quarter-century of professional pitching, McMahon never spent an inning on the disabled list.
The secret to this durability and longevity wasn’t an economy of pitches: McMahon was a strikeout pitcher whose control was never particularly good, posting walk rates over his entire career that ranged from average to pretty bad. He had no finesse; 90 percent of the time he would nod when his catcher signaled “No. 1,” and promptly deliver the cheese everyone, most especially the hitter, knew was coming.
McMahon’s motion was oddly erect, with a short stride and—here’s where he was efficient—no extraneous action. He worked quickly, got the sign, stepped forward and fired, with very little twisting or rocking.
His here-it-is-hit-it fastball was effective because of its velocity, but also because of its high-and-tight location, and its movement.
“My ball moved. There’s not too many fellas where their fastball will move consistently the way mine did. I pitched in and I pitched up most of the time. That’s against the whole theory of pitching, but that’s the way I pitched.”
Though vulnerable to the base on balls, and to some extent the home run, McMahon retired hitters not just with strikeouts but also with pop-ups and fly balls. This is a formula for a pitcher who’s stingy with the base hits, and McMahon’s career BABIP of .257 was distinctly below league-average.
The 1970 Giants experienced a curious season in which they were first in the league in OPS+, and last in ERA+. McMahon towered above the shambles of the bullpen littered around him, in 94 innings posting a 2.96 ERA for a staff on which the rest of the relievers combined for a figure of 5.26. As the second-oldest player in the league (behind only the ageless knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm), McMahon was in the league’s top 10 in appearances (61), games finished (44, his most since 1959), and saves (19, a career high).
The following season McMahon wasn’t quite as effective, but he was still good, presenting peripherals that belied his 4.06 ERA. Though in ’71 a new fireballer, 27-year-old Jerry Johnson, supplanted McMahon as the Giants’ bullpen ace, the 41-year-old worked again in 61 games, fourth-most in the league. San Francisco this season burst out to an enormous early-season division lead—the Giants were on top by 10.5 games as of Memorial Day—and hung on for dear life the rest of the way, holding off a final-month charge by the arch-rival Dodgers to win the NL West by a single game.
Thus for the fourth time in his big league career McMahon was competing in postseason play. The Giants faced the powerhouse Pittsburgh Pirates and were defeated three games to one, though through no fault of McMahon’s. In two appearances he worked three perfect innings, striking out Bob Robertson, Richie Hebner and Roberto Clemente.
“The first day in spring training, I was running the outfield and (Giants’ manager Charlie) Fox comes over, ‘You want to be the pitching coach?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, I’d like for you to take it.’
“And I did it. It was tough being both a pitcher and a coach because you had to worry about the feelings of the other guys. I tried to put the two things out of my mind most of the time, but I think it hurt me more than it helped pitching-wise.
“A couple of times I would say, ‘Well, we should bring this guy in,’ but I really felt that I should go in. But Fox, one out of 10 times he would call down and ask me who to put in, most of the time he would have his mind made up. And sometimes I would say, ‘Put me in.’
“It was a difficult situation, but the guys were good. I got along with the guys well, and they knew I wasn’t trying to build up my own thing. I was just trying to win. That’s all we wanted to do, put the best guy in at the best time. But I think it might have stopped me from working more on myself. Where I worked with other guys, I could be throwing myself.”
With his attention divided, the 42-year-old McMahon had a so-so performance in his 44 appearances and 63 innings. Meanwhile, the Giants’ staff, burdened by an injury-wracked season from 34-year-old ace starter Juan Marichal, and by an enormously regrettable trade, struggled.
“[Gaylord] Perry was throwing good at that time. And I have no idea why they went after (Sam) McDowell, it was just that he was a flame-thrower to bring in the people. Charlie’s said it was always the worst thing he’s ever done. He thought Gaylord was finished, that he was only going to be a six-inning pitcher, and he could get Sam who could throw bullets.
“Charlie remembered Sam when he used to scout Sam. But Charlie didn’t know that Sam was hurting physically, nobody told him that. (Cleveland) sold him a bill of goods that he was all right, and he wasn’t right physically.
“When McDowell came over he was almost completely finished velocity-wise. He had all these cortisone shots, they thought he was still a flame-thrower.
“But I’ll say this for Sam, he worked like hell.”
At the conclusion of the 1972 season, the Giants released McMahon as a player, to allow him to focus on his duties as pitching coach.
In the '73 season’s early months, strictly-coaching McMahon devoted his attention to his formerly flame-throwing project, McDowell.
“The next year when he came out I asked Charlie to put him in relief, and he said, ‘You’re crazy.’ I said, ‘No. If he throws every day he’ll get his arm strength back, I know he will.'"
Perhaps a secret to McMahon's amazing freedom from arm trouble (beyond genetics and good fortune) had been his own regimen: I distinctly recall him touting, in numerous radio interviews, the virtues of throwing every day. Every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, whether a little or a lot. McMahon made a point of exercising his crucial professional asset every single day of his professional career.
"'He won’t be able to pitch nine innings at the velocity that he used to pitch …’ He used to throw 170 pitches a game at the same speed as he did at the beginning. ‘… but he’ll really help us in relief.’ And he came back and was throwing the hell out of the ball for two or three innings in relief.”
But in these seasons the Giants were desperately hurting for operating cash.
“They needed money and they sold him to the Yankees, and the Yankees made him into a starter again. And that’s what killed him. He had a drinking problem and if you didn’t stay after him and watch him he’d go a little haywire and that’s what happened once too many.”
In early July of 1973, just a few days before the Giants sold McDowell, they re-activated the 43-year-old McMahon, again to the status of relief pitcher-pitching coach. He was now the oldest player in the majors, and this season, in 22 games and 30 innings over the second half, McMahon was simply brilliant, throwing high-velocity strikes and putting hitters away seemingly without breaking a sweat. He was 4-0 with six saves and an ERA+ of 260.
Nevertheless, the following spring management declined to keep him on the active roster.
“(Giants’ owner) Mr. Stoneham for some reason wanted me out, he just wanted me to be the pitching coach. He wanted to bring along some young guys."
But for the second straight year, that wasn’t to be.
“The guys we had in the bullpen all of a sudden got hurt. Randy Moffitt got hurt ... and the other guys weren’t doing the job.”
So in late May 1974, the Giants again activated McMahon. Over a period of just over a month, he made nine mop-up relief appearances, performing this time without brilliance, but with solidly effective results.
Then the Giants chose to release McMahon and return him to coach-only status. By releasing him they exposed him to waivers; any other team could have picked him up, had McMahon agreed to go.
“I debated a couple of days … whether to go around and pitch someplace else or stay there. And if I didn’t have the six kids, I would have done it. Because I knew I could still get them out. I felt that way. But how long can you go?"
Not much longer than McMahon, who'd thrown fastballs in 874 major league games, and another 226 in the minors. In July 1974 he opted to retire as a player, and stayed on as the San Francisco pitching coach.
His tenure on the Giants’ coaching staff would last only through 1975; following that season Stoneham sold the franchise, and the new management cleaned house. But McMahon’s work with the Giants’ staff had gained positive notices, and he would go on to pitching coach stints with the Minnesota Twins (1976-77), with the Giants again (1980-82), and with the Cleveland Indians (1983-85).
“I got along with the young guys great. I’d go to the movies with (Don) Carrithers and (Ron) Bryant all the time. They’d call me, ‘What’s at the movies, Goat?’ They’d call me the Old Goat. And (Alan) Gallagher, we’d go to all the places.
“I always got along with the younger guys. I think they appreciated me telling them the truth.”
In 1987, McMahon was working as a special assignment scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the franchise to which he'd been a devoted fan as a Brooklyn schoolboy in the 1930s. On July 22, 1987, while pitching his customary pre-game batting practice at Dodger Stadium, the 57-year-old McMahon suffered a heart attack, and passed away. He left his wife Darlene and six children.
Hall of Famers who were teammates of Don McMahon
Hank Aaron, Luis Aparicio, Al Kaline, Juan Marichal, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Joe Morgan, Gaylord Perry, Red Schoendienst, Enos Slaughter, Warren Spahn, Hoyt Wilhelm and Carl Yastrzemski
Additional All-Stars who were teammates of Don McMahon
Pitchers: Johnny Antonelli, Steve Barber, Gary Bell, Bob Buhl, Lew Burdette, Gene Conley, Pat Dobson, Dick Donovan, Elroy Face, Dick Farrell, Mudcat Grant, John Hiller, Joe Hoerner, Joe Horlen, Joey Jay, Tommy John, Jack Kralick, Mickey Lolich, Jim Lonborg, Mike McCormick, Sam McDowell, Denny McLain, John O’Donoghue, Jim O’Toole, Gary Peters, Juan Pizarro, Pedro Ramos, Claude Raymond, Bob Rush, Jose Santiago, Bob Shaw, Sonny Siebert, Dick Stigman, Dean Stone, Steve Stone, Ralph Terry, Luis Tiant, Jerry Walker, Stan Williams, Wilbur Wood, Hal Woodeshick and John Wyatt
Catchers: Toby Atwell, Joe Azcue, Smoky Burgess, Del Crandall, Dick Dietz, Bill Freehan, Jerry Grote, Ed Herrmann, Duane Josephson, Stan Lopata, Del Rice, John Romano, Joe Torre and Sammy White
Infielders: Joe Adcock, Sandy Alomar, Max Alvis, Mike Andrews, Bobby Avila, Frank Bolling, Ray Boone, Ken Boyer, Don Buford, Norm Cash, Alvin Dark, Jim Davenport, Billy Goodman, Ron Hansen, Jim Ray Hart, Dick Howser, Ron Hunt, Eddie Kasko, Norm Larker, Johnny Logan, Felix Mantilla, Billy Martin, Dick McAuliffe, Roy McMillan, Bill Melton, Billy Moran, Rico Petrocelli, Pete Runnels, George Scott, Chris Speier, Johnny Temple, Mickey Vernon and Don Wert
Outfielders: Tommie Agee, Ken Berry, Bobby Bonds, Jim Busby, Bob Cerv, Gino Cimoli, Rocky Colavito, Tony Conigliaro, Vic Davalillo, Tommy Davis, George Foster, Tito Francona, Chuck Hinton, Willie Horton, Dave Kingman, Jim Landis, Gary Matthews, Andy Pafko, Richie Scheinblum, Al Smith, Reggie Smith, Rusty Staub, Frank Thomas, Tom Tresh, Leon Wagner and Jim Wynn
References and Resources
The McMahon quotes are from Mike Mandel, SF Giants: An Oral History, Santa Cruz, California: self-published, 1979, pp. 175, 177-9.
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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