Mike McCormick, RIP: Mr. 500’s battles

2020-06-17 MikeMcCormick02

A Comeback Player of the Year-winning perseverance probably helped Mike McCormick win the first National League Cy Young Award in 1967.

Ask who was the first Giant (New York or San Francisco) to win the Cy Young Award and some might answer with either Tim Lincecum (who did win twice) or Hall of Famer Juan Marichal (who didn’t win even once).

Now, drop a hint: He’s the only pitcher in the 500-home run club. OK, we’re getting technical. But Mike McCormick did hit home run number 500 . . . by any major league pitcher.

The bad news is that he also surrendered Hall of Famer Henry Aaron’s 500th home run. So put McCormick into the membership-of-one 500-home run club on both sides of the ball.

McCormick was also the first pitcher to win the National League’s Cy Young Award, after the prize was divided for each league following Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s retirement, ending Koufax’s ownership (three in four seasons, the last two back-to-back) of the original major league award.

Until Lincecum won the Cy Young Award back-to-back, McCormick was also the only Giant ever to win the prize.

You’d have spotted McCormick on the road in a heartbeat if you knew some of the foregoing. His personalised license plate read “Mr. 500.” Mr. 500 died at 81 Saturday at his Cornelius, North Carolina home after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Native to California, the lefthanded, hard-throwing McCormick had ideas about going to the University of Southern California with his high school all-star teammate Ron Fairly before scouts from all but one major league team began showing him the bonus money in 1956. When the New York Giants showed the 16-year-old $50,000, McCormick didn’t hesitate.

“I realized that fifty thousand dollars will buy me a lot of education,” he once told SF Giants: An Oral History author Mike Mandel, “and it’s an opportunity I may never get again, so I accepted it.”

The bonus rule of the day that required such signings to be kept on major league rosters for two full seasons before they could be farmed out. McCormick spent much of his first two in the Giants bullpen as the team moved from New York to San Francisco. Though numerous writings cite the elder Giants treating him decently, McCormick spent an awful lot of time walking the New York streets alone.

His roommate knew only too well how the kid felt: the late Johnny Antonelli, the first of the bonus babies under that old, silly rule. Antonelli was treated often enough as a pariah during his early years with the Boston Braves–until such veterans as pitcher Johnny Sain parlayed Antonelli’s fat bonus into their own salary hikes, and until Antonelli was drafted into the Army and then traded to the Giants.

In 1959 McCormick stepped forth as the Giants’ third starter. In 1960, he led the National League with a 2.70 earned run average and struck out twice as many as he walked. He fell off somewhat in 1962, but the Giants had reason to believe McCormick and Marichal were about to become the core of a youthful and powerful pitching staff.

They didn’t bargain on one little wrinkle. McCormick threw over a thousand major league innings before his 23rd birthday. At 19 he threw 178.1; at 20, 225.2; at 21, 253; at 22, 250. In 1962, his shoulder went AWOL and his manager Alvin Dark accused him of malingering.

“I couldn’t throw the ball 60 feet without getting tears in my eyes,” he once told Mandel. The pain was so serious McCormick admitted to hoping his catchers wouldn’t throw the ball back after a pitch. He spent the 1962 World Series on the bench and was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in the same deal that also made an Oriole out of relief specialist Stu Miller.

With the Orioles McCormick worked as a spot starter in 1963 but was sent to the minors in 1964—his first taste of minor league service. In the interim, Johns Hopkins doctors ruled he’d suffered a torn muscle in his shoulder that may or may not have been his rotator cuff.  Despite pitching well enough on the farm the Orioles traded him to the Washington Senators for another minor leaguer before the 1965 season opened.

Two seasons in Washington enabled McCormick to reinvent himself as a control-oriented pitcher with a lively screwball who looked and worked better than his won-lost records with the Second Nats. (He also took a single cortisone shot each spring from then on, nothing as insane a volume as other pitchers were administered far too often.)

When they traded him to the Giants for outfielder Cap Peterson and pitcher Bob Priddy in December 1966, the Giants hoped McCormick would just help balance the rotation as its only lefthander. They got better than they expected.

The 29-year-old McCormick wasn’t the National League’s most dominant pitcher in 1967 (Hall of Famer Jim Bunning actually was), but getting credit for a league-leading 22 wins and rolling a sub-3.00 ERA, after four seasons in which it looked as though he’d be another shoulder-wrecked casualty of youthful overwork, did him more than a few favours. He had above-league-average run support and his bullpen only blew one of his starts after he left the game.

McCormick probably won his Cy Young Award two ways: those 22 wins and his too-obvious Comeback Player of the Year Award-winning revival. Sometimes voters reward the effort a little more than the actual results. “He left the Giants’ employ five years ago as a fastball pitcher,” wrote then-San Francisco Chronicle writer Ron Fimrite. “He returned this year as a craftsman.”

It would be his final shining moment. In 1968—the year he surrendered Aaron’s 500th— his screwball took a powder and, despite a briefly shining 1969, McCormick’s pitching days were all but finished. Further injuries, further ineffectiveness, bounding from the Giants to the Kansas City Royals to the New York Yankees and back to the Giants, with a few minor league stops along the way.

McCormick found retiring easier said than done when he tried it first in 1972. But he finally called it a career in 1973. “I was a victim of bad pitching,” he once said. “My own.”

He wasn’t exactly left high and dry after baseball. He’d worked as a stockbroker in many offseasons and eventually became a Bay Area office equipment salesman and worked in promotions for the Giants as well. Divorced from his first wife, the father of three re-married happily, had a fourth child, and eventually retired to North Carolina.

“I loved the competing,” he told the Chronicle in 2002. “I’d play every day if I could, and that’s probably part of the reason I hurt my arm. I’d never say no. I’d say, ‘Fine, give me the ball. I’ll go get ’em.’ I loved it.” If only those who coached and managed Mr. 500 knew how to love his arm back.

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