2020: Once more for the others safe at home

Dick Allen’s Hall of Fame election by this year’s Modern Era Committee would make eight Hall of Famers dying in 2020.

Last year—doesn’t that sound like sweet relief already—the passages of seven Hall of Famers added particular extra grief to an already pandemically miserable year. The further bad news is that the Magnificent Seven (Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro) were not the only ones Grantland Rice’s Great Umpire called safe at home, unfortunately.

Assuming Dick Allen will be elected to the Hall by the Modern Era Committee later this year, that election will turn the Magnificent Seven into another kind of Eight Men Out. Allen played surrealistically through battling unconscionable racism in Philadelphia before he was dealt out of town at long enough last—for Curt Flood, who refused to report and elected to make his groundbreaking reserve clause challenge.

How sadly ironic. To Flood, the trade meant he was still a piece of property, even earning $90,000 in a year. (What he began, Andy Messersmith eventually finished.) To Allen, the trade was surely his Emancipation Proclamation. He posted a few more seasons of surrealistic hitting (and the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player Award) before injuries finally ground him away, and overcame a few more personal tragedies (especially the murder of his daughter) to become a respected and loved Phillies elder statesman and community outreacher. Life and baseball couldn’t beat him but cancer finally did at 78.

“The imperfect man pitched the perfect game,” is what sportswriting legend Dick Young offered when his New York Daily News colleague Joe Trimble was stuck for an opening to write up Don Larsen’s perfecto in the 1956 World Series. “The million to one shot came in,” wrote Washington Post legend Shirley Povich of Larsen’s perfecto. When 2020 was the new year, it wasn’t a day old before Larsen expired of esophegeal cancer at 90.

Lucky him. Larsen lived a life that went from randy to responsible and his reward, above and beyond the pleasure (and excuse for friendly needling) he took when fans and writers asked him to revisit his million-to-one game (“You want to talk about my year with the Browns,” he loved to tease), was to miss the pandemic ruination the year to come would yet wreak.

Tony Fernandez was a smart shortstop in the field and at the plate for the 1980s/1990s Blue Jays and a few others. Complications of kidney disease claimed him at 57 with far less style than he played the left half of the keystone. Yet he held a strange distinction during his brief spell in New York: in 1995, he was the first Yankee to hit for the cycle since Bobby Murcer . . . two and a half decades previous.

Before Johnny Antonelli became a 1954 World Series hero pitching for the New York Giants, he inadvertently provoked Boston Braves pitcher Johnny Sain into a contract demand. Antonelli’s $65,000 signing bonus in 1948 was more than the combined salaries of the Braves’ two best pitchers, Johnny Sain and Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. Sain leveraged Antonelli’s bonus into a $30,000 salary of his own.

Antonelli proved himself as a pitcher after leaving the Braves and the Army and being dealt to the Giants, but when the Giants moved out of New York Antonelli found San Francisco less to his liking. A couple of trades and an expansion draft later, Antonelli retired to his tire business and his family. With his second wife, he also took up extensive travel, reveling in what he couldn’t see while he traveled as a pitcher, until his death at 89.

Jimmy Wynn—compact man, cannon bat.

Jimmy Wynn (78) was nicknamed the Toy Cannon for the compact body that hit screaming, prodigious home runs, even in the indoor death chamber known as the Astrodome. A few too many Astro coaches and managers monkeying around with his hitting style probably did him few favours. Same thing elsewhere, at least until he became a Dodger. Ultimately, Wynn proved you could live and learn tenfold; he became a valuable Astro asset after his playing years especially among impressionable youth who thrived at his Astro-created youth training center.

Glenn Beckert (79) shared the keystone with Don Kessinger for several Cubs teams that looked pennant competitive until their insouciantly ancient manager burned them down the stretch. “Beckert was the Billy Herman of the 1960s,” Bill James once wrote, “a pretty good second baseman, and the best hit-and-run man in baseball.” Matt Keough (64) was one of the Five Aces burned almost as swiftly as he rose when Billy Martin got hold of the early 1980s Athletics. Mike McCormick (81) pitched himself into the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in 1967, but he was also Mr. 500—for hitting the 500th home run to be hit by any major league pitcher.

Claudell Washington (65) was a likeable, long-serving journeyman whose 1980 free agency deal (five years, $3.5 million) jolted the game enough to provoke Phillies owner Bob Carpenter—who’d extended Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt big rather than lose him to free agency and chased down Pete Rose to sign big—selling out, because he feared fellow owners’ brains had gone to bed. John McNamara (88) barely lived down Game Six of the 1986 World Series (he left ankle-dissipated Bill Buckner in to play first for the bottom of the tenth), but his wife remembered a good, kind, loving man whose life shouldn’t be judged by one egregious mistake. Appropriately.

The Yankees’ 1965-75 term in purgatory was once nicknamed the Horace Clarke Era, but it wasn’t the fault of the smooth-fielding second baseman from the Virgin Islands who wasn’t much of a hitter but handled the right side of the keystone with sure hands and feet. Clarke (81) was proud to be a Yankee to the end of his life. He was also the poor soul who didn’t get to hit against Washington Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda with two out in the top of the ninth—when heartsick Senators fans rioted on the field and forced a forfeit in the Senators’ last game before leaving for Texas.

Bob Watson (74) was a sharp hitting first baseman and, in due course, the first black man in baseball to be the general manager of a World Series winner. Lindy McDaniel (84) was a long-serving relief pitcher of above-average excellence for lots of below-average teams and a devout Christian who became a minister after throwing his final pitch. (He’s also the last American League pitcher to homer before the league introduced the designated hitter.) Fellow reliever Ron Perranoski (84) held down the back end of the Dodger fort in the early-to-mid 60s and for two World Series championships before becoming a long-serving pitching coach.

Jay Johnstone (74) was a solid outfielder with a flair for periodic big hits (especially Game Four of the 1981 World Series) and a bigger flair for mayhem—one of the greatest flakes in the game. Over three engaging books, the fun-loving Johnstone wrote his own eulogy:

Tommy Lasorda once fixed up Ernie Broglio on a date with a female impersonator.

Mark Fidrych talked to baseballs.

Don Stanhouse shared his post-game beer with monkeys and frogs.

Mickey Hatcher left a pig in Lasorda’s office.

Bert Blyleven gave his Little League team chewing tobacco.

John Lowenstein likes to attack cakes with a baseball bat.

Richie Zisk filled Rene Lachemann’s hotel bed with Jell-O.

Ross Grimsley once snapped a losing streak by consulting a witch.

Billy Loes once refused to pitch unless Buzzie Bavasi bought him a new dog.

Joaquin Andujar was known to shower wearing his uniform.

Rick Reichardt stole razor blades, forgot he had them, and sliced his own hand when he reached into his pocket.

Dizzy Dean placed a cake of ice over home plate to “cool off my fastball.”

And I’m over the edge?

Steve Dalkowski—what might have been, if he could have controlled his thunderbolt fastball and his off-field life.

Steve Dalkowski (80) once joined Bo Belinsky in the minors in a plot to help their teammates get good looks at a comely South American Miss World contestant when he mother proved bent on keeping her away from those rapacious ballplayers: drilling holes in the wall separating his and Belinsky’s room from hers. The plot succeeded until one bozo brought a flashlight so his viewing wouldn’t stop after dark. Oops.

Unfortunately, Dalkowski fought demons from his own surrealistic but uncontrollable fastball (Hearing him warm up was like hearing a gun go off, Red Sox infielder Dalton Jones once said of him) to alcohol and all the way to COVID-19 when he died last April. After decades in the post-baseball wilderness, his sister brought him home to Connecticut where he lived with some dignity and a lot of his memory from the almost three decades between baseball and his homecoming wiped out.

“Dave McNally, Cal Ripken Sr., Bo Belinsky and others from his generation in Orioles history have died,” wrote the Baltimore Sun‘s John Eisenberg in 2003, “but Dalkowski, the one everyone thought would go first, is safe at home.” That’s all his loving sister wanted for him, and it proved enough for himself, as well. When invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch in Camden Yards, Dalkowski tossed the ball, then threw his arms up in triumph from his wheelchair. Only his body and face showed the net result of a lost life. The arms up showed the spirit resurrected.

Now Dalko and all who played the game and passed last year—including such other once-familiar souls as Frank Bolling, Ted Cox, Ray Daviault, Ed Farmer, Damaso Garcia, Lou Johnson, Eddie Kasko, Phil Linz (baseball’s unquestioned master of the harmonica), Denis Menke (he was once Hall of Famer Joe Morgan’s slick double play partner with the Astros), Bob Oliver, Les Rohr, Tony Taylor—truly are safe at home, in the Elysian Fields, suffering no more, and may they bask in the light, love, and game of the eternal sunshine.

Mike McCormick, RIP: Mr. 500’s battles

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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.