San Francisco was the site of the best and worst days pitcher Mickey McDermott experienced with the Cardinals.
Sixty years ago, on April 23, 1961, at Candlestick Park, McDermott got a three-run pinch-hit double in the top of the ninth, giving the Cardinals the lead, and stayed in the game to pitch the bottom half of the inning, setting down the Giants in order for the save.
“Certainly few, if any, players have filled both roles in more heroic fashion than McDermott did,” The Sporting News declared.
Three months later, McDermott was humiliated when manager Johnny Keane banished him from the team in front of teammates at a meeting in the Candlestick Park clubhouse.
McDermott was taught baseball by his father, who played a season in the minors with Lou Gehrig at Hartford in 1924.
A slender left-hander, McDermott was a standout high school pitcher in Elizabeth, N.J., and was signed by the Red Sox in March 1945, a month before he turned 16. A hard thrower, he pitched a pair of no-hitters in the minors for Scranton.
On April 24, 1948, five days before his 19th birthday, McDermott made his Red Sox debut at Yankee Stadium. The first batter he faced, King Kong Keller, struck out. The next, Joe DiMaggio, flied out. Boxscore
McDermott had the fastball to get out big-league hitters, but not the command. In his third appearance, he walked 11 Indians batters in 6.2 innings. Boxscore
“He could make the ball look very, very small _ when he could get it over the plate,” the Boston Globe noted.
Though he had brilliant performances _ a 16-inning complete-game win against the Indians in 1951 and a one-hit shutout versus the Senators in 1952, for instance _ McDermott’s wildness on and off the field kept him from becoming a big winner in his first five seasons with the Red Sox.
Some teammates thought the club should make McDermott a first baseman or outfielder because of his hitting. The Red Sox used him often as a pinch-hitter.
A sharp dresser who favored zoot suits, McDermott enjoyed the night life and hanging out with celebrities. He dated Rosemary Clooney. Frank Sinatra was a friend.
In his memoir, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cooperstown,” McDermott said carousing kept him from reaching his potential.
“My knees are gone,” McDermott told the Associated Press. “It’s an occupational hazard, falling off barstools.”
McDermott was a natural as a singer as well as a ballplayer. His friend, vocalist Eddie Fisher, encouraged him to pursue a singing career, The Sporting News reported.
In October 1952, McDermott got a two-week engagement in the Vienna Room at the popular Boston nightspot, Steuben’s. According to The Sporting News, McDermott displayed “a surprisingly good voice and exceptional stage presence,” and got raves for his rendition of “Ol’ Man River.”
McDermott often poked fun at his singing ability. He told broadcaster Jim Woods he sang in nightclubs “only if I can find an orchestra that plays loud.” He told Knight-Ridder Newspapers he gave up singing “when I got sober and heard myself.”
The truth was he loved to sing and was a good crooner.
“He’d rather be singing at Steuben’s than be the best pitcher who ever lived,” Red Sox teammate Walt Dropo told the Boston Globe.
High and low notes
McDermott had his best season in 1953 (18-10 as a starting pitcher and .301 batting average) and was in demand as a singer, but, with his value at its peak, the Red Sox traded him to the Senators. He was 7-15 for the 1954 Senators and soon the nightclub billings ended.
“Max and Joe Schneider owned Steuben’s and I remember one of them saying, ‘At 18-10, you could sing. At 7-15, you can’t sing,’ ” McDermott told columnist Bob Ryan.
McDermott was traded to the Yankees in 1956 and one of the players the Senators got in return was Whitey Herzog.
Staying out late and drinking hard, McDermott played for three teams _ Yankees, Athletics and Tigers _ from 1956-58 before being demoted to the minors. He “too often has had nightclub smoke in his eyes rather than on his fastball,” Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch observed.
After the 1960 season, the Tigers released McDermott at his request, making him a free agent. Residing in Miami, he showed up at the Cardinals’ early spring training camp in Homestead, Fla., in 1961 and asked for a tryout. Manager Solly Hemus gave McDermott a look, liked what he saw and invited him to full training camp in St. Petersburg.
McDermott pitched well in Grapefruit League exhibition games and earned a berth on the Cardinals’ 1961 Opening Day roster. He became a teammate of Bob Nieman, who 10 years earlier, in his debut with the Browns, hit home runs against McDermott in his first two at-bats.
Getting it done
On April 17, 1961, McDermott got his first Cardinals save, striking out Wally Moon with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth. Boxscore
A week later at Candlestick Park, with the Giants ahead, 4-3, the Cardinals loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth. McDermott, batting for pitcher Lindy McDaniel, hit a double to left-center against Jim Duffalo, clearing the bases and giving the Cardinals a 6-4 lead. Red Schoendienst followed with a single, scoring McDermott and putting the Cardinals ahead by three.
McDermott pitched the bottom of the ninth and got the save. Boxscore
“I’m more or less a pitcher now,” McDermott told The Sporting News. “I was a thrower before.”
McDermott had a 1.74 ERA in seven relief appearances in April. He earned a win and a save in June and got another save on July 4.
Two days later, the Cardinals fired manager Solly Hemus and replaced him with coach Johnny Keane.
Made an example
Keane met with the players and told them there would be a 1 a.m. curfew after day games on the road. He warned them he’d enforce the rules. McDermott had been fined $500 for violating regulations the week before Keane took over.
On July 8, the Cardinals played a Saturday day game at Candlestick Park. When Keane made bed checks “long after the 1 a.m. curfew,” the Post-Dispatch reported, the only player absent was McDermott.
When the Cardinals gathered in the Candlestick Park clubhouse on Sunday, Keane confronted McDermott in front of his teammates. He said McDermott hadn’t been in his hotel room for four consecutive nights.
In his book “Oh, Baby, I Love It,” catcher Tim McCarver recalled Keane pointed to McDermott and said, “You came to spring training and you were broke. We gave you a job. I will not have guys like you tear down the tradition of this organization.”
According to McCarver, when Keane finished, “the clubhouse was as quiet as an ancient church.” McDermott finally spoke and said, “John, if you feel that way, maybe I ought to take my uniform off.”
Keane responded, “That’s exactly what you’ll do.”
McDermott, 32, was suspended indefinitely and sent home to Miami.
Keane told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat he needed to make an example of McDermott because “if he got away with it, my authority would go out the window and respect of the players for me with it.”
To the Post-Dispatch, Keane said, “Mickey has had a lot of chances in his career and the Cardinals gave him one this year. I’m sorry he didn’t take it.”
In 19 relief appearances for the Cardinals, McDermott was 1-0 with four saves.
Two weeks later, the Athletics acquired McDermott on waivers. He pitched his final four games in the majors for them and finished with a career mark of 69-69.
McDermott’s life turned in 1990 when his wife, Betty, won $5.7 million in the Arizona lottery, the Boston Globe reported. “I feel like I just fanned DiMaggio in the ninth inning with the bases loaded,” McDermott said.