Dave McNally: a Memoir
I could throw a baseball before I could walk—and have photos to prove it. Cute little urchin then. Palm ball, most likely. A change-up, no doubt.
Leap ahead with me to Little League. Miles City, Montana. Just barely organized. No T-ball; no Coach-pitch. Real, spontaneous baseball. Captains picked by players and teams picked by captains and who batted first was who had his hand on the knob of the bat when you worked your way up. No umpire, and no overbearing parents—they had their own lives then. Jeans and tee shirts. There may have been one pair of rubber cleats in town, but I don’t remember who had them. Tommy and Billy Combs. Eddy Acey. Dave Friend. Don Gunther. Don and I pitched. Patrick Kelly didn’t play—he was too refined. County Attorney now. Kelly killed a bird I found in the park and I decked him for it. Later I put gum on his seat in school—extra bad because he always wore corduroy. Had to write “I will not put gum on Patrick Kelly’s pants” about 30,000 times and it had nothing to do with baseball, but isn’t it OK to stray for a good reason?
Toward the end of summer, Clark Cummings, the wonderful man who ran the program, picked an All-Star team and that team actually got matching hats and tee shirts to wear to the tournament in Billings, 140 miles West.
At a Little League tournament in Billings, Montana, circa 1954, I first met Dave McNally. He was the runt of the litter, but he got to pitch for Carpenter Paper (full uniforms with stirrup socks, rubber cleats…) because he was left-handed and because, or so we told ourselves, his dad was the coach.
We beat Dave McNally like a rented mule. More than once. But I don’t remember ever seeing him blink, or flinch. It was like he already knew patience and its rewards.
Now make another leap, to ’59 or ‘60. I played American Legion ball for Hastings, Nebraska, and the Billings team came to town, and they threw McNally at us. He was 5’11” and I wasn’t, and he threw aspirins past everyone. The draft of the ball going by sucked your hat off. The Billings catcher had a mattress in his glove, and an ice pack in his palm between innings. I can’t imagine that it helped all that much.
Earl Applebee, arguably the best baseball coach Nebraska would ever see, had benched me because, as my never-once-in-my-life-embellished memory recalls, I’d tried to steal second base without a signal a game or so prior, and I was thrown out—not by a step, but by about two minutes. Being accused of dragging a piano around the bases wasn’t as funny then as it should be now. Log chain would have been more convenient.
But Earl sent me in to pinch-hit with the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth and with Larry Uhrmacher on third base, the result of the only thing better than a loud foul we’d managed all night. McNally threw the first pitch and the umpire called it a strike and I asked him how he could have possibly known. Neither the first nor last time anyone has looked at me funny.
I swung at the second pitch and hit the ugliest ground ball in the history of the game—so late that (I bat right-handed) it scooted its pathetic way down the first base line, across the bag, and Larry scored and I had a single that looked like a line drive in the Tribune the next day. And we won the game.
Most of the rest of us went to college, where we played some respectable baseball. Dave went to The Show, as the game is known on the inside. Had a solid career with the Orioles. After the 1974 season Dave became a free agent through arbitration, and while it broke the owners’ decades old grip on player contracts, Dave pitched his last game on June 8, 1975. He’d also somehow got the hiccups, which did not go away, and in 1987 my wife and I bought a car from him, in Billings.
Dave died of cancer, in his hometown, on December 1, 2002. But if it takes 45 more years for me to find him in heaven, I’ll know this: that night in Hastings, Nebraska, I knew he was better than we were, and he knew it, and he walked off the mound with his head up, without blinking or flinching. He was a class act all the way, and I didn’t realize what I’d learned from him until a long time later. Thanks, Dave—we’ll have a beer.