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1966: the breakout year

The 1966 season, Dave McNally’s fourth full year with the Orioles, became the campaign when his performance marked him as a full-fledged major league pitcher. He finished the regular season with a 13–6 record, a 3.17 ERA and 158 strikeouts against 64 walks in the 213 innings he pitched.1 And then came October when the underdog Orioles captured the first World Series title in team history, sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games, the finale being the four-hit shutout McNally threw to beat Dodgers’ ace Don Drysdale.

McNally burst out of the gates in April. He won his first three outings, defeating the New York Yankees twice and the Detroit Tigers once.

By July 4, after he gave up five hits and one earned run in seven innings to notch a win over the defending world champion Minnesota Twins–the final score was 4–2–Dave’s record stood at 7–2. He kept on getting better. After losing to California on July 9, he reeled off five straight wins and had a 12–3 record after beating the Tigers on August 20. In that game, an 8–3 Baltimore win, he pitched eight innings and yielded six hits and all three runs the Tigers scored.

One of McNally’s best showings in 1966, though, came two weeks earlier, a complete-game victory when he shut out the Washington Senators, 4–0, on seven hits. He struck out seven Senators and walked none of them.

Interestingly, Washington slugger Frank Howard, Dave’s nemesis who tagged him for 13 homers in his career, more than anyone else, went hitless in four at-bats that day.

Not only did that win stop a three-game Oriole losing streak, McNally’s performance dropped his ERA to 2.75, the lowest it had been since early in the season. The win, along with Boston’s victory over Detroit and the Yankee’s defeat of Cleveland, increased Baltimore’s American League lead to twelve games over the second-place Tigers and thirteen games over the third-place Indians. 2

The hitting of Luis Aparicio, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Sam Bowens, along with a wild pitch by Washington rookie Barry Moore, gave the Orioles three runs in the first inning–all they needed that game.

For Dave, however, thoughts of a possible loss probably ran through his head in the early innings. He gave up six of the seven Washington hits in the first five innings, but he then retired 11 Senators in a row before giving giving up Fred Valentine’s scratch single to open the ninth inning. Howard, though, chopped a ground ball towards Aparicio, who turned it into a double play that ended Washington’s hopes.

McNally also got Howard to hit into a roller that Dave Johnson gloved for Out No. 3 in the first inning.

Something else noteworthy happened in 1966: Dave showed that he was a better hitter than most expected from a pitcher. And it wasn’t as if he worried AL pitchers with his batting skills early in his career.

One day in August 1966, McNally chatted with a baseball writer and recalled how, in 1963, his first full season with the Orioles, he didn’t get a hit until September.

“Wes Stock and I had a bet on who would get the first hit,” McNally said. “I was something like 0-for-40 when I got mine on Labor Day.” 3

Stock, however, didn’t get his first major-league hit until the following season. About eight years older than Dave, the Shelton, Washington, native broke into the major leagues with the Orioles in 1959 and pitched for them until he was traded to the Kansas City Athletics in 1964. He finished his major-league career with the A’s in 1967.

But why was McNally talking about his hitting in the first place? It was because he had just shown, on the diamond, “equal authority” on the subjects of hitting and pitching.

Dave had just pitched a seven-hit, 7–1 win over Cleveland for his tenth victory and seventh in his last eight outings. He helped his own cause by getting three hits, and Indians right fielder Rocky Colavito had robbed him of a fourth hit.

That work with the bat gave Dave a six-game hitting streak, and he had gone 9-for-18 at the plate in that period to raise his average to .235.

But if someone had asked Dave to share his batting secrets, he was ready with this answer, given with a grin:

“I don’t have to explain my batting. I mean, did Ted Williams have to explain?”

Yet, Dave wanted to talk about his pitching more than his hitting.

He had pitched his third complete game in twenty starts, and that “mean the most to me. When you’re not finishing, it gets on your nerves after a while.”

Teammate Jim Palmer had a reputation for eating pancakes on the mornings of the day he was scheduled to pitch. Did Dave do that?

“No pancakes,” he said, but then he threw out a possible explanation for his recent success.

“We do have a nun staying with us. I’m sure that’s why I pitched a complete game,” said McNally, a graduate of Billings Central Catholic High School.

The nun was a friend of Dave’s older brother, Jim, who had met her when he was hospitalized in Minnesota.

“When (Jim) heard she was coming east, he called and asked if she could stay with us.”

That was fine with Dave and Jean McNally, also a Central High graduate, with one caveat. The nun was a Minnesota Twins fan.

This discussion of a nun and baseball brought two things to mind: an Ernest Hemingway short story set in Billings, and what I saw during my days as a Billings Gazette sportswriter.

First, the short story. It’s titled The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio. (And if you haven’t read it, you should. Find it in a collection of Hemmingway short stories.) The genesis of the story was an experience Hemingway had in late 1930. He loved the Beartooth Mountains high country, south of Billings, and with winter approaching, Hemingway needed to escape snowy Montana and Wyoming for balmy Key West.

So, after leaving his summer and fall getaway place, the L-T Ranch, in the Yellowstone high country near Cooke City, he drove east in his Model A, carrying two passengers, fellow author John Dos Passos and local guide Floyd Allington. They drove through Cooke City and then through Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park before heading towards Billings.

Somewhere between Laurel and Billings, on a gravel road, I’ve been told, Hemingway wrecked. He suffered an oblique spiral fracture to his writing arm that required six weeks of hospitalization at St. Vincent Hospital. In the story, Hemingway says his lead character was hospitalized in fictional Hailey, Montana, but it’s clearly Billings.

And the nun in the story is one of the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth who then provided and to this day provide key staffing at St. Vincent Hospital. This nun is a baseball fan, and back then, far-off radio stations were allowed to boost their power at night–enough that one could hear broadcasts of big-league games in Billingings. I read the story years ago and don’t have it handy, but I seem to recall this sister listening to broadcasts of St. Louis Cardinals games.

Which brings us to my own experience. As a sportswriter for the Gazette from 1975-1978 and again from 1981-1985 (when I moved over to City Hall coverage), I spent a lot of time at old Cobb Field, watching and covering Billings Mustangs and American Legion baseball games. (The ballpark is no longer there, having been torn down in 2008 and replaced by Dehler Park.)

Cobb Field had a fenced area with no seats along the first-base line as I recall where fans in wheelchairs could watch the game. And another group of fans in that area? I remember seeing maybe a half-dozen sisters from St. Vincent Hospital, across the street and a few blocks north of the ball park, standing there and cheering for the Mustangs.

With sisters in habits on your side, you probably still can lose, but you might have a slight edge over the opposing team.

  1. ↩︎
  2. The Baltimore Sun, August 7, 1966 ↩︎
  3. The Sporting News, August 13, 1966 ↩︎

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Jamie Larson