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McNally book-Chapter 1

Darned typos ....

Note: The working title for this book is, The Dave McNally Story: A Montana Pitcher Makes Baseball History On and Off the Mound. I have been tempted to work the phrase, “lunchpail guy” into the title. Credit for that wording goes to Billings lawyer Bill Lamdin, a friend for 35 or so years and a former neighbor when we both owned homes in Billings' historic North Elevation neighborhood. Bill grew up in Baltimore when the Orioles and the Johnny Unitas-led Colts were two of the dominant teams in professional sports. Thanks, Bill!

Dave McNally pitched in Montreal for his new team, the Expos, on the afternoon of Sunday, June 8, 1975. So, his wife, Jean, wasn’t expecting the knock on the door she heard at about 10:30 that night.

Who on earth could that be at this hour, she thought to herself as walked towards the door of her house in Lutherville, Maryland, a Baltimore suburb.

When she opened the door, someone familiar stood there.

“Hi. Surprise, surprise,” said her husband, a Billings, Montana, native, and a longtime Orioles pitcher who that year was playing for the Montreal Expos.

“Honey, I’m done with baseball.”

Dave told his wife that he caught a plane from Montreal to Baltimore after he and the Expos lost to the San Diego Padres earlier that. Ironically, the winning pitcher in that game, the first of a doubleheader, was another major-leaguer born and groomed in Billings, Joe McIntosh.

McIntosh, a Padres rookie after being a standout at Washington State University, got the win by pitching a complete game for a 5-2 victory. Expos manager Gene Mauch lifted McNally in the sixth inning after he had given up all five San Diego runs—four of them earned—on six hits.

McNally wouldn’t turn thirty-three until Halloween Day that year. Already, he had pitched in the major leagues for 14 years and racked up a pile of accomplishments that made him a solid candidate for inclusion in baseball’s Hall of Fame. McNally won 181 games for the Orioles, more than anyone in team history at the time. He pitched in four World Series, two of them won by Baltimore; he was (and remains) the only pitcher to hit a grand slam home run in Series play; and he had logged four straight 20-win seasons, including 1971 when he was part of what many consider the greatest pitching rotation in major league history.

Not one to rest on his laurels and seeking what he said was a “change in scenery,” McNally asked for a trade from the Orioles after the 1974 season. They were the only big league team the southpaw pitcher ever played for, and with little or no input from McNally, the Orioles shipped him to the Expos of the National League.

McNally got off to a promising start with the Expos. He won his first three games, pushing his major-league win total to 184 games. Then, he lost five straight games, his earned average ballooning to 5.26, a number that the hard-working Montanan found intolerable.

McNally had collected about $45,000 of his $125,000 Expos salary for 1975. Thus, he was leaving $80,000 on the table by walking away.

Jean McNally undoubtedly knew her husband was frustrated by his increasing inability to pitch any longer at the high level he was used to. Still, Dave’s seemingly sudden decision might have worried her. And, it turned out, Dave had left Mauch in the dark when he decided to head back home to Baltimore.

Trying to handle the matter as best she could, perhaps Jean said something like, “Honey, what are we going to do now?” She, like Dave, had grown up in Billings, and both were graduates of its Billings Central Catholic High School. Now, they had a family of four children ranging in age from twelve to two-and-a-half, with a fifth child due on October 1.

Jean McNally needed to hope, and trust, that her husband had a solid plan for his and their family’s future. Whatever was going through his head at that moment, Dave McNally had come a long way from his start in Montana’s Magic City.

Montana gained its most renowned athlete of the Twentieth Century on October 31, 1942, when Dave McNally was born at Saint Vincent Hospital in Billings. The Halloween arrival gave Alfred “Jimmy” McNally and his wife, Beth, their fourth and final child.

Dave's older siblings, sister Dee, and brothers Jim and Dan, were born in Mandan, North Dakota. That's where Jimmy McNally worked as a salesman for Sacony Vacuum Oil Company. His employer transferred him to Billings in 1941, and Beth McNally lived in the Magic City for the rest of her life.

The future Orioles pitching star hailed from Butte stock. His grandfather, also named James, had migrated from Ireland to Montana's Mining City early in the century. Dave's parents married in Butte in 1934.

Dave got no real chance to know his father. Jimmy McNally was on the draft rolls in Morton County, North Dakota, and his military paperwork was transferred to Yellowstone County when the McNallys moved to Billings. In January 1944, when Dave was slightly more than a year old, his father got orders to report to the Butte induction center. Jimmy McNally trained and became a junior Navy officer.

World War II was winding down when he was sent to Okinawa where he served as a port director, The Navy informed Beth McNally in June 1945 that her husband had been killed. No details about his death were provided.

This left Beth McNally, a typical 1940s housewife, with the challenge of providing for her young family of four. Fortunately, she had a college education, having earned her degree at then Montana State University in Missoula. She saw a notice for an opening at the Yellowstone County Welfare Department, applied and got a job as a social worker.

Her family was growing up and finding school and sports activities to pursue in Billings. Dave’s willingness to explore and his early work ethic led to an opportunity at age eight that would shape his life.

Bathed in sunshine and almost-summer warmth that put a spring in his step, Dave left his house in Billings, Montana, in mid-June 1951. He kept an eye on his black-and white dog, a stray rescued in the neighborhood, as they hurried along tree-lined Elm Street just north of downtown.

Together, the boy and the dog paced Poly Drive. They turned west, passing the campus of Eastern Montana College to the north, and continued a few blocks to Virginia Lane. There they turned right, their destination almost in sight.

The pair rambled up Rimrock Road until they reached Billings’ “Field of Dreams,” the Little League field that was one of the first, if not the first, such established in Montana. It was opening day, and two games were scheduled: the White Sox versus the Hot Rods, and the Black Hawks versus the Dodgers.

Dave saw a man standing on the diamond who seemed in charge. Curious, and noticing the obvious bond between the boy and his dog, the man came over.

“Do you live in the neighborhood? What’s your name?”

Overcoming his shyness, the youngster answered.

“Yes, sir. I’m Dave. David McNally. I live on Elm Street.”

“What does your father do?”

“He was killed in the war. I was so little then that I didn’t know him,” the boy said, a hint of sadness in his voice.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Cec Musburger. I’ve got two sons close to your age. They’re both playing Little League baseball on this field.”

That was Dave McNally’s introduction to organized baseball. He had just met Cec Musburger, one of the best-known sports figures in Billings and the prime force in starting one of the first, if not the first, Little League baseball programs in Montana. Musburger, a businessman in the Magic City, was the father of two boys who had gotten in on the ground floor of the local Little League program: Brent, who became a famed TV sports broadcaster, and his younger brother, Todd, a lawyer who became a top agent representing professional athletes.

“Mr. Musberger, could I rake the infield for you?”

Musburger readily assented.

“You sure could. Brent could, but every time I mention the idea to him, he takes off in the opposite direction to go play with his friends. He claims he’s allergic to manual labor.”

“Dave, get that field smooth. These boys need a good ballpark,” Cec Musburger said.

“Who knows? Maybe you or one of the other guys will turn into a major league player.”

The boy turned to his task.

That evening, when Cec Musburger went to his home on nearby Park Lane, he praised McNally as he told Brent about the chance encounter.

“That kid is so polite, and he’s a hard worker. He’s going to go places.”

A decade later, Dave McNally began a career as a star pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. One of the “Baby Birds,” McNally beat the Don Drysdale-led Los Angeles Dodgers in the deciding final game of the 1966 World Series, clinching a four-game sweep for the underdog Orioles.

McNally played in three more World Series. In 1969, the favored Orioles lost to the Miracle New York Mets, but the Orioles were World Champions again in 1970. That year, they beat the powerhouse Big Red Machine, the Johnny Cincinnati Reds, paced by power hitters Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Bobby Tolan and Bernie Carbo.

McNally’s final World Series appearance came in 1971, when the Orioles lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente. Clemente, the first Latin player named to Baseball’s Hall of Fame, was playing in his final Fall Classic; he died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, while on a humanitarian flight bringing supplies to victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake.

Along the way, McNally won 17 straight games in a string that started in 1968 and continued into the 1969 season. His sixth straight win in that streak—tied for longest in American League history at the time—was a near no-hitter. Minnesota’s Cesar Tovar spoiled the gem with one out in the eighth inning by singling into right field at the Twins’ park. That was the only hit McNally gave up in a 5-0 win.

McNally became famed for other things, too. In 1970, he blasted a grand slam home run off Cincinnati's Wayne Granger; he remains the only pitcher to have hit a grand slam in Series play. Right-hander Jim Palmer later pushed McNally to No. 2 in the Orioles’ win column, but the Billings product remains Baltimore's all-time winningest left-hander, a member of the Orioles’ Hall of Fame and a much-beloved sports figure in the Maryland city.

Off the field, McNally gained a top spot in baseball history for his 1975 decision to join a case that led to a landmark labor decision. He and Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith signed on with Major League Baseball Players Union chief Marvin Miller to take on baseball's reserve clause. This provision dated back to the start of the 20th century. It allowed a team to hold rights to a player’s service until he was traded or released, in effect making him property of a team that had signed him until he left baseball.

McNally and Messersmith’s principled stand resulted in the 1975 decision by arbitrator Peter Seitz, upheld in court, that toppled the reserve clause. The Seitz ruling gave players employment rights roughly equivalent to other American workers and opened the door to the modem era of free agency, where player command multimillion dollar salaries.

Miller, in his memoir (A Whole Different Ball Game) said McNally and Messersmith’s “willingness to challenge the reserve clause—what many called ‘the backbone of the game’—led to the most important arbitration decision in the history of professional sports.”

All of that was far off in the early 1950s when Dave fell in love with the summer sport that has lured millions of American boys (and later girls), spanning generations, to diamonds, rustic and refined, across the country.

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Jamie Larson