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My love affair with baseball, and Dave McNally’s role in that

In hindsight, my year of birth was off, delayed by a few years from what I might have desired to best write the story of Dave McNally's life. Moreover, my place of birth could have been changed to make me a front-row observer—maybe even a youth baseball teammate—of this star, Hall of Fame-worthy Baltimore Orioles pitcher. Thus, I would have seen his rise to greatness, from his start as a Little League player in Billings, Montana.

What if I had been born in the early 1940s, in Billings, instead of in 1951, about 200 miles away in the Eastern Montana town of Glendive? Through this change of fate, I might have grown up in a house on one of the tree-lined streets, from which they got names such as Elm, Spruce, and Pine, near then Eastern Montana College. This was the neighborhood where Dave grew up in, making friends with Bill McIntosh, Pete Cochran, Bob Fry, Roger Scarborough and others. I might have even swung a bat at a pitch thrown by a fellow youngster, perhaps Dave McNally, from the mound at nearby Lissa Field, Montana's first Little League park.

It really doesn't matter that this alternative history of my life is just that—fictional. It was good enough to grow up in Eastern Montana and fall in love with major league baseball by the time I was in junior high school. That’s when I became aware of and cheered for the Baby Birds. Even in small-town Montana, I became aware of how, year by year, they improved and became more able to contend for the American League pennant against traditional AL powers such as the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians.

Finally, the Orioles’ breakthrough year arrived. That was 1966 when manager Hank Bauer piloted a mix of youngsters—Dave turned 24 that fall, Andy Etchebarren was about the same age, Boog Powell was a year or so older, Jim Palmer was a twenty-year-old rookie—into title contention. Add a veteran who was key to Baltimore’s success that season—AL Most Valuable Player Frank Robinson, obtained in a trade from the Cincinnati Reds—and the Orioles claimed the AL crown.

As kings of the American League, the Orioles’ next assignment was to play the favored Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. The Dodgers had future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale on their pitching staff. The Orioles, however, weren't intimidated by press clippings.

What nearly all of Montana’s 555,000 residents plus Orioles-crazy Baltimore cheering him on, Dave started Game One of the series in Los Angeles. Possibly unsettled by a pitching mound that was a bit higher than he was used to, Dave struggled with his control. With one out in the third inning, Bauer yanked McNally and replaced him with ace reliever Moe Drabowsky, who got the win.

Baltimore won the next game, 6-0, as Palmer beat Koufax and blanked the Dodgers on four hits. The Series moved to Baltimore, where Wally Bunker pitched a six-hit, 1-0 win in Game Three. The Orioles were one victory away from a four-game sweep and the first world championship in franchise history, and Bauer tapped McNally to pitch again. This time, he faced Drysdale, the hard-throwing other half of the Dodgers’ pitching dynamo. McNally was up to the challenge of having the whole country—at least its baseball-fan part—watching him on TV and assessing his performance. After all, he was a former Billings American Legion star who led his Post 4 team to the national championship game in the 1960 Little World Series, when he was the most sought-after pitching prospect in the country and then signed for a large bonus with the Orioles. He shut out the Dodgers, 4-0, and the Orioles were on top of the baseball world. An iconic news photo, considered one of the most famous in Baltimore history, captured the jubilation that Dave and his teammates experienced when the game ended. The photo shows Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, MVP of the series, who is airborne as he rushes the pitching mound. There stands McNally, and the catcher, Etchebarren, who had run out from home plate, standing ready to catch Robinson. All three are beaming with smiles as wide as McNally's huge home, the Treasure State.

As for me, I had flirted with being a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I cheered on those Bob Gibson-led birds when they toppled the Yankees in the 1964 World series, listening to nearly every pitch of the daytime games on a transistor radio that my eighth-grade teacher allowed to be played in our classroom. Then came 1965 when the Minnesota Twins, who had a sizable fan base in Eastern Montana, defeated the Dodgers in that year's World Series.

Nothing, however, has come close to the excitement I felt when Montana's own McNally played a key role in thwarting the Dodgers in the 1966 Series. I can’t say for sure, but this probably helped push me towards the start of my newspaper reporting career. After getting my journalism degree, I worked as a sportswriter in Grand Junction, Colorado, and then for a good chunk of two decades, the 1970s and 1980s, as a writer for Montana’s largest newspaper, the Billings Gazette.

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Jamie Larson