SABR

Danny MacFayden

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Certainly a pitcher, even in high school, who strikes out 32 batters in a game is going to attract attention. The pitcher in question was Danny MacFayden, pitching for Somerville High School in the Greater Boston area on May 7, 1924 – a 17-inning game against Everett High School. MacFayden lost the game, 2-1, on a squeeze play. Other reports have him striking out 31 or 33 batters in the game. He was captain of the 1923 Somerville team, which featured two others who made it to the major leagues, Josh Billings and Shanty Hogan. The city of Somerville had already produced infielders Pie Traynor and Hod Ford.

MacFayden played outfield when he wasn’t pitching. In 1925, he won 15 games in a row before bearing his first loss, in a relief stint in which he lost to Rindge Tech of Cambridge in the 10th inning. He turned 20 on June 10 and was disqualified from further pitching for the high-school team. Later in the summer, MacFayden pitched for Somerville’s Dilboy Post and for the town team in West Groton, and in 1926 he pitched for Fisherville, near Worcester.

Red Sox owner Bob Quinn later saw MacFayden pitch in a Twilight League semipro game in Boston and reportedly signed him on the spot. When Danny started out, he weighed 160 on a 5-foot-11 frame and he wore eyeglasses, a real rarity at the time, to correct for nearsightedness. He started wearing glasses at the age of 12, and became the first pitcher in the American League to wear glasses while pitching. Billings, who came up the year after Danny did, wore glasses, too. MacFayden had overcome numerous obstacles, including the death of his father when he was 4 years old, but went straight to the major leagues without stopping in the minors and, largely on the strength of his sidearm curve, fashioned a 17-year major-league career. He threw and batted right-handed.

MacFayden was born in North Truro, Massachusetts, near Provincetown on Cape Cod, on June 10, 1905. After the death of his father, Danny’s mother, Sarah, continued to live in Truro but by 1920 had moved to Somerville. Sarah MacFayden was working as a bookkeeper in a real-estate office, and the two lived with Danny’s uncle Joshua Knowles (Danny’s middle name was Knowles), a building contractor, who adopted his young nephew.  

After graduating from Somerville High, MacFayden attended Hebron Academy in Hebron, Maine, as a prep school, which his mother hoped would lead him to Dartmouth College. During the summers of 1923 and 1924, Danny played for the Osterville team in the Boston Twilight League and in 1925 for Falmouth. When offered the opportunity by Quinn, he decided that baseball would give him a better opportunity to help his mother financially than Dartmouth.

MacFayden made his debut on August 25, 1926. The Red Sox, managed by Lee Fohl, were hosting the Detroit Tigers in a doubleheader at Fenway Park. In the first game, MacFayden was the fourth of five pitchers vainly attempting to keep the Tigers in check. He came in to pitch the eighth and the first three batters he faced were Fats Fothergill, Harry Heilmann, and Heinie Manush, eachbatting over .340 at the time. MacFayden faced six batters, giving up one run on two hits and a walk. The Red Sox lost, 11-4. Three days later, he pitched in relief against the Cleveland Indians and gave up one run in three innings. He made his first start on September 4 and went up against none other than Washington’s Walter Johnson. He pitched a complete game against the Senators, but lost, 5-1. Photographs were taken of the two, and the Big Train told the young rookie, “Take you time, Son, and get the ball over. Good luck.” It was a thrill Danny savored for a lifetime. “I thought it was a mighty fine remark to make to a rookie just breaking in,” he said later.

There were only those three appearances that fall, and MacFayden finished 0-1 with a 4.85 earned-run average. In 1927, with Bill Carrigan as skipper, Danny appeared in 34 games, with 16 starts, throwing 160 1/3 innings and posting a 5-8 record with a 4.27 ERA. He was the Opening Day pitcher in 1928, pitching in front of President Calvin Coolidge at Washington’s Griffith Stadium and earning a 7-5 win. He lost 15 games that season, against nine wins. His ERA was 4.75. MacFayden was consistently walking more men than he struck out, and clearly wasn’t that special a pitcher, though neither were the Red Sox that special a team. MacFayden’s ERA fluctuated around the team average, and his won-loss percentage was better than the team’s record – this was a team that finished in eighth place every one of Danny’s first five years in the league.

In 1929, MacFayden got into double-digit wins for the first of three consecutive seasons (10-18, 11-14, and 16-12.) His four shutouts in 1929 led the league, but his ERA over the course of the season was still 3.62, the best he would have until 1936, when he was pitching for Boston’s other major-league team. One of the shutouts was at Fenway Park on May 24, 1929. The Yankees were in town, and MacFayden held them to four hits. He got in trouble only one time, loading the bases with nobody out, but then retired Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Tony Lazzeri one after the other, Gehrig and Lazzeri on strikeouts.

MacFayden had three more shutouts that season for the cellar-dwelling Red Sox. On July 31, he blanked the Cleveland Indians, 4-0, on nine hits, and drove in one of the Red Sox’ runs himself. On August 12, he held the White Sox to three hits in a 3-0 victory at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. And in Danny’s next start, on August 17 at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, Red Sox third baseman Bobby Reeves swung at the first pitch of the game by Lefty Stewart and hit a home run. It was the only run scored by either team, MacFayden facing only 30 batters, again allowing just three hits, and walking two.

In 1931, the Red Sox finished somewhere other than in last place – in sixth. Danny’s 16 wins were a bit more than 25 percent of the team’s 62 wins. Boston was still 45 games out of first place, held by the Philadelphia Athletics. During the offseason, he held a position at hockey coach at Hebron Academy.

As a hitter, MacFayden was pretty good his first two seasons with the Red Sox, hitting .286, but he didn’t keep up his skills and finished his career as a .142 hitter with just one home run, in 1927.

MacFayden moved from the Red Sox to the New York Yankees on June 5, 1932, just a couple of weeks before the Red Sox brought in Marty McManus as manager, replacing Shano Collins. Though MacFayden had played a great deal of squash over the winter for stamina and to strengthen his wrists, he started the season poorly (1-10 at the time of the trade, though his ERA wasn’t quite as bad as the record might indicate – 5.10). The season started with a hard-luck 1-0 defeat in the bottom of the 10th inning in Washington on Opening Day. From that point on, MacFayden’s pitching was far from special. The Yankees were really sold on him, though, sending the Red Sox pitchers Ivy Andrews and Hank Johnson and $50,000 on top of that. It was a boon for Bob Quinn, though both right-handers sent to Boston had been out with ailments – lumbago and appendicitis respectively. MacFayden did win more than he lost (7-5) for the Yankees in the second half of his season, with an improved 3.93 ERA. One might wonder what the Yanks had been thinking to give so much for him. New York columnist Dan Daniel wrote that Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert had wanted to keep MacFayden away from the Indians or the Senators. And the Yankees did win the pennant. Daniel was not impressed with the acquisition, and railed on MacFayden with some frequency. Right from the start, he disliked him. Writing just two weeks after the acquisition, Daniel wrote, “MacFayden cannot throw off that depressed feeling which comes to him with seven years at Fenway Park.” [New York World-Telegram, June 21, 1932]

A year after the trade, Daniel wrote that Danny “has failed utterly, and his continuance with the New York club is in doubt. It would not surprise us to see MacFayden traded to the Newark Bears.” [New York World-Telegram, June 23, 1933] MacFayden was of serious mien and his sometimes dour demeanor earned him the nickname Deacon Danny, but Dan Daniel was known to call him Dismal Danny, too. John Kieran was kinder, saying MacFayden “looks like an instructor in advanced chemistry” – though that was before he joined the Yankees. [New York Times, April 18, 1931]

MacFayden took no part in the 1932 World Series, which the Yankees swept from the Cubs.

This was the heart of the Depression and back in Somerville, Sarah MacFayden was forced to file for bankruptcy in June. She must have had a prosperous real-estate practice at one point, to have run up such a large debt. She had $626,925 in liabilities with no assets at all. [New York World-Telegram, June 24, 1933. A more detailed article in the Hartford Courant said that Mrs. MacFayden was sort of a “straw woman,” signing a number of contracts on behalf of the firm, and that her own debt may have been closer to $12,000.] Danny himself worked in the insurance business during the offseason that year. He had another person to provide for. He married Chicago’s Marie Harty in New York on July 22 – and told manager Joe McCarthy about it on August 15. [Washington Post, August 16, 1933]

After the 1933 campaign was done and the Senators had prevailed, leading second-place New York by seven games, Dan Daniel sounded off on Danny, pinning the loss of the pennant on his shoulders: “Griffith’s fortuitous failure to land MacFayden won the 1933 pennant for the Senators.” [New York World-Telegram, December 21, 1933] MacFayden had not produced as planned. His record was 3-2; he started six games and worked the other 19 in relief. His earned-run average was a career-high 5.88 (exceeded only at the very end of his career, in very limited action in 1941.)

In November 1934, after a 4-3 season in 11 starts and 11 relief appearances, the Cincinnati Reds purchased MacFayden’s contract from the Yankees. Danny was happy to go, saying that manager McCarthy had hampered his effectiveness. “I would rather take my chances on winning for Charley Dressen than to put in another season attempting to pitch the way McCarthy wants his hurlers to work. McCarthy is convinced all pitchers should hurl with an overhand motion. All of us cannot do it successfully, but if you are to pitch for McCarthy you must pitch that way.” [Cincinnati Post, March 6, 1935] MacFayden explained that he mixed overhand and sidearm styles, but used the sidearm delivery more frequently when he was going well.

After the first seven games (four starts) with Cincinnati, MacFayden was 1-2 and they soured on the deal, returning him to the Yankees. It had been a conditional deal with $5,000 down and $7,500 more due if the Reds decided to keep him past June 1. They didn’t, and saved themselves the cash. “I have no place on my ballclub for MacFayden,” declared manager Joe McCarthy. [New York World-Telegram, June 3, 1935] New York put him on waivers and he was taken on June 4 by the Boston Braves for $4,000 – taking the place of the departing Babe Ruth. Danny was back home.

The rest of 1935 wasn’t any better than the beginning. In fact, it was worse. His pitching wasn’t good, and his W-L record reflected it: 5-13 (5.10 ERA) for the Braves.

His work over the next three seasons, however, was an entirely different matter. He had the three best seasons of his long career from 1936 through 1938.  In 1936, Bob Quinn became part-owner of the Braves, the same Bob Quinn who had initially signed Danny to the Red Sox.

This success came despite a couple of incidents.  On August 25, 1937, it was announced that MacFayden had broken his toe while going to answer the telephone and tripping over a chair. It didn’t keep him out that long; he pitched a three-hitter just six days later. He suffered a broken middle finger on his pitching hand when hit by a Lew Riggs line drive in June 1938. It was one of the unusual features of Boston being a two-team town that while the Braves were out on the road, MacFayden was able to complete some of his rehab throwing batting practice for the Red Sox. All three years, his earned-run average was below three runs a game (2.87, 2.93, and 2.95), and his 1936 mark placed him second in the National League. All three ERAs put him in the top 10. This was the man the Bees (as they were called during those years) had selected off waivers. He was the Opening Day starter in ’36 and ’38. His won-loss totals were 17-13, 14-14, and 14-9 for a team that finished sixth, fifth, and fifth.  

MacFayden enjoyed one 1939 game immensely, pitching in Cooperstown for Honus Wagner’s team against that of Eddie Collins in the exhibition game staged to mark baseball’s purported 100th anniversary. He gave up just one hit in two scoreless innings, and slammed a ground-rule double off Johnny Vander Meer, driving in the second of two runs in the third inning. The Wagners won, 4-2. The 1939 regular season saw some slippage. Danny’s ERA climbed almost a full run, to 3.90, and he lost 14 games with only eight games in the win column. On December 8, 1939, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for pitcher Bill Swift and some money. MacFayden pitched 91 1/3 innings for Pittsburgh in 1940, with a decent 3.55 ERA, and was 5-4. Only two pitchers on the Pirates staff had better ERAs, but the Pittsburgh management determined that he was too old (he was 35) and over the hill, and on October 8, he was released unconditionally. It was the only year in which MacFayden had had a run-in with an umpire. Thinking he’d struck out Phillies batter Bobby Bragan to end a game in the bottom of the 10th, he was angered when Bill Klem called it ball three. He tossed his glove in the air in disgust and Klem strode out to the mound. MacFayden took off his glasses and handed them to Klem: “Here, Bill, you take ’em. You need ’em much worse than I do.” It cost him $100. The Pirates won the game, on the first pitch from Danny’s replacement, Bob Klinger.

The “Somerville Scot” had two more seasons in the majors (he never did serve with a minor-league team), 1941 with Washington and (after being out of baseball for all of 1942) in 1943 back with the Braves. Between them, though, he didn’t pitch the equivalent of three full games. In 1941, his signing was considered a smart move by many – to be used as a spot starter. He embarrassed himself a bit in a preseason City Series game against the Red Sox on April 15, 1943, walking Joe Cronin on five pitches and forcing in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

MacFayden saw very little duty in 1941, only 0-1 for the Senators, in seven innings spread over five games, facing only 37 batters, and getting released on May 15. The loss came on May 11. The Senators had just scored three runs to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, and MacFayden was asked to keep the A’s from scoring in the top of the 10th– but was hit for two runs and a loss. He was still working as the coach at Hebron Academy, and for the summer of 1942 he became the commissioner of amateur baseball for the State of Maine.

After signing with the Braves on July 2, 1943, MacFayden threw 21 1/3 innings for the Braves in the remaining three months of the season, and was 2-1.

That October, he joined the faculty of Vermont Academy. The Braves released him on January 1, 1944. He was 39 years old. In 1946, MacFayden took a position with Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, as the varsity baseball coach, and served until retirement in 1970, occasionally filling in as the hockey coach as well. He died at Brunswick Hospital after a long illness on August 26, 1972.

Sources

MacFayden’s player file from the National Baseball Hall of Fame was particularly helpful. In addition to the sources cited above, the author consulted the online SABR Encyclopedia, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Refefence.com. Thanks to Maurice Bouchard for genealogical assistance.

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