SABR

Cal McLish

This article was written by Joseph Wancho.

Indians fans in Cleveland awoke the morning of May 23, 1957, to the musings of columnist James E. Doyle of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Doyle often wrote a small poem at the beginning of his column, and this spring day was no exception.

Soxcess with Cal
“That stuff served up by Cal McLish,”
The Red Sox say “was quite a dish.”
From homer hunger were the Sox –
And then they gave poor Cal his knocks.

McLish indeed received his knocks, as Boston went deep against the Cleveland right-hander four times in the sixth inning at Fenway Park. With Cleveland trailing 3-0 and McLish pitching in relief, Gene Mauch homered, Ted Williams went deep to right field, Jackie Jensen walked, Dick Gernert smacked one to the screen atop the Green Monster, and Frank Malzone capped the barrage with a solo shot to left field. 8-0 Red Sox.

“I wasn’t even supposed to be pitching that day,” McLish recalled years later. “I had been pitching a lot. The writers asked our manager, Kerby Farrell, how come McLish wasn’t starting in Fenway Park. Farrell said, ‘I can’t start McLish because I’ve been using him too much.’ ”

Farrell started Bud Daley, a left-hander. McLish relieved Daley in the fifth inning, after the starter surrendered three runs. “I threw a changeup, a fastball, a curve and a slider and they all went out.”1

In a career that spanned 20 years of professional baseball, McLish had his share of setbacks, ups and downs, and just plain bad luck. But through perseverance and resiliency, McLish was able to carve out quite a career for himself, both as a pitcher (with a half-season on the 1964 Phillies) and as a top-notch pitching coach.

Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish was born on December 1, 1925, in Anadarko, Oklahoma, a small agricultural city. He was the seventh of eight children born to John and Lulu McLish. Of his unique name, McLish said, “Until I came along, my dad never got to name any of the kids. So I suppose he was into the firewater and he named me.”2 John McLish, who worked as a farmer, was part Choctaw and Lulu was part Cherokee. Cal’s name has always been a bit of a mystery. Even though his father was a staunch Democrat and Calvin Coolidge was a Republican from Vermont, Cal took pride in being named after the 30th president. The reason behind the Julius Caesar portion of his name is unknown, at least to Cal. Tuskahoma, a Choctaw word meaning red warrior, is also the name of a tiny community in the southeast part of Oklahoma.

While at Central High School in Oklahoma City, McLish mostly played shortstop. In 1944 he was signed by Brooklyn Dodgers scout Tom Greenwade, who saw that the youngster had speed on his throws. Cal had made a pact with two of his high-school teammates: Any scout who wanted to sign one of them had to sign all three. So Greenwade signed McLish’s teammate Bobby Jarvis, but conveniently forgot to sign Bobby Morgan. McLish and Jarvis didn’t realize this until they got to the Dodgers’ 1944 spring-training camp in Bear Mountain, New York. Learning that they’d been duped, they refused to play until all three returned to Oklahoma so they could see Greenwade actually sign Morgan.3 McLish reported to the varsity as an 18-year-old, fresh out of high school with virtually no pitching experience. He received a bonus of $1,500 and was paid $150 a month.

Without any minor-league experience, the teenage McLish was on the Dodgers’ roster to start the season. With the shortage of players because of World War II, the 1944 version of “Dem Bums” was a mix of players from opposite ends of their baseball careers. There were young, unproven players like McLish and Gene Mauch, and players whose better years were in the rear-view mirror, like Paul Waner and Johnny Cooney.

McLish won his first major-league game on May 31, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 8-4. He hit a double and drove in a run to aid his own cause. As the season wore on, the possibility grew that McLish might be drafted into the military at any time. While the Dodgers were in St. Louis, he got the call and reported for active duty on August 21. At that point he had a 3-10 record with a 7.82 earned-run average. He served in the 3rd Infantry Division in Europe, earning two battle stars, before the Germans surrendered in May 1945. During that summer McLish pitched for the division baseball team in Czechoslovakia. He was discharged in August 1946. He had missed the equivalent of two seasons of major-league baseball.

McLish returned to baseball, pitching in one game for the Dodgers against the Cardinals in St. Louis on August 25, and facing just two batters. He didn’t retire either, and allowed two earned runs. That was his only appearance in 1946, and after the season, he was part of a five-for-one deal when he was sent with four other players to Pittsburgh for outfielder Al Gionfriddo and $100,000.

When a player returned from the service in those days, he had to be kept on a major-league roster for one year. McLish pitched one inning for the Pirates on May 25, 1947, against the Cardinals and allowed two earned runs. After the year was up, McLish was optioned to the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, a Yankees Triple-A team, as part of a deal that sent pitcher Mel Queen to the Pirates from the Yankees. McLish compiled a 6-7 record in Kansas City, pitching 92 innings.

The next season, McLish pitched one inning in a game against the Cincinnati Reds on April 25 before he was sent down to the American Association, where he posted a 12-9 record for the Indianapolis Indians. Pittsburgh’s top farm team, managed by Al Lopez, won the league pennant with a 100-54 record, but lost to the St. Paul Saints in the playoffs. McLish was called up by the Pirates in September and started a game on the 25th against the Reds in Pittsburgh. He pitched four innings and allowed five runs, seven hits, and a wild pitch, and didn’t get the decision as the Pirates won, 8-6.

McLish changed addresses again in December 1948 when he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs. He pitched sparingly for the Cubs– 23 innings in 1949, with a 1-1 record– instead spending most of his days toiling on the mound for their top farm team, the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Because of control problems (he issued more than six walks per game), McLish compiled an 8-11 record. Cutting his bases-on-balls almost in half in 1950, he won 20 games (20-11), while also leading the team in ERA (3.60) and innings pitched (260). McLish, a switch-hitter, proved to be adept at the plate as well as the mound; he hit .317. He found the time to exchange “I dos” with his hometown girlfriend, Ruth Iris Lamer. They had five children: Cal Jr., John, Luanne, Ruth Ann, and Thomas.

McLish gained experience in 1951 at the back end of the starting rotation for the last-place Cubs (62-92). His only real highlight of the season occurred on May 5, when he pitched Chicago to a 2-0 victory over Johnny Sain and the Boston Braves. Though he struck out only one, McLish yielded just five singles and two walks. It was one of his four victories that season against ten losses.

Back in Triple-A pitching for a mediocre (87-93) PCL Angels team again in 1952, he had a so-so, 10-15 year, but he began to turn things around by limiting his walks to 2.7 per game, thus giving himself a better chance for success. He won 16 games (16-11) in 1953, trailing Joe Hatten’s 17 for the Angels’ team lead. In 1954, he compiled a 13-15 record. Early in the 1955 season McLish was sold to San Diego, a Cleveland affiliate, for $5,000. There he blossomed under manager Bob Elliot, cutting his ERA to 2.86 with the Padres and winning 16 games (16-11), again finishing second for the team lead. “I was in Venezuela (playing winter ball) when I heard I had been bought by a big-league club. When I found out it was Cleveland, I couldn’t believe it,” he said in 1979. “Of all the places to try and make a ballclub! They had superstar pitchers.”4

McLish was not only a switch-hitter at the dish, but he was also ambidextrous throwing the ball. Though he never threw left-handed in the major leagues, “There was one time in Venezuela [when] we were winning by six or seven runs,“ Cal recalled, “and we had one out to go. A left-handed batter was up, and all the guys had been trying to get me to throw left-handed. So I switched the glove to my other hand and threw one pitch left-handed. The manager of the other team came running out and argued for 15 minutes. Finally I said, ‘Hell, it’s not worth it.’ [So] I went back to the other hand.”5

McLish landed a spot in Cleveland. Though the Tribe boasted four solid starters in Herb Score, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Mike Garcia. “Buster,” or “Bus,” as many teammates referred to McLish, competed for playing time with Art Houtteman, Bob Feller, Ray Narleski, and Hank Aguirre. He increasingly earned manager Al Lopez’s trust as the Tribe finished in second place, nine games behind the Yankees. His record of 2-4 and his 4.96 ERA wasn’t really indicative of his value to the team.

Lopez departed Cleveland after the 1956 season, and the front office promoted Kerby Farrell to replace him. The change of skippers did not much alter McLish’s role on the staff, as he was again used mainly in middle relief, though his starts increased from two games to seven, and his innings from 61⅔ to 144⅓. He compiled a 9-7 record but more importantly he lowered his ERA to 2.97.

In 1958 Farrell was replaced by Bobby Bragan, who in turn was replaced by Joe Gordon on June 27. General manager Frank Lane was anything but patient, changing managers and trading players at a brisk pace. Gordon, the former Yankees and Indians great, continued what Bragan had started – that is, keeping McLish in the starting rotation. At the age of 32, McLish had finally found a steady spot and responded to Gordon’s confidence by winning the first five games he started for Gordon. After losing a game to the Senators, McLish strang four straight victories together. “Probably the best move I made all season,” Gordon said.6

McLish ended the year with a 16-8 record and a 2.99 ERA. He led the team in wins, innings pitched (225⅔) and complete games (13). He was grateful to Gordon for the opportunity. “Joe Gordon is an ideal manager,” McLish said. “He showed he had confidence in me after I won my first game for him. He didn’t say so. He just kept starting me regularly and giving me a chance to prove that I could win. It was wonderful to know that I’d finally found a guy who didn’t look at statistics. Joe saw me work, liked what I did and proved it by sending me to the box in my regular turn.”7

The Indians’ pitching staff had undergone a metamorphosis by 1959. Gone were Wynn, Lemon, and Bob Feller, and Mike Garcia was in the twilight of his career. McLish soon found himself as the ace of a staff that included youngsters Jim Perry, Mudcat Grant, and Gary Bell. Herb Score was trying to come back from various injuries, principally the effect of being struck in the eye by a line drive hit by the Yankees’ Gil McDougald in 1957. McLish led the mound staff. He was 13-4 at the midseason break and was rewarded by being named to the All-Star Game on August 3 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. He pitched one-hit ball over the final two innings to earn the save as the American League topped the National League 5-3. The Indians fielded a good hitting team as well, and went toe-to-toe with Chicago for much of the season. The “Go-Go” Sox came into Cleveland in late August, nursing a 1½-game lead. The Tribe had won eight straight, but were swept in the critical four-game series. They never recovered, finishing in second place behind the White Sox. McLish led the team with 19 victories.

Yankees manager Casey Stengel had an answer for the sudden success of McLish: “Take this here McLish, which when he is a lot younger and stronger with the Dodgers, he doesn’t make it. How do you figure that? Well, I will tell you. McLish has a slider and a sinker, which he does not have with Brooklyn. He still is called Cal McLish, but he ain’t the same pitcher.”8

McLish lost his chance for the magical 20 wins when it was decided that Score would pitch the season finale. “They wanted him to pitch without any pressure after coming back from his injury when he was hit in the eye. I said, ‘That’s okay with me.’ I figured I wasn’t going to set any records on winning 20 games.”9

Despite having led Cleveland pitchers in victories over the last two seasons, McLish was dealt with Billy Martin and first baseman Gordon Coleman to Cincinnati for second baseman Johnny Temple after the 1959 season. “I was hoping I wouldn’t be traded and I didn’t want to leave the league,” McLish said after the trade. “After you get used to it, it’s like starting all over again to pitch someplace else. But since I’m going to have to go over to the National, I’m kind of glad it’s Cincinnati because they’ve got a pretty good ball club.”10

But McLish’s season in the Queen City was horrendous. He posted a 4-14 record for the sixth-place Reds. He struck out a paltry 56 batters over 151⅓ innings pitched. McLish did not enjoy the same run support he had backing him in Cleveland. The Tribe had supported him with 5.57 runs per game in 1958 and 4.94 in 1959. The Reds mustered only 3.38 runs an outing for McLish in 1960.

Again Cal was on the move after the season, this time traded to the White Sox with pitcher Juan Pizarro for infielder Gene Freese. On Chicago’s South Side he was reunited with Al Lopez. Their new teammate, veteran Roy Sievers, was very pleased with the deal for the two pitchers, saying, “I believe that Juan Pizarro and Cal McLish will strengthen our pitching staff and that we’ll win the pennant. … It was pitching that prevented us from winning the flag last year and I think McLish and Pizarro will give us enough of a lift to make the difference.”11

Sievers was half-right in his assessment: Pizarro led Chicago in wins in 1961, while McLish scuffled in mediocrity with a 10-13 mark. It was later learned that he had been suffering from a double hernia, which required surgery at the end of the season.

For the third straight season, McLish was swapped to another team. On March 24, 1962, he headed to Philadelphia, to complete a trade between the two clubs from the previous December. Again he was reunited with a familiar face, Phillies skipper Gene Mauch. “I don’t know exactly how much Cal can help us, but he should be pretty good insurance in case some of [our] kids get off badly,” said Mauch. “He’s been a winning pitcher in the past, and I like that. I know on good days he can throw 25 or 30 curveballs or breaking balls in succession and get them over the plate.”12

On the surface, it appeared that McLish pitched well for the Phillies, going 11-5 in 1962. But Mauch picked the spots for him to pitch, and of those 11 victories, six came at the expense of the two expansion teams, the Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets.

McLish pitched well in 1963, winning 13 games with 11 losses and enjoying separate streaks of five and four games. But soreness at the top of his right shoulder ended his season two weeks early. The same soreness, which was later diagnosed as tendinitis, developed again the following season. After two appearances in 1964, the 38-year-old McLish ended his playing career when he was released by the Phillies in July.

But he did not stray far from the game of baseball, or the city of Philadelphia, for that matter. Mauch added McLish to his coaching staff, naming him as the Phillies’ pitching coach, replacing Al Widmar. “Widmar and McLish are both real good men,” said Mauch. “But we think the organization will benefit more with Cal working with the Phillies and Al with the kids in the minors.”13

McLish’s second career took hold as he followed Mauch to Montreal after Philadelphia, serving as pitching coach from 1969 to 1975. He joined the staff of Alex Grammas in Milwaukee in 1976, and served under managers Grammas, George Bamberger, Buck Rodgers, and Harvey Kuenn. In 1982, McLish’s last season as pitching coach, the Brewers won the American League pennant, besting Mauch’s California Angels three wins to two in the American League Championship Series. Under McLish’s tutelage, Milwaukee had two Cy Young Award winners, Rollie Fingers in 1981 and Pete Vuckovich in 1982.

In his retirement, Cal enjoyed playing golf and writing poetry. In 2009 he was inducted into the Jim Thorpe Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame.

McLish died on August 26, 2010 in Edmond, Oklahoma after a long battle with leukemia. He was preceded in death by his daughter Ruth Ann, who had been killed in an automobile accident in 1972.

 

This biography is included in the book "The Year of the Blue Snow: The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies" (SABR, 2013), edited by Mel Marmer and Bill Nowlin. For more information or to purchase the book in e-book or paperback form, click here.

 

Notes

1 Rich Marazzi, Sports Collectors Digest, March 13, 1988, 90-91.

2 Ibid.

3 Stan Baumgartner, “Morgan Shifts Into High Gear at Second for Phils,” The Sporting News, April 20, 1955, 27.

4 New York Times, April 16, 1979.

5 The Sporting News, May 13, 1959.

6 Baseball Digest, July, 1959.

7 The Sporting News, June 10, 1959.

8 Rich Marazzi, Sports Collectors Digest, March 13, 1988, 90-91.

9 Cleveland Press, December 16, 1959.

10 The Sporting News, February 1, 1961.

11 Rich Marazzi, Sports Collectors Digest, March 13, 1988, 90-91.

12 The Sporting News, April 4, 1962.

13 Philadelphia Bulletin, December 1, 1964.

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