SABR

Ray Mack

This article was written by Joseph Wancho.

“Ray Mack’s Lunging Play Ends Classic” read the sub-headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 17, 1940. The “Classic” was Bob Feller’s no-hit mastery of the Chicago White Sox on a cold, raw Opening Day at Comiskey Park. Through 2011, it was still the only Major League no-hitter pitched on Opening Day.

Although Feller had his fastball humming, he was quick to give praise after the game to the defense behind him. “I had some pretty fancy support out there,” he said. “Ben Chapman saved my bacon twice and Kenny (Keltner) and Ray (Mack) each made a couple of swell plays. Sure, I had pretty good stuff, but I was lucky too.”1

Ray Mack had three assists at his second-base position, and two of them were dandy plays, in the eighth and ninth innings. In the eighth, he scooped up a slow roller off the bat of pinch-hitter Larry Rosenthal and his throw just beat Rosenthal to first base. In the ninth, he went to his left, knocked down a line drive, retrieved it on the outfield grass, and threw out Taft Wright for the game’s final out.

“Mack came up with two as sweet plays as I’ve ever seen,” Feller said. “He was way off balance when he scooped up Rosenthal’s roller in the eighth, and how his throw ever beat Larry to the bag I don’t know. And I don’t know how he ever knocked down Wright’s smash in the ninth, to say nothing of retrieving the ball and throwing the guy out.”2

For Mack, the sparkling performance launched his best season in a big league career that lasted nine years and included one regular-season game with the world champion New York Yankees in 1947.

Raymond James Mlckovsky was born on August 31, 1916, in Cleveland, the older of two sons born to Joseph and Rose Mlckovsky. He grew up on Cleveland’s east side and attended John Adams High School. After graduation, Ray entered the Case School of Applied Science (now Case Western Reserve University). Baseball was his first love, but Case did not field a team, so the six-foot, 200-pound Mlckovsky turned his talent to football. He excelled at the game and quickly came to be known as the Case Ace. Primarily a fullback for the Engineers, he also passed, kicked, and started in the defensive backfield. He was named All-Ohio three consecutive years.

But Mlckovsky shrugged off his success. “I never cared to play football,” he said. “Baseball was the sport I really loved. Why did I play football? Well, you know how it is; I had the size, was fairly fast, and could take it. I did not intend to play football when I entered Case. I was after my engineering degree and wished to play baseball in the summertime as Case did not have a baseball team. But the coaches and my fellow students got after me and I turned out for football, just to give my best for ‘My Ole Almy Mammy.’”3

Picked by the Chicago Bears in the eleventh round of the 1938 National Football League draft, Mlckovsky bypassed pro football and instead played sandlot baseball in Cleveland in the summer of 1937. While playing for the semipro Poschke Barbecues, he was signed by the Cleveland Indians. Poschke manager Laddie Placek, who also scouted for Cleveland, persuaded Indians general manager C.C. Slapnicka to take a chance on Mlckovsky. “If I can make the big leagues, I will stick to baseball,” Ray said. “If I see at the end of a year or so I cannot make the grade, I will go in for engineering. But I think I can make the big leagues.”4

The Indians assigned Mlckovsky to the Fargo-Moorhead (North Dakota, Minnesota) Twins of the Class D Northern League for the 1938 season, where he passed his first test with flying colors. In 94 games, 77 of them at shortstop, he led the league in batting, with a .378 average, and had 32 doubles, 24 home runs, and 96 runs batted in.

His performance earned him a call-up to Cleveland where he played in two games, both at second base. He made his Major League debut on September 9 against the Detroit Tigers, and made his second appearance in the last game of the season, the second game of a doubleheader, also against Detroit. In that game, his first Major League start, he went 2-for-4, with a triple and two RBIs before his hometown fans. His first big league hit came off Tigers right-hander Bob Harris.

At Fargo-Moorhead he had started to use the name Mack instead of Mlckovsky, for the benefit of scorers and sportswriters. Later that year his father, Joseph Mlckovsky, got permission from a court for the family to change its surname to Mack. Joseph told the court Mlckovsky was too hard to pronounce and too easy to misspell.

Cleveland manager Ossie Vitt felt Mack could use more seasoning, so in 1939 he was farmed to the Indian’s affiliate in the International League, the Buffalo Bisons, where he was teamed with shortstop Lou Boudreau. The pair became an effective double play combination. Because of his size, Mack was difficult to move off the bag but still displayed excellent range. Boudreau and Mack formed a strong bond on the field, as well as a close friendship off it. Their relationship served them and the Indians well over the next several years.

Mack and Boudreau were both called up to the Indians on August 3, 1939, and made their season debuts on August 7. Cleveland was just four games over.500 when Mack and Boudreau joined the team, but was 36-20 the rest of the way. Though Mack hit just .152 in thirty-six games, and replaced the popular Odell “Bad News” Hale at second base, the hometown product quickly found favor with the fans.

The 1940 season started with Feller’s masterpiece and escalated with a pennant race that went to the final week. Mack’s first full season in Cleveland was productive. He was leading the team in hitting with a .318 average at the All-Star break, and was selected for the All-Star Game at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. (He struck out as a pinch-hitter in the top of the eighth inning and played second base in the bottom of the inning.) His final average for 1940 was .283, a career high, but it was his work in the field that was making others notice. “Never saw anyone better on double killings than this Mack boy,” said manager Vitt. “It’s just swish, swish, swish, and two guys rubbed out.”

The pitching staff was equally thrilled to have the young combo backing them. With Hal Trosky at first base and Ken Keltner manning third, the Indians talented infield foursome earned praise. “How can you help winning when you’ve got an infield like that in back of you?” said left-handed starting pitcher Al Smith. “Why, they cut off more hits than if you had a picket fence on the edge of the infield.”5 Mack was third among regular second basemen with 109 double plays, but he was also second in errors and had the second lowest fielding percentage.

But all was not rosy on the Indians’ squad. The hypercritical Vitt often lashed out at his players, in private or in the press. Finally, several veteran players, looking for an opportunity to overthrow him, signed a petition urging that Vitt be fired. Mack and Boudreau were excused from participating because the veterans did not want to penalize the younger players by potentially ruining their careers. They appealed to owner Alva Bradley privately, but in the end Bradley backed his manager.

Word of the players’ revolt reached the public, and soon they were dubbed the Crybaby Indians. They were ridiculed in the press and at every opposing ballpark. In spite of the turmoil the Indians were neck-and-neck with Detroit and New York the entire season. Trailing the Tigers by two games, Cleveland needed a sweep of the season-ending three-game series against Detroit at Cleveland Stadium. Feller, who led the league with twenty-seven victories that season, lost the first game, 2–0, to Floyd Giebell, a youngster who won the only two games he appeared in all season. Cleveland finished one game behind Detroit, one ahead of New York.

For Mack, the 1940 season was the apex of his career as a batter. Although his defense remained solid, his offense never again measured up to his rookie year. In addition to his .283 batting average, he had twelve home runs and sixty-nine RBIs. Over the next five seasons, he averaged just .224 with four homers and thirty-two RBIs. Boudreau believed that being a local player hurt Mack. Every coach or friend was close by to lend advice. And Mack tried to listen to them all. He became tense at the plate, and could never find his groove. Mack had his own diagnosis for his hitting woes: “My big fault is that I take too many third strikes.”6

On October 19, 1940, Mack married the former Jean Fisher, a classmate of his at John Adams High School and a schoolteacher in the Cleveland suburb of Cuyahoga Heights. They had three children, Judith, Tom, and Dick.

During Mack’s remaining tenure with the Indians, the team did not come as close to winning a pennant as it had in 1940. Roger Peckinpaugh replaced Vitt after the 1940 season, and then he was replaced by Boudreau, in 1942. Although Boudreau and Mack remained friends, Lou’s new status as player-manager removed most of the camaraderie they had shared before. As a manager he could show no favoritism to his buddies, like Keltner and Mack.

Because of his wife and their first child, Mack was classified 3-A by his draft board. Then he was reclassified as 1-A, but appealed it and in 1943 was again classified 3-A. After the 1943 season he took a job as a design engineer at Thompson Aircraft Products Co. in Euclid, Ohio. Though Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had ruled that players doing war work could rejoin their teams in their spare time, Mack decided to forgo part-time baseball.

“I’d like to play baseball when the war is over,” he said, “But I think I can do more for the war effort by sticking to my job at the plant.”7 He changed his mind in June 1944, however, and joined the Indians on home dates and at weekend road games. In all he played in eighty-three games in 1944, while working full time at the war plant. As World War II wound down, but manpower needs increased, Mack was inducted into the Army at Camp Atterbury, Indiana on April 17, 1945 and missed the 1945 baseball season.

When the war ended, Mack returned to the Indians, but in a backup role. Cleveland had acquired second baseman Dutch Meyer from Detroit twelve days after Mack joined the army. Mack played in only sixty-one games in 1946 and posted his career-low batting average, .205. He did show off some of his old defensive flair. On April 30, at Yankee Stadium, Bob Feller was on the verge of achieving his second no-hitter. With the Indians leading, 1–0, the Yankees’ George Stirnweiss was on third base with two outs when Charlie Keller hit a roller to second. Mack was playing on the edge of the grass and in his haste to field the ball, fell to all fours. He recovered in time and threw to first base from his knees to get Keller for the final out.

On October 11, 1946, the Indians acquired second baseman Joe Gordon from the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Allie Reynolds. The addition of Gordon spelled the end of Mack’s time in Cleveland, and on December 6 he and catcher Sherm Lollar were traded to the Yankees. “Mack is the second sacker we have been looking for as a stand-in for Snuffy Stirnweiss,” Yankees manager Bucky Harris said.8 Indians general manager Bill Veeck echoed Boudreau’s concerns, saying, “I think Ray’s only weakness was the fact that he was playing before his hometown friends. He’s a good boy and I wish him all the success in the world—

except of course, when he’s playing against us.”9 But despite Bucky Harris’s optimism, Mack was unable to win the backup role at second base. He got into only one game with the Yankees, pinch running for catcher Aaron Robinson on May 6. He spent most of the season with the Newark Bears of the International League. On September 7 the Chicago Cubs purchased Mack from Newark, and he ended the year starting in twenty-one games for the Cubs.

Mack was thirty years old when he retired after the 1947 season. He went to work as an executive at the Ohio Locomotive Crane Company in Bucyrus, Ohio. He took pride in his sons’ accomplishments on the football field. Tom, an All-American lineman at the University of Michigan, played for the Los Angeles Rams for thirteen years and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. Ray’s other son, Dick, was a three-year letter winner (1972–1974) at Ohio State University.

Ray Mack never lived to witness much of his sons’ successes. He died on May 7, 1969, from complications of cancer. He often looked fondly at Feller’s no hitter in 1940 as the highlight of his career. “That was the greatest thrill I ever had in sports,” he said. “If I had missed that play, I probably would never have forgiven myself.”10

 

This biography is included in the book "Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees" (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by Lyle Spatz. For more information, or to purchase the book from University of Nebraska Press, click here.

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