SABR

Von McDaniel

This article was written by David E. Skelton.

Preceding by two decades the “Fernandomania” craze, Von McDaniel’s splash on the major-league scene in the summer of 1957 earned him the nickname Mr. Vonderful. Weeks removed from delivering his high-school valedictorian address, McDaniel tossed a two-hit shutout against the defending champion Brooklyn Dodgers in his first professional start, while a month later a two-base hit was the margin between McDaniel and the first National League perfect game in modern history. Providing additional punch to a capable St. Louis Cardinals pitching rotation that included his brother Lindy, the duo drew favorable comparisons to the former brother combination of Dizzy and Paul Dean. But like a shooting star, Von McDaniel’s dazzling brilliance was extinguished after a mere 19 appearances, leaving many to wonder what might have been.

The middle of three sons who each learned baseball with gloves made “of sacks, crudely sewn in the shape of their hands,”1 all three played professionally. Athleticism inherited from a father accomplished in tennis and track (and who was a cousin of the famed University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal) enabled Von to transition from batboy for his brother’s American Legion post team to major-league phenom within the span of five years.

Max Von McDaniel was born to Newell and Ada Mae (Burk) McDaniel on April 18, 1939, in the small southwest Oklahoma town of Hollis. Tenant farmers who survived the Depression in one of the worst-hit regions of the country, the McDaniels raised their four children in a deeply religious manner. Lindy paved the way for his younger siblings when Ada Mae, fearing the temptations that might befall her sons, required a great deal of persuasion before concluding that baseball was a fit pursuit. Cardinals scout Fred Hawn, a former minor-league catcher and manager, signed Lindy for a $50,000 bonus in 1955, and by the time he dangled an identical $50,000 bonus for Von on May 27, 1957 (he produced a third such bonus to Kerry Don four years later), the angst had long since dissipated.

An all-state basketball star who rejected an athletic scholarship to Kansas University, Von was seemingly destined for professional baseball by association alone. Besides his talented older brother, he served as batboy for two other future professional hurlers, Eddie Fisher and Tony Risinger. A few years later the righty carved his own qualifications. He attracted attention shortly after his 15th birthday for reasons that became obvious three years later. The Cardinals had to instruct Von about balking: “[T]he kid hasn’t had much work throwing with men on [base],” Hawn explained. “In high school nobody got on against him.”2 In three years of prep play he’d surrendered 25 hits and 17 walks in 243 innings while striking out 243 (while a .545 batting average indicated that he could do more than pitch). All 16 major-league clubs pursued Von, some offering more than a $50,000 bonus, but “we didn’t want a bidding contest,” Newell McDaniel said. “We wanted the same for Von as for Lindy – no more, no less.”3 The then-hefty $50,000 price tag (teammates joked that it required a suitcase to carry) qualified Von as a “bonus baby” who, under the rules then in effect, had to be placed on the major-league roster.

Von’s first appearance mirrored his brother’s two years earlier: mop-up duty. With his team behind 8-1 after four innings in Philadelphia, Von took the mound on June 13, 1957, and struck out the first Phillies batter he faced. After a groundout and a single to center field, he proceeded to retire the next ten batters in order (including three more strikeouts). Three days later he entered a tied contest in Brooklyn and was soon face-to-face with future Hall of Famer Duke Snider. Shortstop Alvin Dark approached the mound to ensure that Von knew the gravity of the situation: “You know who this is, Von?” Dark asked. “Oh, sure,” replied the respectful youngster. “Mr. Snider.”4 He proceeded to strike out Duke on five pitches. Von’s identical four innings of one-hit work resulted in his first win, and Snider exclaimed: “He’s real good … a fine curveball and exceptional control.”5

Yet another bonus-baby pitcher joined the Cardinals on June 21 – Bob Miller. Nine months earlier Miller had delivered the only loss sustained by the McDaniel-led Mangum, Oklahoma, entry in the American Legion regional tournament. On this day he was quizzing his former opponent: “What's it like up here?” Von’s reply, with a mere eight days’ professional experience under his belt: “Aw, it’s not much different than pitching anywhere. … You just pitch the same way you always do.” While exuding this remarkable confidence, Von was unaware that within hours he would make his first major-league start.

Sworn to secrecy, Lindy had foreknowledge of manager Fred Hutchinson’s plan. Fred had gone as far as to publicly announce another starter for the home contest against the Dodgers in order to avoid any overanxiety that might overcome 18-year-old Von (who would later admit he knew something was afoot). Picking up where he left off in Ebbets Field five days earlier, Von carried a no-hitter into the sixth when, with no outs, an infield hit, an error and a bunt single loaded the bases and threatened a scoreless duel. Fearing the youngster might be rattled, catcher Hal Smith went out to the mound only to be patted on the shoulder with “[it’s o]kay, Smitty. … Don’t worry.”6 Four pitches later Von induced a pitcher-to-catcher-to-first double play followed by a groundout to him that ended the threat. He finished with a two-hit shutout, neither hit having left the infield. Dodgers pitching coach Joe Becker observed, “[w]hoever taught that Von McDaniel at Hollis deserves to have his name placed all over the record [books].”7

The next day, during CBS’s Game of the Week telecast of the Dodgers-Cardinals contest, announcer Dizzy Dean predicted a long, fruitful career for the youngster, now a nationwide sensation. Fans flowed through the turnstiles each time Von took the mound. In series both home and away, major-league owners witnessed a 20 percent increase in attendance at Von’s games. This adulation was soon rewarded with still another spectacular performance.

McDaniel took the mound at Busch Stadium on the afternoon of July 28 against the Pittsburgh Pirates seeking to reverse the trend of two consecutive losses (the second of which had been a rough outing in Forbes Field against the Pirates nine days earlier). His dominance this day was best reflected by the fact that, including a second-inning double, the Pirates sent only eight balls to the outfield as Von cruised to his fifth victory. Twenty-six days earlier he’d taken a perfect game into the seventh inning before settling on a 4-2 victory over Warren Spahn and the Milwaukee Braves. This time the double was the margin between McDaniel and a perfect game. Through 2012 Von remained the youngest major-league pitcher to throw a complete game one-hitter.

McDaniel’s contributions were more than individual achievement. For the first time in seven years, the Cardinals entered August with realistic pennant hopes. The team had seemed to be energized by the arrival of the youngster in June. From his first victory, on June 16, the Cardinals went on a 33-17 run, during which they held at least a share of first place for 28 days. Both player and team were seemingly unstoppable.

August would reveal a different story. Three days after Von collected his sixth victory with a win over the Phillies on August 3, the team entered a nine-game swoon from which it never fully recovered, and Von’s fate followed a similar course. Other than an impressive complete-game victory over the New York Giants on August 20 – sadly his last victory in the major leagues – his six appearances (15⅓ innings) resulted in a 6.46 ERA. Recognizing that he may have exhausted the young arm, former pitcher Hutchinson began a more deliberate, intermittent pace that included two relief stints. “As highly as I regard [Von, he’s] just [a] kid, subject to the rough moments everyone knows in this game,” Hutchinson said.8 At season’s end, this “kid” still was the only National League hurler to toss both a one-hitter and a two-hitter while concluding his abbreviated campaign with a record of 7-5 and a 3.22 ERA.

At camp the following spring, Von captured the mantle held by his brother for two consecutive years: At 18 he was the youngest player on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster. (Older brother Lindy was 22.) That winter major-league baseball had rescinded the rule requiring teams to keep their bonus babies on the parent team, though in the Cardinals’ case this change was irrelevant – they had no intention of assigning Von to the minors. But a difficult Grapefruit League campaign caused Hutchinson to ponder McDaniel’s fate.9 In his first outing of the new season, on April 18 (his birthday) he came into a tie game in relief and pitched to five batters without getting an out. The coaches worked exhaustively with Von until his next outing, a starting assignment on May 11 in which he also fared poorly. The youngster whom teammate Stan Musial once compared to future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts for his control at such an early age could now barely find the plate (five walks in two innings in what became his last appearance in the majors).

Three days later McDaniel was optioned to Double A Houston, where the fame from his meteoric rise followed him – the club experienced its largest turnout of the season during his June 11 outing. Despite numerous attempts at correcting his motion – including a failed no-windup approach – Von continued to struggle. The first of many theories arose: McDaniel was compensating for a sore arm by trying to throw harder, thereby fouling up his rhythm. After watching him yield 29 runs in 18 innings, Houston manager Harry Walker felt that his problem centered around his mental approach to pitching, an opinion that was echoed by Winston-Salem manager Vern Benson after another demotion, to Class B. “There is no rhythm at all in his pitching motion,” Benson said. “… I’ve had him in the outfield throwing to the plate. When he fields a ball and throws it without thinking, his motions are perfect. But his motions are entirely different when he gets on the mound.”10 Buoyed by the thought that the problems were not mechanical and that the mental approach would be corrected, Cardinals general manager Bing Devine predicted a rapid return for the promising youngster.

But yet another difficult campaign opened in 1959. Solicited or not, McDaniel fielded pitching advice ranging from his high-school coach to the Cardinals’ new coaching corps, and the latest theory centered on the need to “smooth out [his] extraneous wrist action, which made it difficult for him to control his pitches, and to get full steam into them.”11 But by the time the Cardinals broke camp to start the 1959 season, Von had been assigned even lower in the minor-league hierarchy to restart his career in a new capacity. Pitching difficulties notwithstanding, from his high-school days McDaniel had always been able to hit. With the Cardinals seeking to salvage anything they could from their $50,000 investment, on April 22 he debuted as a shortstop for the Daytona Beach Islanders in the Class D Florida State League. Perhaps manager Ray Wilson witnessed what Vern Benson saw from the outfield the preceding year because it wasn’t long before Von was alternating between the mound and shortstop. Placing among the league leaders in both hitting and pitching, he was selected to the league’s All Star squad and at season’s end his versatility (which included first base as well) was recognized in a poll of managers and sportswriters that named him the league’s best utility player.

Cardinals returned McDaniel to the Texas League in 1960, but his stay was short. In 12 appearances, all but two in relief, he compiled a 7.59 ERA that resulted in a quick demotion to Class C Winnipeg (Northern League). In 283 at-bats (he missed time after fracturing his right hand on August 14), he placed among the team and league leaders in home runs and “decided I couldn’t make it back to the majors as a pitcher … so I’m hoping to make the return trip as a good-hitting third baseman.”12 In his final six years in pro ball, he pitched only seven more times.

Though used occasionally at second base and right field in 1961, McDaniel played mostly at third base after being promoted again to the Texas League. After his productive 1961 season in Tulsa, the expansion Houston Colt .45s organization grabbed him in October, and he was a nonroster invitee to the Colt .45s inaugural spring camp in Apache Junction, Arizona.

Dubbed the team’s “Most Personable Newcomer”13 in an informal poll of sportswriters, Von made an immediate impression, belting two consecutive shots over the 360-foot left-field fence on his first day of workouts. Despite a three-hit performance against the Chicago Cubs in a March 14 exhibition, he still had challenges to face. Selected third in the expansion draft, Bob Aspromonte was the heir-apparent at third base (where he remained for seven seasons). The team used 11 second basemen in the 1962-64 seasons, but at no point did it appear that Houston considered moving McDaniel. Had he focused on second base instead of third in 1960, it could be that Von, considering his strong spring, might have started the 1962 season with the Colt .45s instead of being sent to Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Over the next five years Von bounced between Double-A and Triple-A ball, producing his best campaign in 1964 (.256-18-77). That attracted the attention of the Chicago Cubs, who drafted him but ultimately sent him to Triple-A Dallas-Fort Worth. McDaniel considered retiring after the 1965 season, but was persuaded by the Cubs to try one more season (he was still only 27). A strong start in 1966 (.301-2-21) yielded to a 0-for-19 hitless streak in June that eventually led him to retire after the season to his adopted home of Dodson in the Texas Panhandle (a short distance from his native Hollis, Oklahoma).

A farmer and accountant, the former phenom, like his brother Lindy rarely seen without a Bible in his hand, did much work as a preacher. As the youngest alumnus (37), he joined Lindy in St. Louis in 1976 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1926 championship season, where mention was made of the 50-plus pounds added to the once-svelte 6-foot-2 frame. He died on August 20, 1995, at 56 after suffering a heart attack and stroke, survived by his wife, Tilly, four daughters, and his parents. He was buried in Dodson Cemetery.

Over the years Von’s name has been invoked numerous times when pitching careers ended abruptly and seemingly without reason: Steve Blass, Mark Wohlers, and Rick Ankiel to name a few. A frank assessment was offered by the pitcher he bested in his fourth major-league win: “[A] young pitcher breaking into the big leagues must have the good fastball – and he must show it to the hitters,” said Warren Spahn. “[Von is] 18 … and pitching like an old man.”14

Harsh as this may appear, it seems to support a comment made by Von seven years after his blazing appearance on the major-league stage (laying to rest varied theories of a sore arm, extraneous wrist action, and his mental approach while on the mound): “I did … not take care of myself in the winter months [of 1957-58]. I was weak the next spring training. When I got in shape, I didn’t have enough power in my arm and it messed me up on my delivery.”15 Von’s bread-and-butter pitch in 1957 was off-speed stuff – when he could no longer throw these across the plate and had to rely on his fastball, he was lit up.

There were hints that the Cardinals asked Von to rest over that first winter and save his strength for the 1958 campaign (spawning later rumors that the youngster was mishandled by the organization). Whatever the reason, Von McDaniel was never seen on a major-league mound again after his brief appearance on May 11, 1958. At times variously compared to Hall of Famers Robin Roberts and Bob Feller during his meteoric rise, he would be forever lost to the major-league scene.

 

Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Clem Comly for his assistance in ensuring the accuracy of this narrative. Further thanks are extended to Len Levin.

 

Sources

The Sporting News

Baseball-reference.com

Ancestry.com

http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1133417/1/index.htm

http://newsok.com/services-today-for-former-cards-pitcher-von-mcdaniel/article/2511912

http://findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=14001224

http://partners.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/20010211mag-ankiel.html

 

Notes

1 “McDaniels of Cardinals Revive Dean Act,” The Sporting News, June 12, 1957, 3.

2 “Von, as School Star, Wasn’t Accustomed to Men on Base,” The Sporting News, July 3, 1957, 2.

3 “Two McDaniels on Cards; Von Signs for 50 Gs Bonus,” The Sporting News, June 5, 1957, 8.

4 “Von Knew Slugger He Was Facing – It Was ‘Mr. Snider’,” The Sporting News, June 26, 1957, 6.

5 “Von Knew Slugger.”

6 “Lindy Nervous, But Not Von in Kid’s Bases-Loaded Jam,” The Sporting News, July 3, 1957, 2.

7 “Boy Wonders Doing Man-Size Hill Jobs,” The Sporting News, July 3, 1957, 3.

8 “Lane Sounds Gong for More Firemen as Race Gets Hotter,” The Sporting News, July 3, 1957, 8.

9 McDaniel “was wild much of spring training. … [Coaches] felt he had lost his smooth pitching rhythm and set about trying to help him,” The Sporting News, April 30, 1958, 6.

10 “Von Still Wild, Fails to Last in Start for Winston-Salem,” The Sporting News, July 30, 1958, 38.

11 “Sad Sam, Vinegar Brush Back Swap Gossip With Early Tosses, The Sporting News, March 18, 1959, 17.

12 “Von Makes His Own Decision to Switch,” The Sporting News, August 3, 1960, 12.

13 “Scriveners’ Slants on Cream of N.L. Crop,” The Sporting News, April 18, 1962, 10.

14 “Mound Cutie Koonce Learns Hard Way – He Needs a Hummer,” The Sporting News, April 3, 1965, 21. In this article about Koonce, the writer, Jerome Holtzman, in drawing a parallel to McDaniel’s career, was recalling an earlier comment by Spahn.

15 “Quick Rise, Sudden Fall by Von McDaniel,” The Sporting News, November 14, 1964, 16.

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