History has not been kind to Don McMahon. Now largely forgotten, McMahon had a very long—often excellent—career, pitched in the postseason four times, helped win two world championships, and was clearly one of baseball’s best relief pitchers in a number of seasons.
Playing in the days before the closer became such a highly prized position, Donald John McMahon worked for seven teams in 18 major league seasons. Upon his retirement at age 44, records show that only three pitchers (Hoyt Wilhelm, Lindy McDaniel, and Cy Young) had appeared in more games. The two-pitch (fastball and overhand curve) right-handed McMahon pitched in 874 games, racking up 1,310.2 innings and 1,003 strikeouts. He notched 153 saves and posted a 90–68 (.570) win-loss record with a career 2.96 ERA. Born on January 4, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, McMahon grew up there as well. The youngster of Irish American descent went to St. Jerome Elementary School and Brooklyn Prep. In 1948, he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School. McMahon played baseball for the local Flatbush Robins in 1949. He was signed by Boston Braves scout John “Honey” Russell before the 1950 season.
Although mainly a third baseman in high school, McMahon was converted by the Braves into a pitcher. In 1950 at Owensboro (Kentucky) in the Kitty League, the 20-year-old won 20 games, with 143 strikeouts and a 2.72 ERA. He led the league in all three categories. The next year, he was sent to Denver in the Western League but appeared in only four games—in relief—before entering the Army, where he served from May 22, 1951, to May 14, 1953. After completing his service time, McMahon remained in the Braves’ organization, though the club had relocated to Milwaukee just before the 1953 season.
McMahon was assigned to Evansville in the Three I League and pitched 114 innings in 1953 for a 6–5 won-lost record with 91 strikeouts and a 4.50 ERA. In 1954, he was assigned to the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association, where he improved his game and got his ERA down to 3.56.
On the personal front, 1955 was a big success; he married Dolores Darlene Sater on February 5. But it was a dismal baseball year. Now with Toledo of the American Association, McMahon finished 2–13 with an ERA that ballooned to 5.01. He returned to Atlanta the following year. Incoming Braves pitching coach Charlie Root acknowledged the 2–13 record, but said, “I don’t see how anybody ever hits him. He throws so hard that catchers have a hard time hanging onto his pitches.” McMahon always credited the Atlanta Crackers’ field manager, former Brooklyn Dodgers hurler Whitlow Wyatt, for moving him from the rotation to the bullpen in 1956. It was a switch that proved very successful. That year, McMahon posted a 4–2 mark in 36 innings, struck out 34, and recorded a low 2.00 ERA and earned a midseason move to Wichita in the American Association. He took a while to adapt to the new league, but led off 1957 with a 2.92 ERA in his first 71 innings of relief and got himself a call-up to the big leagues in June. Clyde King also was credited with helping McMahon develop. By this time, McMahon was pitching exclusively in relief.
On June 30, 1957, McMahon made his major league debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates in a Sunday doubleheader nightcap game before 36,283 in Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Called upon to start the ninth inning to replace southpaw Taylor Phillips, he entered a game the Pirates were leading, 4–2. McMahon set down the three batters he faced. In the bottom of the ninth, the hometown Braves knotted the score on a Felix Mantilla home run with Frank Torre on board. In the Braves’ 10th, McMahon popped out to first base in his first major league at-bat. Taken out in the 12th for a pinch-hitter, McMahon ended his part of the game with four innings pitched, giving up just two hits and striking out seven. Milwaukee won the match in the 13th by a come-from-behind score of 6–5 when Eddie Mathews hit a two-run home run. In his first eight appearances, he threw 14 scoreless innings. Milwaukee captured the 1957 National League pennant with a 95–59 record (plus one tie). McMahon ended a great first season with nine saves and a 1.54 ERA. He made three appearances in the 1957 fall classic against the Yankees, which the Braves won four games to three. McMahon threw five innings in relief without allowing a run. After the season, he played winter ball for San Juan in Puerto Rico. In December, though, he was traded to Estrellas Orientales in the Dominican League. The idea was to place McMahon with a team that didn’t need as much relief help, so he wouldn’t get overworked. McMahon pitched very well to open the 1958 season and was named to the 1958 All-Star team. He won seven games and lost two, with an ERA of 3.68. It wasn’t until June 6 that he gave up his first home run in major league ball, to Don Zimmer, after 47 appearances without one. McMahon might have first become the answer to a trivia question sometime in 1958 at Milwaukee’s County Stadium when he was the first pitcher driven from the bullpen to the mound; he arrived in a motor scooter with sidecar. McMahon saved the pennant-clincher for Warren Spahn on September 21 and the Braves repeated as NL champs. McMahon again made three appearances in the World Series but this time Milwaukee fell in seven games to the Yankees.
In 1959, relief specialist McMahon led the National League with 15 saves, complementing a 2.57 ERA. He claimed to have counted 132 times he was up and throwing in the bullpen; accurate or not, he was used in 60 games. He helped keep the Braves in the race, but the hitting wasn’t sufficient and Milwaukee finished the year tied for the league lead with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers took the first two games in the best-of-three playoff. McMahon got a good pay raise but had a disappointing year in 1960, with a 5.94 ERA and a 3–6 mark. The Braves still contended, finishing second, seven games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bob Wolf wrote in The Sporting News that “the Braves’ relief pitching was far short of championship caliber. The failure of Don McMahon to regain his form of the last three years was becoming more costly as the season wore on.”
Bouncing back from what Wolf called a “season-long slump” in 1961, McMahon brought his ERA back under 3.00 and finished a decent season with a 6–4 mark and a 2.84 ERA. He’d started 1961 very well indeed, but tailed off significantly in August and September, and the team was not convinced that he’d entirely returned to form. They chose not to protect him in the expansion draft as the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s both joined the league for 1962. Neither team picked him up, and Bob Wolf wrote in February that he “doesn’t seem to have the old hop on his fastball, but he does have a good slider and a pretty fair curve.”
On May 9, 1962, though, Houston was ready to make a move. Though McMahon had not worked much and not pitched well, the 32-year-old right hander was purchased by the Colt .45s for a relatively modest $30,000. When the Braves came to Houston for the first time, he unleashed a barrage at his old manager Birdie Tebbetts, bitter over the fact that he’d hardly been used by Milwaukee (three innings of work in the first month) and that Tebbetts had told him not to use his fastball except as a waste pitch. He blazed several fastballs past Braves batters and got credit for beating his old team June 7. A Sporting News account in the June 23 issue makes it clear there was no love lost between Tebbetts and McMahon. Don later admitted he got a letter from his mother admonishing him. “She told me to quit saying things against Mr. Tebbetts,” he reported. He’d also had a flare-up over salary with Braves General Manager John McHale, so a change of scenery was probably in order.
Looking back on the year, McMahon was able to tell reporter Clark Nealon that 1962 was “the most gratifying year I’ve had since I came up to the Braves in 1957, helped them win the pennant and pitched in the World Series” (The Sporting News, March 16, 1963). He’d found his fastball again, liked the hot weather, and felt Houston treated its players better (and had a better philosophy of sharing relief work). He appeared in 51 games for Houston and contributed a stellar 1.53 ERA.
In 1963, McMahon put in a full year for Houston, but it wasn’t nearly as strong as ’62. His ERA ballooned to 4.05. He did witness teammate Don Nottebart’s no-hitter. It was the eighth no-hitter McMahon had seen. McMahon had been the one to recommend signing Nottebart to Houston GM Paul Richards. Right at the end of the 1963 season, McMahon was bought by the Cleveland Indians, reuniting him with Birdie Tebbetts, now the Tribe’s manager. It was Tebbetts who recommended getting McMahon, though it was a cheap enough acquisition at the $20,000 waiver price. The Indians weren’t desperate for bullpen help, but Birdie spotted something in Hoot Evers’ scouting report on McMahon and thought he saw a bargain.
McMahon lamented leaving Houston, saying that a bad shoulder had hampered him during a large part of the 1963 season. After the winter off, he established himself as Cleveland’s bullpen ace right out of the gate. Coming to a new league gave him a bit of an advantage at first. He still relied mainly on his fastball. “My control isn’t so sharp that I can pitch to the inside corner on one guy and the outside on another. All I want to know is whether I should pitch him high or low” (Regis McAuley, The Sporting News, June 6, 1964). By midyear, he had a 1.71 ERA. By year’s end, he’d made 70 appearances in relief, breaking the previous club record of 63 appearances. He was 6–4 with 16 saves. In November, he was named Man of the Year for the Indians.
He was a holdout in the spring, and it took a while before Cleveland GM Gabe Paul and his pitcher came to terms—while seated at the February writers’ dinner. He contributed a solid and respectable 1965 season (3.28 ERA), though not nearly as spectacular as in 1964. He wasn’t being used quite as much in early 1966, throwing 12.1 innings in 12 games through the end of May. His ERA was good, though, at 2.92. In early June, the Indians traded McMahon and fellow pitcher Lee Stange to the Red Sox for Dick Radatz. In Lost Summer: The ’67 Red Sox and the Impossible Dream, author Bill Reynolds described Radatz as the “. . . most dominant relief pitcher in the game, a large hulking man nicknamed ‘the Monster’. . .” Radatz had a really disappointing year in 1965, losing 11 games, and wasn’t off to such a hot start in ‘66, losing his first two decisions. First baseman Dick Stuart called him “that former fastball pitcher” and unforgiving Fenway crowds weren’t making his life easy. The Red Sox were on a bit of a swapping spree; the trade was the seventh the team had made since September 1965, as GM Dick O’Connell moved to remake the team.
Despite Radatz’s struggles, the trade was condemned by many in Boston. Stange was acquired for long relief and spot starts; McMahon was seen as the short relief specialist—though his first appearance was a four-inning stint June 4 against the Yankees, and he faced the minimum 12 batters in the seventh through the 10th innings in a game the Sox won on a three-run homer by Jim Gosger in the bottom of the 16th. He put out a fire the following night, also against the Yankees. On July 6, he earned wins in both halves of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium and began to win hearts and minds in Boston. The last pitcher to win both ends of a doubleheader from the Bombers was Dave Davenport of the St. Louis Browns a half-century earlier, in 1916.
McMahon took over the fireman role, leading the 1966 pen with nine saves and a 2.65 ERA. Stange won seven games, but lost nine. Radatz had had his day; he disappointed Cleveland with an 0–3 record and a far higher ERA than either Stange or McMahon. In the end, Larry Claflin wrote that the Sox felt they “jobbed” the Indians and may have cost Birdie Tebbetts his job managing the Tribe. But Boston still wound up just a half-game out of last place. The Boston baseball writers noted McMahon’s contribution nonetheless, and voted him the club’s most valuable pitcher for 1966.
At the start of 1967, Don, his wife Darlene, their six kids, and two dogs all drove cross-country from his home near Anaheim, California, for Red Sox spring training in Florida. He and John Wyatt were seen as the core of the Boston bullpen. McMahon didn’t pitch as well, though, as his ERA was up a run in April and May over his 1966 numbers.
Exactly one year from the day he was acquired by the Red Sox, they sent him to Chicago. It was June 2, 1967, as Red Sox management sought to bolster their infield by trading for veteran utility man Jerry Adair. McMahon was not getting a lot of work, having thrown just 17 innings. The White Sox had lost reliever Dennis Higgins, who suffered a detached retina, and were anxious to make a trade, anxious enough to give up a player like Adair. O’Connell found it a very attractive deal, and he pounced on it, throwing in highly touted minor league pitching prospect Bob Snow (who went 20–2 for Winston-Salem the year before).
Boston’s 1967 skipper, Dick Williams, told SABR interviewer Jeff Angus that it was “a trade that helped both clubs.” He added, “McMahon was disgruntled to leave, but he was just bouncing the ball off the plate with us. When he went over to Chicago, [he] pitched very well for them…[while] Adair played short for us for three weeks when Rico [Petrocelli] was hurt, and contributed.” The shift agreed with McMahon; he finished the year with a 1.67 ERA for the White Sox and a 5–0 record, making a key contribution to Chicago’s pennant drive. Adair contributed in a number of ways, and a number of writers felt his acquisition one of the key moves the Sox made in 1967.
McMahon didn’t last much more than a year in the Windy City. The White Sox really needed another starter, and in a straight-up swap on July 26, 1968, they sent McMahon to the Detroit Tigers for right-hander Dennis Ribant. Chicago was worried about Gary Peters’ health and wanted a pitcher with starting capabilities. McMahon again posted a final 1.98 ERA (consistent throughout the year, he was 1.96 for Chicago and 2.02 for Detroit). He’d missed being in the 1967 World Series with the Red Sox, but he found himself with another pennant-winning team as Detroit captured the AL flag in 1968. McMahon collected his second world championship ring, as the Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the fall classic—McMahon himself appearing twice, though briefly and not effectively.
McMahon returned to the National League later the following year, joining his seventh major league team, when the San Francisco Giants purchased him August 8 from the Tigers. Playing with Cooperstown-bound Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, and Gaylord Perry must have agreed with him. He was 39 at the time of the transaction, and he still kept getting batters out. He posted a 3.04 ERA for the remainder of 1969 and a 2.96 ERA in 61 appearances in 1970. In 1971, he was still relying on his fastball but admitted he hadn’t used his slider for a couple of years. He was getting his breaking ball over the plate better than ever, and so featured that more.
In 1972, when the Giants signed him, they did so in two capacities. He was to be a pitcher, of course, but he also served as pitching coach, taking over from Larry Jansen. He still got into 44 games, throwing 63 innings and tallying a 3.71 ERA.
Over four seasons, McMahon posted an overall 25–15 won-loss record with 30 saves. After the 1972 season ended, the Giants released him as a player. He continued with his duties as pitching coach. When San Francisco’s bullpen began to falter in mid-1973, McMahon was reactivated on June 25. He’d been throwing batting practice all year, so was in excellent shape, and hopped into a game against Atlanta on July 2. The score was 6–5 Giants, there was a runner at first and no one out, with Hank Aaron due up. McMahon closed the game, setting down six straight batters. He notched a 4–0 mark with six saves and an excellent 1.48 ERA. The following year, the same situation presented itself. He was the team’s pitching coach, returned to the active roster on May 21, and the following day shut down the Braves in two full innings of work. He threw only 11.2 innings, though, appearing in nine games with no decisions and a 3.09 ERA. Six weeks later, San Francisco called up Phoenix (Pacific Coast League) farmhand right-hander Ed Halicki and placed McMahon on waivers. Once he cleared waivers, McMahon returned as the pitching coach. His last appearance as a pitcher had been on June 29, 1974, in a home game against the Dodgers. He threw two innings in relief.
McMahon coached for San Francisco through 1975. In 1976 and 1977 he was a coach with the Minnesota Twins. For a couple of years, Don worked in sales for the Rawlings Sporting Goods Company and turned up at Anaheim Stadium to present Rick Miller with a Gold Glove.
He returned to the major league ranks to reprise his role as pitching coach with the Giants for three more seasons, 1980–1982. Within a few weeks of his release, he was hired by the Cleveland Indians in the same capacity, 1983–1985. In November 1985, he was hired by the Los Angeles Dodgers “to position players from the press box” as the team’s “eye in the sky.” He even worked some in the off-season as a football scout for several years, helping out the Oakland Raiders even while still an active player. Al Davis and he had both gone to school at Erasmus Hall High in Brooklyn.
On July 22, 1987, at Dodger Stadium, while pitching batting practice, the 57-year-old McMahon suffered a heart attack and died a few hours later in a local hospital. He had been working for Los Angeles as an instructional coach and scout and threw batting practice almost every Dodgers home game.
Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider said of Mac: “I played against him. He never gave in to a hitter. He was a great competitor.” The New York Times ran a heartfelt appreciation of Don McMahon by Ira Berkow, headlined “He Died With Spikes On.” The Dodgers wore an arm band reading “MAC” in his memory. Survived by his wife and six children, Don McMahon was buried at Good Shepherd Cemetery in Huntington Beach, California, with a baseball in his hand.
Looney, Jack. Now Batting Number.… New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2006.
Pietrusza, David, Matthew Silverman, and Michael Gershman, eds. Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia. Kingston, N.Y.: Total Sports/Sports Illustrated. 2000.
Angus, Jeff. Interview with Dick Williams, February 24, 2006.
An earlier version of this biography appeared in The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox: Pandemonium on the Field, published by Rounder Books.
This article originally appeared in the book Sock It To 'Em Tigers--The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, published by Maple Street Press in 2008. An earlier version appeared in the book Pandemonium on the Field--The Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox, published by Rounder Books in 2007.
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