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, 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 1,310⅔ innings and 1,003 strikeouts. He notched 153 saves and posted a 90–68 (.570) won-lost record with a career 2.96 earned-run average.
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 Class D 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 Class A Western League but appeared in only four games, in relief, before entering the US Army, where he served from May 22, 1951, to May 14, 1953. After completing his service time, McMahon remained in the Braves’ organization; the club had relocated to Milwaukee just before the 1953 season.
McMahon was assigned to Evansville (Indiana) in the Class B 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 Double-A Southern Association, where he improved his game and got his ERA down to 3.56.
On the personal front, 1955 was a big success for McMahon; he married Dolores Darlene Sater on February 5. But it was a dismal baseball year. Now with Toledo of the Triple-A American Association, McMahon finished 2-13 with an ERA that ballooned to 5.01. He returned to Atlanta the following year. McMahon always credited the Atlanta manager, former Brooklyn Dodgers All-Star 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; he earned a midseason move to Triple-A 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 doubleheader nightcap before 36,283 in Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Called upon to start the ninth inning to replace southpaw Taylor Phillips, he entered the game with the Pirates leading, 4-2. McMahon set down the three batters he faced. In the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the hometown Braves knotted the score on a Felix Mantilla home run with Frank Torre on board. In the Braves’ tenth, 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, just two hits given up and seventrikeouts. 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, McMahon 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 World Series against the Yankees, which the Braves won in seven games. McMahon threw five innings in relief without allowing a run.
After the season McMahon played winter ball for San Juan in Puerto Rico. In December 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 NL All-Star team, but did not appear in the game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. 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 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 in Cincinnati 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 NL with 15 saves and in games finished with 49, 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 to capture the pennant. 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.”1
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. The Braves chose not to protect him in the expansion draft as the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s both joined the NL for 1962. Neither team selected McMahon, 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.”2
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 in June for the first time, he unleashed a barrage at his former 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. On June 7 he blazed several fastballs past Braves batters and got credit for beating his old team. An account in The Sporting News June 23 issue mades it clear that 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.3 He’d also had a flare-up over salary with Braves general manager John McHale, so a change of scenery was probably in order.
McMahon had a gratifying year in 1962. 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 1962. 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. The day after the 1963 season ended, McMahon was sold to the Cleveland Indians, reuniting him with 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 much 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.”4 By midyear, he had a 1.59 ERA. By year’s end, he’d made a career-high 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.
McMahon 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. McMahon 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 12⅓ 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 former All-Star relief pitcher Dick Radatz. The Red Sox were on a bit of a swapping spree; the trade was the seventh the team had made since September 1965, as general manager Dick O’Connell moved to remake the team.
Despite Radatz’s struggles in 1965 and the early part of 1966, 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 on June 4 against the Yankees, and he faced the minimum 12 batters in the seventh through the tenth innings in a game the Red 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 games 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 Bronx Bombers had been Dave Davenport of the St. Louis Browns a half-century earlier, in 1916.
McMahon took over the fireman role, leading the 1966 Boston bullpen 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. 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, and their six children 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, the team sent him to the Chicago White Sox. It was June 2, 1967, as Red Sox management sought to bolster their infield by trading for veteran utilityman 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 had gone 20-2 for Class A 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.”5 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 that came up three games short. Adair contributed in a number of ways, and a number of writers felt his acquisition was one of the key moves the Red Sox made in their pennant-winning 1967 season.
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 NL later the following year, joining his seventh major-league team, when the San Francisco Giants acquired him for a player to be named later (infielder Cesar Gutierrez) on August 8 from the Tigers. Playing with Cooperstown-bound Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, and Gaylord Perry must have agreed with McMahon. 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 McMahon was still relying on his fastball but admitted he hadn’t used his slider for a couple of years. At age 41, McMahon was getting his breaking ball over the plate better than ever, and so featured that more during another season with 61 appearances.
When the Giants re-signed McMahon in 1972, 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 his first four seasons with San Francisco, McMahon posted an overall 25-15 won-lost record with 30 saves. After the 1972 season, 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 in the eighth inning against Atlanta on July 2. The score was 6-5 Giants, and there was a runner at first and no one out, with Hank Aaron due up. McMahon got Aaron to ground out and 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. McMahon was the team’s pitching coach, returned to the active roster on May 21, and on the following day shut down the Braves in two full innings of work. He threw only 11⅔ 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 scoreless innings of 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 in 1979 to present Angels outfielder Rick Miller with a Gold Glove for the 1978 season.
McMahon 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.”6 He even worked some in the offseason as a football scout for several years, helping out the Oakland Raiders even while still an active player. He and Raiders owner-coach Al Davis had both attended 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 hospital. He had been working for Los Angeles as an instructional coach and scout and threw batting practice almost every Dodgers home game.
The New York Times ran a heartfelt appreciation of Don McMahon by Ira Berkow, headlined “He Died With Spikes On.”7 “He had a rubber arm,” said longtime friend Frank Torre.8 The Dodgers wore an armband 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.
An updated version of this biography is included in the book "Thar's Joy in Braveland! The 1957 Milwaukee Braves" (SABR, 2014), edited by Gregory H. Wolf. It also appeared in "Sock It To 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers" (Maple Street Press, 2008) and "Pandemonium on the Field: The Impossible Dream 1967 Red Sox" (Rounder Books, 2007).
New York Times
The Sporting News
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, New York: Total Sports/Sports Illustrated. 2000).
Jeff Angus, Interview with Dick Williams, February 24, 2006.
1 The Sporting News, September 14, 1960, 14.
2 The Sporting News, February 28, 1962, 20.
3 The Sporting News, June 23, 1962, 19.
4 The Sporting News, June 6, 1964,12
5 Jeff Angus interview with Dick Williams, February 24, 2006.
6 Ira Berkow, “Sports of the Times; He Died with His Spikes On,” New York Times, August 1, 1987.