SABR

Mike McNally

This article was written by Jim Leeke.

Mike McNally emerged from the gritty Lackawanna Valley before World War I to fashion a half-century career in baseball. A deft, light-hitting utility infielder, he played 10 seasons in the big leagues, twice scored spectacularly in the World Series, and went on to become a popular manager, scout, and front-office executive. Along the way, irrepressible “Minooka Mike” entertained everyone from the King of England to the Sultan of Swat.

Michael Joseph McNally was born on September 13, 1893, in Minooka, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Scranton. His parents, Patrick and Catherine, were Irish immigrants. Patrick was a coal miner, and the area was a coal-mining and railroad center teeming with similar families. Among them was the large O’Neill clan, friends and neighbors of the McNallys for years. Besides Mike, the McNallys had three daughters – Bridget, Barbara, and Catherine. At the time of the 1910 census, Mike was working as a depot agent, perhaps on the railroad. 

Minooka was mad for baseball in the first decade of the 20th century. Several local players—including McNally and brothers Jack, Mike, Steve, and Jimmy O’Neill—would make the major leagues. The pride of the town was a semipro club, the Minooka Blues, which played in a league sponsored by a Catholic temperance group. Coached by a fifth O’Neill, Paul, known as P. E., many of the ballplayers were teenagers—“the young Blues,” the newspapers called them. Detroit Tigers manager Hugh Jennings, another son of the region, helped usher several Blues into the big leagues. Among them were the O’Neills, outfielder Chick Shorten, and third baseman McNally.

Michael O’Neill (the original “Minooka Mike”) managed in the New York State League after retiring as an active player for the Cardinals and Reds. He signed McNally for his Utica team in the winter of 1911. At 5-foot-11 and 148 pounds, McNally was so slender his nickname was “Ghost”. The 1912 season was something of a gift for the young infielder, whose few stats don’t appear in the modern record. He helped out around the ballpark, learned the game sitting beside O’Neill, and occasionally got into the late innings of a game. McNally made his professional debut on June 9, in Scranton, after the Utes’ second baseman was ejected. McNally’s local friends gave him a suitcase and a traveling bag to celebrate the event.

O’Neill was accused of letting emotion cloud his judgment for carrying a player considered “little more than a bat boy.” The tactic nonetheless paid off the next year as McNally played shortstop gracefully and surely for the Utes, stole 24 bases, and hit .268 against strong pitching. Boston scout Patsy Donovan called him “the best ball player for his age that I have ever seen.” The Red Sox purchased McNally’s contract for $3,500 in August 1913, a month before he turned 20. Boston shipped him to the St. Paul Saints in the American Association.

McNally “fields his position well, has a deadly peg, and looks as if he would develop into a fair hitter,” Sporting Life said in May 1914. The Pittsburgh Press called him “the sensation of the American association.” Although he had vision problems late in the season (some reports had him going blind), Boston recalled McNally that winter. He reported to the Red Sox in 1915 with the good wishes of fans in Minooka and Scranton. “There is no more popular local base ball product than McNally,” said The Sporting News. “The fans like him because he is the same Mike McNally today that he was when he was on the amateur lots.”

The youngster made the big club, mostly filling in at third base. The New York Times mentioned the Sox’s “accomplished new infielder,” while Sporting Life noted his “sensational fielding” and “circus stuff” around the bag. McNally also met a young pitcher who had arrived in Boston the previous season. George Herman Ruth would be his teammate for nearly a decade and a friend for much longer. “I learned to laugh and have fun with him,” McNally later said of the Babe.[1]

McNally didn’t stick with Boston that first year. He went down to Providence in June and hit .253 in 103 games. When the Red Sox made the World Series that fall, McNally was voted a fraction of a player’s full share of the proceeds. The 1915 Red Sox team was the first of six pennant-winning clubs that Minooka Mike would play for in the major leagues.

The flashy young infielder stayed with the big club for all of 1916. Although he hit just .170 in 87 games, he often had an impact on the basepaths. “MIKE McNALLY’S DASH BEATS THE SENATORS” the Boston Globe headlined in June. “McNALLY’S DASH BEATS YANKS, 1-0,” it echoed after the last game of September. (He also proved that his head wasn’t always as useful as his feet by batting out of turn in an error-filled loss to the St. Louis Browns.)

The second game in the Boston/Brooklyn World Series of 1916 gave McNally another chance to flash his great speed. The score was 1-1 in the bottom of the 14th with the field growing dark. First baseman Dick Hoblitzell stood on second after a walk and a bunt. Manager Bill Carrigan started pulling levers, sending McNally to run for “Hobbie” and Del Gainer to pinch hit. Gainer sliced a liner between third and short. McNally ran on contact, “off for the promised land,” wrote the Globe. Left fielder Zack Wheat caught the ball on a bounce and fired home, but “McNally went over the plate like a hound after a fox and the game was over.”

Pitcher Ruth earned a complete-game victory over Sherry Smith, who also went the distance in what the Babe later called “one of the greatest World Series battles ever put into the book.”[2]  The game is still the longest in Series history for innings played. The Red Sox took the championship in five games.

A huge crowd waited at the train station for McNally and Boston teammate Chick Shorten when they returned to Scranton. “Father Minooka, his wife and children were ready early in the evening and they came to the city with Bauer’s band and a few tons of fireworks,” said a newspaper in nearby Elmira, New York. They escorted the players through the city with “demonstrations at every corner.” The Blues were lined up in Minooka to greet them. “It rained rain in Scranton last night,” the newspaper said, “but out in Minooka, it rained enthusiasm.”

McNally enjoyed his best year at the plate the next season, hitting.300 in 42 games, as the Red Sox finished second behind the White Sox. America had entered World War I six months earlier and enlistments and the draft were depleting big-league rosters. McNally joined Boston player-manager Jack Barry and three teammates—Shorten, outfielder Duffy Lewis, and pitcher Ernie Shore—to enlist as yeomen in the Naval Reserves at the Charlestown Navy Yard. They reported for active duty in November 1917.

Barry assembled a first-rate Navy ballclub to play Harvard, other local colleges and service teams. Gainer, Herb Pennock and Jim Cooney of the Red Sox signed on, as did Arthur Rico and Henry Schreiber of the Boston Braves. (The Braves’ Rabbit Maranville also played briefly, but requested sea duty and shipped out on the battleship USS Pennsylvania.) “I’d hate to have that bunch against me in a league race,” a big-league manager said.[3]

Unofficially called the Wild Waves, Barry’s First Naval District team soon became an embarrassment of riches. The idea of ballplaying yeomen didn’t set well with senior officers and the Navy abruptly disbanded the team in May 1918, citing “exigencies of the service.” McNally and several teammates shipped out with what Boston newspapers called “sealed orders.”

The situation was different on the other side of the Atlantic. Eight American and Canadian military teams constituted the new Anglo-American Baseball League, which played in and around London, with proceeds going to war charities. When the American brass took an interest, former pro, amateur, and collegiate players began appearing on the rosters. Arriving on a warship in Ireland, McNally and Pennock both were surprised with new orders to London. In addition to their military duties, they were soon playing ball again for the Navy. Despite having officers on the squad, McNally was the team captain.

British enthusiasm for baseball mounted almost to a frenzy with the announcement of a game between the Army and Navy headquarters teams at Stamford Bridge on the Fourth of July, 1918. A diamond was squeezed onto the Chelsea Football Grounds. King George V took a genuine interest in baseball and said he would attend. The Times of London rightly predicted that the game would “undoubtedly become historic.”

A crowd of perhaps 50,000 service members and civilians descended on the grounds. Before the game, Admiral William Sims introduced the king to the two team captains. McNally stepped up with a smile to shake hands. George V unexpectedly clung to him a moment and they exchanged a few pleasant words. (Another Irishman later dampened the moment somewhat by hissing, “Did you notice that his nibs never took his gloves off?”) A photo of the Irish-American ballplayer and the bearded, diminutive monarch ran in many British and American newspapers. McNally always laughingly said that meeting the king was “pretty good for a Minooka boy.”

The Army-Navy ballgame was a peach. Pennock struck out 14 batters. The opposing pitcher, Captain Edward “Doc” Lafitte, formerly of the Detroit Tigers and Brooklyn Tip-Tops, allowed the Navy team just five hits. The game was scoreless until the fourth, when first baseman McNally sacrificed a runner along and Navy scratched out a run. In the sixth, he doubled to knock in another. “The pitching and fielding were brilliant,” The Times said, and in the late innings “it looked as if the Army would be beaten pointless.” Lafitte smacked an RBI double in the bottom of the ninth for Army’s only run. Pennock recorded the 2-1 Navy victory.

McNally also followed his old team while overseas. The Red Sox season culminated in Boston’s last championship for 86 years. “Tell Mr. Frazee I’ll be ready to report at the Hot Springs training camp next Spring—providing he wants it so,” he wrote home to Fenway Park. “Maybe [the war] will be over by then.”

The war ended with the Armistice on November 11. McNally got home to rejoin the Sox in 1919 and hit .262 in 33 games. He then saw his pal Ruth shipped out to the Yankees in January 1920. President Harry H. Frazee defended the now-infamous sale by saying it was an “injustice” to keep the slugger on the Red Sox, who were “fast becoming a one-man team.”[4]

Spring training in Arkansas was anything but dull, even without the Babe. Out riding one evening with the club’s traveling secretary, McNally spied a girl on a runaway horse. He galloped after her in a scene right out of a silent western. “Mike set off in pursuit and caught the runaway just at the top of a long grade,” the Globe reported. “The Minooka favorite thus has become a Hot Springs hero.” With that remarkable beginning, McNally had his career year in 1920. He played in 93 games, mostly at second base, and hit .256. He beat the Tigers with an 11th-inning dash in August, scoring from second on an infield single.

McNally then wound up with the Yankees himself in 1921, traded with pitchers Waite Hoyt and Harry Harper and catcher Wally Schang for Del Pratt, Hank Thormahlen, Harold “Muddy” Ruel, and Sam Vick. To Ruth, the Yankees looked “more and more like the old Red Sox.” McNally hit .260 in 71 games, brilliantly taking over third base for Frank “Home Run” Baker during the stretch run. He paused only to marry Mae Murray in Scranton on September 12, then reported back to New York the next day. Three weeks later, Miller Huggins’ Yankees met John McGraw’s Giants in the last nine-game World Series.

Minooka Mike again became an unlikely hero. The Yankees led 1-0 in the fifth inning of the first game when McNally stepped up against pitcher Phil Douglas. Improbably, he doubled down the third-base line past Frankie Frisch. (McNally had only seven extra-base hits all season, including his only big-league homer.) Schang sacrificed him to third before pitcher Carl Mays struck out. Ruth was coaching at third as outfielder Elmer Miller stepped to the plate.

“Watch Frisch, Babe,” McNally said.

He broke for home as Douglas wound up his next pitch. McNally “came down the trail like a frightened deer, a flying shadow,” said the New York Tribune. Miller blocked catcher Frank Snyder’s view until McNally was almost on top of them. The pitch was wide on the first-base side of the plate. Snyder came back with a tag and started for the dugout, but McNally was signaled safe. The Giants beefed but got no satisfaction.

“I could feel the plate under me when Snyder touched me,” McNally said. “From where he was standing, after having taken Douglas’s pitch, it would have been impossible for him to tag me out before my feet slid across the plate. He was too far over.” Newspapers mistakenly called it the only theft of home in the World Series after Ty Cobb’s in 1909. (It was actually the fifth, and teammate Bob Meusel did it again the next game.)

The Babe indicated in his ghostwritten, syndicated newspaper column that he had sent his pal scampering for home, but Yankees manager Miller Huggins said McNally had gone on his own. Minooka Mike maintained the same thing—believing that he could beat Douglas’ windup and throw, he had simply dashed for home. (“Never mind the details,” a hometown booster hooted years later at a banquet in Scranton. “Just tell us how you ever got on base!”)

McNally also stole second in the ninth inning. “Can the Giants stop Mike McNally?” the Associated Press wondered. They could. Running aggressively, he was twice tagged out later in the series. “Pride goeth before a fall,” said the Reading Eagle. His play at third base was brilliant but erratic (three errors). Then he tore a ligament in his right shoulder sliding into second base during Game Seven. Ruth was finished, too, forced out after Game Five by an aggravated elbow injury. The Yankees lost the Series in eight games.

Father Minooka again welcomed McNally home. Five thousand people and a 35-piece band mobbed Scranton’s Delaware, Lackawanna & Western station. The former Blues star made his way through the crowd with Mae and his mother, shaking hands with his left hand to protect his bad shoulder.

Ever the utility player, McNally spent the next three seasons coming off the bench, appearing in more than 50 games only once. The Yankees and Giants met in two more World Series during those years. McNally played in one game without an at-bat during the Yankees’ loss in 1922. He sat out the victory the next October with an ankle injury. Washington then won the championship in 1924.

The Yankees traded McNally back to the Red Sox the following offseason, thus breaking up the Ruth-McNally duo that had long entertained teammates and scribes. McNally would be variously remembered in New York as Ruth’s roommate, babysitter, guardian, and friend. The Babe himself later recalled that McNally had for years carried around a fading box score to prove that the infielder had once pinch hit for him back in Boston. When he showed it once too often in New York, Ruth told him, “Mike, if you show that box score to anyone again I’ll make you eat it.”[5] 

The Babe “will not have Mike McNally to lead him astray” anymore, kidded New York sportswriter Will Wedge. “The Babe, an innocent minded simple country boy from Baltimore, was easily influenced by McNally’s wiles as a city slicker from Scranton.” The light-hitting utility man’s name would always be associated with the slugger’s, if not vice versa. Yarns about them circulated for years, involving everything from hot dogs to curfews, pranks to showgirls. Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon shared a tame one with readers in 1957:

“Mike McNally once told Babe Ruth that Miller Huggins, who then managed the Yankees, was sending him to New Haven to scout a pitcher. ‘Bring your bat,’ advised Ruth. ‘If you can hit him, don’t bring him back.’”[6]  

McNally was a Red Sox again for one day. Boston sent him to the Senators for infielder “Doc” Prothro. Washington manager Bucky Harris, another product of the coalfields, wanted Minooka Mike to bolster his championship infield. The move didn’t succeed. McNally played in just 12 games before he was dropped in June 1925. When he cleared waivers, the Senators sent him back to New York as partial payment for shortstop Everett Scott. The Yankees, in turn, wanted McNally to report to St. Paul, where he had played 11 years earlier. He refused and sat out the rest of the season.

The veteran wanted the Yankees to send him to an eastern minor-league club. When they did, to Buffalo the following January, it was too late. McNally announced his retirement to “enter the automobile business” in Scranton. But baseball wasn’t finished with Minooka Mike. Clubs in several minor leagues approached McNally in 1926 about becoming a player-manager. “I’m only about 20 pounds overweight,” he said, “and a little handball will take that off during the winter months.” He eventually signed to lead the Triple Cities (Binghamton) Triplets in the New York-Pennsylvania League.

McNally hit .256 with a fielding percentage of .959 in 1927, but had a tough inaugural year as manager. Binghamton finished sixth. The team improved when he hung up his glove and kept to the bench in 1928. The Triplets contended for the pennant all the way. “I was sorry to hear my old teammate, Mike McNally, lost the NYP pennant by one game,” Lou Gehrig said. “The fact that Binghamton was a contender for the flag right through to the final contest of the season shows, however, that McNally had a good club and that he is a real manager.”[7]

The Iron Horse was right. Binghamton took the flag the next year after exchanging the lead with Williamsport 21 times. The 1929 Triplets were a real Minooka Mike team. They finished seventh in batting, but winning on strong pitching and the best fielding percentage in the league. McNally put himself into the final game at third base and singled on the only pitch he saw. In a nod to an earlier “Minooka Mike,” he also sent his batboy to pinch hit and play second base.

Such exploits made McNally a fan favorite. In an old-timers’ game at Binghamton, he once legged out what Rabbit Maranville called “the fastest triple I ever saw.” McNally had set up the gag beforehand. The park electrician killed the lights when McNally connected, then brought them up again seconds later as he slid into third. “I hadn’t bothered to touch first or second,” McNally said, laughing. “With the lights out, I took the shortcut from home to third.”[8]

McNally also held a second job as the municipal athletic director in Scranton. When the position began to take more time, McNally moved back home in 1930 to take over the Wilkes-Barre team. He managed the Barons for three seasons, winning the pennant in 1930 and 1932. The next spring he took the helm of the troubled Williamsport club, whose fans had offered in a mass meeting to sell season tickets or act as financial guarantors. McNally successfully managed the Grays for four seasons, then returned to Wilkes-Barre to manage two more. He also ran for Congress in 1938 against Patrick J. Boland, the powerful Democratic Whip in the House. McNally lost the primary election and returned to baseball, admitting that at politics “I wasn’t quite as good as picking up grounders.”[9]

Cleveland acquired the Wilkes-Barre team after the 1938 season. McNally moved up into the front office, first as business manager, later as general manager and president. (Returning briefly to the dugout for his ailing manager in July 1945, he promptly swept a doubleheader.) Although no longer a slim young infielder— he “now looks like a barrel,” Ruth wrote—McNally stayed in touch with former teammates and played in old-timers games. He was in a New York uniform the day the Yankees retired Ruth’s number, on the 25th anniversary of Yankee Stadium, a few months before the Babe’s death in 1948.

McNally succeeded Muddy Ruel as director of the Indians’ farm system in 1951 and appointed his old pal Chick Shorten as a scout. McNally stayed in the post until 1958, then remained as a roving ambassador and scout. Many thought his greatest feat was signing slugger Rocky Colavito, whom he found almost in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.

Mae McNally passed away in 1963. Minooka Mike was hospitalized two years later with a heart and lung ailment while visiting a niece in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He died there at age 71 on May 29, 1965, survived by sons Michael Jr. and John, two sisters, and six grandchildren. Many obituaries mentioned his theft of home in the 1921 World Series.

Sources

1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York, by Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg

Baseball Digest

Baseball Encyclopedia

Baseball Magazine

Baseball-reference.com

The Babe Ruth Story, Babe Ruth and Bob Considine

The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth, by Leigh Montville

Binghamton Press

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Mike McNally player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

New York Times

New York Tribune

Herb Pennock player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

The Searcher: Newsletter of the Genealogical Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania

Sporting Life

Sporting News

The Times, London




[1] Scranton Tribune, May 31, 1965, in Mike McNally player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

[2] The Babe Ruth Story, Babe Ruth and Bob Considine (New York, 1963), p. 38.

[3] Utica Herald-Dispatch, August 7, 1918.

[4] New York Times, January 6, 1920.

[5] Babe Ruth Story, p. 41.

[6] Amsterdam (NY) Recorder, March 22, 1957.

[7] Binghamton Press, November 12, 1928.

[8] New York Times, August 23, 1953.

[9] Scranton Tribune, May 31, 1965.

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