Billy McCool

This article was written by Doug Wilson

Bill McCool was once one of the most promising pitchers in baseball – a teenager with a fastball that was often too much for major leaguers to handle. But bad luck and injuries derailed his career before he turned 25.

William John McCool was born on July 14, 1944, to Carl and Delores McCool. He was raised in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a border town of about 5,000 on the Ohio River, only 20 miles from Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Major-league rosters later correctly identified his place of birth as nearby Batesville, because Lawrenceburg didn’t have a hospital at the time. Bill was a great athlete at Lawrenceburg High School: a fullback on the football team and a star on the basketball squad. The baseball field is where he left an enduring mark, however. He hit over .400 every season and compiled a pitching record of 18-2 (7-0 as a senior) with three no-hitters. Old-timers from the area would long remember his fastball as simply too much for high-school hitters. “People used to say you couldn’t believe his fastball,” said one. “It was just overpowering.”1

McCool’s high-school career landed him in the Indiana High School Hall of Fame in 2013. “Coaches are the ones who count,” he said upon accepting the award. “Most of the credit for what I was able to do later as a professional baseball player goes to Pat O’Neill, who coached me from the time I was 9 years old in Little League, through Knothole ball, high school and American Legion.”2

O’Neill was a legendary baseball and football coach who was himself enshrined as an Indiana Hall of Famer. A strict disciplinarian as well as an innovator, O’Neill recognized young McCool’s strong arm and helped develop his pitching talent. One of O’Neill’s favorite teaching devices was a rope latticework he hung over home plate. He then had his pitchers try to hit the knots on the corners.

McCool was 26-4 in two years of American Legion ball, throwing two no-hitters and averaging 14 strikeouts a game. In the 1961 Indiana American Legion tournament, McCool and Lawrenceburg led Rockport 2-0 when he was hit in the head by a pitch while batting in the seventh inning. On the mound the next inning, still clearly affected, he gave up a walk and two hits while another batter reached on an error, resulting in three runs. He lost the game 3-2 despite giving up only four hits and striking out 17.

In the days before a baseball draft, 14 teams courted McCool, and he chose the Cincinnati Reds. Although the Reds were essentially his hometown team, he later said that had little to do with his signing. The confident youngster said he looked over major-league rosters for left-handed pitching and since the Reds had only three lefties and two of them were in their 30s, he felt he could get to the majors sooner with the Reds. He was signed by Reds scouts Buzz Boyle and Cliff Polking for what was later termed a small bonus.

McCool met with frustration in his initial professional experience. Assigned to Tampa of the Class A Florida State League, he started off 1-8. In his first three games, the team made 13 errors behind him, then gave him four runs in support during his next five games. He lost 1-0 on July 18, 1963, when his opponent threw a no-hitter. McCool grew discouraged and at one point called his parents and considered quitting and coming home. He commented that his high-school team had been better than the Tampa squad. Tampa’s manager, Hersh Freeman, a star reliever for the Reds in the 1950s, consoled the kid. “He pointed out to me that I wasn’t giving up many runs even though I was losing,” McCool said in 1964. “He explained to me that in the minors, a pitcher’s earned-run average carries almost as much weight as his win-loss record.”3 And McCool’s minor-league ERA was indeed impressive, a cool 2.01, second in the league. He compiled a record of 5-13 at Tampa with 165 strikeouts in 148 innings. That performance earned McCool a September promotion to Triple-A San Diego, where he blazed a 4-0 record with a 1.04 ERA in four Pacific Coast League games.

After the impressive showing at San Diego, the Reds wanted to bring McCool up to the majors when the 1963 PCL season ended. They were flabbergasted when McCool turned them down. He told them that his arm was tired; he had felt as though he were throwing a watermelon during his final start in San Diego. “I didn’t want to join the Reds if I couldn’t be at my best,” he later explained.4

McCool was barely 19 years old and had been out of high school less than a year when he made the Reds coming out of spring training in 1964. Manager Fred Hutchinson told reporters that although he was impressed by the youngster, he planned to bring McCool along slowly during the season. McCool did not lack for confidence and was not surprised by making the big club so soon. “I had a pretty good idea I would make the team that year,” he said in 2009. “I had a pretty good year in the minors. I knew what I could do.”5 His first major-league appearance came against the Giants in Cincinnati on April 24, 1964, during a 15-5 blowout loss. When asked if he was nervous, staring down Cepeda, McCovey, and Mays as a teenager, he replied, “I was never intimidated by anyone. I just went right at them.”6 In two innings of work, McCool gave up two hits, two walks, and a run and recorded two strikeouts.

The 6-foot-2, 195-pound McCool was a left-hander with a live arm and excellent control. His silky-smooth windup and delivery made his heater deceptive – it was described as sneaky-fast –and it gave major leaguers trouble right from the start as it often tailed in on right-handers and shattered their bats. Teammates and the press called him “Cool Billy.” Hutchinson was impressed by the poise McCool showed and gradually began using him in key situations. McCool’s first major-league victory came in Milwaukee on June 2. In the clubhouse after the game, veteran pitcher Joe Nuxhall laughingly told anyone who would listen that when the peach-fuzzed McCool walked off the field he said, “Boy, that Joe Torre scared the hell out of me when he came to the plate. I’ll bet he hasn’t shaved in two weeks.”7 McCool’s second major-league victory came a month later on his 20th birthday and he celebrated with a birthday cake in the clubhouse.

That season, as the Reds battled in a tight pennant race, McCool and fellow rookie pitcher Sammy Ellis continually displayed cold-blooded relief pitching in late innings and they formed one of the best righty-lefty bullpen combos in the league. At one point McCool had a streak in which he went 10 appearances without giving up a run. On July 4 he took over for Jim O’Toole in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game and struck out the side. On August 21 he entered to replace an ailing Jim Maloney in the third inning with the Reds leading by a run on the road against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out nine in 6? innings to finish the game, giving up one hit and five walks as the Reds hung on to win 3-2. No Dodger reached third base on McCool. Pitching coach Jim Turner called it “one of the finest relief pitching jobs ever done by a youngster.”8 On September 3 McCool struck out seven of the nine batters he faced in three innings against the Cubs. His debut as a starter came on September 19, 1964. He pitched well but lost, 2-0. Both runs scored on a throwing error by catcher Don Pavletich.

The 1964 season was one of drama and tragedy for the Reds as popular manager Fred Hutchinson was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and tried to make it through the season. The Reds stayed close to the top throughout the summer, then mounted a late charge. They won nine straight September 20-27 and caught the Philadelphia Phillies. With their ailing manager watching from the press box, the Reds then faltered in a final homestand. On the last day of the season, the Reds lost and allowed the Cardinals to sneak in the back door to the pennant.

Relying mostly on his fastball, McCool finished the 1964 season with a record of 6-5, an ERA of 2.42, 87 strikeouts in 89? innings and seven saves. He was named the National League’s Rookie Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. Even though he was one of the youngest players in the league, McCool was confident almost to the point of arrogance on the mound and not infrequently showed his emotions after a poor outing, memorably destroying the dugout water cooler after giving up a home run in the season finale in 1964, prompting an emergency call to the maintenance crew as water from a pipe poured over the field. The new water cooler for the 1965 season was noted to be encased in an iron-bar cage.

The Reds wanted McCool to go to Venezuela for winter ball after the 1964 season, but he declined. He explained to a reporter that his arm was tired. “I don’t like pitching the year round,” he said. “Anyways, they always seem to have trouble down there in South America … like shooting off guns and blowing up things.”9

In 1965 new Reds manager Dick Sisler said that his long-term plan for McCool was to make him a starter, but that the rotation was already set with proven veterans. Although McCool’s curveball remained mediocre, by 1965 he had added a better-than-average slider. Opponent Ken Boyer would remark the next season, “That slider he’s throwing now is the best I’ve ever seen a left-hander have.”10 McCool was the mainstay of the Reds’ bullpen for 1965, appearing in 62 games. A couple of bad outings in August and September, particularly one in which he gave up four earned runs in a third of an inning, caused his ERA to reflect poorly on his year. He finished the season with a record of 9-10 and an ERA of 4.27 with 21 saves and was second in the league’s Fireman Award (an award given by The Sporting News in which saves and wins in relief were added), by one point.

The Reds were close to the top of the standings most of the 1965 season, but slipped away late. McCool played a role in the collapse as he gave up a three-run home run in the ninth inning to rookie Chick Harrison in the Astrodome on September 26 to lose 4-2. A win would have left the Reds only two games out. The Reds lost seven of their last nine games and finished in fourth place. Sisler was fired on October 4 and was replaced by Don Hefner, a favorite of owner Bill DeWitt.

During the 1960s few pitchers wanted to be a reliever. Although McCool was vocal about not wanting to spend his career in the bullpen, it was his misfortune to be on a Reds team that was loaded with starters. In 1966 he once again got off to a blazing start, giving up only three runs in his first 28 innings over 15 appearances. With the Reds foundering in eighth place, nine games under .500, Dave Bristol took over for Hefner July 14. This marked the fourth manager in three seasons for McCool.

McCool was named to the 1966 All-Star team but did not play. He finished the season with a team-leading 2.48 ERA and 18 saves, along with 104 strikeouts in 105 1/3 innings. He was only 21 years old and his future seemed to hold greatness. But late in the 1966 season he injured his knee. He took a few weeks off, but the knee was still swollen and tender when he returned to pitch. He soon developed what was referred to by the trainer as tendinitis in his left elbow. He again sat out a week, but not long after returning he left a game complaining of a strained left shoulder. It was the beginning of the end for McCool. “I caught my spikes in the rubber in Pittsburgh and tore some cartilage in my knee,” he said later. “Back then, they didn’t want to operate. I’m left-handed and tore cartilage in my left knee, my pushoff leg. They tried to medicate it, tried to drain fluid off the knee. I came back, but it totally changed my motion. You’re not pitching the way you always have your whole life and you get wild. It started to affect my arm and calcium deposits formed. That was my demise. If it happened today, I would have been back within a month, good as new. But that is just the fortunes of the game. Things happen.”11

Dave Bristol had said at the end of 1966 that McCool would be considered for a starting role in 1967, and he went to camp as a projected part of the rotation. He started the season 3-1 in his first five starts with a 1.77 ERA. The one loss was a 2-0 decision in which he pitched a two-hitter. Then he didn’t win in his next six starts (a span in which he lost two but his ERA was still only 3.28). He was sidelined for 10 days with a swollen left wrist in June. McCool started on June 13, lost, and then was sent to the bullpen. He was placed on the disabled list once again in July. In the meantime, 18-year-old Gary Nolan and Mel Queen established themselves as starters in the rotation. When added to veterans Jim Maloney and Milt Pappas, there was no room left when McCool returned. His chance as a starter was gone forever. He finished the year 3-7, with a 3.42 ERA in 31 games, 11 as a starter. With 83 strikeouts in 97 innings, it was the first time in his career that he was not close to averaging a strikeout per inning.

Over the winter following the 1967 season, McCool, who had been listed as untouchable in his first three years, was put on the trading block by new general manager Bob Howsam. It was insinuated to Cincinnati reporters that Howsam was disappointed that McCool had not made a determined effort to improve himself. He still had not developed a suitable off-speed pitch to complement his fastball and slider and that, along with the injuries, doomed his chances as a starter. The Reds found no takers for McCool, however.

In the spring of 1968, McCool expressed his disillusionment to Reds beat reporter Earl Lawson about his chances and being caught in the shuffle with the other Reds starters. “Sometimes I wish baseball had a rule which permitted a player to play out his option as they do in pro football. I’m only 23 now and I’m not through. But I will be in a few years if I continue to pitch in relief.”12 McCool had several times mentioned that he believed relief pitchers who throw mostly fastballs had a very short shelf-life in the majors.

The hard-luck McCool contracted pneumonia during spring training in 1968 and it cost him almost two weeks. Then he got a sore shoulder trying to rush back into shape to make up for the lost time. The shoulder would bother him all season, rendering him ineffective. He was 3-4 with an ERA of 4.97 in 50 innings.

After the two subpar seasons, McCool was left unprotected in the October 1968 expansion draft and was nabbed by the San Diego Padres. McCool welcomed the move, hoping for a fresh start. Pitching for an expansion team is not for the faint-hearted, however. The Padres were miserable and fans stayed away for the most part as the team averaged around 6,840 a game. They had a 11-55 stretch from June 6 to August 17 and finished 52-110.

McCool was plagued by arm trouble all year. He was on the disabled list in April with a sore shoulder. In May he noted that he was still not able to cut loose and throw hard. He was on the 21-day disabled list in May, then missed two weeks for military duty in August. He injured his foot in September and was lost for the year, finishing the season with a cast on his foot after an operation, and posted a 3-5 record with an ERA of 4.30 in 54 games. He was traded by the Padres on April 2, 1970, to the Cardinals for infielder Steve Huntz.

McCool was 0-3 with a 6.23 ERA in 18 games for the Cardinals and spent most of the 1970 season in Triple-A with their Tulsa team. In October 1970 he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, who in turn traded him to the Kansas City Royals on February 19, 1971. He split the 1971 season between Triple-A Portland and Omaha, going 1-1 with a 3.66 ERA in 23 games. He never made it back to the majors and retired after the season.

McCool married the former Carol Reuteler on January 21, 1967. They had met on a blind double date set up by Bill’s teammate Pete Rose. The Reds were in Milwaukee to play the Braves in 1965 and the future Mrs. McCool was a Marquette student whose friend had a date for the night with Rose. McCool was drafted as an accomplice. Mrs. McCool later told a reporter that the big-spending Rose (flush with cash as a third-year player making around $30,000) impressed the girls by dropping a 50-cent tip on the table at the end of dinner.13

During the 1964 season, McCool had opened a pharmacy in his hometown of Lawrenceburg with his brother-in-law Ken Jansen, who was a pharmacist. McCool and his roommate Jim O’Toole attended the grand opening and signed autographs for customers. McCool would work there over the next several years in the offseason.

After retiring from baseball, McCool worked as sports director for WKEF-TV in nearby Dayton from 1972 to 1974 and then went into the steel business for 31 years. He and his wife, a longtime elementary school teacher, retired to Summerfield, Florida, in 2005. McCool had a long battle with heart problems and had first been diagnosed with hypertension when he was in his 20s. He had triple-bypass heart surgery when he was 45. He died on June 8, 2014, in Summerfield as the result of the heart condition. He and his wife had three children (Angie, Megan, and Andy) and seven grandchildren and had been married 47 years at the time of his death.

 

Sources

Associated Press. “Cincinnati’s ‘Cool Billy’ May Be Another Spahn,” Victoria (Texas) Advocate, July 7, 1964.

Burick, Sy. “Cool Billy,” Baseball Digest, May 1965.

Heffron, Joe, and Jack Heffron. The Local Boys: Hometown Players for the Cincinnati Reds (Birmingham, Alabama: Clerisy Press, 2014).

Lawson, Earl. “McCool, 19, Likely to Pitch for 1964 Reds,” Cincinnati Post, March 4, 1964.

Lawson, Earl. “Relief Okay By McCool – For Now; Next Year He Wants to Be a Starter,” The Sporting News, July 9, 1966.

Lawson, Earl. “McCool Faces Starter Chance With Ego High,” The Sporting News, January 7, 1967.

Lawson, Earl. “Billy Sure to Lose His Cool If Locked in Red Bullpen,” The Sporting News, October 28, 1967.

Wilson, Doug. Fred Hutchinson and the 1964 Cincinnati Reds (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2010).

 

Notes

1 Mike Perleberg, “McCool Fan Shares Collection of Former Big Leaguer,” Eaglecountryonline.com, June 24, 2014.

2 Denise Burdette, “McCool Made His Mark on Baseball,” Journal Press & The Register (Dearborn County, Indiana), June 10, 2014.

3 Earl Lawson, “McCool and Ellis Snuff Out Hot Rallies,” The Sporting News, October 3, 1964.

4 Ibid.

5 Bill McCool, telephone interview, March 27, 2009 (McCool interview).

6 McCool interview.

7 Earl Lawson, “Boom, Boom – And Reds Win,” Cincinnati Post, June 3, 1964.

8 The Sporting News, September 5, 1964.

9 Earl Lawson, “Reds’ McCool Stuffs Bats in Deep Freeze,” The Sporting News, March 6, 1965.

10 The Sporting News, July 2, 1966.

11 McCool interview.

12 Earl Lawson, “Reds’ McCool Chilly Toward Talk of Fifth Starter Job,” The Sporting News, January 20, 1968.

13 J. Buchberger, “Billy McCool’s Passing at 69 Saddens L’Burg,” The Journal Press & The Register, June 18, 2014.