He was just 18, a cowboy working cattle in north central Kansas for $40 a month in the depths of the Depression. A week later he woke up in St. Joseph, Missouri, ready to pitch against a rising star of the Western League known as Dizzy Dean.
His name was Archie (Hap, for Happy) McKain, who went on to a six-season major league career, mostly as a left-handed relief pitcher. Along the way he pitched in a World Series and started what may have been one of the best-attended fights in North American history.
He was born May 12, 1911 near Delphos, Kansas, 57 miles east of the geographic center of the 48 states. (Only two big league pitchers were born closer to the center of the 48 contiguous states. Elmer Stricklett, the majors’ first spitball pitcher, came from Glasco, Kansas, 51 miles from the center. Larry Cheney, who pitched nine years for the Cubs and Dodgers, was from Belleville, about 49 miles from the middle.) It was there and in nearby Minneapolis, Kansas, that McKain spent most of his life except when away on pitching assignments.
The cowhand-turned-pitcher’s baseball life reached its peak in 1940 when he pitched for Detroit in the fourth game of the World Series against Cincinnati. In three innings of relief, he gave up a single run although the Reds won 5-2. Tiger starter and Sioux Indian Dizzy Trout had surrendered three runs in the first three innings.
The Tigers had ridden the arm of one of baseball’s most storied pitchers into that series. Bobo Newsom had the best of his 20 major league seasons, winning 21 games for Detroit and overcoming personal tragedy to win two more in the Series itself. His father had traveled to watch his son pitch but died after his opening-game win. Newsom came back to win one more and to lose narrowly in the finale.
“I was real excited” to pitch in that series, McKain told Barbara Phillips, who wrote his life story for The Salina Journal in 1981. “There is nothing like it. It’s one of those things you dream about,” he continued. He had prayed — to get into a game and to not lose it. Both requests were answered favorably.
“After the sixth game we were all tied up and I could just taste that World Series ring. Then we got beat in the seventh game.” The loss was cushioned by a losers’ World Series bonus that approached $4,000. It paid for a 160-acre farm near his birthplace.
The Tigers went to the World Series that year after beating Cleveland in the opener of their season-ending three game series. There they had to defeat not only the Indians but their fans as well. “We knew we were in trouble when our train got to Cleveland and there were Cleveland fans all over the station.
“They took our luggage off and then backed the train up a mile or so to let us get off without getting hurt.”
The fans were no better at the ball park, McKain recalled. Women came to Ladies Day carrying fruit and vegetables they threw at the Tigers. “Finally they told the fans that if it didn’t stop, Cleveland could forfeit the game to us,” he said.
In Detroit, after their Tigers won the American League pennant, the joyous crowd awaiting them was nearly as dangerous as the hostile one in Cleveland. An estimated 90,000 fans were waiting at the station and along nearby streets. Officers had to put players in police vans to save them from their adorers.
McKain missed another chance to be in the World Series in 1938 when the Red Sox fiished in second place. But the pain of the loss was tempered by the $1,100 he received as his share of the bonus for finishing as runner up in the American League race.
Early that year one of Archie’s pitches set off a battle seen by a crowd of 83,533, a Yankee Stadium record and then the largest crowd ever to attend a major league game. Another 5,000-6,000 were turned away, said newspaper accounts.
According to the New York Times, McKain entered the game in the fourth inning and promptly gave up singles to Bill Dickey and Myril Hoag.
“McKain’s next two pitches created an even greater uproar. [Yankees outfielder Jake] Powell fell to the dirt to duck the first pitch, which seemed aimed squarely at his head, and the second struck him a glancing blow to the stomach. On picking himself up, Jake marched belligerently to the pitching mound. McKain seemed willing enough to meet him halfway.
“But before the two had a chance to mix, [Boston] Manager [Joe] Cronin dashed over from his shortstop position and decided to take an active hand. In fact, he opened fire on Jake at once and with the latter retaliating, there was a spirited struggle until umpires and the other players pried the combatants apart.”
Both Powell and Cronin were ejected. But they continued to battle under the stands, Cronin apparently losing, emerging with cuts on his face suffered when Yankees players tried to keep the two apart. Powell was fined $25 and suspended for three games by American League President Will Harridge. Cronin and McKain were exonerated, the Times said.
McKain was not afraid to pitch inside. In the Salina Journal story he said, “Today’s pitchers can’t use the knockdown ball like we did. When I came up, that’s the way we were told to pitch. My manager told me, ‘You’ve got pretty good control. Knock him down three times and see how serious he is.’ In fact, if I didn’t knock a batter down when I was told to, I’d never hear the end of it.
“The first time I had to do it, I was facing a left-handed batter. The first time he got a triple and the next time he homered. When he came up again, my manager told me I had to knock him down. He said, ‘If you don’t do it, you’re just gutless, yellow clean and through.’
“Well, I couldn’t take that from him or anybody, so I knocked the batter down.
“Once my knockdown ball got so close that I took a button off Red Rolfe’s hat. He was a Yankee player and I was told to knock him down. I got pretty close to him — the bat flew, the hat flew and he hit the dirt.
“The next day I started to come out on the field and Red Rolfe was sitting there waiting for me, just turning his cap around on his finger.
“‘You got too close yesterday, Mac,’ he said. ‘You took the button off my cap.’ He was right; that was pretty close.”
McKain started his baseball career as a 12-year-old left-handed catcher on the grounds of the one-room school where he spent nine years. As a pitcher, he was largely self-taught except for honing his control by playing catch with his brother, Ernest, known as “Mac.” Eleven years Archie’s senior, Mac had twice injured his leg — once when scalded by hot lard and shortly thereafter when kicked by a horse. Confined to a chair, Mac caught Archie, forcing the little brother to run after the ball if he couldn’t reach it from his chair.
By the time the budding pitcher was 15, the family had grown to nine boys — there was also one girl — enough for a family baseball team managed by their father, Edwin. Known as The McKain Nine, they traveled to diamonds in pastures and small towns of north central Kansas on Sunday afternoons.
By 1929 Archie was pitching occasionally for the Concordia town team, a larger town north of the McKain home. When that team faced Topeka of the class A Western League in an exhibition with Archie on the mound, he lost 4-3. Yet the minor league team’s manager was impressed enough to ask him if he’d like to try out.
He did, of course. But the manager moved to Pueblo, also in the Western League, so it was there McKain went for his professional debut at $235 a month, nearly six times his earnings as a cowhand. That was 1930, the first year that regular season minor league games were played under the lights and the year of the first coast-to-coast baseball broadcast.
It was in St. Joseph that Archie made his first start, facing Dean. “If it had been quiet enough you could’ve heard my knees knocking,” McKain recalled. But apparently the knocks were positive. His team won 7-6, one of Dean’s seven losses in that league.
McKain’s farm-boy rawness showed at Pueblo. In an early game his manager told him to throw a “waste pitch.” Demonstrating the control he learned throwing to his seated older brother, he hit the batter in the navel. He thought the manager was telling him to throw at his opponent’s waist.
Hap was 9-7 the first year in Pueblo and came back in 1931 to go 18-12, the third greatest number of wins in the league. He led it in games and innings pitched and was named an all star. “I was promised a $200 bonus if I won 20 games. But they sold me after I won 18,” he recalls. Still, it meant a move up to Louisville in the American Association where he would tie Davy Danforth’s 1915 league record by striking out 18 in a game against the St. Paul Apostles.
In that game before a paying crowd of 1,613 at Louisville’s Parkway Field in 1934, McKain twice had strings of five consecutive strikeouts. After fanning 17, McKain gave up a foul fly down the right field line that caused the crowd to shout, “Drop it! Drop it!” McKain wanted the ball caught to end the game, but it was not, giving Archie the chance to strike out the batter. It wasn’t until after the game that he learned he had tied the record. A year later he was sold to Minneapolis.
Seven years in the minor leagues — five of them at its highest levels — taught McKain much. Still, it was a different world when he crossed the threshold into the major leagues.
“When I first came up, I’d played and pitched so much, I thought I knew it all. But I didn’t even know how to stand on the rubber. The best advice I got was to keep my ears and eyes open and my mouth shut,” he said.
After McKain arrived in the big leagues, he remained most of the time until 1943. Used primarily as a relief pitcher, he went first to the Red Sox where after two years he and Pinky Higgins were traded to Detroit for Elden Auker, “Whistling” Jake Wade and Chet Morgan. Auker, one of the big league’s first submarine pitchers, was a near-neighbor of McKain’s from Norcauter, Kansas.
In the major leagues, Archie won 26 games and lost 21, going 5-0 in his best season (1940). He also saved 16 others, was in 165 games and compiled a lifetime earned run average of 4.26. His highest salary was $12,000 a year when the game’s top stars were earning $30,000-$40,000 and skilled craftsmen were making 50 cents an hour.
In 1933 after a five-year courtship, he married Gertrude Smith, also from Delphos, who was a supportive wife throughout his life. During Archie’s playing years, she made scrapbooks of his newspaper clippings. When their first son was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while Archie was with the Red Sox, she made birth announcements showing a baby sliding into home plate under the headline, “Safe at Home!”
In 1941 McKain was sold to the St. Louis Browns. They in turn sold him in 1943 to Brooklyn in the National League. But he didn’t report to the Dodgers, who planned to send him to the minors. Instead he chose to retire and return to Minneapolis, Kansas, where he was a farmer and a skilled-finish carpenter. Those would be his occupations for the remainder of his life.
He did stay close to baseball, coaching his sons’ youth teams. The older, Jack, became a pitcher at Kansas State University. The younger, Tom, chose a different sport, playing basketball at Hutchinson Community College and Fort Hays State College, both in Kansas. Archie also took local teams to National Baseball Congress tournaments in Wichita where he continued to pitch. But for the last 39 years of his life, he didn’t see another major league game.
In 1985, Archie died at age 74, still at home in Kansas. Gertie, their two sons, five grandchildren and one great grandchild survived him.
Baseball Register. St. Louis: The Sporting News. 1941
Drebinger, John. “Yankees Meet Red Sox, Triumph 10-0, 5-4.” The New York Times, May 31, 1938.
Madden, W.C. The Western League, A Baseball History, 1885 through 1999. Jefferson N.C., and London: McFarland & Company. 2002.
McKain, Carolyn. Hap the Southpaw, From the Kansas Pastures and Sandlots to the Big Leagues. Unpublished manuscript.
O’Neal, Bill. The American Association, a Baseball History, 1902-1991, Eakin Press, Austin, Texas: Eakin Press. 1991.
Rives, Bob. Interview with Jack and Carolyn McKain, August 2007.
The Baseball Encyclopedia, 10th ed. New York: Macmillan. 1996.
Minneapolis Messenger, May 30, 1985.
Werber, Bill. Memories of a Ballplayer, Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research. 2001.
Werber, Bill, and C. Paul Rogers III. Baseball in the 1930s. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research. 2001.