A steady, left-handed pitcher can always find employment in baseball. Bob McClure was armed with a tremendous competitive spirit and a deceptive curveball. He turned his talent into 19 major-league seasons. “Bob Uecker told me that if I were right-handed I would have been digging ditches 10 years ago,” McClure said.1 After his playing days, McClure became a coach and has put in over two decades guiding and developing pitching talent.
Robert Craig McClure was born on April 29, 1952, at the US Naval Base in Oakland, California.2 His parents were Thomas R. and Muriel (Riley) McClure. Bob grew up in the city of Pacifica, south of San Francisco. His proximity to the Bay Area made him a Giants fan. He had the pleasure of watching Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda at Candlestick Park. His own baseball career began in the Linda Mar neighborhood Little League, where a teammate was future major leaguer Keith Hernandez.
Sources often said that McClure and Hernandez played together in high school. In fact, Hernandez played at Capuchino High School in the Middle Peninsula League. McClure attended Terra Nova High School, which played in the Northern Peninsula League (NPL). At 5-feet-11 and 170 pounds, he played guard in basketball. On the diamond, he played outfield until a need for pitching arose his junior year. Armed with a heavy fastball that could reach 90 mph and an excellent curve, he found his true calling.
The Terra Nova Tigers baseball team took the NPL title in 1969 and 1970 thanks to McClure’s arm. He hurled a no-hitter during a string of 33 consecutive shutout innings in 1970.3 After high school, McClure joined Hernandez at the College of San Mateo, the local community college. McClure was the ace of the team for two seasons while posting a career mark of 21-3, which earned him All-American recognition.
The Dodgers drafted McClure in the third round of the January draft in 1973, but terms could not be worked out. The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the third round of the June draft secondary phase. This time he was able to come to a contract agreement thanks to the help of scout Dick Hager.
McClure began his professional career with the Royals’ rookie farm club in Billings, Montana. His manager in the Pioneer League was Gary Blaylock, who had pitched professionally in 15 seasons. McClure paired with fellow 21-year-old lefty Bob Falcon to anchor the pitching staff. They both started 13 games with McClure leading the circuit with 10 wins and Falcon adding 8. McClure led the league with three shutouts as the Mustangs easily won the pennant. He also batted .289 and homered twice in the same game. His .658 slugging percentage was the best on the team.
McClure’s performance and development earned him a jump all the way to Omaha in the Triple-A American Association for the 1974 season. Farm director John Schuerholz explained why McClure was chosen to make an unprecedented leap: He “could throw a breaking ball for a strike behind in the count or at any time.” In addition, the brass figured that McClure had the makeup of a fighter and that if the leap turned out a failure, he would not be adversely affected.4
McClure joined the rotation, featuring future major leaguers Dennis Leonard and Mark Littell, as the only lefty. Omaha struggled to 54 wins with McClure posting a 5-8 record in 136 innings. His ERA of 3.84 was second on the team to Leonard.
McClure’s best weapon, a lethal pickoff move, was perfected during the 1974 season. By early August he had already “wiped out 14 runners.”5 Opposing teams were curtailing their running games and not using the hit and run as often against McClure.
He was invited to spring training with Kansas City in 1975 but suffered a broken wrist at home. It was originally reported that the injury came while conditioning, but it is more likely to have occurred when he tried to dunk a basketball by jumping from a chair. McClure remarked that he would go “incognito on that one.”6
Originally ticketed for Omaha in 1975, McClure ended up in the Double-A Southern League with the Jacksonville Suns. In May he joined the staff as a starter and turned in two complete games, including a shutout. He was shagging balls in the outfield before a game when a collision led to a broken left wrist. This injury kept him out of action until August 1.
When McClure returned to action, he was used as a reliever. On August 11 he was brought up by the Royals, who were desperate for some left-handed bullpen help because Steve Mingori was ill. McClure made his major-league debut on August 13 in Baltimore. He took the mound in the eighth with the Royals down 3-0. The game had been delayed by rain and it was after midnight when he took the hill. He coaxed Lee May into a grounder to short that Freddie Patek misplayed. A balk moved the runner to second and forced McClure to walk Bobby Grich intentionally. The uneven start did not ruffle McClure as he retired the side without further incident.
McClure’s reaction to his debut was typical for him. When asked if he was scared or nervous, he replied, “Didn’t you hear my knees shaking?” Manager Whitey Herzog said, “How about that for a debut? Pitching in the mud at 12:30 in the morning.”7
His next action came on August 16 at home versus the Yankees. The Royals had a 4-2 lead in the eighth when the Yankees rallied and plated a run. McClure was summoned to face Graig Nettles with two outs and two on. Nettles grounded out to first base. In the ninth, McClure set the side down in order for his first major-league save.
In his next nine appearances McClure tossed only seven innings, all of them scoreless. On September 23 against the Texas Rangers, he relieved Doug Bird with one out in the second. He hurled no-hit ball until one out in the eighth, when Roy Smalley poked a single to center. The Royals were up 4-0 when Whitey Herzog replaced him. Behind the relief twirling of Mingori and Marty Pattin, they won by the same score. McClure earned his first major-league victory and finished the season with a 0.00 ERA in 12 appearances.
McClure became a favorite of the beat writers. He was open, honest, straightforward, and funny. When quizzed about his broken wrists, he quipped, “I guess my ankles are next.” Quick repartee like that made him a favorite of writers. As a lefty, the scribes were quick to label him “quirky,” “unconventional,” and “flaky” as they had done with so many southpaws before him.8
Newspapermen pointed to his early attempt to sneak his girlfriend onto a team flight as proof of his uniqueness.9 McClure never did develop the character of a Rube Waddell or Al Hrabosky. He did develop a funky pitching style with a Tiantesque back-to-the-batter windup. His most notable unconventional contribution was a humorous book written with his friend Dave Downing entitled Rotting: The Craze of the 90’s. In it the two authors poked fun at the art or science of doing nothing as a couch potato.
The girlfriend from the plane incident was Jody D. Smith. They were wed on October 11, 1975, in Contra Costa, California. They would have three children (Jessica, Jacob, Adam) together. The family would join McClure only for a visit or two in the summers. The California home was their base and they did not move to whatever city Bob was playing in.10 They divorced in January 1999.
McClure joined teammates John Wathan and Dennis Leonard for winter ball with Arecibo in the Puerto Rican League. The experience he gained cemented his place in the Royals bullpen for 1976. McClure joined Mingori and Ray Sadecki as left-handed relievers on the roster for Opening Day. He extended his scoreless streak on April 9. On April 14 McClure entered the game against the Angels and walked both batters he faced. They came around to score to help the Angels to a 7-6 win. In his next outing, he again walked two and surrendered a run. On May 7 the Royals acquired veteran lefty Tom Hall and sent McClure back to Omaha.
In Omaha McClure returned to the starting rotation. He threw nine complete games, including two shutouts, and struck out 91 batters. All those figures led the team. His nine wins were tied for third on the squad. Omaha lost the playoffs to the Denver Bears and McClure rejoined the Royals. He made three relief appearances in the last four weeks of the season for the division champion Royals.
In December 1976 McClure became the “player to be named later” in a deal between the Royals and Brewers that sent Darrell Porter to Kansas City. He put together a strong season as the only lefty in the Brewers bullpen. He led the team in appearances (68) and ERA (2.52). His six saves were second to Bill Castro’s 13.
George Bamberger took over as manager in 1978 and used both Castro and McClure as closers. Bob had more saves and Castro had the better ERA and WHIP for the third-place club. The following season, McClure was joined by Jerry Augustine in the bullpen, giving the Brewers two lefties. Bamberger employed a closer-by-committee approach and McClure’s five saves were second to Castro’s six. The Brewers improved to finish in second place.
Despite a tremendous season at the plate from Cecil Cooper, the Brewers dropped in the standings in 1980. McClure led the bullpen staff in innings and saves (10). In September he was given a chance to show what he could do as a starter. His first outing was a complete-game 6-1 win over the Royals. The Rangers sent him to the showers in the third inning of his next start. Undaunted, he took the hill for three more starts and won them all. The best performance came against the Mariners on September 19, when he shut them out on five hits.
Manager Buck Rodgers expected McClure to join Mike Caldwell as the lefties in a five-man rotation for 1981. Early in training camp, McClure experienced arm pain that was diagnosed as tendinitis. He did some light tossing and mound work but saw no action in spring-training games. On March 30 he was placed on the disabled list. McClure finally returned to action in September, making four relief appearances. The tendinitis was actually a rotator-cuff issue. With rest and treatment, he was able to return to form.
The Brewers faced the Yankees in the American League Division Series in 1981. McClure had shown enough to be on the roster. He made three appearances in the series and held the Yanks scoreless in each outing. He set the stage for Rollie Fingers’ save in Game Four by striking out Reggie Jackson in the eighth and then setting down Lou Piniella and Graig Nettles in the ninth. The Yankees captured the series with a 7-3 win in the fifth game.
McClure went into training camp in 1982 earmarked for the starting rotation. His arm was rejuvenated and with some help from pitching coach Cal McLish he came up with his funky delivery that hid the ball from the batters. It also gave his curve better break. He was a three-pitch pitcher (curve, fastball, changeup) in 1982. A few years later he added a knuckleball to his repertoire.
McClure opened the season with a long relief stint against Toronto that earned him the win. His first start came on April 17 when he was on the losing end of a 5-3 game against the Rangers. Two no-decisions followed before he took the hill against Minnesota on May 9. Ron Washington lined the first pitch off McClure’s arm just above the left elbow. The swelling forced him to miss a start, but on April 21 he beat the Mariners.
June was McClure’s best month of the summer. He won four games without a loss. He beat the Red Sox on June 27 in Boston, then hurled a complete-game victory against them in Milwaukee on July 2. That cut the Red Sox lead to one game. His record was 7-2 at that point. He finished the year at 12-7. Following the acquisition of Doc Medich and Don Sutton, he found himself being readied for postseason relief duty.
McClure had filled a vital role in the Brewers rotation as the sole lefty. He made 17 appearances against Eastern Division rivals and posted a stellar 8-1 record. He posted a career high in wins and innings pitched. At the close of the 1982 season, he was listed on the Brewers’ all-time Top 10 in appearances (fourth with 238), saves (fifth with 30) and ERA (eighth at 3.61).11
Facing California in the Championship Series, the Brewers dropped the first two games. They battled back and found themselves down by a run in the fifth and final game. McClure came on in the seventh with one out and a man on first. Facing Reggie Jackson, he coaxed a grounder to second that resulted in a double play. In the bottom of the inning, Cecil Cooper drove home two runs. McClure pitched into the ninth, but after a single he gave way to Pete Ladd, who set the Angels down in order for the save. McClure earned the win.
The Brewers took on the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. McClure suffered the loss in Game Two. He relieved Sutton to open the seventh and escaped after a single and a walk. In the eighth he walked Keith Hernandez and then with one out surrendered a single to Darrell Porter. Ladd came in and walked the bases full and then walked in the winning run.
McClure faced a single batter in the Game Three loss. In Game Four he came in with two runners on in the eighth. The Brewers were up 7-5. He got Willie McGee to hit into a double play to close out the inning. He then set the side down in the ninth for the save. The series was now tied at two games each.
Game Five was the Brewers’ last home game. Mike Caldwell took the hill for Milwaukee and entered the ninth up 6-2. He got an out, but then surrendered two doubles and a single. With the Brewers now ahead 6-4, McClure was brought in to face Darrell Porter and Willie McGee. Porter singled, but McGee went down on strikes. A fly ball to left closed out the game and gave McClure a second save.
In Game Seven the Brewers were up 3-1 in the sixth. Pete Vuckovich gave up a single and double before McClure was summoned. A walk loaded the bases before Keith Hernandez and George Hendrick plated three runs with a pair of singles. Down 4-3, the Brewers could get nothing going. The Cardinals added two runs for the 6-3 win. The loss went to McClure.
Over the winter McClure signed a four-year, $1.95 million deal with the Brewers. With a strong spring training, he opened the 1983 season as the number-four man in the starting rotation. He struggled, dropping his first five starts. Three of them were one-run losses. He tossed a complete game against Minnesota on May 11 for his first win, but then lost his next two outings. He finished May a dismal 1-7. In June and July his fortunes took a 180-degree turn. He won seven and had three no-decisions.
On August 20, after facing two batters McClure felt a pain in his back and was pulled from the game. He was placed on the 21-day disabled list. After his activation, he pitched in relief on September 16. After just 11 pitches the pain returned; he was done for the season.12
New manager Rene Lachemann used McClure in relief to open the 1984 season. He made his first start on May 9 without getting the decision in a loss to Chicago. On June 7 he beat Boston for his first win. He made six more starts before returning to the bullpen for most of July. In August he rejoined the rotation and closed out the season with 10 consecutive starts and a 4-8 overall record.
In 1985 McCLure made a start in May and then settled into being a full-time reliever for the duration of his career. On June 8, 1986, he was sent to Montreal for a player to be named later (Kent Bachman). He was the last pitcher from 1982 left on the Brewers’ roster. In Montreal he was reunited with manager Buck Rodgers, who saw to it that he had plenty of work. His 65 combined appearances in 1986 were the most of his career. In 1987 he made another 52 trips to the hill for the Expos, posting a 6-1 record with five saves.
Did the two seasons take a toll on McClure’s arm? He was awarded a half-million-dollar contract for 1988, but early in training camp he seemed to have lost some velocity and movement. His issues persisted into the regular season and he posted a 1-3 record with a dismal 6.16 ERA in 19 games. The Expos released him on July 2. There is always a market for left-handed pitchers and the Mets signed McClure on July 13 as part of the retooling of their middle relief. He contributed 11 innings of work with a win and a save to the Mets pennant drive. They released him on October 27.
The young and inexperienced California Angels closed out the 1988 season winless in the final two weeks. The front office spent the winter bringing in veteran talent for manager Doug Rader. McClure joined Bert Blyleven, Lance Parrish, and Claudell Washington as new veteran influences. He signed for $200,000.
McClure took the hill in the ninth inning of the season opener with the Angels trailing 4-2. Two hits, a fielder’s choice, and an error plated a run and put two men on. After a single and an out, Harold Baines launched a home run and “applauded himself” as he circled the bases.13 McClure had been in baseball long enough to know the unwritten rules. He meant to brush back the next hitter, Ivan Calderon, but caught him on the hand. A typical baseball donnybrook ensued; McClure was ejected from the game.
Four of those Opening Day runs were unearned, but McClure still had a 13.50 ERA. From then until June 20, he made 16 appearances without allowing a run. His ERA dropped to 0.52 and he had two wins and three saves. The Angels had arguably the best pitching in the league in 1989 but could not catch the Oakland A’s for the pennant. McClure finished with a 6-1 record and a sparkling 1.55 ERA.
Eligible for salary arbitration, McClure settled with the club for $825,000. He had asked for $880,000 in his filing. McClure went to camp as a respected and important piece of the pitching staff. But tendinitis developed in his elbow, making the year a painful struggle. He rested most of the summer until a rehab stint in Palm Springs. In late August he rejoined the Angels and made six consecutive scoreless appearances from August 18 to September 6. That start was followed by five consecutive games where he was scored upon. He closed the season with two wins and a 6.43 ERA. He proved that he was healthy enough to be considered for 1991 and signed an incentive-laden contract.
The 1991 season was feast or famine for McClure. He made 13 appearances. Nine of them were scoreless. In the other four outings he was touched up for 12 hits and 11 runs. The Angels released him on June 16.
The Cardinals signed McClure a week later and he gave them a season and a half of fine pitching. He pitched 103 games for St. Louis and posted an ERA of 3.16. On August 24, 1991, McClure entered the game against the Dodgers and closed out the seventh inning. He led off the bottom of the frame with his second major-league hit, a single to left. He rode home on a Ray Lankford home run, but not without incident as he tripped over second base. “It was really strange out there. I had never been all the way around before,” he joked.14 He was a free agent after the 1992 season and signed with the Florida Marlins.
The Marlins used McClure as a left-handed specialist. In 14 appearances he pitched only 6⅓ innings. The Marlins released him on May 18 after 698 major-league games, and he took the job as bullpen catcher for Florida. When the Marlins made some personnel changes in 1994, he became the bullpen coach.
McClure stepped away from the professional game for a couple of seasons. He helped coach his son in high school and summer ball. In the summer of 1998 he coached a DiMaggio League contingent from San Mateo. He returned to the professional game the next season, joining the Colorado Rockies franchise in Salem, Virginia, as pitching coach. He stayed with the Rockies organization through the 2005 season; his last stint was in Triple A at Colorado Springs.
The Kansas City Royals had gone through eight pitching coaches from 1998 to 2005. McClure was hired in October 2005 when the Royals cleaned house. Buddy Bell was brought in as manager. McClure guided the Royals staff through 2011. The team never contended but that was more a lack of talent than of guidance. In his own way, McClure got Zack Greinke to add a changeup to his pitch collection and it led to his 2009 Cy Young Award.15
When the young Greinke first met McClure, he informed his coach that he would “never throw a changeup” and that he “did not listen to pitching coaches.”16 McClure avoided confrontation by saying the last comment was fine. It took four seasons, but Greinke learned to throw the changeup under McClure’s guidance.
McClure developed his own approach to coaching, based upon all the mentors he had played for. He chose not to be a lecturer and took a simplistic approach: “My philosophy is pretty simple. Get guys out with a minimum of pitches.”17 Because McClure never had overpowering pitches, he had to concentrate on his delivery. “The better you can repeat your delivery, the easier it is for you to command a baseball.”18
McClure guided the Royals staff through the 2011 season. During that time, he remarried and in 2011 his twins Brock and Teddy were born. The Boston Red Sox hired him as pitching coach to join newly appointed manager Bobby Valentine. The two had never worked together. The Red Sox also had a new general manager as the Theo Epstein/Terry Francona era came to a close. McClure and Valentine never developed the chemistry necessary for a good working relationship. When Brock McClure had an urgent medical crisis, Bob took two weeks off to be with his son. In an August 1 radio interview, Valentine characterized the absence as a “vacation.” Within three weeks McClure was fired. He was ready to move on because “that (the ‘vacation’ remark) was the final straw for me. That was very unprofessional, very uncalled for.”19
McClure stayed out of coaching for a while. He turned down an offer from the Padres before taking the Phillies’ pitching-coach position in November 2013. He worked with the team for four seasons. Youngster Aaron Nola made great strides during his tenure, but otherwise the seasons were a struggle for the pitching staff. Bob became the target of media and boo-birds after he left outfielder Jeff Francoeur on the mound for a 50-pitch inning.
In 2018 McClure was reunited with Brewers teammate Paul Molitor. Molitor was the Twins manager and McClure was hired by the organization as a senior pitching adviser. Essentially his job was to see that all the coaches in the organization were on the same page. His experience was valued because the Twins had a new major-league pitching coach and a rookie minor-league pitching coordinator.
Thank you to SABR member Stew Thornley for his assistance. Also to Cassidy Lent at the Giamatti Research Library in Cooperstown. They were invaluable.
1 Rick Hummel, “St. Louis Cardinals,” The Sporting News, August 24, 1992: 18.
2 The information comes from a questionnaire McClure filled out for the Baseball Hall of Fame, probably in 1975 or 1976 because he mentioned being in winter ball. It is uncertain whether his father was in the Marines or the Navy.
3 Jerry Littrell, “Terra Nova Hurler Gets No-Hitter,” The Times (San Mateo, California), April 11, 1970: 15.
4 Al Figone, “The Origins of Bob McClure’s Pitching Backward Mentality and Punch Out Pickup Move to First Base: Application to Coaching,” October 28, 2015. academia.edu/18646962/The_Origins_of_Bob_McClures_Pitching_Backwards_Mentality_And_Punch_Out_Move_To_First_Base.
5 Larry Porter, “0-2 Autry Will Pitch for Royals,” Omaha World-Herald, August 6, 1974: 17.
6 Steve Cameron, “Flaky Bob McClure Already a Legend,” Maryville (Missouri) Daily Forum, September 27, 1975: 2.
7 “Royal’s Notes,” Kansas City Star, August 14, 1975: 17.
8 Sid Bordman, “McClure Admits Only to Being Left-Handed,” Kansas City Star, March 2, 1976: 22.
10 “Meet Jacob McClure: Back in Baseball After Growing up in Ballpark,” missoulian.com/sports/osprey/meet-jacob-mcclure-back-in-baseball-after-growing-up-in/article_0260a90c-175a-11e3-b347-0019bb2963f4.html. Accessed September 15, 2018.
11 1983 Milwaukee Brewers Media Guide, 61.
12 “Baseball,” Boston Herald, September 17, 1983: 7.
13 Tom Singer, “Is Squared Circle Next for Angels?,” The Sporting News, April 17, 1989: 16.
14 Hummel: 16.
15 Ken Rosenthal, “Meet Bob McClure, the Phillies’ Mad Scientist,” FoxSports.com, May 4, 2016. foxsports.com/mlb/story/bob-mcclure-philadelphia-phillies-pitching-coach-mad-scientist-050416. Accessed August 6, 2018.
17 Bob Dutton, “Experience Talks for Pitching Coach,” Kansas City Star, March 2, 2006. Posted on Kansas City.com.