This article was written by Mark Armour
A long-time left-handed pitching ace for one of baseball history’s best staffs, Dave McNally was also a legend and hero in his native Billings, Montana, where he lived his entire life outside of baseball. Though a World Series pitching (and hitting) star, he might be best known in some circles for the role he played in ending the “reserve clause” in baseball contracts.
David Arthur McNally was born on October 31, 1942, in Billings, the youngest of four children, three boys and one girl. His father, James, was an oil salesman who died in the Allies’ fight to conquer Okinawa in July 1945. Beth McNally, now a widow, worked in a welfare office and raised her four children. All the kids helped out, working as much as they could, though Dave’s year-round sports playing kept him too busy to hold down a job for long.
McNally played Little League baseball, and then attended Billings Central Catholic High School. The school did not field a baseball team, due to both Montana’s short spring and the long travel that would have been required (McNally’s basketball team regularly traveled 200 miles to play conference games). Instead, he played and starred for the powerhouse Billings Royals Post 4 American Legion club that was in the midst of winning 14 state titles in succession. Legion ball was huge in Montana, with 80-game seasons and travel all over the Northwest. “School would let out,” McNally recalled, “and immediately we would go on a five-, six-state tour in our air-conditioned bus. Not only did we have our local Legion post behind us, but everybody else in town too. A good team would come into town and we’d draw 4,000 to 5,000 people.”1
McNally played on the 1958 club that went to the national Legion World Series, the 1959 club that lost in the regional, and the 1960 club that reached the national finals. In 1960 McNally finished 18-1 and once struck out 27 batters in a single game, including five in an inning. His only loss came in the final game, when he was beaten by a New Orleans club that included Rusty Staub. “He was just a great athlete,” recalled teammate Pete Cochrane. “He was a solid guy, a good leader, just outstanding.”2
In September 1960, still not quite 18 years old, McNally signed with Baltimore Orioles scout Jim Wilson for $80,000. “It came down to the Orioles and Dodgers,” McNally recalled. “If I’d known about the Kiddie Corps [several young pitchers in the Orioles system] I probably would have signed with the Dodgers.”3 With all the minor-league seasons over, McNally was sent to an instructional league in the fall, before he reported the next spring to the Orioles’ Double-A Texas League club in Victoria, Texas. The Texas League proved too tough for the 18-year-old (0-3, 6.16 earned-run average in four starts), so he was transferred to Appleton, Wisconsin, to play for the Class B Fox Cities Foxes of the Three-I League. Playing for Earl Weaver for the first time, McNally pitched in 25 games, finishing 8-10 with a 4.18 ERA.
In 1962, McNally again played for Weaver, this time for the Class A Elmira Pioneers of the Eastern League. The team featured future major-league teammates Andy Etchebarren, Mark Belanger, and Darold Knowles, as well as legendary minor-league fireballer Steve Dalkowski, but it was the 19-year-old McNally who was the biggest star. Pitching in 34 games, including 28 starts, he finished 15-11 with a 3.08 ERA. His fine effort led to a recall to the big club in September, and he was even given a start on September 26. McNally faced off against the Kansas City Athletics in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, and the left-hander tossed a two-hit shutout, retiring the final 17 men to face him. “I was scared to death,” recalled McNally of his debut.4
Even with his fine effort to end the season, McNally was still a long shot to stick with Baltimore in 1963. The Orioles were a fine club, having won 86 games in 1962, and featured several young starters, including Steve Barber, Chuck Estrada, and Milt Pappas. Dalkowski was expected to make the team as a left-handed reliever, but he suffered a pinched nerve in his elbow in spring training. McNally made the club, at least until May 15, when teams had to reduce their rosters to 25 players. He pitched a single inning in New York on April 14 (retiring all three batters), then got an emergency start in April 20 when Estrada had a sore elbow. McNally responded with a complete-game seven-hitter over the Cleveland Indians, 7-1. Although he had his share of rocky outings, he ended up pitching in 29 games, 20 of them starts, in his rookie campaign, finishing 7-8 with a 4.58 ERA. The following year the 21-year-old had a similar role, starting 23 times among his 30 games, with a 9-11 record and an improved ERA of 3.67. He ended the season well, with a one-hit shutout over the Washington Senators, allowing only a Don Lock double in the seventh inning.
In 1965 McNally kept his role as the team’s fifth starter and occasional reliever. After a mediocre start (he had an ERA of 4.19 at the end of May), he pitched very well the last four months, finishing the season 11-6 with a 2.85 ERA in 29 starts and 198 innings. In midsummer he quit smoking and gained weight (from 188 to 202 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame), and later credited his improved pitching to his excess pounds. For the second straight season he finished with a flourish, this time a two-hit, 10-strikeout victory against Cleveland. After the season he started smoking again, and battled the Orioles over his weight for the next few years.
Heading into the 1966 season, the 23-year-old McNally was seen as a key member of a young and talented rotation that included Steve Barber (28), Wally Bunker (21), and Jim Palmer (20). The club had lost Milt Pappas, its most consistent hurler over the past several seasons, and the key man in a trade to the Cincinnati Reds that landed Frank Robinson. With Robinson immediately the best player in his new league, the Orioles ran away with the American League pennant. McNally was the team’s most consistent starter, finishing 13-6 with a 3.17 ERA in 33 starts. He also had a hot stretch as a hitter, getting his average over .250 in midsummer. When asked how he was doing it, he replied: “I don’t have to explain my hitting. I mean, did Ted Williams have to explain?”5
With plenty of time to prepare for the World Series, manager Hank Bauer chose McNally to pitch the first game against the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, McNally was uncharacteristically wild, allowing two hits and five walks in just 2 1/3 innings before being removed. The Orioles were leading 4-1 at the time, and reliever Moe Drabowsky pitched brilliantly in 6 2/3 innings of relief to close out the 5-2 victory. Baltimore won the next two games as well, behind shutouts from Palmer and Bunker. To pitch the fourth game, Bauer again gave the ball to McNally. This time the lefty did not disappoint, throwing a four-hit shutout to close out the Series, the Orioles’ first-ever championship. “I had a lot of things going for me that day,” he recalled. “The movement on my fastball was sufficient, and I had a pretty good curveball and changeup.”6 A photograph of McNally and third baseman Brooks Robinson rushing into each other’s arms is one of the more indelible images in Orioles history.
McNally was a devoted family man, having married Jean Marie Hoffer, his high-school sweetheart, in 1961, when both were teenagers. The couple eventually raised five children: Jeff, Pamela, Susan, Annie, and Michael. During the 1966 season the McNallys bought a house in Lutherville, Maryland, and spent most of the next several years there. In the offseason, Dave worked at the brewery of Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger.
Heading into 1967 as the certifiable staff ace, McNally suffered a sore elbow in the spring and had a lost year, finishing just 7-7 with a 4.54 ERA. With injuries suffered by fellow pitchers Barber, Bunker, and Palmer, the Orioles fell to sixth place in the American League. Early in the year McNally felt fine only because he was not throwing as hard as he normally did, and he was getting hit. When he decided to let loose, he had intense pain in his elbow. He made only 22 starts, 11 fewer than in the previous season. In December he could barely comb his own hair with his left arm. He was just 25, but his career seemed to be in danger.
After several weeks of light throwing, by March McNally’s elbow had recovered, and he soon became reacquainted with an old friend—his slider, a pitch he had used in the minors but had not gotten to work for several years. He had relied solely on his curve and fastball for five years, until one day, in a spring bullpen session, he casually tossed a “short curve” to catcher Andy Etchebarren. “Great slider,” the catcher hollered.7 The surprised McNally threw a few more, and—just like that—he had a third pitch. The slider became a key part of his arsenal for the rest of his career. With three excellent pitches, McNally dominated AL batters all season, finishing 22-10 with a 1.95 ERA (third best in the league), five shutouts, and 19 complete games. He finished fifth in the league’s Most Valuable Player voting, was named Baltimore’s MVP, won the league Comeback Player of the Year award, and was named as the left-handed starter on The Sporting News American League All-Star team.
One batter who hit McNally well, in 1968 and throughout his career, was Senators slugger Frank Howard. In a September 1968 game in Washington, McNally allowed a home run to Howard in the fourth inning but the score remained 1-1 in the seventh. With one man on and Howard up again, manager Earl Weaver sent pitching coach George Bamberger out to tell McNally to throw curveballs. The pitcher refused, insisting on his slider. Howard hit the next pitch well out of the park in deep right-center field, after which Weaver told McNally he would go out to the mound himself the next time. For his career, Howard hit .336 with 13 home runs in 110 at-bats against McNally. Other than Howard, only Willie Horton, with 10, hit more than six home runs off McNally.
Another key to McNally’s success might have been the ascension of Earl Weaver to club manager in midseason of 1968. Weaver asked his starters to work fast, and also to pitch deep into games. McNally won Weaver’s first game, a two-hit shutout, in 2 hours 12 minutes on July 11, before winning 11 more in a row. “McNally worked quick,” first baseman Boog Powell remembered. “It was ‘Let’s go boys; let’s get it over with and get out of here; we’ve got better things to do.’ He didn’t have overpowering anything, but he was a magician with the stuff he had.”8
After closing 1968 with 14 wins in his final 16 decisions, McNally started the 1969 season 15-0, finally losing when he allowed a seventh-inning grand slam to Minnesota’s Rich Reese on August 3. McNally tied Johnny Allen’s league records of 15 wins to start a season, and 17 consecutive wins over two seasons. His best performance might have come on May 5 in Minnesota, when his no-hit bid was broken up by a Cesar Tovar single with one out in the ninth. McNally quickly enticed Rod Carew to ground into a double play, and settled for a one-hitter.
The Orioles easily dominated the new American League East in 1969, winning 109 games and finishing 19 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers. McNally slumped in August but recovered to finish 20-7 with a 3.22 ERA. The Orioles faced the Minnesota Twins in the first-ever American League Championship Series, and won it in three straight games. In the second game, McNally pitched a masterful 11-inning three-hit shutout, winning 1-0. In the World Series, the Orioles faced the New York Mets and lost in five games. McNally lost the second game 2-1, allowing the winning run on three two-out singles in the top of the ninth inning. He also pitched the fifth game, but left after seven innings in a game tied at 3-3. McNally had hit a two-run home run in the fourth to keep the Orioles in the game. The Mets scored two in the eighth off Eddie Watt to win the World Series. McNally put up a 2.81 ERA in 16 innings, but lost his only decision in the Series.
The next year was more of the same for the Orioles and McNally. This time Baltimore won 108 games and led its division by 15 games. McNally finished 24-9 with a 3.22 ERA, and teamed up with Mike Cuellar (24-8) and Jim Palmer (20-10) to form most of the best rotation in the game. McNally again got the Game Two assignment in the playoff rematch against the Twins, and came through with the win (11-3) to help the club to another three-game sweep. In the World Series, McNally started the third game and beat the Cincinnati Reds, 9-3. Most memorably, he helped his own cause in the sixth inning by crushing a Wayne Granger pitch to deep left for a grand slam. McNally remains the only pitcher to hit a grand slam in the World Series, and one of only two pitchers (along with Bob Gibson) to hit two home runs in World Series play. (McNally’s two home runs were his only hits in 16 lifetime Series at-bats.) This victory put the Orioles up three games to none, and they soon wrapped up the series in five games for their second championship in five years.
The 1971 Orioles won “only” 101 games, but still claimed the division title by 12 games over the Tigers. The team is most famous for having four 20-game winners, the first team to accomplish this feat since the 1920 Chicago White Sox. McNally missed six weeks in July and August with a sore arm, but still became the first Oriole to win number 20 when he shut out the Yankees on September 21. Cuellar got his 20th on September 24, Pat Dobson on the 25th, and Palmer on the 26th. McNally ended up leading his team in wins, finishing 21-5 in just 30 starts, with a 2.89 ERA. He then beat the Oakland Athletics in the first game of the playoffs, and watched his team complete a three-game sweep, its third in the first three years of the League Championship Series.
In the first World Series game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, McNally allowed three unearned second-inning runs but held the line, finishing with a three-hitter and a 5-3 victory. He was less effective in Game Five, losing 5-0 to Nelson Briles as the Orioles fell behind 3-2 in the Series. McNally pitched in relief in the final two games, earning a victory in Game Six when he got one out and the team rallied in the bottom of the 10th. He got one out the next day as well, but the Orioles fell 2-1 to Steve Blass to lose the Series four games to three.
After his fourth straight 20-win season (a record of 87-31 over the four seasons), McNally signed a contract calling for $105,000 for 1972, the six-figure salary a coveted number in those pre-free-agent days. In fact, he was the first AL pitcher ever in the $100,000 circle. “He’s worth every cent,” said Orioles pitching coach George Bamberger. “Nobody in baseball has worked as hard as he has. He never pouts or moans no matter how he’s hurting. If he has a run of bad luck, he just shrugs it off. There are pitchers who are faster and maybe have better curveballs, but the difference is McNally knows exactly how to use what he has.”9
Although he began the 1972 season with two straight shutouts, and four in his first five starts, it would prove to be a frustrating season for McNally and the Orioles. After featuring the league’s best offense the previous three seasons, the 1972 team dropped from 4.7 to 3.3 runs per game, and the team fell to third place despite its stellar pitching. All four of the 20-game winners from 1971 had fine seasons, but only Palmer returned to the 20-win circle. McNally posted an excellent 2.95 ERA over 36 starts and 241 innings, but could manage only a 13-17 record. He threw a career-high six shutouts, meaning that in games in which he surrendered at least one run he went only 7-17.
In 1973 McNally had to settle for a 17-17 record, despite a fine 3.21 ERA and 17 complete games in 38 starts. The Orioles returned to the postseason in 1973, holding off the Boston Red Sox by eight games in the East before falling in five games to the Athletics. McNally pitched and lost the second game, his first LCS loss after three wins. In 1974 his record improved to 16-10 despite a rise in his ERA to 3.58. Once again he lost his lone playoff start, as the Orioles fell to the A’s in the playoffs for the second straight year.
After the 1974 season, the 32-year-old McNally was the winningest all-time Baltimore pitcher with a 181-113 record, plus a 7-4 postseason log. Nonetheless, he startled the Orioles in November by asking to be traded. “I need a change of scenery to see if it’ll straighten me out and give me a little extra life,” he told a writer in November. “I haven’t been pitching the way I’m capable, and maybe a trade would wake me up.”10 Although the writer speculated that McNally might have had difficulties with manager Earl Weaver, or that he was upset over several difficult contract negotiations in recent years, McNally would not comment. Frank Cashen, the club’s general manager, later remembered the battles with his pitcher. “McNally was a tough son of a bitch,” Cashen said. “Intractable is a good word for him.”11 This was an era when having an agent, which McNally did, was considered an affront. On December 4, he was dealt with outfielder Rich Coggins and a minor leaguer to the Montreal Expos for pitcher Mike Torrez and outfielder Ken Singleton. Although McNally was the big name in the deal, it turned out to be a great trade for Baltimore. Torrez won 20 games for the Orioles in 1975, and Singleton had several fine seasons.
McNally’s stay in Montreal was brief yet historic. He believed that the Expos reneged on agreements they had made at the time of the trade (he had to give his permission to finalize the deal). Failing to come to terms on a contract, he played on without one (the club renewed his 1974 contract, with a small raise, pending an agreement). After four starts he was 3-0 with a 3.19 ERA, for a club whose record was just 4-7. Nine outings later, McNally’s record had fallen to 3-6, 5.24. On June 9, 1975, he announced his retirement from baseball. “It got to the point,” he said, “where I was stealing money.”12 He thought he was letting his team and his teammates down, and could no longer do it. “I was trying to tell myself that it would come around. If I had arm trouble or any kind of arm injury, then I could say that I had an excuse. There is absolutely nothing wrong with my arm.”13 He apologized to the fans of Montreal. He did not sign his official retirement papers, a move that proved to be significant.
Wrapping up his affairs in Montreal did not take long. McNally had rented a room downtown, and his family had not yet left their suburban Baltimore home. Once the children were out of school in late June, the McNallys sold their house and moved back to Billings. In a likely unrelated development, on June 17 McNally began hiccupping, a condition that lasted for 12 days and required hospitalization at Baltimore’s Sinai Hospital.
His days in the baseball news were not quite over. For the past several years the players union had considered a legal challenge to baseball’s reserve clause (which annually bound all contracted players to their clubs for the next season). The way to combat the clause, union leader Marvin Miller felt, was for a player to play an entire season without a contract and then file a grievance claiming free agency. In 1974 San Diego outfielder Bobby Tolan had done this very thing, but the Padres signed him just before his arbitration hearing. In 1975 Dodger pitcher Andy Messersmith was playing without a deal, but many figured that the Dodgers would also get a contract done before it reached the hearing. With McNally retired and no longer interested in signing a contract, Miller asked him to join the case. McNally, a former union rep with the Orioles who understood the cause, agreed, and soon Expos General Manager John McHale was in Billings offering him a big raise and a two-year deal to come back.
In any event, neither McNally nor Messersmith signed their contracts, the grievances were filed, and the hearing was held in late November of 1975. On December 23 arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the pitchers, making both men free agents, effectively ending the reserve clause and changing baseball forever. Though he was now free to sign with any team, McNally had no interest in pitching—he had filed his grievance to help other players. He did not attend the hearing or even leave Montana. He never played baseball again.
Meanwhile, he and his brother Jim had bought a car dealership in 1973 that Jim had been running. Soon after Dave returned home, they bought a second dealership, which Dave took over. Later they bought a third. He once told the writer Maury Allen, “I follow baseball casually, but I follow the automobile business more carefully.”14 Though he worked long hours at his job, he played enough golf to have an eight handicap for many years.
His son Jeff was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1980, but instead went to Stanford and never played professionally. Jeff’s friend Jeff Ballard also attended Stanford, and went on to pitch seven years in the major leagues, becoming Billings’ second best baseball product. By 1997, Dave and Jean had seven grandchildren.
McNally received many honors in his retirement years. He was named to the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame in 1978, only the third inductee—following Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson. In 1999 he was named Montana’s athlete of the century by Sports Illustrated. The same year he was one of eight pitchers named to the Orioles’ All-Century team—only Jim Palmer and Mike Mussina received more votes among pitchers.
A lifetime chain smoker, McNally battled prostate cancer and lung cancer beginning in late 1997. He held on for five years, but finally succumbed on December 1, 2002, in Billings. He is buried in Yellowstone Valley Memorial Park. Many teammates and friends praised McNally on hearing the news. “Dave was an unbelievable competitor,” remembered Earl Weaver. “He did it with cunning and intelligence. He loved to set you up with a change, fool you with that tremendous curve and then throw the fastball by you. Plus he was 100 percent gentleman. He was the kind of guy you wanted your son to be.”15
“I think the proudest thing I have left from those days is the respect of my teammates,” McNally recalled late in his life. “They knew when I went out there, they got everything. I didn’t leave anything on the bench.”16
1 Phil Jackman, “McNally Named Legion Grad of Year,” The Sporting News, June 26, 1971.
2 Ed West, “Montana’ greatest athlete falls to cancer at age 60,” Billings Gazette, December 3, 2002.
3 John Eisenberg, From 33rd Street to Camden Yards (New York: Contemporary Books, 2001), 33-34.
4 Eisenberg, From 33rd Street to Camden Yards, 144.
5 Doug Brown, “McNally Blossoms As Birds’ Blaster,” The Sporting News, August 13, 1966.
6 Eisenberg, From 33rd Street to Camden Yards, 179.
7 Doug Brown, “McNally Finds Long-Lost Slider and Takes Off,” The Sporting News, August 17, 1968.
8 Eisenberg, From 33rd Street to Camden Yards, 189.
9 Barry Abramson, “Sports Mini-Profile: Dave McNally,” un-sourced clipping in McNally’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame library, July 9, 1972.
10 Doug Brown, “Orioles Puzzle Over McNally,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1974.
11 Eisenberg, From 33rd Street to Camden Yards, 252-253.
12 Ian McDonald, “McNally saw the end coming,” The Gazette (Montreal), June 10, 1975.
13 McDonald, “McNally saw the end.”
14 Maury Allen, “Dave McNally: pioneer for free agency,” New York Post, November 3, 1983.
15 “All-Star pitcher McNally dead at age 60,” CNN Sports Illustrated (cnnsi.com), December 2, 2002.
16 West, “Montana’s greatest athlete.”