This article was written by Bill Nowlin
It was the next to the last day of the 1908 season, the first year the Boston Americans had been dubbed the “Red Sox”. The Red Sox held a 73-78 record on the soon-expiring season, in fifth place without enough games remaining to either catch the fourth-place Browns or be overtaken by the Athletics. Boston was 15 ½ games behind the league-leading Detroit Tigers. Their opponents, the future New York Yankees, were 51-99, solidly ensconced in the cellar.
The 21-year-old McMahon, a native of Woburn just outside Boston, faced New York’s Andy O’Connor, who was also making his major league debut at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Grounds. Like McMahon, this was O’Connor’s one and only appearance in the major leagues. Another Massachusetts native, hailing from nearby Roxbury, O’Connor also threw a complete game. He struck out five, but he walked seven, hit three batters, yielded 15 hits, and was tagged for 11 runs. For the next 72 years (O’Connor died at age 96 in 1980), the New York pitcher must have looked back with regret at his one line in the record books. “He had many friends present to encourage him, but he certainly had a bad day,” opined the October 7 Boston Globe.
McMahon, on the other hand, could recall with pride the one shot he had. He also acquitted himself pretty well at the plate. He went 2-for-5, both singles, and so goes down in history as both an undefeated pitcher and a lifetime .400 hitter. As a fielder, he likely wished he could have done better. He had four chances in the game and recorded a putout and two assists, but was charged with an error. The win was an easy one, though, thanks to O’Connor and a five-run second inning for the Red Sox.
Henry John McMahon was born in Woburn, Massachusetts on December 19, 1886. He had been one of the outstanding scholastic pitchers in the state, helping bring his team to victories in the old Middlesex and Mystic Valley leagues. After graduating from Woburn High, McMahon attended Worcester’s Holy Cross from 1906 to 1908 where he played ball with Jack Barry, sophomore captain of the 1908 team. Written up as John McMahon, he was highly regarded as a freshman and even had his photograph run in the Boston Globe, which envisioned him as a mainstay of the freshman team: “He will be allotted most of the work in the earlier games in order to give him greater experience. The big freshman, who hails from Woburn, has shown surprising form in practice; his speed and curves, coupled with remarkable control, need but experience to make him the find of the season’s college pitchers.” [Boston Globe, April 6, 1907] Holy Cross records do not indicate that McMahon had a particularly impressive baseball career there. He never graduated from Holy Cross; he moved on to Tufts Dental School, where he earned a degree in dentistry.
Nearly 100 years later, how he ended up with the Red Sox a little over a year after being touted as a college baseball find remains a bit of a mystery – as do his height and playing weight. But he was not only signed, he got a chance to start a major-league ballgame. Apparently without having played a minor league game, McMahon’s first action with the Boston ballclub was in Waterbury, Connecticut where he started in an exhibition game on August 30. It was the eighth of 10 in-season exhibition games the Red Sox played in 1908. The Waterbury Authors were in last place in Connecticut League play. The Red Sox put a couple of quick runs up on the board in the top of the first inning on a triple by Harry Niles, but only garnered three more hits in the game and failed to score further, stymied by 20-year-old spitballer A. B. Sillery. One of the hardest-hit balls of the game was McMahon’s smash to second base in the fifth, but the ball was knocked down and McMahon thrown out. Waterbury tied it up with two singles, a sacrifice, and another single in the fourth. The loss went to a reliever named Woods who came in later in the game, walked two batters in the seventh and then gave up a single; Waterbury took the game, 3-2. A large photograph of McMahon ran in the August 31 Boston Globe.
McMahon stayed for much of the year with the Boston team, but his contract was sold to the Wilkes-Barre club on December 29, 1908, according to the Woburn Times. His fellow students at Tufts presented him with a “traveling bag” in March 1909 as he left for Wilkes-Barre, and the Times noted that, “He is practically a member of the Boston Americans and may be ‘resold’ to Boston before too long.” The Times reported that in 1908 he had been sent to minor league teams in Syracuse NY and Reading PA for seasoning, but we can find no record of his play with either club.
Minor league records of more than 100 years ago are often sketchy. The Wilkes-Barre Barons won the New York State League pennant in 1909, but we find no indication that McMahon played for Wilkes-Barre. He did get into 30 New England League games for the Lynn Shoemakers and then the Lowell Tigers. We do not have pitching records for him in 1909, only the indication that he hit five times in 30 at-bats, including one home run. We don’t know if he batted right-handed, or turned around and hit from the left side. He did pitch in the New York State League the next year, for the 1910 Binghamton Bingoes, and recorded a mark of 8-17.
He did not rate his prospects highly, though, and before too long “he abandoned his baseball ambitions and took up the practice of dentistry in this city,” explained McMahon’s Woburn Times obituary. McMahon later became a coach at Woburn High, and continued playing semipro ball. On August 21, 1915 he made headlines pitching a perfect game for the Woburn town team against United Shoe Machinery of Beverly, 4-0, in front of 1,000 fans – striking out all three batters in the top of the ninth inning. Doc struck out nine, and had a double at the plate.
An August 1917 Woburn Times account had McMahon again doing in United Shoe; pitching for Manchester-by-the-Sea, the paper said he “whipped United Shoe at Manchester” in a 1-0 shutout which ran his scoreless innings streak to 21 straight innings.
The former pitcher turned Woburn dentist settled into the family home at 3 Border Street and enjoyed life in his hometown. On December 11, 1929 Doc McMahon died of heart trouble on the couch in his own living room eight days before his 43rd birthday, leaving a wife and three children.
He’d enjoyed the opportunity to live the dream, if only for one day, and rub shoulders with some of the greats, pitching as he had on the same Red Sox staff as Cy Young and Eddie Cicotte. McMahon and fellow pitcher King Brady were the only two pitchers with perfect W/L records in 1908, both of them showing 1-0. As the Yankees went on to win six American League pennants in the 1920s, while the Red Sox were perennial last-place losers, the Greater Boston-dwelling Doc may have taken some small pride in the minor historical footnote that his one win in major-league ball dealt the New Yorkers their 100th loss in the 1908 season.
Other than as cited in the text, the author relied on the online SABR Encyclopedia, retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.