At 6-feet-5 and nearly 230 pounds, Larry McLean was a large presence and a sizable talent, and he did things in a big way – including getting into trouble. Owing largely to a lifelong battle with alcohol, McLean’s career was punctuated by repeated suspensions, occasional brawls, and periodic scrapes with the law. Still, he spanned 15 years in the major leagues, maintained a lifetime batting average of .262, and performed with distinction in his only World Series. McLean played his best baseball for Cincinnati, for whom he batted over .285 three times. Baseball historian Lee Allen compared him to a later Reds backstop: Like Ernie Lombardi, McLean was big and slow but could hit and throw. Though he frequently drove managers to distraction, he was a favorite with writers and fans wherever he went.
Born on July 18, 1881, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, John Bannerman McLean grew up in the Boston area. His family called him Jack, but he was nicknamed Larry early in his career after someone detected a resemblance to Napoleon “Larry” Lajoie. McLean started his baseball career in 1899, playing in Canada with the Saint John Roses and Fredericton Tartars. He made his major-league debut with the Boston Americans on April 26, 1901, smacking a pinch double off Joe McGinnity in Baltimore. Boston let him go and he returned to Canada with the Halifax Resolutes. McLean had a tryout with Cleveland in 1903 before being awarded to the Chicago Cubs in a contract dispute. He played only one game for Chicago before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in the deal that brought Mordecai Brown to the Cubs. Years later The Sporting News recalled that McLean “did not lead an athletic life” in St. Louis.
There is a Bunyanesque quality to the stories about McLean. It started, perhaps, on April 18, 1906, when McLean – who had been demoted to the Pacific Coast League in 1905 after playing only 27 games for the Cardinals – survived the San Francisco Earthquake while in town with his Portland teammates. He hit .355 in 1906 and helped Portland to the PCL pennant, but already there were signs of off-the-field trouble; Portland withheld $200 of his salary against his promise to remain “sober and temperate,” the first of many such clauses that would appear in McLean’s contract over the years.
Toward the end of the 1906 season Portland sold McLean to the Cincinnati Reds. Larry played in a dozen games down the stretch, then returned in 1907 and spent his first full season in the majors, appearing in 113 games and batting .289. “Cincinnati has not had a more popular idol in years than Long Larry McLean,” declared The Sporting News correspondent Charlie Zuber. While with Cincinnati McLean collared a murder suspect on the street and was said to have swum the Ohio River rather than arrive late to the ballpark. When the Reds visited Havana in 1908, admirers presented him with a silver-handled cane engraved “(T)o the greatest catcher that has ever been seen in Cuba.” In 1910 Larry did a turn in vaudeville – playing himself, Zuber said, “as nearly as possible.”
Through it all, McLean strove to stay in line. In 1908 he pledged $1,000 that he wouldn’t take a drink for one full year. McLean played under several managers with Cincinnati, and each tried a different way of dealing with him. John Ganzel was permissive. Clark Griffith challenged McLean with hard work and responsibility, naming him team captain and appointing him as acting manager for several days in 1909 when Griffith was ill.
Hank O’Day sat McLean down for heart-to-heart talks. Nothing worked for long. McLean’s file at the National Baseball Library is rife with dunning notices, complaints about bounced checks, and a report from a private detective the Reds hired to follow him. Once, asked who would catch that afternoon, O’Day growled, “The big fellow – if he can see ’em.”
McLean’s association with the Reds nearly ended in 1910 when he ran afoul of training rules. Suspended indefinitely by the team and infuriated by newspaper accounts of his behavior, Larry wrote a letter of resignation. “When I take a trip through Chinatown, the ‘boys’ take particular delight in putting it in the papers, but when any of the other players get soused, the news is suppressed,” he complained. “Can you blame me for wanting to get away from the Cincinnati Club?” McLean eventually returned to the Reds after a one-week suspension but was stripped of his captaincy and forced to sign a draconian new contract. Forty percent of his salary was held back as a season’s-end sobriety bonus, the entire contract to be voided if McLean touched “a single drink.” When the big catcher made his first appearance before a home crowd, he was greeted with “much applause and some kidding,” which he accepted “as a matter of course.”
McLean remained with Cincinnati until September 1912, when he was suspended for failing to show up for an exhibition game in Syracuse. After the season the Reds sold him to the Cardinals. Larry broke his arm in a poolroom brawl just weeks before the start of spring training. The judge let him off with a lecture after witnesses testified he had been trying to break up the fight. McLean recovered and played 48 games for St. Louis before the Cardinals traded him to the pennant-bound New York Giants on August 6, 1913. McLean hit .320 in 30 games down the stretch. When Chief Meyers hurt his hand before the second game of the World Series, McLean took over as the starting catcher. He went 6-for-12 against the formidable Philadelphia Athletics pitching staff and was one of the heroes of Game Two, the Giants’ lone victory. He tagged out two runners at the plate in the ninth inning, then led off the tenth with a single against Eddie Plank to ignite a game-winning rally. After the Series, Giants manager John McGraw said, “McLean behaved like a man from the moment we got him. I found him easy to handle.”
McGraw and McLean got on handsomely until June 1915, when McLean was again suspended for drinking. The Giants were at the Buckingham Hotel in St. Louis, where McLean confronted McGraw. McLean accused scout Dick Kinsella of spying on him and the club of plotting to beat him out of a $1,000 bonus. Words were exchanged, McLean lunged at McGraw, and a melee ensued. A half-dozen ballplayers jumped in, furniture was smashed, and McLean fled into the night. His major-league career was over. Larry played some semipro ball but soon drifted out of the game.
Not much is known of McLean’s life after baseball, but it’s a safe bet that much of it was spent in saloons. On March 24, 1921, he got into an argument in a Boston speakeasy. When he attempted to climb over the bar, the bartender drew a pistol and shot him. McLean staggered outside and died on the street. He was 39 years old. After his death, the Reach Guide reflected that he was “a man of great size, a convivial disposition and a bad temper when under the influence of liquor, which led him into many more or less serious rows during his baseball career.”
In 2000 the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame recognized Larry McLean as one of the province’s sports pioneers. But perhaps the highest tribute came from an anonymous sportswriter at the time of his death: “He had no enemies, even among those with whom he clashed.”
This biography can be found in “New Century, New Team: The 1901 Boston Americans” (SABR, 2013), edited by Bill Nowlin. To order the book, click here.
The material for this article came mainly from files at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame; newspapers including The Sporting News, Sporting Life, the New York Times and the Halifax Herald; and books including The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (Villard Books, 1986); Lee Allen’s The Cincinnati Reds (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1948); and Charles C. Alexander’s John McGraw (Viking, 1988).