Maurice Joseph McDermott, Jr. was a hard-throwing southpaw teenage “can’t miss” prospect who devolved into a journeyman reliever. Slated as the next Lefty Grove, Mickey McDermott played 12 seasons in the big leagues with the Red Sox, Senators, Yankees, Athletics, Tigers, and Cardinals. He spent the first half of his MLB career in Boston where he never had a losing season.
Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn once remarked, “The two greatest athletes I ever saw play baseball were Ted Williams and Mickey McDermott.”
A lifetime .252 batter who had 143 pinch-hit plate appearances and nine career home runs, the colorful free-spirited strikeout artist with a 98-mph fastball detoured from the promise of Cooperstown due to wildness on and off the field. New York Times sports writer Arthur Daley labeled the left-handed hurler a “triple-threat…a man who can pitch, hit, or sing.” No doubt the fun-loving McDermott’s passion for nightclub performances and Catskills gigs took their toll on his baseball career.
Mickey McDermott was born on April 29, 1929, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He had five siblings. His father, Maurice McDermott, Sr., was a police officer and former minor league first baseman with the Hartford Senators (Eastern League). Senior lost his roster slot to a Columbia University man — Lou Gehrig. McDermott the younger shared his father’s love for the game and even played his position at first base. All until St. Mary’s Grammar School coach John Shannon noticed that the 12-year-old could, in McDermott’s words, “…toss the ball across the diamond with curves as impressive as Rita Hayworth’s, so he switched me to the mound.”
At 13, Mickey went to his first baseball tryout camp, held by the Brooklyn Dodgers in Newburgh, New York. Dodgers scout Mule Haas wanted to sign him but upon learning his tender age begged off and bought him lunch instead.
Ferrara Trucking Company had less concern with child labor laws. Mickey pitched for the company team, facing other semipro teams and, at times, major leaguers like Hank Majeski and Bobby Thomson, playing under aliases. Ferrara paid $50 to $75 per contest. McDermott remembered, “After the game my father would generously peel a single off the wad for me and take the rest to the nearest bar.”
Pitching for St. Patrick’s High School in Elizabeth, New Jersey, McDermott set Catholic Conference marks, averaging 20 strikeouts per game. Against St. John’s Academy, he struck out 27 batters — a particularly remarkable achievement given that regulation games were seven innings long and not a full nine. His catcher dropped a considerable number of third strikes and was unable to throw to first base in time so the out did not count and Mickey would have to face another batter. Such feats drew Red Sox scout Bill McCarren’s attention.
In 1944, McDermott Sr. doctored Mickey’s birth certificate, making the 15-year-old appear a year older, and — promptly — Red Sox property. This initial act begot a tangled web of multiple birthdates among baseball-related records as McDermott stuck to the story — or as close as he could. Boston manager Joe Cronin did learn of the father’s scam but the two men arrived at a final resolution. Mickey’s arm earned $5,000 and two truckloads of Ballantine Ale for Senior. The Sox got a sure phenom, or so they thought.
McDermott was immediately sent to the Red Sox’ Eastern League farm club, the Scranton Miners. Piloted by Elmer Yoter, Scranton’s 1945 team finished fifth and just shy of .500 ball (.493). McDermott went 2-5 with 3.39 ERA in 69 innings, giving up 71 hits and getting 42 Ks.
On July 14, 1946, McDermott threw his first professional no-hitter, against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Eastern League outfit, the Albany Senators. Mickey sealed the road victory by striking out player-manager Rip Collins. McDermott completed the year 16-6, with a 3.29 ERA, 175 innings pitched, 136 hits, and 144 strikeouts. Scranton dominated the Eastern League and finished 96-43. The Red Sox farm club defeated the Wilkes-Barre Barons in the playoff semifinals and swept the Hartford Chiefs to win the Governors’ Cup.
In 1947 he was promoted to Boston’s Triple-A affiliate in Louisville (American Association) but control problems led him back to Scranton. With the Keystone State club now skippered by Eddie Popowski, McDermott found the strike zone. In 132 innings pitched, Mickey notched a 12-4 record with four shutouts, a 2.86 ERA, and a league-leading 136 strikeouts. In a postseason contest at home against the Utica Blue Sox, McDermott gained his second Eastern League no-hitter. In the top half of the ninth, future Philadelphia Phillies legend Richie Ashburn walked. Advanced to second on a fielder’s choice, Ashburn got to third on a fly ball and scored the game’s only run on a passed ball. McDermott was tagged with the no-hit loss.
Mickey moved onto the 1948 Red Sox roster and maneuvered into the media matrix of the day. At spring training in Sarasota, Florida, he was photographed for Life magazine. The picture’s caption read, “The baseball rookie, his face reflecting the eternal glow of optimism…a far more reliable harbinger of spring in the U.S. than the first robin…” McDermott always felt the image was unflattering, highlighting his ears and a silly grin on his face. “Man, what a dumb looking-shot,” he commented ruefully. “I couldn’t get a date for a month.”
Publish? He would have paid the cameraman to burn it.
On April 24, 1948, McDermott made his major league debut, a relief effort in Yankee Stadium. He appeared in seven games that year. Three months into the season he had pitched 23 1/3 innings, striking out 17 but walking 35. Sox manager Joe McCarthy sent him back to Scranton.
Disappointed with the move, McDermott adjusted and gained more control, averaging 13 strikeouts a game. On September 16, 1948, in the Eastern League playoffs, he threw his third no-hitter, an 8-0 victory over Utica. Mickey was recalled to the Red Sox but did not pitch in September.
For the 1949 season McDermott inked a pact at $5,000 and was assigned to the Triple A Louisville Colonels. On May 24, in the second game of a doubleheader, he fanned 20 St. Paul Saints, setting an American Association record that would never be broken; the circuit folded in 1962.
In the following four games, McDermott kept throwing K’s and established another milestone: the most strikeouts over a five-game set, 93. The lucky numbers (after the 20 on May 24) were 19, 18, 17, and 19. Nine games out of first place, Boston called up the Louisville farmhand.
Sox skipper McCarthy slated Mickey as his starter in a June 17, 1949, nightcap of a twin bill against the Chicago White Sox. Before 31,466 of the Fenway faithful, McDermott pitched seven innings and gave up four hits with nine walks and five runs. But thanks to Junior Stephens, Ted Williams, and Matt Batts hitting home runs with runners aboard, the Red Sox amassed enough runs to give Mickey a 10-8 triumph.
Sportswriter Jack Malaney wrote of Mick’s next start, “Come what may during the remainder of the season Maurice ‘Slats’ McDermott was proclaimed a major league pitcher deluxe last night at Fenway Park by 29,080 fans who watched him start and finish his second major league pitching chore…The 20-year old southpaw marvel recalled only last week from Louisville, limited St. Louis Browns to three hits and shut them out…Facing only 28 batters, young McDermott was (as) near letter perfect as Marse Joe McCarthy and his severest critics could ask.”
Mick completed 1949 with a 5-4 record, including two shutouts, and with the world on a string. As he remembered, “I was suddenly the cinnamon toast of Boston — the new Lefty Grove, the new Herb Pennock…the new messiah who would lead the Red Sox not just to the pennant but to the World Series as well.” He already had fan clubs. Women clamored for his autograph — and affection. He simply was a man-about-town, a bon vivant, a nightclubber and lounge singer who happened to be a rising Red Sox star. From 1950 to 1952, the free-spirited McDermott partied, drank, enjoyed his multiple female companions, and kept his singing gigs a-going whether at Steuben’s in Boston or at Grossinger’s in the Catskills. During this period on the mound he notched a 25-20 win-loss record. His annual baseball salary was around $7,500 and his music act commanded $500 weekly. I assume this was in the off-season?
1953 was a zenith year on the diamond. On April 28 at Briggs Stadium, McDermott garnered his second win of the year by holding the Detroit Tigers to three hits in a 2-0 shutout. Back in Boston on May 16, McDermott tossed a two-hitter, shutting down the Indians, 1-0. On August 12, in the City of Brotherly Love, the lefty got his 12th victory in a 10-inning contest, edging the Athletics 3-2. He also performed at the plate with two hits in four at-bats, swatting a single in the 10th and scoring from second on a hit by Hoot Evers.
Mickey went 18-10 in 1953. But late in the season some off-the-field incidents made him a marked man. He slugged a sportswriter and soon after that used foul language in front of a woman outside of Fenway. The woman was Tom Yawkey’s wife, Jean.
On December 9, 1953, his world stopped. He was exiled from the first tier of the major leagues to baseball Siberia. Boston traded McDermott and Tom Umphlett to the Washington Senators to obtain Jackie Jensen. Commenting on the swap, Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times, “McDermott is a left-handed baritone who could sing a lot better than he could pitch — until last year….Perhaps now he is now over the hump and along the road to stardom. But Bucky Harris, rather than Boudreau, will benefit from it. From the Boston standpoint it’s important to remember that the Sox had been a mite lopsided as far as left-handed pitchers were concerned, especially since Fenway Park has not been deemed particularly healthy for southpaws. They have Mel Parnell and Bill Henry. In the immediate future Leo Kiely, a fine youngster…is about to be sprung. Frank Baumann, $85,000 bonus player, is due to advance from Louisville to the varsity. McDermott would have been a fifth left hander and was the most expendable.”
Mickey didn’t see the trade that way. His last contract read $12,500. The Nats offered $19,500. McDermott held out. If he didn’t sign, the trade would not be completed. Two weeks before spring training’s start, the 1953 American League batting champion, Washington’s Mickey Vernon, sat down with McDermott, and Mick signed. But playing for the 1954 Nation’s Capital nine was an ugly experience. Rather than giving the local team a lift, the once 18-game winner racked up a 7-15 record. Even the USA’s Chief Executive noticed the debacle. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was quoted in the sports section as inquiring, “What’s wrong with McDermott?” Mick always maintained, “What’s wrong, Mr. President? Washington! That’s what’s wrong.”
McDermott felt he pitched in too many one-run contests or opposing club slugfests during his time with the Senators. Even his musical career suffered. In his autobiography (written with Howard Eisenberg), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cooperstown, Mick penned, “I came back in town in the winter of ’54. I called on Joe Schneider (of Steuben’s). ‘Season’s over,’ I said. ‘Want to book me for a few weeks?’ Joe’s answer came straight from the pocketbook. ‘Moishe, 18 and 10 in Boston? Oh, what a beautiful voice! Seven and fifteen in Washington? You don’t sing so good no more.’”
In December 1955, the trade winds began to swirl around the Capitol, the Big Apple, and the globe. Washington Post scribe Shirley Povich reported on December 6 that the Yankees were seeking the whereabouts of world traveler Casey Stengel in order to consult him about a proposed 10-player exchange engineered between Yanks GM George Weiss and Nats president Calvin Griffith. A cable was dispatched to Stengel somewhere in the Middle East. En route from Athens to Palestine on an around-the-world tour, Casey was asked to contact Weiss at the major league winter meetings via transatlantic phone.
On Christmas in Paris, Stengel announced to the media, “What’s been going on back there for the last months? I’ve been out of touch since I left Manila.” Informed that the Yankees were reportedly seeking McDermott for young lefty Bob Wiesler and some rookies, Stengel shook his head and indicated he would debate those terms with GM Weiss when he returned to New York. Casey said, “Now if I know Chuck Dressen, he’ll want about five young players for one feller like McDermott. That don’t make sense to me. Everyone wants to get more than their players are worth when they deal with the Yankees. They figure we’ve got all that surplus material — and they’re right. But there ain’t no use in us giving it away.”
On February 8, 1956, the multiplayer switch happened. McDermott and shortstop Bobby Kline became Bronx Bombers in exchange for Lou Berberet, Bob Wiesler, Herb Plews, and Dick Tettelbach and a player to be named later. The later player was Whitey Herzog. In a clubhouse before reporters, Mickey let out a “whoopee” and said, “…Naturally it will be nice playing for a championship team.” The free spirit happened to be in Sarasota, Florida, visiting the Boston Red Sox camp, when he made that declaration.
New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Powers asked, “Did the Yanks grab themselves another pennant when they stole Mickey McDermott?” Mickey told Arthur Daley, “A pitcher dreams of being with a team like this…They can make the runs for you and they can come up with the double plays to get you out of a hole.” In March 1956, the New York Times columnist declared that McDermott was pennant insurance. Daley argued that Stengel’s original knock on the southpaw was a strategic device, solely to improve the Yanks’ trade position.
Mick’s roommate, Hank Bauer, initially gave him an icy reception, slamming the door in his face. The Yankees outfielder had always hit well against the southpaw and was not pleased to learn Mick would be wearing the pinstripes.
Before the welcoming gesture, Bauer exclaimed, “McDermott, you bastard. There goes 50 points off my average.” Nonetheless, the Big Apple agreed with McDermott on and off the playing field. A good hitter himself, Mick faced Baltimore’s knuckleballer Harold “Skinny” Brown and drove a inside-the-park home rune 420 feet into Yankee Stadium’s center field. In the second game of the 1956 World Series, McDermott pitched three innings and got a hit off Brooklyn’s Don Bessent. He also enjoyed the Manhattan night scene. And he appeared on Arthur Murray’s TV show in a jitterbug competition matched against Mickey Mantle.
Yet McDermott ended the year 2-6. Stengel’s initial concerns had resurfaced on April 7 in Mobile, Alabama, in an exhibition game against the Phillies McDermott could not start due to food poisoning brought on by a reported “light snack” of oyster stew, a grilled cheese sandwich, pickles, and beer. During the season Stengel had to assess a $200 fine against McDermott for his involvement in an off-the-field altercation in Boston.
On February 19, 1957, the Bombers dealt Mickey, Rip Coleman, Milt Graff, Billy Hunter, Tom Morgan, Irv Noren, and a player to be named to the Kansas City Athletics for Art Ditmar, Bobby Shantz, Jack McMahan, Wayne Belardi, and players to be named later. The Yanks sent Jack Urban and the A’s posted Curt Roberts and Clete Boyer to complete the transaction. At the time some baseball observers noted the cozy and less than arm’s-length relationship between the two franchises. Athletics general manager Parke Carroll had been business manager for the Newark Bears, New York’s top farm club. A’s owner Arnold Johnson had ties with George Weiss and Yankee ownership. Upon the trade’s announcement, aware of the organizational dynamics, Cleveland general manager Hank Greenberg sharply remarked, “It must be great to have your own farm system in the same league.”
McDermott batted for Wally Burnette in the seventh inning against the Indians on August 10, 1957, and connected for a pinch-hit home run off Tribe twirler Mike Garcia. Earlier, on June 20, 1957, against the Washington Senators, Mick belted a seventh-inning home run into Griffith Stadium’s left-field bleachers. Bob Addie of the Washington Post reported, “It was no puny poke, carrying four or five rows into the bleachers — a good test even for a right-handed hitter. Mickey, of course, is a southpaw by trade.” These plate performances may have lessened McDermott’s hill appearances. Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich wrote on August 11, 1957, that “the Athletics are in earnest about converting Pitcher Mickey McDermott into a first baseman and have arranged for him to play winter ball in Mexico at the end of the season.” Mick ended 1957 having pitched in 29 games with a 1-4 record and a 5.48 ERA. Whatever plans the Athletics had about returning McDermott to his grammar school baseball team position changed.
On November 20, 1957, Kansas City swapped McDermott, Billy Martin, Tom Morgan, Lou Skizas, Tim Thompson, and Gus Zernial to the Tigers for Bill Tuttle, Jim Small, Duke Maas, John Tsitouris, Frank House, Kent Hadley, and a player to be named later. The Tigers sent Jim McManus to seal the trade. McDermott tossed only two innings in the major leagues for 1958 and was 5-6 with Triple-A Miami. He drew a suspension on August 21, 1958, for missing a game. Miami manager Kerby Farrell, who had recommended the suspension, said, “Naturally we hate to lose a player at this stage of the game but this club is built around an organization and when we have a ballgame I expect my players to be there.” During the 1958 season, Casey Stengel was asked about his former 1956 charge. When informed by a pack of reporters that McDermott had said the Yankees didn’t give him any chance to pitch, Casey replied, “I noticed that whenever McDermott was given a chance to pitch, the manager got fired.” The Ol’ Perfessor’s crack may have been a foreshadowing of McDermott’s diminishing time as a pro pitcher.
With 1959’s arrival, McDermott, by then the property of the Charleston, West Virginia, club of the American Association, was sold to the Dallas Eagles of the Texas League. He refused to sign with Dallas and the dispute hit the newspapers. He got a phone call from Miami Marlins GM Joe Ryan and signed with them. Piloted by Pepper Martin, Miami finished in seventh with a 71-83 record. McDermott notched a 3-7 record in 70 innings, with 43 strikeouts, 32 walks, and a whopping 5.66 ERA.
Mick hoped to turn things around, and from 1958 to 1960 he played winter ball in Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela. In later years, he called the experience “souse of the border,” and thus he didn’t advance his playing skills and continued his reckless partying ways off the field. He played in Caracas when an assassination attempt was made on Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt.
Still trying to return to the major leagues, McDermott signed for 1960 with a Double-A club, the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern League. He went 13-11, pitching 172 innings with 98 strikeouts, 87 walks, a 4.40 ERA.
In 1961 he was briefly picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals. In St. Petersburg on March 28, Mick blanked the Milwaukee Braves on four hits with a 1-0 win. On April 9, he was added to the roster. But on July 9, in San Francisco, the Cardinals indefinitely suspended him for violating curfew. He had also violated curfew 10 days earlier. On July 21, the Cards sold him to Kansas City.
On August 10, 1961, McDermott appeared in his last major league game, at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium before 6,027 fans, where a four-inning relief stint resulted in two wild pitches, six walks, and three earned runs in an 8-0 loss to the Orioles. On August 15, the A’s pink-slipped him. No other MLB club sought his services. Every major league team that selected Mickey had done so in the hopes he would blossom into their ace given his talent. Now the project was over.
With his major league career silenced, McDermott played some minor league ball, drank more, took odd jobs, and lost out on three failed marriages. His fourth wife, Betty, succumbed to breast cancer in 1996.
In 1968, the California Angels hired him as an assistant coach and batting practice pitcher but he was gone after the 1969 season. Mick tried his hand at running a bar but drank up any profits. Good friend Billy Martin got McDermott an Oakland A’s scouting position, and McDermott submitted the initial report on Mark McGwire to the Athletics front office. Upon Martin’s firing as A’s manager following the 1982 season, Mick was sent packing as well.
The dismissal led to a business partnership with Tino Barzie in the field of player representation. Their agency advocated for ballplayers like Tony Armas, Marty Barrett, Mario Guerrero, Candy Maldonado, and Alejandro Pena. However, McDermott’s heavy alcohol use caused the firm to dissolve.
In 1991 Whitey Ford got a 5 a.m. telephone call. His startled wife could not believe what was happening. Ford handed the phone to her and said, “Listen for yourself, you can tell it’s McDermott. He’s so drunk he thinks he won $7,000,000 in the Arizona lottery.” Actually, McDermott was telling the truth. His poor health, legal problems due to numerous DWIs, and the lottery victory all combined to help keep McDermott sober for the remainder of his life.
His memoir was published in April 2003 but sadly on August 7 he died in Phoenix, of congestive heart failure and colon cancer.
About his life, Mick wrote, “My reincarnation as a pitcher is doubtful…. So at age 74, maybe it’s time to sit down, tune in to whatever brain cells I’ve got left, and figure out where I got lost on the road to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Hey maybe what I’ve got to say will help a couple of kids find their way into it.”
Mickey McDermott, with Howard Eisenberg, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cooperstown (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2003).
Player questionnaire from Mickey McDermott’s player file at the National Baseball Hall Of Fame.
New York Times