Ladies and Gentlemen, Presenting Marty McHale

This article was written by Lawrence S. Ritter

This article was published in The National Pastime: Premiere Edition (1982)

This article was selected for inclusion in SABR 50 at 50: The Society for American Baseball Research’s Fifty Most Essential Contributions to the Game.

Damon Runyon once wrote a story about me, saying this fellow McHale, who is not the greatest ballplayer that ever lived, is probably the most versatile man who ever took up the game. This was in the 1920s, after I had left baseball. So Johnny Kieran of the New York Times asked Babe Ruth about it, knowing he and I had been on the Red Sox together. Johnny said, “Marty played in the big leagues, he played football in college, he was on the track team, he was on the stage, he wrote for the Wheeler Syndicate and the Sun, he was in the Air Service” — and so forth. He went on listing my accomplishments until the Babe interrupted to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about all those things, but he was the best goddamn singer I ever heard!”

You see, I sang in vaudeville for 12 years, a high baritone tenor — an “Irish Thrush,” they called it then, and Variety called me “The Baseball Caruso.” But even before vaudeville, before baseball even, I used to work in a lot of shows around Boston and made trips down to Wakefield, Winchester — minstrel shows, usually — and sometimes these little two-act sketches.

So when I joined the Boston club, a bunch of us — Buck O’Brien, Hughie Bradley, Larry Gardner, and myself — formed the Red Sox Quartette. After a while Gardner gave it up and a fellow named Bill Lyons stepped in. This Lyons was no ballplayer, but Boston signed him to a contract anyway, just to make the name of the act look proper. We were together three years, and when we broke up I was just as well satisfied because it was quite an ordeal keeping the boys on schedule. They just couldn’t get used to that buzzer that tells you you’re on next. They’d be a couple of minutes late and think nothing of it, but you can’t do that in vaudeville, you know — you’re on.

I did a single for about another three years, which was not very good — just good enough so that they paid for it — and then Mike Donlin and I got together. Now, you may not remember Mike, but he was — well, he was the Babe Ruth of his day. “Turkey Mike,” they called him, because when he’d make a terrific catch or something he’d do a kind of turkey step and take his cap off and throw it up like a ham, a real ham; but he was a great one, he could live up to that stuff in the field or at the bat. His widow gave me some of his souvenirs: a gold bat and ball that were given to him as the most valuable player in 1905, some cufflinks, and a couple of gold cups, one from the Giants and the other from the Reds. He hit over .350 for both of them.

Mike and I were together for five years, doing a double entendre act called “Right Off the Bat” — not too much singing, Mike would only go through the motions — and we played the Keith-Orpheum circuit twice in one year. We were booked into the Palace in New York and that was when it was the Palace, not the way it is now! They had nothing but the big headliners. When Mike left for Hollywood, I went back to doing a single. He made a bunch of pictures out there, and that’s where he died.

Which did I like better, baseball or vaudeville? Well, I’d call it about 50-50. The vaudeville was more difficult because of the traveling. Sure, you had to travel a lot in baseball, but you always had somebody taking care of your trunk and your tickets and everything; all you had to do was get your slip, hop onto the train, and go to bed. When you got to the hotel your trunk was there. In vaudeville you had to watch your own stuff. I used to say to Mike, you’re the best valet I know, because he was always on time with the tickets and had our baggage checks and everything all taken care of, right on the button all the time.

Of course, Mike and I wouldn’t have been such an attraction if it hadn’t been for baseball, so maybe I ought to tell you how I came to sign with the Red Sox in 1910. First of all, Boston was almost my home town — I grew up in Stoneham, that’s nine miles out and if you took a trolley car and changed two or three times, you could get to the ballpark. Which I’d done only once — I only saw one big-league game before I played in one, and Cy Young pitched it; I wasn’t really a Red Sox fan. But here comes the second reason for my signing: they gave me a big bonus. How big? Two thousand dollars, and back then that was money!

You see, that year for Maine University I had thrown three consecutive no-hitters, and the scouts were all over. I had a bid from Detroit, one from Pittsburgh, one from the Giants, and another from the Braves. And there was sort of a veiled offer from Cincinnati, which is an interesting story.

This Cincinnati situation, Clark Griffith was down there managing and when I reported to the Red Sox, which was in June, following the end of the college term, his club was playing the Braves, over at Braves Field across the tracks from the Huntington Avenue park. Now, the Red Sox were on the road when I and some other college boys reported. We had signed, but the Red Sox didn’t want us with them right away; they had to make room for us, they could only have so many players. So I remember that Griffith came over to the Red Sox park one morning to watch the boys work out. The clubhouse man told us we were all being watched — like you’d watch horses, you know, working out each morning, and he said if we wanted to stay with the club, better take it easy and not put too much on the ball and so on. See, the club usually asks waivers on the newcomers immediately upon reporting to see if anybody else is interested in them, and if so they can withdraw the waivers after a certain time.

I remember very definitely — I went out there and I was pitching to the hitters and I put everything I had on the ball, because after looking over that bunch of Red Sox pitchers I could see there was not much chance for a young collegian to crack that lineup.

At any rate, Griffith must have put in some claim, you see, because two days later I was on my way to Chicago to join the Red Sox. They had withdrawn the waivers. I joined them in Chicago and we went from there to Cleveland. I remember my pal Tris Speaker hurt his finger in Chicago and he was out for a few days, and Fordham’s Chris Mahoney, who was an outfielder, a pitcher, and a good hitter, took his place.

He and I weren’t the only college boys on that team, you know: Bill Carrigan, Jake Stahl, Larry Gardner, Duffy Lewis, Harry Hooper. . . even Speaker went to — not the University of Texas, but Texas Polyclinic, Polytechnic or something of that kind out there; only went for two years, but he went. And Ray Collins and Hughie Bradley, too. Buck O’Brien, he came the next year. He said, “I got a degree, I got a B.S. from Brockton.” He said B.S. stood for boots and shoes, meaning that he worked in a factory.

Now on this day in Cleveland, we had Chris Mahoney playing right field, Harry Hooper moved over to center, and Duffy Lewis stayed in left, and Patsy Donovan put me in to pitch my first game in the big leagues against Joe Jackson and those Cleveland boys.

I wasn’t what you’d call sloppily relaxed, but I wasn’t particularly nervous, either. You see, I was one of the most egotistical guys that God ever put on this earth. I felt that I could beat anybody. I struck out ten of those Naps, including Jackson. The first time he was up, I had Joe two strikes, no balls, and I did something that the average big-league pitcher would never do. Instead of trying to fool him with a pitch, I stuck the next one right through there and caught him flat-footed. He never dreamed I’d do that.

So the next time up there the same thing happened. He hit a foul, then took a strike, and then Red Kleinow, an old head who was catching me, came out for a conference. He said, “What do you want to pitch him, a curve ball?” And I said, “No, I’m going to stick another fast one right through there.”

He said, “He’ll murder it.” Well — he did! Joe hit a ball that was like a shot out of a rifle against the right-field wall. Harry Hooper retrieved it in left center!

Yes, I had ten strikeouts, but I lost the ballgame. It was one of those sun-field things: a fellow named Hohnhurst was playing first base for Cleveland and, with a man on first, he hit a long fly to left-center field. Harry Hooper, who was in center this day, was dead certain on fly balls, but when Speaker was out there, as Harry said afterwards, he used to let Speaker take everything within range. Harry said he and Duffy Lewis didn’t exactly get their signals crossed, but they were not sure as to who was going to take the ball.

Finally Duffy went for it, and just as he made his pitch for the ball the sun hit him right between the eyes and he didn’t get his hands on the thing and the run, of course, scored, and Hohnhurst, the fellow who hit the ball — he got himself to second base. Ted Easterly got a single on top of that, and anyway, the score ended up 4-3. That was it.

I was supposed to be a spitball pitcher, but I had a better overhand curve, what they called a drop curve. You’d get that over spin on it and that ball would break much better than a spitter. I had what they call a medium-good fastball, not overpowering but good enough, and if you took something off your curve and your spitter, your fastball looked a lot better. For my slow one, the changeup as they call it now, I tried a knuckler but never could get any results with it, so I stole Eddie Karger’s slow-breaking downer. He and I used to take two fingers off the ball and throw it with the same motion as we used for the fastball.

They still have those fellows today that throw spitters, but it doesn’t make much difference because even when the spitter was legal in my day, in both leagues you couldn’t pick six good spitball pitchers. You’d take a fellow like Ed Walsh with the White Sox, the two Coveleski’s, Burleigh Grimes, and the left-handed spitter in the National League, who has since lost both legs, Clarence Mitchell.

Now, Clarence was a good spitball pitcher, but Walsh was the best. He worked harder at it, had a better break, had better control of it, and he pitched in more ballgames than any pitcher in either league over a period of years.

Eddie Cicotte, he was with us in Boston, you know, he was going with a spitter for a while. He used to throw that emery ball, too, and then he developed what we call the “shine” ball. He used to have paraffin on different parts of his trousers, which was not legal, and he would just go over all the stitches with that paraffin, making the other part of the ball rougher. It was just like the emery situation, but in reverse, and an emery ball is one of the most dangerous, not like the spitter, which can be controlled. But Cicotte’s main pitch was the knuckleball, and he used that to such an extent that we called him Knuckles.

Joe Wood was with the Red Sox when I joined them, too. Now there was a fellow who could do nearly everything well. He was a great ballplayer, not just a pitcher; he was a good outfielder, he was a good hitter, he was a good baseman, and he could run like blazes. He used to work real hard before a ballgame. He was just a good all-around ballplayer and a great pitcher. And he was a fine pool player, too, and billiards. He could play any kind of a card game and well; also he was a good golfer. I think that he could have done nearly everything. If he were playing football he’d be a good quarterback.

Joey was a natural — and talking about egotistical people, there’s a guy who had terrific confidence, terrific. Without being too fresh, he was very cocky, you know. He just had “the old confidence.”

I wasn’t with Boston the year they won the world’s championship and Joey won those 34 games and then three more against the Giants, but I was at the Series and wrote a story about that final game. I saw the Snodgrass muff — he was careless, and that happens. But right after that he made a gorgeous running catch.

Earlier in that game Harry Hooper made the best catch I ever saw. I hear from Harry twice a year or so; he lives in California, and he’s got plenty of the world’s goods. Harry made this catch — he had his back to the ball — and from the bench it looked like he caught it backhanded, over his shoulder. After I sent my story to him, he wrote to me. “I thought it was a very good catch, too,” he said, “but you were wrong in your perspective. When I ran for that ball, I ran with my back toward it and you guys with your craning necks were so excited about it, when I ran into the low fence” — you see, the bleachers came up from a low fence in Fenway — “the fence turned me around halfway to the right and I caught the ball in my bare right hand.” Imagine!

In 1913 I joined the Yankees — they weren’t called the Highlanders any more — and then three years later I went back to the Red Sox. Bill Carrigan, who was the Boston manager then, said, “Now that you’re seasoned enough you can come back and pitch for a big-league team.” The Yankees in those days were a terrible ballclub. In 1914 I lost 16 games and won only 7, with an earned-run average under three. I got no runs. I would be beaten one to nothing, two to nothing, three to one, scores like that. You were never ahead of anybody. You can’t win without runs. Take this fellow who’s pitching for the Mets, Roger Craig, what did he lose — 22, something like that? What did he win — 5? One to nothing, two to nothing. Terrible.

When I got to New York Frank Chance was the manager, a great guy. He had a reputation as a really tough egg, but if you went out there and worked and hustled and showed him that you were interested in what you were doing he would certainly be in your corner, to the extent that he would try and get you more money come contract time.

I have a watch, one of these little “wafer” watches, that Chance gave me in 1914 after I guess about the first month. I had won a couple of games for him. One of them was the opening game against the world champion A’s, and one day, just as a gesture, he said, he gave me this watch.

Frank and I were such good friends that late in 1914, when we were playing a series in Washington, after dinner one evening he said, let’s take a little walk. So we went out to a park across from the hotel and sat down. “I’m going to quit,” he said. “I can’t stand this being manager, can’t stand being the manager of this ballclub.”

He said, “We’re not going to get anyplace. I’ve got a good pitching staff” — and he did have a good pitching staff — “but you fellows are just batting your heads against the wall every time you go out there, no runs.” The owners wouldn’t get him any players, see, and he said, “I just can’t take it — I’m going to quit.”

He had already talked it over with the front office in New York and one of the reasons he took me out to the park was that he had told them which men he thought they should keep, and I happened to be one of three pitchers along with Slim Caldwell and Ray Fisher, and he said I know that you’ll be working in vaudeville next winter and I would advise you to get yourself a two-or three-year contract, if you can, before you leave New York on your tour, which was very good advice — which advice I didn’t take. I was too smart — you know how it is, very smart — so Mike Donlin and I went out on the Orpheum circuit that winter after opening at the Palace.

So Mike, before we left New York, he said, you better go over to the Yankee office and get yourself signed in before we leave for Chicago. He said, you never can tell what’s going to happen. I, being very, very smart, I said, “No, I’ll be worth more money to them in the spring than I am now after the publicity we will get in vaudeville this winter.”

But I was wrong, because during the winter, while we were in Minneapolis at the Orpheum theatre, Devery and Farrell sold the team to Ruppert and Huston. I’m quite sure I could have made a deal with Frank Farrell for a two- or three-year contract before leaving, but as I say I wasn’t very smart.

When we got back east Bill Donovan (that’s Bill, not Patsy) had been appointed manager of the Yankees, and he was not in favor of anybody having a long-term contract. I didn’t even last out the year with him.

It seemed every time I pitched against Washington I had Walter Johnson as an opponent, or Jim Shaw, either one. Griffith, he used to … I don’t know … I had an idea he didn’t pitch them against Caldwell. It seemed that every time Slim pitched, the team would get him three or four runs — though he didn’t need them, he was a great pitcher.

Was Johnson as great a pitcher as they say? Let me tell you, he was greater than they say. He was with one of the worst ballclubs imaginable, not quite as bad as the old Yankees but almost as bad.

When I got out of the Air Service, after the war — you see, I quit baseball on the 4th of July, I think, in 1917 and went into the Air Service — when I came out I went to work for the New York Evening Sun. I wrote articles, and the Sun used to run them every Saturday. The Wheeler Syndicate used to sell them to wherever they could sell them: Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, anywhere they could, you know — and I used to get five, two, four, eight dollars apiece for them, and one of the stories that I wrote was about Walter Johnson.

I wrote one about Joey, too, and about Cicotte, and Mathewson, oh, so many of them. In the story about Johnson, I wondered what would have happened if he had been pitching for the Giants, who could get him five or six runs nearly every time he started, and I’m wondering if he’d ever lose a ballgame. I found out from Joe Vila, who was the sports editor for the Sun, that Matty didn’t care very much for that.

Matty was a very good friend of Mike’s, and so was McGraw, who was my sponsor into the Lambs Club. He was a Jekyll and Hyde character. Off the field he was very affable, but the minute he’d get in uniform, he was one of the toughest guys you’d ever want to know. Mike used to tell me a lot of inside information which of course helped me when I was writing these stories.

Do you know about the movie Speaker and I made? In 1917, just before I went into the Service, we produced a motion picture of the big stars in both major leagues. We had $80,000 worth of bookings for the picture, and then they declared baseball during the war not essential, so all the bookings were cancelled. We sold the rights to the YMCA to use it in the camps all over Europe, in the ships going over and back, and in the camps here.

After the war was over I showed the film to my friend Roxy, God rest him, and he took the thing over and showed it at the Rivoli and the Rialto and down to Fifth Avenue, and then I happened to come into Wall Street to work as a stockbroker — in 1920 I started my own firm, which I still run today — and I forgot all about the film.

It was put in the morgue some place up at the Rialto or the Rivoli, and the YMCA lost their prints somewhere over in France, but I had left in the tins some cuts and out-takes of the shots of — well, Speaker, Hooper, Ruth, Wood, Matty, and Johnson and all, and I still have them. I showed the clips only about two years ago at the Pathe projection room one day and they still look pretty good.

The game’s a lot different today from what it was when I played. The biggest change — and the worst one, in my opinion — is the home run. Now, let’s first talk of the fellow going up to the plate. Seventy-five percent of the time he goes up there with the thought of hitting the ball out of the ballpark, and it’s not too difficult to do, because they have moved the ballpark in on him. Now in right field and center field and left field, you’ve got stands. They used to have a bleacher, way out, in the old days, but the only home run you’d get would be if you hit it between the fielders. “In grounds,” they’d call it, a home run in grounds; if a ball got in between those fielders and if you had any speed, they wouldn’t be able to throw you out. Today, if you hit a good long fly it’s in one of these short stands.

In the old days they juiced up the ball some, but when they talk about the dead ball — there never was any dead ball that I can remember. I’ve got a couple of scars on my chin to prove it. I saw Joe Jackson hit a ball over the top of the Polo Grounds in right field — the top of it — off one of our pitchers, and I have never seen or heard of anyone hitting it over since, and that was around 1914-15, in there.

Today’s ball is livelier, no doubt of that. They are using an Australian wool now in winding the core of the ball. In the old days they used wool but not one that is as elastic as this wool. The bats are whippier, too. But the principal reason for all these homers is the concentration of the hitter on trying to hit the ball out of the park.

The fielding today? Well, any of these boys in the big leagues today could field in any league at any time. I think the better equipment has more to do with the spectacular play. You take this here third baseman up with the Yankees — Clete Boyer — he’s terrific, just terrific. Larry Gardner, who played third on the Boston team with me, he was a great third baseman, and he had that “trolley-wire throw” to first, but Larry was not as agile as Boyer. I think Boyer is a little quicker. But, if you want a fellow to compare with Boyer, take Buck Weaver of that Black Sox team. He would field with Boyer any day, and throw with him, and he was a better hitter. He would be my all-time third baseman.

Players of my day, give them the good equipment, and they would be just as good or better. Now, you take a fellow like Wagner — I don’t mean the Wagner we had with the Red Sox, but the Pirates’ Wagner, Honus Wagner, who came to see us in Pittsburgh at the theatre — and he took up the whole dressing room with that big can of his. There was one of the most awkward-looking humans you ever saw, but he made the plays, without the shovel glove. And Speaker — could a big glove have made him any better?

As an outfielder, Speaker was in a class by himself. He would play so close to the infield that he’d get in on rundown plays! Then the next man perhaps would hit a long fly into center field and he would be on his bicycle with his back to the ball — not backing away, he’d turn and run — and you’d think he had a radar or a magnet or something because just at the proper time he’d turn his head and catch the ball over his shoulder.

Those fellows, Speaker, Lewis, and Hooper, they used to practice throwing, something that you don’t see anymore. Those fellows would have a cap down near the catcher and they’d see who would come closest to the cap when they’d throw from the outfield. They all had marvelous arms. Nobody would run on them and I think that most of the people who ever saw them play would say there was no trio that could compare with them.

Mike and I, in our act, we used to do a number called “When You’re a Long, Long Way From Home.” In it I used to do a recitation, and the last two lines were, “When you’re on third base alone, you’re still a long, long way from home.” It was serious, about life being like a game of baseball. Times have changed — a boy can’t peek through a knothole in a concrete fence — but that’s still true.