Four Major Comebacks

My baseball career was characterized by four major comebacks. What I mean is that there were four times when it seemed that my career in the major leagues was over, when I was just hanging on by a thread, only to somehow manage a comeback where I would enjoy outstanding success. The bad times help you to appreciate the good times. Most of us would just as soon leave off the bad times and just experience the good times, but usually life does not come that way. In my case, I am thankful to God for the bad times. These are the times that try our souls, test our character and make real growth possible. I am quite certain that if I would have continued to enjoy the baseball success that was mine in 1959 and 1960, I could not have handled the prosperity and popularity that would have come my way. Nor would it have made me a better person. It ought not be this way, but success often breeds pride and selfishness. This is why Jesus said that it is almost impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. What Jesus said about the rich would also apply to sports celebrities. So I want to write briefly about my low points and comebacks.

After enjoying success as a rookie (1956) and winning 15 games my sophomore year (1957), I hit a wall in 1958. Much publicity surrounded my brother Von (age 18) and me (age 21) in 1957, as we were acclaimed as the “new brothers act” with the Cardinals being compared to the Dean brothers of the 1930’s and 40’s. We won 22 games as starting pitchers. We were written up in Life Magazine, Sports Illustrated, and gobs of other articles and publications. In 1958, Von hurt his arm ending his Major League career. My fastball quit sinking and I could no longer dominate the hitters. I started two games in which I did not get even one hitter out! In August of 1958 I was sent to the minor leagues, playing for the Omaha Redbirds--- The Cardinals triple A club. There I compiled a record of 4 wins and 1 loss, and was brought back up to the Cardinals in September.

Comeback Number One

In 1959 I was used as a spot starter and still was having trouble getting hitters out with my fastball. By the latter part of May, my record was a troubling 1 win and 4 losses. On May 24th I asked Howie Pollet, my pitching coach, if I could go to the bullpen. I didn’t think I was getting enough work and this would give me more opportunities. My opportunity came that very same day in the 5th inning in Chicago. As I was warming up, Howie suggested that I try throwing strictly straight overhand. In the past I had done this occasionally against left-handed batters, and my fastball seemed more lively. So I heeded his advise and picked up a win by shutting out the Cubs pitching 5 plus innings. I stayed with a straight overhand delivery for the next three months racking up enough wins and saves to lead the league in relief pitching. My old delivery was ¾ overhand, with a long stride, getting very low to the ground. My new delivery was straight overhand, with a short stride, and using more leverage in my delivery. I described it as a straight overhand whipping motion. In 1960 I added the “forkball” to go with my fastball and curve, and I was virtually blowing the hitters away. My record in relief was 12 wins, 2 losses, 26 saves and an E.R.A. of 1.29. My total E.R.A. was over 2.00 because I started two games giving up 12 runs. That year I was awarded the first “fireman award” trophy.

However in 1961 and 1962 everything went south. My pitching mechanics were all messed up and I did not seem to be able to put everything back together. I had forgotten how to throw straight overhand in the proper way, and my rhythm kept breaking up. How is that possible? It is like a golfer who loses his stroke, and the more he experiments, the worse it gets. It was awful, but that’s life. There were no movie pictures of my pitching in 1960 for comparison. In the winter of 1962, I was traded to the Chicago Cubs. I received calls from sports writers who wanted to know if I was going to retire. So now I needed to make comeback number two.

Comeback Number Two

In spring training with the Cubs, I was trying too hard and hurt my arm. I had pulled some muscles in my elbow by forcing my fastball. I did not pitch for three weeks. The only thing that seemed to help was soaking my arm in the whirlpool at 114 degrees for 25 minutes. Then I could straighten out my right pitching arm. Once I starting pitching again, my old rhythm surprisingly came back, and was again getting hitters out with good ball movement. Don’t ask me to explain any of this. In 1963 I again led the National League in relief pitching and for the second time received the “fireman award”. My pitching remained pretty consistent up until 1967. I hit a huge road block with my manager with the San Francisco Giant, Herman Franks. I do not have space here to go into details. By mid-season 1968, my E.R.A. was a dismal 7.57. I was trying hard to get away from the Giants and no one was willing to pick me up. This was absolutely the lowest point of my career. So I was ready for comeback number three.

Comeback Number Three

The New York Yankees made a deal for me on July 12, 1968. All the details here make a very interesting story, but I must pass quickly on. During the last half season of 1968, I revived the Yankee bullpen by picking up 4 wins against 1 loss, 10 saves and an E.R.A. of 1.68. I was back! In 1970 the Yankees had one of the best bullpens in Major League History with a total of 75 wins and saves in relief. My own contribution was 13 wins and 29 saves with an E.R.A. of 2.05. In those days you had to pitch 2 or 3 innings to get a save. In August of 1968 I retired 32 consecutive batters spread out over four games. I spent 5 ½ years with the Yankees and the only bad thing is that we mostly had a young inexperienced team and was lacking the power house and balance of those great Yankee teams of the past. But I enjoyed wearing the Yankee pinstripes and being a part of their great history. However, I was to face another big bump in the road.

After the great year in 1970, I found myself unable to get hitters out. Early in 1971, I must have blown several leads in one week. Something was definitely not right. This is what I finally figured out. Just before spring training, I had to under go a three hour operation on my throat to remove a large golf ball size calcium deposit. This evidently left me in a weakened condition that did not appear so noticeable at the time, but in professional baseball, small things can make a big difference. I did not have that extra stuff that keeps the hitter from making good contact with the ball. My good manager, Ralph Houck, stuck with me because of what I had done for the Yankees in the past, but it was not a pretty sight. I was getting booed and my pitching was hurting the ball club. Finally, Ralph quit using me and it was during this time that the Yankees acquired Sparky Lyle, who became a great stopper in the bullpen. As for me, I wasn’t used much for about a year.

Comeback Number Four

Toward the end of 1972, Ralph starting using me again, and my stuff was back to normal. It had been normal long before that, but I lacked opportunity. In 1973, I had a great year with the Yankees. So that ends my brief little story about some of the ups and downs of my career. I am neither bragging nor complaining, but just stating the facts.

Sports can teach many valuable lessons about life. For one thing, athletes learn how to overcome obstacles, not to quit and to stay focused. Life is not always being on top of the world. There are many disappointments and things do not always go our way. But we must keep trying to reach our goals.

Now to keep things in perspective, were these the best and worst things to happen to me in my life? No. Not at all. Real life is not sports and such things. In fact when people become fanatical about sports, I’m thinking that they should “get a life”. Nevertheless for many of us sports are a nice diversion or recreation from the normal flow and problems of life. Naturally, for professional athletes, it is their livelihood, which makes it a bit more serious. Are there more important things? You bet! These are the things that I will be mostly writing about. The apostle Paul put it this way: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for who I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.” (Phil. 3:7-11). I have been speaking of my life in baseball, but Paul here was referring to his previous life as a Jew. Same difference, except Paul had more credentials in the flesh if he wanted to brag. But all bragging stops when we consider what Christ has done for us and the great blessings to be found in Christ.

---Lindy McDaniel

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