Saturday, March 7, 2015

Belated Farewell to Billy McCool


I just found out that former Reds’ pitcher Bill McCool died last summer. He was only 69. Apparently his passing did not make much news outside of his home town. It should have. He was once one of the best young pitchers on the Reds.

When I learned that he had died, my first thought was, “Damn, another nice guy that I interviewed has died.” Bill McCool will always hold a special place in my heart. He was one of the first former major league players I interviewed when I was working on my first book in March of 2009. Had he been rude or uncooperative, I might have tucked my tail and given up on writing books. Instead, he was very accommodating and enjoyed talking about his playing days--and I am waiting for my fourth book to be released this fall.

Bill McCool was a star athlete at Lawrenceburg High School in Indiana, a small border town on the Ohio River only 20 miles from Cincinnati. He signed with the Reds, essentially his hometown team, upon graduation from high school in 1963 and blazed a quick trail through the minors that summer, compiling a 2.01 ERA in 148 innings at Class A Tampa and then going 4-0 with a 1.04 ERA at AAA San Diego in four games.

Bill was barely 19 years old and less than a year out of high school when he unexpectedly (to some) made the Reds coming out of spring training in 1964. Although young, he did not lack for confidence. “I had a pretty good idea I would make the team that year,” he said. “I had a good year in the minors the year before. I knew what I could do.” McCool was a 6’2 lefty with a silky-smooth delivery and a live arm. He had excellent control for a youngster and a classic sneaky-fast heater that developed the reputation of being one of the best fastballs in the league as it tended to tail in on hitters and shatter their bats. 

McCool appreciated the fact that his first manager, Fred Hutchinson, recognized his talent and had a plan to bring him along. “I thought the world of Fred," he said. "He could look mean and gruff and when he said to do something, you didn't bother to ask questions. But he was really a good man to play for. He was fair and you knew where you stood. He was just a no nonsense guy who was well respected by everyone who ever played for him. He knew how to handle people." It didn't take McCool long to find out why Hutch was nicknamed the Bear. "If you lost a close game and he was upset, you didn’t laugh, you didn’t smile, as a matter of fact, you didn’t even want to be in the clubhouse. When he told you to get out of the shower and get out of the clubhouse and on the bus, you didn’t waste time, you did it.”

The Reds of that year were a fairly close team, which helped the rookies fit in. Although the front office leaked to the press that future Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson was trouble and had attitude problems (feelings that led to the infamous Pappas-for-Robinson trade in 1966 that made world champs of the Orioles), McCool said Robinson was the undisputed leader of the team and a great competitor. “Frank Robinson was just a great guy. He took a lot of us young guys under his wing. When we went into San Francisco, I didn’t know anything, being from a small town in Indiana. Frank called us and said, ‘Come up to my room.’ Me and Sammy Ellis and Mel Queen and a few other guys went in and Frank had called room service and had about 24 hamburgers sent up to the room. We sat in there and talked baseball for four or five hours. Frank was a great guy. He was the team leader.”

Popular veteran lefty Joe Nuxhall was another teammate who made an early impression on the rookie. "Nuxie was another great guy. But you never met a bigger competitor, he hated to lose. Once we walked into the San Francisco clubhouse after a game--he had gotten beat. I think McCovey hit one out late. Joe came in and you could tell he was mad and about to blow. Nobody said anything. He spotted the spread of food in the clubhouse and went to kick the table. He still had his spikes on and his back spike slipped on the concrete and he went flying on his keester. Food went everywhere. I'm at my locker hiding my face, doing everything I can to keep from laughing because he was still so mad."
  
McCool’s first major league appearance came against the Giants. When asked if he was nervous, staring down sluggers like Cepeda, McCovey and Mays as a 19 year old, he replied, “I was never intimidated by anyone. I just went right at them.”

 Recalling this line, I had to laugh when I later read the Cincinnati Post account of McCool’s first major league victory, which came in Milwaukee June 2, 1964. In the clubhouse after the game, Joe Nuxhall laughingly told anyone who would listen that when the peach-fuzzed McCool first came off the field he said, “Boy that Joe Torre scared the hell out of me when he came to the plate. I’ll bet he hasn’t shaved in two weeks.”

The 1964 season became one of drama and tragedy as the Reds battled for the pennant while watching manager Fred Hutchinson fade due to the ravages of lung cancer. The Reds won 10 of 12 late in the season and had a chance to win the pennant on the last day, but lost. McCool was instrumental in the Reds' success that season as he and fellow first-year pitcher Sammy Ellis continually displayed cold-blooded relief pitching in late innings. They formed one of the best righty-lefty bullpen combos in the league. At one point, McCool went ten appearances in July without giving up a run. He finished the season at 6-5 with a 2.42 ERA and 7 saves and was named the National League’s Rookie Pitcher of the Year by the Sporting News. 

In 1965, McCool again pitched great, winning 9 games with 21 saves and finished in second place, by one point, for the league’s Fireman Award (an award given by the Sporting News in which saves and wins in relief were added).

In 1966, he made the All-Star team with 8 wins, a 2.48 ERA and 18 saves. He was only 21 years old and his future seemed to hold greatness. But late in 1966, he hurt his knee. “I caught my spikes in the rubber in Pittsburgh and tore some cartilage in my knee,” he said. “Back then, they didn’t want to operate. They tried to medicate it, tried to drain fluid off the knee. I came back, but it totally changed my motion. I'm lefthanded and that was my left knee, my push-off leg. You’re not pitching the way you always have your whole life and you get wild. It started to affect my arm and calcium deposits formed. That was my demise. If it happened today, I would have been back within a month, good as new. But that is just the fortunes of the game. Things happen.”

After struggling for two years, he was left unprotected in the October, 1968 expansion draft and was nabbed by the San Diego Padres. After playing for the miserable expansion team one season, he tried to make it with the Red Sox and Royals but was essentially done at 25 years of age.

After baseball, McCool worked as sports director for a television station in nearby Dayton for two years, then went into the steel business for 31 years until retiring to Florida in 2005. He and his wife had three children and were married 47 years at the time of his death, which was due to long-standing heart problems.

Interestingly, he met his future wife on a blind double date set up by teammate Pete Rose. The Reds were in Milwaukee to play the Braves in 1965 and the future Mrs. McCool was a Marquette coed whose friend had a date for the night with Rose. McCool was drafted as an accomplice. Mrs. McCool later stated that the big-spending Rose (flush with cash as a third-year player making around $20,000) impressed the girls by dropping a 50 cent tip on the table at the end of dinner.

I enjoyed talking to Bill McCool. He was very free with his stories and memories. Before hanging up, however, he made a request which I have not heard since. He asked that I be careful and not write anything that he might have said that might make any teammate look bad. “These guys were all my friends,” he said. “I enjoyed those years on the Reds. We were all friends and had a good time together. We didn't make much money. We played for the love of the game.”







3 comments:

  1. Great read Doug, thanks for sharing!

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  2. Thanks. Bill McCool had some good years for the Reds. It would be a shame for the next generation to forget about him.

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  3. Wonderful memories. Bill McCool sent me an autographed copy of his pitching book several years ago. I never met him. No relation. Sad to hear he died.

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