RIP to Mike McCormick, an All-Star pitcher and the first Cy Young Award winner in Giants history. He died on June 13 at his home in Cornelius, N.C. He was 81 years old and had been battling Parkinson’s disease for several years. McCormick played for the New York/San Francisco Giants (1956-62, 1967-70), Baltimore Orioles (1963-64), Washington Senators (1965-66), New York Yankees (1970) and Kansas City Royals (1971).
Giants CEO/president Larry Baer said in a statement: “We are deeply saddened by the loss of Mike McCormick, a true gentleman and forever Giant. Like many Giants fans, I have many fond childhood memories of watching Mike pitch at Candlestick Park and then was blessed to call him my friend these past 30 years. As a member of the inaugural San Francisco Giants team in 1958, Mike helped establish baseball on the West Coast and then went on to play a major role in the legendary Giants teams of the 1960s, becoming San Francisco’s first pitcher to win a Cy Young Award. Following his illustrious playing career, Mike settled in the Bay Area and was a regular presence at Giants games and countless Giants functions, from Giants Community Fund fundraisers, to team reunions, to fantasy camps. He was the ultimate Giants ambassador and lived life to the fullest. He will be greatly missed by our Giants family and our thoughts are with Dierdre and the entire McCormick family.”
Michael Francis McCormick was born in Pasadena, Calif., on September 29, 1938. His father, Kenneth, was once a semi-pro pitcher who once had a chance with the St. Louis Browns. He built a mound in his backyard for his son and gradually lengthened the distance between the mound and home plate. By the time young McCormick was 12 years old, he was throwing at a major-league distance. His father even converted him from a right-handed pitcher to a southpaw, figuring it would make his route to the major leagues easier.
The younger McCormick’s high school career was a stellar one, and this is an era when California high schools had a wealth of future big-league talent. In 1956, McCormick’s senior year at Mark Keppel High in Alhambra, he was the co-player of the year for the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation), sharing the honor with Ron Fairly. They were part of the first-team All-CIF team, along with Camilo Carreon and Deron Johnson. McCormick went 9-0 as Keppel won the Pacific League title, and he averaged 15 strikeouts a game. He struck out 26 batters in a playoff game against rival Downey.
The New York Giants were one of the teams who scouted the left-handed sensation, and they landed him with a contract said to be worth $65,000. Giants manager Bill Rigney, a Californian himself, had heard about McCormick and has asked owner Horace Stoneham to make a strong bid.
“I never saw him pitch, although our scouts have seen him plenty,” Rigney told the Daily News. They tell me he’s about the nearest thing to [Johnny] Antonelli that anybody could find.” Rigney was referring to the Giants’ ace, who was a former “bonus baby” himself. Players signed out of high school with a significant bonus were required to spend two full seasons in the majors; ultimately, it probably did more to damage careers by taking away valuable development time from prospects. Antonelli was an exception, and McCormick would prove to be one too, in time.
McCormick, for his part, was ready for the challenge. “They probably will knock me all over the lot, at first,” he said. “But once I get used to their hitting it will be the same as pitching to anyone else.”
McCormick’s signing was announced on August 29, 1956. The 17-year-old made his debut on September 3 with an inning of scoreless relief work against the Phillies. He needed just 6 pitches to dispatch Philadelphia sluggers Stan Lopata, Del Ennis and Jim Greengrass. His efficient work inspired Rigney to give him a couple of starts at the end of the season. He struggled with getting the ball over the plate and was hammered by the Phillies and Cardinals. He ended his first season with a 0-1 record and 9.45 ERA in 3 appearances.
By the close of the following season, McCormick had done more than enough to justify his staying on the big-league roster. He worked with coach Bucky Walters and became a pretty reliable bullpen arm. After starting 1957 as a mop-up reliever, McCormick picked up his first career win in a start against the Cubs on July 25. He held the Cubs to 1 earned run and struck out 7 before tiring in the ninth inning. He went 3-1 with a 4.10 ERA; the one loss was an 8-inning, 2-run start against Pittsburgh, where the Giants were shut out 2-0 by Bob Friend. Manager Rigney felt that he could become a part of the starting rotation in 1958, after the Giants moved to San Francisco.
McCormick did indeed start 28 games for the Giants in their new California home, along with 14 relief outings. His workload gradually increased every year over the next few years, as he shed the swingman role and became a bona-fide starting pitcher. As a 19-year-old in 1958, he won 11 games and lost 9, with 82 strikeouts in 178-1/3 innings and a 4.59 ERA. By the time he celebrated his 20th birthday, McCormick had put together a teenaged pitching career that baseball wouldn’t really see again until Dwight Gooden showed up in the 1980s.
After a 12-16 campaign in 1959, McCormick made his first two All-Star teams in 1960. (Baseball had two All-Star Games per season for a spell.) He won 15 games for the Giants and led the National League with a 2.70 ERA. He fanned 154 hitters in 253 innings — in the span of five seasons, he’d gone from an untested high schooler to a workhouse of the Giants pitching staff.
That 1960 season was the high point of McCormick’s career for a few years. Although he made the All-Star Team twice in 1961, he had a 13-16 record and 3.20 ERA, and he led the NL by surrendering 33 home runs. Some of that had to do with the fact that the Giants had moved in the fences at Candlestick Park. “I’m not pitching any differently,” he said when asked about the gopher ball problem. “And I’d rather not make any excuses. I’m just doing lousy.”
Things got progressively worse over the next few seasons. He won a mere 5 games for the Giants in 1962 and pitched in fewer than 100 innings as his ERA jumped to 5.38. He was bothered by a dead arm, and his struggles led to more bullpen outings and fewer starts, and his relationship with new manager Alvin Dark was not the greatest.
After the season, the Giants traded McCormick to the Baltimore Orioles in a six-player deal; McCormick wasn’t even the biggest name in the trade. Ace reliever Stu Miller went to the Orioles, as well as catcher John Orsino, for pitchers Billy Hoeft and Jack Fisher and catcher Jim Coker. Orioles general manager Lee McPhail called the deal a gamble. “It’s the kind of trade I don’t usually advocate. We sinply traded pitching to get more catching, and we are gambling that McCormick will get over his arm trouble,” he admitted.
McCormick came to spring training in 1963 with the intent to prove that the Giants made a big mistake. He said his arm and shoulder woes may have been due to the fact that Tom Sheehan, the man who replaced Rigney as manager in June of 1961, used him in a starting and relief role, and that over-work put undue strain on his shoulder and messed up his delivery. He also quarreled with pitching coach Larry Jansen, who was an Al Dark hire.
“Maybe I was stubborn, but Jansen wanted me to pitch a slider and I wouldn’t do it,” McCormick explained. “I thought I had done pretty well without that pitch. A slider is right if you know how to throw it. Otherwise, it can be hit a mile.”
Unfortunately, the Orioles’ gamble didn’t pay off. McCormick stayed in the starting rotation for the most part, but he had a 6-8 record and 4.30 ERA in ’63. Youngsters Dave McNally and Wally Bunker solidified the Orioles rotation in 1964 and left McCormick out in the cold. After 4 games, including 2 starts, he had an 0-2 record and a 5.19 ERA. The Orioles sent him to AAA Rochester in mid-May for the rest of the season; it was the first time he had ever pitched in the minor leagues.
The good news was that McCormick pitched well and without pain in Rochester, proving he wasn’t washed up at the age of 25. He also developed a screwball, which helped to compensate for his fading fastball. The bad news was that the Orioles, in addition to Bunker and McNally, now had John Miller and Jim Palmer making their way into the majors. McCormick was the odd man out, and the Washington Senators acquired him in the spring of 1965 for a minor leaguer and cash.
“I’m sorry they made the decision so quickly. They may regret it,” he said.
Pitching more than 40 games in 1965 and ’66, McCormick was an above-average swingman for the Senators. He shut out the Yankees on July 18, 1965, which was the first time in two years he’d held an opponent scoreless. His workload crept past the 200-inning mark in 1966, and he won 11 games that year — the first time he’d topped double digits in wins since 1961.
The Giants re-acquired McCormick in a trade in December of 1966, sending reliever Bob Priddy and outfielder Cap Peterson to Washington in exchange. McCormick and his family — his first wife and four young children — were overjoyed. He had never moved away from California. He had a home in Mountain View, and he’d never spent a single summer in it. The season that he put together in 1967 made the homecoming all the sweeter.
McCormick was roughed up in his first two starts, leading to an ERA of 9.72 by the end of April. He then won 3 games in May and 5 more in June, including 4 complete games and 2 shutouts. He won his first 4 starts in July before an 11-inning loss to the Pirates on July 19 ended an 8-game winning streak. McCormick picked up his 100th career win on August 14 with a 6-2 complete game win over the Braves. That was one of 4 wins he had in the month of August.
The southpaw won his 19th game of the year with a complete game win over Houston on September 4. He lost his next three decisions, as that 20th win was an elusive one. Finally, he gave up 2 runs in 8 innings against the Cubs, as the Giants won 6-2. He added two more complete game wins to cap off a remarkable season.
For the year, McCormick went 22-10 with a 2.85 ERA and 150 strikeouts. His 22 wins led all of baseball. He was 7th in the NL with 14 complete games and 2nd with 5 shutouts. His trophy case was loaded up in the offseason. He won The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year, the Comeback Player of the Year and the NL Cy Young Award. It was the first season in which the AL and NL had separate Cy Young winners. McCormick was the first Giant to win the award and, until Tim Lincecum in 2008 and ’09, the only Giant to win it.
McCormick chalked up his success to the lessons he learned in Rochester. “Before, I had been a power pitcher. But I couldn’t do that with a bad arm,” he explained. “I had to use my head and concentrate on control.”
It was McCormick’s last great year. He finished 1968 two games under .500, at 12-14, and toward the end of the season, he was moved out of the starting rotation for weeks at a time. He also had the distinction of allowing Hank Aaron‘s 500th home run, on July 14. That distinction suited Aaron. “He won the Cy Young Award last year, and I’m glad it came off a good pitcher,” the slugger said. McCormick, for his part, would eventually get a license plate that said “MR 500,” so he came to accept his place in history.
The custom license plate had a dual meaning. McCormick, a fine hitter for a pitcher, hit 7 home runs in his career, and one of them was believed to be the 500th ever hit by a pitcher.
McCormick improved to an 11-9 record and a 3.34 ERA in 1969 as he regained his starting role. However, his walk totals continued to rise (77) and his strikeouts continued to drop (76). After struggling through the first half of 1970 with an ERA over 6.00, the Giants cut ties with him once more, trading him to the New York Yankees for pitcher John Cumberland. McCormick wasn’t much better for the Yankees, but he did win the final two games of his career in Yankee pinstripes.
The Yankees cut McCormick in the spring of 1971, and he was quickly signed by the Kansas City Royals. That stay lasted just 4 games, as he allowed 10 runs in 9-2/3 innings, and he was released. McCormick went on to pitch in the minor leagues for 1972 and 1973 for a couple of organizations, including the Giants, but he never returned to the major leagues. He was the Opening Day pitcher for the 1973 Hawaii Islanders — and it was the first time that he’d ever started an Opening Day game. He retired after the 1973 season when he was 34 years old.
In his 16-year career, McCormick had a 134-126 record and a 3.73 ERA. He threw 91 complete games, including 23 shutouts, and he also had 12 saves from his occasional relief outings. He struck out 1,321 hitters and was worth 18.6 Wins Above Replacement.
McCormick entered the business world after his baseball career ended, though he still made frequent appearances at Giants games and fantasy camps. He owned an office equipment company that sold photocopiers and other supplies to businesses in the Bay Area. At one point, he was a part of a group of businessmen who sought to buy the Giants from owner Horace Stoneham in 1975, with the intent of keeping the team in San Francisco.
When McCormick was cut by the Yankees, he related a story from early in his career, when he had just signed as a bonus baby. He was walking through a Los Angeles hotel lobby when a drunken sportswriter called him over and said, ‘Hey kid, you’ll never make it, so why don’t you just take your 50 thousand and go home.”
McCormick never forgot it. “Fourteen years. It’s been fun,” he said as he took off his Yankees uniform for the last time. “If I had to do it over, I’d be a sportswriter,” he joked.
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