"He instinctively can find the shining greatness of our American culture and does a good job of highlighting it (although he also does have those rare lapses when he writes about hockey, but that is something caused by impurities in the Eastern waters or something)." Erik Keilholtz
Under the patronage of St. Tammany
Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children. Email
Friday, August 08, 2003 "If he lacked discipline, he exuded personality"
Maurice "Mickey" McDermott, who has died at 74, was the precursor to Bill Lee in the Red Sox pantheon of colorful characters. A pitching phenom who arrived in the big leagues in 1948 as a 19-year-old with a 100-mph fastball and a can't-miss tag, the convivial lefthander also was a prodigious drinker, lounge singer and Sinatra pal, called by Sports Illustrated the "thirsty Irish thrush," whose carousing ultimately kept him from stardom. His jug-eared looks inspired Norman Rockwell's Rookie. In his retirement, he hit the lottery for $7 million. McDermott recently released a memoir,A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cooperstown, and given his flourish as a teller of tales (see his account of catcher Sammy White's unique mitt padding), articles done on the book's release literally wrote themselves.
Mickey may be a tad cantankerous. His language may turn the air cigar-smoke blue. He may, as near as I can figure, smoke half a carton of cigarettes a day. But when he reminisces, it's as if you're hearing living history as spoken by George Washington. Well, O.K., Ty Cobb.
So listening to a major leaguer who would have had a genuine shot at making Cooperstown if he hadn't lost his fastball in a bottle of Scotch, is a treat. And, surprisingly, still happy-go-lucky at 74, McDermott has no (or almost no) regrets. Highballs, not steroids or ephedra, were the drugs of choice in those days.
So as a Red Sox rookie, Mickey's role models were players like Ellis Kinder, a 23-game winner who pitched — and partied — better drunk than sober. Kinder, a big Tennessean, phoned Mickey one midnight to announce: "Congratulate me. I just got married."
Mickey asked, "But Ellis, what about Hazel?"
"Gosh," Kinder said, "you mean I'm already married?"
Walking a block is a big deal for Mickey these days, not only because of his pacemaker, but also because his knees have little cartilage left. "They got that way," he confesses ebulliently, "from falling off bar stools."
And his teeth would be a whole lot better if he hadn't met a "crazy drunken dentist" who, after a night of drinking, "yanked out every last one of them while I was asleep in his dental chair."
Mickey has been sober for a dozen years, ever since his wife bought the $1 ticket that changed their lives. "After my 12 years in the majors, I slid deeper and deeper down the hill every year," Mickey said. "I was a coach and a batting practice pitcher, a players' rep, and then I sold cars and radio advertising. I drank a cocktail lounge into bankruptcy, worked as a carpenter and a security guard, and got very tired of binge drinking and making love to toilet bowls. One night I got on my knees and said: `God, I want to quit drinking. Please. Give me a sign.' When Betty came home with a $7 million lottery ticket, that seemed like a pretty good sign. I stopped drinking."
When he got to New York, McDermott fit right into the party hearty Yankees clubhouse presided over by Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and their running mates. "They welcomed me," he said. "I came with a reputation."
Manager Casey Stengel decided to crack down on the curfew-breakers, paying off hotel desk clerks and bellhops for information.
One night, McDermott arrived back at the hotel suitably late and headed upstairs. Stengel was tipped off and when the elevator door opened, the manager was standing there, his arms folded. He had the pitcher cornered.
"Drunk again," Stengel said.
McDermott squinted at the manager through his alcoholic haze, smiled benignly and said, "Me too!"
On why Johnny Pesky will never again lend him the car: When I first come up, the front office made me live with him, ’cause I was so young and he was supposed to take care of me. Pesky gave up that idea! He said, "Jesus Christ! Nobody’s gonna tame him!" They gave him a brand new Lincoln [for Johnny Pesky Day] and I said, "Can I borrow the car?" He says, "If you put one scratch on that, you’re gone!" I said, "Don’t worry about it!" So I’m going at it with this broad in the back seat, and I kicked the window out! That was the end of the ball game. I had to get a hotel room.
On how he startled George H.W. Bush at the Ted Williams Museum: [Ted] hollers to me, "Maurice! Have you met the president?" And I say, "Noooo, I haven’t, Theodoooore." He says, "Mr. President, Maurice McDermott." I said, "GEORGE, HOW THE HELL ARE YA, PAL?!" Holy Christ! Ted’s reaching for his head, going, "He’s calling my commander-in-chief ‘George!?’" I said, "Wait a minute, Ted! He played first base at Yale! Right, George?" And Bush gave me the high-five and laughed like hell. Ted just couldn’t get over it. He was gonna kill me!
Q: Didn't you play in Havana, too? A: A lot of us did. My highest salary in the majors was $19,500 with Washington, and that was after an 18-win season. So an extra few thousand a month in winter ball helped pay the rent. My last game in Havana we hear shots along about the fifth inning from the streets outside the field. The first-base coach falls down, struck in the head by a spent bullet. Luckily he's wearing a batting helmet. Then the shortstop gets hit in the leg. It's Fidel Castro invading Havana. Game called on account of revolution. Somebody shouts, "Run for the bus." I think I broke Mickey Mantle's record for the mile. We spent the next three days hiding under the bed at the Hotel Nacional. Finally Castro comes in and makes a fiery speech. The part I liked was, "Yanqui, go home!" I went. As fast as I could.
Q: When you played in Boston, you sang at a local nightclub in the off-season. Were you able to go back there and sing after you were traded to Washington? A: I wanted to so I went back to see the owner of Steubens, Joe Schneider. "Season's over," I said, "Wanna book me for a few weeks?" He said, "Mickey, 18 and 10 with the Red Sox, what a beautiful voice! But 7 and 15 in Washington? You don't sing so good no more."