The Washington Nationals bolstered turnout this year with a run to the MLB playoffs, a new deal that the nation’s capital hadn’t experienced since 1933 when the Washington Senators got there.
That was the year of the birth of Joe McClain, a former Science Hill pitcher who recorded the first victory in the history of the 1961 expansion version of the Senators, who moved to Texas and became the Rangers in 1972.
The Nationals blew a 6-0 lead in a 9-7 loss to St. Louis in the decisive Game 5 of the NLDS, but that too had connections for McClain, who began his pro career for the St. Louis organization in Johnson City in 1953. McClain’s Johnson City teammates included Billy Joe Bowman, a key pitcher on Science Hill’s 1947 state-champion baseball team and the older brother of Ernie Ferrell Bowman, who played for the San Francisco Giants in the 1962 World Series. Ferrell was a freshman infield starter when McClain was the senior ace during Science Hill’s state runner-up finish in 1951 in Memphis.
McClain first injured his elbow while playing center field for Johnson City. Jim Hercinger asked him to play center field in Bristol in the nightcap of a July 4 doubleheader that began that afternoon with McClain pitching in Johnson City.
“Grady Chavis … got sick and couldn’t play,” McClain said. “Jim says, ‘Joe, will you play center field?’ I said, ‘Uh, Jim, I’ll try. He says, ‘I don’t want you making any throws. After pitching you don’t need to try to make any.’”
But the competitive juices got the best of McClain – and his elbow. He tried to throw a baserunner out on a hit and felt an excruciating pop in his right elbow.
“I thought I’d broke my arm and … I may have pitched an inning here and there for maybe the last few weeks of the season,” he said.
McClain was 10-2 with a 3.42 ERA for Johnson City, then went in the military and didn’t pitch again until 1956 in Peoria (Ill.). Actually, he reinjured the elbow while in the Army.
So he became a “junker-baller” and went 71-63 in eight seasons in the minors (34 Triple-A victories) while playing for teams such as Denver, Rochester and Charleston (S.C.), where he was in 1960 before the new Senators signed him. And on April 14, 1961, McClain recorded the franchise’s first victory, pitching a complete game in Griffith Stadium to beat the Cleveland Indians, 3-2. The Indians included Tito Francona, Jimmy Piersall and Gary Bell, who McClain outdueled for the victory by allowing seven hits and no walks. McClain also had an RBI double and scored a run in the Senators’ two-run third.
“Mickey Vernon said, ‘Can you hit?’ I said, ‘You’re dang right I can hit,’ ” McClain said. “He said, ‘OK, if he (Pete Daley) gets on first base, take you a swing at the first pitch … and if nothing happens get him over (bunt) with the second pitch.’ Boy, I tell you what, the first pitch Gary threw in there, I hit a screamer into right-center field for a double and it scored a run. (laughter) I said, ‘Yeah, a man hitting a thousand and got an RBI.’ ”
McClain improved to 2-0 when he won at Minnesota in his next start. He allowed seven hits, three runs, no walks and struck out two in 8 1/3 innings for a gratifying victory in Minneapolis, where the first-year Twins had been moved from Washington by stingy owner Calvin Griffith. McClain was again 1-for-3 with an RBI.
His hard-hit balls weren’t a fluke. He remembers tying Luke Easter in a home run derby one year in Rochester, only after the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Easter hit his last one off the top of the fence on his final swing.
“They had home run-hitting contests, it seemed like, every couple of weeks or so,” McClain said. “Five swings was what you got. I hit two out. Well, let me tell you what, Gene Green got up and he ain’t hit one. And Luke got up and he hit one out of four, and the last swing he hit, he hit one a thousand miles high it seemed like, and it come down and hit right square on top of the fence and bounced out.
“And I got on him something awful. I said, ‘You’re not gonna count that one.’ I think you got like 50 bucks or so. I said, ‘You mean to tell me you’re gonna make me split that with you?’ ”
McClain hit .204 with four doubles and four RBIs in 68 at-bats for the Senators in 1961.
“When Joe went to batting … he didn’t get fooled,” Ferrell Bowman said. “I’m telling you, he could hit. And as we’d go around the circuit and he was playing and I’s playing, they’d say, ‘Is he from Johnson City?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ And they said, ‘Well, damn, let him give you some hitting lessons. He’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen for a pitcher.’ Really, I would hear that all the time.”
Bowman smiles discussing McClain’s athleticism, remembering him setting a record in the javelin and booming left-footed punts that had Robert Neyland insisting he play football at UT.
McClain had commented negatively while watching some UT kickers work at a football press day, probably in 1951.
“He said, ‘Where you from?’ I said, ‘Johnson City?’ He said, ‘You played football somewhere didn’t you?’ I said, ‘I played at Science Hill.’ He said, ‘Who for?’ I said, ‘Mule Brown.’ ‘Ahh, I know him,’” McClain said. “He didn’t like Mule, and Mule didn’t like him either. They both run the single-wing and I guess they both thought they knew everything, and they wouldn’t give in to one another. But anyway, he says, ‘I want you out for football Monday.’ I said, ‘No sir, I’m down here on a baseball scholarship.’ He said, ‘I want you out for football. I give out the damn scholarships down here.’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’”
McClain can’t remember if he first found Billy Joe Bowman, who had won two games and hit a home run for the Vols in the 1951 College World Series, but he quickly located Cy Anderson after the Neyland encounter.
“Ole Anderson said, ‘I’ll take care of the bull,”’ McClain said. “And I never heard another word about it.”
McClain credits Elizabethton’s Lynn Goddard with making him a good punter.
“You ought to have seen Joe kick,” Ferrell Bowman said. “Unreal. Sixty-five yards was nothing for him to punt it.”
McClain gave UT the boot after a year. He hated school and wanted to play pro ball.
He pitched relatively effectively for the Senators, but got little support from the fledgling lineup. So he went 8-18 despite a 3.86 ERA. He allowed 221 hits and 48 walks in 212 innings. He struck out 76.
“It’s tough to pitch when you’re getting a shot every time you pitch a ballgame – a big cortisone shot in the shoulder to keep you going,” he said. “That’s the way it ended up with me. I couldn’t throw the ball when I come home. … I got to play another couple of months up there, maybe (the following season), and then they sent me back to the minor leagues again and that was it, really.”
McClain’s arm trouble brought up the topic of Washington shutting down pitcher Stephen Strasburg for the last month of the regular season and the playoffs due to his past elbow trouble.
“Here’s the thing, they should’ve saved him for now,” Bowman said, suggesting Strasburg could’ve began his season in May or whenever that would’ve allowed the same workload to include the postseason. … I don’t see that they could know it was gonna hurt him anyway.”
McClain never had any lingering regrets about playing with pain. He got to pitch against the likes of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris while Maris was breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record with 61.
“Maris didn’t put me in his record book, I’ll tell you that,” McClain said. “Maybe the first time up, he may have got a hit. The first time, he got a hit to center field, and other than that, I can’t ever recall him getting a hit off me.
“But now Mantle, he got a few off me. … In one game at Washington he hit two home runs off of me and I struck him out twice. And one of them, he hit a ball – my goodness alive, you hear about the tape measures – it was one of those. I told him, ‘I didn’t know I could throw a ball that far.’”
McClain wasn’t the only Washington Countian born in 1933 who pitched in the majors. Jonesborough’s Jim “Sheriff” Constable pitched for four teams (1956-58, ’62-63) and recorded three victories and two saves at the major-league level.
“His uncle was the coach at Jonesborough,” McClain said. “Miller was his last name. But anyway we tried to get Mr. Miller to let him come up to Science Hill and play with us. Well, if we’d had him up there we’d won the state championship going away. …
“I guess we’s in American Legion maybe, and Jim used to sing ‘I’ll sail my ship alone.’ That was his theme song.”
McClain grew up on Highland Avenue, and often made his way with buddies to Cardinal Park to find baseballs they’d use to play in a field near where East Tennessee State’s new ballpark is located.
“We’d hobo the train,” he said. “And up there where State (ETSU) built their new ballpark, there was a big sawmill in there and a lot of big orchard grass growing up along the railroad tracks and we’d jump off. That train would be making probably 15 or 20 miles an hour, which isn’t fast, but when you’re jumping off, it’s fast. …
“We’d go over to Cardinal Park and get us a ball and we’d play until we knocked the cover off of it, and then we’d get electrical tape around it and played until we knocked all that off and then when we knocked all the stuffings out of it we’d get that little black ball in the middle of it and when we lost it – it was like a golf ball, and when you hit it out of sight or into the sawdust you never could find it and it was time to go to Cardinal Park again.”
Little did he know that one day going to the ballpark would pay off with much more than second-hand baseballs.
“I saw a lot of good ballplayers up there, and a lot of them turned out to be Hall of Fame guys,” McClain said. “What else can you ask for? I got to play against them and I got them out every once in a while.”