Maurice "Mickey" McDermott's golf hat was pulled down over his forehead, but that couldn't hide the laughter in his big Irish face.
Down on his luck for years, the former Boston Red Sox pitcher had won $5.8 million in the Arizona lottery on February 7. McDermott, 62, sat on the stool next to the cash register in Carrows restaurant at 46th Street and Thomas. He was grinning like a man who had hit a homer in the last of the ninth.
"Let me tell you how this happened," he began. "I was on a barstool for two days and finally I went home to sleep it off. I'm not a kid anymore. It takes me time to get over a hangover. Pretty soon, my wife Betty wakes me up and orders me into the living room.
"`I want you to sit up and listen to something I've got to tell you,' she says. I couldn't figure what was so important. Was she going to leave me? Did I accidentally kill the cat?
"`We've just won the lottery,' she tells me. `Our share will be almost $6 million. Mickey McDermott, you are one lucky Irish son of a bitch!'" McDermott paused to let the sheer majesty of that grand moment sink in. Then he said a very wise thing. It was something about life he'd grown to understand from years of observation and pain.
"I used to be a reprobate," McDermott said. "Now, they'll have to call me an eccentric millionaire." But for almost three decades, McDermott plodded through the middle years of his life as a living symbol of the warning given all big league rookies about carousing and fast living.
In his time, McDermott was the Natural. He was so good at such an early age that big league scouts actually tried to sign him when he was only fourteen years old. He pitched in the minor leagues at fifteen. He was that supremely talented lefthanded pitcher with the 100-mile-per-hour fastball who comes along once every generation. He was Cooperstown bound, but his train was derailed by his appetite for wine and women and a totally eccentric desire to appear regularly as a nightclub singer.
Once, in 1953, McDermott won eighteen games in a single season for the Boston Red Sox. In 1956, he was in the World Series with the New York Yankees. He was out carousing until the early hours with Don Larsen before that worthy pitched his now-legendary perfect game.
But, since 1961, when McDermott was released for the final time by the St. Louis Cardinals, he has gone from job to job.
"It was tough," he said. "You played baseball all your life and suddenly there was nothing. But I was a survivor. I tried everything. I sold cars, I sold advertising for radio stations, I ran nightclubs, I worked as a talent agent in Las Vegas. And baseball people kept getting me jobs. Walt Dropo, my old teammate, helped me. And I was a coach for the California Angels for a while. Billy Martin gave me a job scouting." McDermott hesitated.
"Birdie Tebbetts was a veteran catcher on the Red Sox when I was breaking in. He told me something I never forgot.
"`Playing in the big leagues is like climbing a ladder,' he said. `Before it's over, you'll be coming back down and if you have as many as five friends by the time it's over, you'll be lucky.'" McDermott made even more friends than that. And they stuck by him through the years. They helped him get jobs. They loaned him money, and they did it gladly because McDermott is one of nature's noblemen.
McDermott also had a wonderful woman named Betty who worked steadily and his $600-a-month pension from his thirteen years in the big leagues to help make ends meet.
"Betty and I have been together 24 years. Three years ago, she comes to me and says we're getting married. She told me she was tired of being my girlfriend. So we got married."
"I wonder if she's sorry now. She could have had all that scratch to herself. After all, she bought the ticket, but Arizona's a community-property state.
"The money won't change my life that much. I've been through times when I had dough and when I didn't. The most I ever made in the big leagues was $19,000, but that was at a time when you could buy a brand new Ford convertible off the showroom floor for $800 and go out all night drinking and spend only ten bucks." When David Halberstam was researching The Summer of '49, the story of the pennant race between Boston and New York that year, McDermott was one of the former players he sought out. McDermott was a rookie with the Red Sox that season.
Halberstam wrote of McDermott:
"He did not try to be a flake. He was a flake. The Boston sportswriters were calling him Mickey, and he wanted to be called Lefty because he thought and felt like a Lefty. He sang at local nightclubs and told writers he would rather be a singer than a pitcher. Having been poor all his life, he loved to throw money around now that he was making a big league salary, albeit a very small one. Everywhere he went he bought new suits and new shoes. `I led the league,' he once said of that rookie year, `in stolen hotel towels and buying suits.' He bought shirts and only wore them once. He often left clothes behind in hotels . . . he also seemed on his way to setting records in food consumption." McDermott started out as fast as any of the great rookie pitchers of all time. The Boston writers compared him to Lefty Gomez, Hal Newhouser, and Bob Feller.
Joe McCarthy, then 62, was the Red Sox manager. He treated McDermott like a son, often making him sit next to him on the train when the team traveled. McCarthy was a heavy drinker himself, who was known to consume a fifth of Scotch at a time.
One day he said to McDermott: "Never trust a Coca-Cola drinker. I know where all the drunks are when I want them. They're in the bar. The coke drinker might be at your house in bed with your wife." Another time McCarthy told him: "Maurice, all you have to do is aim for the middle of the plate and they'll all jump in the barrel for you." But later, when McDermott's extreme late-night antics became cause for alarm, McCarthy had another talk with him.
"Maurice, did you ever hear of the great Lefty Gomez?"
"Of course. He was my idol. One of the great lefthanders of all time," McDermott answered.
"Gomez pitched for me when I managed the Yankees," McCarthy said. "He left his fastball in the sheets." McDermott didn't listen. He was a star. His picture was in Life magazine. Everywhere he went at night people were buying him drinks and toasting him.
Ted Williams, the great Boston Hall of Famer, went to the club's owner Tom Yawkey and suggested that McDermott be switched to the outfield.
Williams reasoned that McDermott was a great natural hitter and had the speed and arm to make it as an outfielder for twenty years.
"If you let him pitch and take four days off between starts, he won't last long the way he's living," Williams predicted.
How many times must McDermott have relived his final day in the big leagues in 1961? Halberstam recorded in his book how McDermott was given one last chance to make it with the St. Louis Cardinals.
One day, Johnny Keane, the manager, called the team together and ripped McDermott in front of everyone for breaking training.
"Well, John," McDermott said with a sort of doomed display of grace, "if you feel that way, I'll take off my uniform and leave." And that's the way McDermott's career in the big leagues ended: drummed out by a self-serving martinet of a manager, who abused him to instill fear in a young team.
Awhile back, Williams and McDermott met at an old timers game.
"How old are you now, kid?" Williams asked.
"I'm fifty," McDermott said.
"Congratulations," Williams said. "I never thought you'd make it." "I had the gift," McDermott said now. "But I drank like an Indian. I'd have one shooter and I'd think I was a combination of Frank Sinatra and King Kong. We didn't know what alcoholism was. And I was an alcoholic before I knew it, but I liked it.
"New York was my real downfall. Too many bright lights. I was with Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin in those days.
"Mickey says now that if he knew he was going to live so long, he would have taken better care of himself. Some mornings I feel that way, too. We were all reprobates and we loved it." But McDermott's reputation as a playboy was becoming too well-known. He began to be concerned about being caught drinking.
One night he had a close call with Casey Stengel, the Yankees manager. They were both coming into their hotel in Boston at four in the morning. McDermott thought he was in big trouble.
"Drunk again?" Stengel demanded. "So am I," he said, answering his own question.
McDermott said that he knows now he had a choice. "Someone asked me why I didn't drink Canada Dry? I told him that I did. I don't think he got it. "In those days, we didn't know it was a disease. You were an Irishman and you drank. "Look," he said, "I got lucky. The man upstairs simply says, `Give that man a couple of bucks and see what he does with it.'" The first thing McDermott remembered doing after winning the lottery was telling his wife to come with him to the auto dealer.
"I bought the biggest Lincoln Town Car you ever saw. But it hasn't really hit me yet. I won't change. You don't change the Irish. I'll play golf. I'll visit my friends.
"It will be different for Betty, though. She won't have to work anymore. We can travel. And now we can help some people." McDermott pulled out his wallet and placed it open on the counter. He displayed his lifetime pass to big league baseball games.
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These days, he is using it regularly to go out to the spring training games to see his old friends.
He visits with Jimmy Piersall, who played with him in the minors and with the Red Sox. Piersall coaches the Cubs outfielders. He sits behind home plate with Eddie Robinson, the old White Sox home run hitter, who now scouts for Minnesota.
Magically, everything is new and exciting for Mickey McDermott again. It's as though Mickey McDermott was a rookie again and life were just beginning.
It's almost like the summer of '49.