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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / The Legend of Cincinnati Reds Pitcher Billy McCool

The Legend of Cincinnati Reds Pitcher Billy McCool

Billy McCool!
Publish Date: 11/28/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

 The Legend of Billy McCool

William John McCool, the son of Carl and Delores McCool, was born on July 14, 1944. He was born in Lawrenceburg (Indiana), a border city of approximately 5,000 people on the Ohio River. It was only 20 miles from Crosley Field, Cincinnati. Later, major-league rosters correctly identified his birthplace as Batesville because Lawrenceburg did not have a hospital then. Bill was a brilliant athlete at Lawrenceburg High School. He was a fullback for the football team and a star on their basketball team. He left an indelible mark on the baseball field also. He reached over.400 each season, and his pitching record was 18-2 (7-0 as a senior), with three no-hitters. As many old-timers from the region often recall, his fastball was a formidable weapon against high school hitters. The Great Tommy John, who pitched against McCool in American legion ball, said that Billy was among the finest pitchers he had ever seen.

McCool’s Baseball and Football coach at Lawrenceburg was the legendary hall of fame coach Pat O’Neil, and McCool credited Coach O’Neil with who helped achieve the greatness he attained. O’Neil coached Billy from Little League through to American Legion ball.

The Natural

McCool was 26-4 in two years of American Legion baseball. He threw two no-hitters and averaged 14 strikeouts per game. McCool and Lawrenceburg led Rockport by 2-0 in the 1961 Indiana American Legion tournament. McCool batted in the seventh inning when he was struck in the head with a pitch. He was still affected, and he pitched the next inning. Another batter reached on an error while he gave away a walk and two more hits. Despite only giving up four hits and striking out 17, he lost the game 3-2.

Fourteen teams approached McCool in the days before a baseball draft. He chose the Cincinnati Reds. He later stated that the Reds were his hometown team, which had nothing to do with his signing. He said that he had looked at major-league rosters for lefty pitching. The Reds only had three lefties, and two were in their 30s. This convinced him to make it to the majors faster with the Reds. Reds scouts Buzz Boyle and Cliff Polking signed him for what was later called a small bonus.

McCool was frustrated in his first professional season. McCool was assigned to Tampa in Class A Florida State League. His first season saw him go 1-8. The team made 13 errors in his first three games. Just four runs then supported him during the next five. McCool lost 1-0 to his opponent on July 18, 1963, when he threw a no-hitter. McCool became discouraged and called his parents. He considered leaving and returning home. McCool said that his high school team was better than the Tampa one. The kid was consoled by Hersh Freeman (the Tampa manager), a star reliever for the Reds in the 1950s. McCool stated that the Manager had pointed out that he wasn’t giving up too many runs, even though he was losing. “He explained that in minors, a pitcher’s earned-run average carries almost the same weight as his win-loss record.” McCool’s minor league ERA was impressive at 2.01, second in the league. At Tampa, he had a record of 5-13 with 165 strikeouts over 148 innings. McCool was promoted to Triple-A San Diego in September after that performance. He posted a 4-0 record and a 1.04 ERA in four Pacific Coast League games.

McCool was a big hit at San Diego, and the Reds wanted McCool to make it to the majors after the 1963 PCL season. McCool refused to accept them, and they were shocked. McCool explained that his arm was tired, and he felt like he was throwing a watermelon in his last start in San Diego. He explained that he didn’t want to pitch unless he was at his best.

Video: TGT Presents Forgotten Heroes: The Legend of Cincinnati Reds Pitcher Billy McCool

TGT Presents Forgotten Heroes: The Legend of Cincinnati Reds Pitcher Billy McCool

McCool, who was just 19 years old, had not been out of high school for more than one year when he joined the Reds in 1964’s spring training. Reporters were told by Fred Hutchinson that McCool was an excellent young prospect but that he would take McCool along gradually during the season. McCool was confident and not surprised that he made the big club. McCool stated in 2009 that he had an inkling that he would be making the team. I had a good year in the minor leagues. I knew what I could accomplish.” He made his first appearance in the major league against the Giants in Cincinnati on April 24, 1964. It was a 15-5 loss. He said that he never felt intimidated while staring at McCovey, Cepeda and Mays when he was a teenager. McCool had two innings to work and gave up two hits and two walks. He also struck out two batters.

At 6’2 and 195 lbs, McCool was a left-hander with a strong arm and great control. His smooth delivery and windup made his heater deceptive. It was described as sneaky fast and had a silky smooth windup. . Hutchinson was impressed with McCool’s poise and began to use him in critical situations. McCool won his first major-league win in Milwaukee on June 2. After the game, Joe Nuxhall, a veteran pitcher, joked with anyone who would listen that McCool’s first major-league victory came in Milwaukee on June 2. McCool celebrated his 20th birthday with a birthday cake in the clubhouse. He hasn’t shaved for two weeks, I bet.”

McCool and Sammy Ellis, a rookie pitcher, displayed an uncanny ability to provide relief in the final innings of Reds games. They formed one of the most respected righty-lefty bullpen combinations in the league. McCool once had a streak of 10 consecutive appearances without allowing a run. In the ninth inning, he took over for Jim O’Toole on July 4, of a game up 3-2 and struck out the side. He was called to the plate by Jim Maloney, who was ill. The Reds were leading by one run against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 6 innings, he struck out 9. He lasted six innings, giving up just one hit and five runs as the Reds won 3-2. McCool only allowed one Dodger to reach base; Jim Turner, the pitching coach, called it “one the greatest relief pitching jobs by a youngster.” McCool struck out seven batters in his three innings against the Cubs. His debut as a starting pitcher was September 19, 1964. He pitched well but lost 2-0. Don Pavletich’s throwing error resulted in both runs.

The 1964 season was a season of drama and tragedy for the Reds. Popular manager Fred Hutchinson was diagnosed in the last stages of lung cancer. He tried to make it through the season. All summer, the Reds were close to the top but then made a late charge. They beat the Philadelphia Phillies nine times, winning 20 of 27. The Reds lost their final homestand, with their ailing Manager at the press box. The Reds lost on the last day of the season, and the Cardinals were able to sneak into the pennant. 1964 was one of the greatest pennant races in baseball history, and the Reds came up just short in the end.

McCool relied heavily on his fastball and finished 1964 with a record 6-5, a 2.42 ERA, and 87 strikeouts in 89 innings. McCool had Seven saves. He was named National League’s Rookie Player of the Year by Sporting News. Despite being one of the youngest players, McCool was confident to the point that he could pitch. He also showed emotion after poor performances. In 1964, McCool destroyed the dugout water cooling system. This was after giving up a home run in the season finale. McCool was noted to have encased the new water cooler in an iron-bar cage for the 1965 season.

McCool was offered a trip to Venezuela by the Reds for winter ball. He declined. McCool explained to a reporter that his elbow was tired. He said, “I don’t like pitching all year.” “Anyways, they seem to have trouble down south in South America… like shooting off guns or blowing up buildings.”

Dick Sisler, the new Reds manager, stated that McCool’s long-term goal was to make him a starter, but the rotation had already been established with veterans. McCool’s curveball was still mediocre but had a better-than-average slider by 1965. Opponent Ken Boyer would comment the next season that McCool’s curveball was still mediocre and that the slider he was throwing now is the best a left-hander has ever seen. McCool was the Reds’ mainstay in 1965’s Bullpen, appearing in 62 games. His ERA was affected by a couple of poor outings in September and August; in particular, he allowed four earned runs in a third inning. He ended the season with a record 9-10 with an ERA of 4.27 and 21 saves. He was also second in the league’s Fireman Award, which is given by The Sporting News to recognize saves and wins in relief.

The Reds were near the top of the standings for most of 1965 but lost their lead late. McCool was a part of the fall, as he gave up a home run for three runs in the ninth to Chick Harrison at the Astrodome on September 26, to lose 4-2. The Reds would have been two games ahead if they had won. The Reds lost seven of nine games in their last nine and finished fourth. Sisler was dismissed on October 4, and Don Hefner was installed as his replacement.

McCool’s fourth Manager in just three seasons. In the 1960s, few pitchers desired to be a relief pitcher. McCool expressed his desire not to spend his career in the Bullpen, but it was his mistake to be on a Reds team full of starters. He was once more a lightning-fast starter in 1966, allowing only three runs over his first 28 innings and 15 appearances. The Reds were nine games below—500 when Dave Bristol assumed control.

McCool was selected to the 1966 All-Star Team but did not participate. McCool finished the season with a 2.48 ERA, 18 saves and 104 strikeouts over 105 1/3 innings. His future looked bright at 21. He injured his knee in 1966. After a few weeks, his knee was still tender and swollen when he returned to pitch. Then an elbow injury came; the trainer called it tendinitis in the left elbow. After a week of being absent, he returned to the game with a stiff left shoulder. McCool was at the brink of the end of his career. He later said he caught his spikes in the Pittsburgh rubber and tore some cartilage from my knee. “Back then, they didn’t want the operation. Left-handed, I tore the cartilage in my left leg and left knee. They tried to medicate it and drain the fluid from my knee. It completely changed my movement. It’s not the same pitching you have done all your life. You get wild. It began to affect my arm, and calcium deposits developed. This was the beginning of my end. It would have happened today, and I would be back in a month. This is the nature of the game. Things happen.”

Dave Bristol had stated at the end of 1966 that McCool would likely be considered for a starting position in 1967. McCool went to camp with the expectation of being a part of the rotation. With a 1.77 ERA, he started the season with a record of 3-1 in five starts. He lost by 2-0 in the only loss of his first five starts. In that game, he pitched a 2-hitter. He didn’t win in his next six starts, losing two of them but still maintaining a 3.28 ERA. McCool was sidelined for ten days in June because of swelling in his left wrist. McCool was injured on June 13 and lost. He was then sent to the Bullpen. McCool was again placed on the disabled list in July.

Meanwhile, Mel Queen and Gary Nolan (18 years old) were established as starters in the rotation. McCool was out of options when he was added to the ranks of veterans Jim Maloney, Milt Pappas and others. McCool’s chance to be a starter was over. He was 3-7 with a 3.42 ERA over 31 games. Eleven of those were as a starter. He had 83 strikeouts over 97 innings. This was his first year, not averaging one per inning.

McCool was untouchable for three years before the 1967 season. This was not the case anymore as the Reds put McCool on the trade block after the 1967 season. Cincinnati reporters were told that new GM Bob Howsam was disappointed McCool hadn’t made a serious effort to improve his game. His chances of being a starter were ruined because he had not yet developed an off-speed pitch to compliment his slider and fastball.

In 1968’s spring, McCool expressed disillusionment to Earl Lawson, Reds beat reporter, about McCool’s chances and being caught up with other Reds starters. Sometimes I wish baseball had a rule that allowed a player to exercise his option, just like pro football. I’m still only 23 years old, and I’m not done. But I’m done if I keep pitching in relief.” McCool has mentioned several times that relief pitchers who primarily throw fastballs have a short shelf-life in major leagues.

The Sad End

McCool contracted pneumonia in 1968 during spring training. It cost him nearly two weeks. McCool then developed a sore shoulder while returning to his usual self to compensate for the lost time. He would have pain in his shoulder all season making him ineffective. In 50 innings, he was 3-4 and had a 4.97 ERA.

McCool, who had two poor seasons, was not protected in the October 1968 expansion draft. The San Diego Padres then grabbed him up. McCool was happy to make a move and hoped for a new start. However, pitching for an expansion team can be difficult. Fans stayed away from the Padres as they averaged 6,840 games per game. They finished 52-110 after a stretch of 11-55 from June 6 through August 17.

McCool suffered from arm problems throughout the year. On April 2, 1970, he was traded to the Cardinals by the Padres for Steve Huntz, an infielder. McCool was disabled in April because of a sore shoulder. He noted in May that he could not throw and cut loose as well as he had difficulty with his shoulder. In May, he was placed on the 21-day disabled list. After injuring his foot in September, he was declared disabled for the remainder of the year. He finished the season with a cast on his foot and a record of 3-5 with an ERA of 4.30 in 54 games.

McCool went 0-3 in 18 Cardinals games with a 6.23 ERA. He also spent the majority of 1970 in Triple-A with the Tulsa team. He was traded to Boston Red Sox in October 1970. The Boston Red Sox traded McCool to the Kansas City Royals the following day. He split 1971’s season between Triple-A Portland, Omaha and the Boston Red Sox. He went 1-1 in 23 games with a 3.66 ERA. After the season, he retired and never returned to the majors.

McCool retired from baseball and worked as a sports director at WKEF-TV, Dayton, from 1972 to 1974. He then entered the steel industry for 31 years. McCool and his wife, an elementary school teacher, moved to Summerfield, Florida, in 2005. He married his wife for 47 years, and they had three children, Megan, Andy, and Angelie. McCool was diagnosed with hypertension in his 20s after a long battle against heart disease. McCool had triple bypass heart surgery at 45. The heart condition caused him to die in Summerfield on June 8, 2014.

I think the Cincinnati Reds ruined Billy McCool’s career. Relief pitchers had teams overuse them, including warming them up in the Bullpen and not using them. McCool was a young pitcher, and the way he was used played a significant role in why his career ended so quickly.

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