Tuesday, January 20, 2009

#25 Al McBean

Al McBean by you.
Do you ever wonder about Topps' marketing schemes back in the 1960s? If they had any sort of a slogan to sell the 1965 set, it probably would have been "Now with more overhead windup poses!". This is the first of three cards that dayf, the Cardboard Junkie, sent me back in October (yes, that's how far behind I am) along with a big pile of Orioles. In return, I sent him some oddball Braves, a few random items from his want lists, a small stack of 1990s Falcons, a Braves collector's pin, the back cover of a 1995 Beckett magazine featuring Chipper Jones, and a mini plastic Chipper bobblehead from a cereal box. I was feeling particularly creative, I guess.

Al McBean was the first (and to date the only) major league pitcher from the Virgin Islands. He grew up playing ball with his siblings and friends, using anything and everything as bat and ball. He didn't play with an actual hardball until high school, and was signed by the Pirates at an open tryout in 1957. He hadn't even intended to work out for the scout that day; he was there as a photographer!

Early in his professional career, McBean became a fan favorite in the Puerto Rican winter leagues. He earned top rookie honors with the Ponce Leones, and befriended and relied upon Olga Santos, a bilingual drugstore employee. He would find an excuse to visit her each day, and after a few months she finally agreed to a date. His persistence paid off; eventually the two were married.

After compiling a 2.14 ERA in half a season in the International League, the lanky 23-year-old was called up to the Pirates in July 1961. He pitched well as a rookie reliever (3.75 ERA), but was even more impressive after a move to the rotation the next year. He went 15-10 with a 3.70 ERA, but returned to the bullpen in 1963. With the guidance of fellow stopper Roy Face, McBean became a relief specialist. Appearing in 55 games (seven as a starter), he posted a 13-3 record, 11 saves, and a 2.57 ERA. He also pitched in the only Latin All-Star Game that October, contributing four scoreless innings and an RBI triple to a 5-2 National League victory. In 1964, with Face struggling, his protege picked up the slack: 8-3, 22 saves (second in the N.L.), 1.91 ERA, 1.04 WHIP. For his efforts, Al was named Fireman of the Year, though he expressed mock anger that the trophy did not feature a fireman's hat. The forkballer Face missed much of the ensuing season, and McBean held up well under the increased workload, saving another 18 games with a 2.29 ERA.

Al lost many of his save opportunities to Roy when the latter returned to form in 1966, but he maintained effectiveness as a setup man for two seasons. The Pirates slotted him in the rotation once again in 1968, and he had an uneven campaign (9-12, 3.58 ERA). Despite his versatility, McBean was exposed to the expansion draft and claimed by the expansion Padres the next year. After only one start in San Diego, he was traded to the Dodgers. After a mediocre season-plus there, Al returned to Pittsburgh to close out his career. In ten seasons, he went 67-50 with 63 saves and a 3.13 ERA.

McBean was one of the more colorful characters of his era, known for his impeccable fashion sense and idiosyncratic mannerisms. He played to the crowd, crawling across the foul lines, tossing his first pitch underhand, and so forth. He's still very outspoken, and you can read his strong opinions on some of today's players (among other entertaining quotes) in his SABR biography here. He's spent much of his post-baseball life in St. Thomas, working his way up to deputy commissioner of the Housing, Parks and Recreation Department.

Fun fact: On July 28, 1968, Al had a memorable game, hitting a grand slam and earning a complete-game, 7-1 victory. According to SABR, he threw several "blooper" pitches to bring it home in the ninth inning, including his final offering, which was bounced to shortstop by Orlando Cepeda.

Al McBean (back) by you.


  1. Wow, there's a lot there that I never knew. Thanks for digging it up.

  2. "mcbean" always makes me think of dr. suess - Sylvester McMonkey McBean. and al mcbean certainly sounds like a suess character to me...

  3. I recently sent Al his 1963 card to sign (he's a good signer in the mail). He gladly signed them and wrote me back a long note. It's easy to see he's a guy that appreciated his career and really loves baseball.

  4. Night owl - No problem! The thanks goes to SABR, for putting together such an entertaining biography of Al.

    Max - You could say that again! It's a colorful name befitting his character.

    Mayes - That's great to hear! I need to do some more TTM soon. I've been sitting on a Robin Roberts card for a while that I want to send out.

  5. Robin Roberts is a good signer, but requires a $10 donation/item to BAT (Baseball Assistance Team), according to www.sportscollectors.net.

    Good luck.

  6. Thanks for the credit. As much fun as doing these SABR Bios is, I don't think I've ever had as much fun with any as I did with McBean's. He's a trip!

  7. Seeing Glavine, Maddux, and Frank Thomas announced as the latest Hall of Fame members reminded me of McNean's remarks about them back in 1999. Odd how that prefigured the induction of that very trio.