Remember Sam Malone, the Boston Red Sox pitcher who once switched arms in mid-inning, thereby becoming the first big leaguer to relieve himself on the mound? Well, as everyone knows, they’ve made his post-baseball life into a popular TV show called Cheers, though the series, starring Ted Danson, hardly ever mentions Malone’s sporting days. That’s a shame. Malone wasn’t a bad ballplayer — he just wasn’t a very good one. Twelve years after he quit baseball, it’s still unclear if he was nicknamed Mayday because he got the Red Sox out of jams or into them.
Malone’s career began in Medford, Mass., where he learned to switch-pitch on a sandlot team sponsored by the local rescue squad. ”I’d skip practice to cut people out of cars they were trapped in, go into burning buildings, crazy stuff like that,” he says. At Medford Vocational High, Malone did all his saving on the baseball team: He was the ace of the Wildebeests’ bullpen. In his senior year, the Red Sox gave him a tryout. His fellow rescuers came along, and it’s a good thing: Sam beaned a batter, beaned a scout, and beaned a hot dog vendor standing 10 rows behind the home dugout.
The Red Sox didn’t offer him a contract, but they did pluck him out of the Cape Cod League a few years later. Malone signed for $400 a month to play A-league ball in Winter Haven, Fla., and spent the next seven years connecting the dots on a map of the bush leagues.
When Malone arrived at Fenway in 1974, the Sox starters were losing their attention spans so fast they couldn’t read Dick and Jane, let alone pitch six or seven innings. Relievers were making more cameos than Jack Nicholson at the NBA play-offs. Though he played regularly, Malone’s vaunted ”Slider of Death” often expired in mid-flight: Legendary sluggers Boog Powell and Harmon Killebrew both launched it into the ionosphere. And the Yankees’ Dutch Kincaid homered whenever he came up against Sam — a total of 27 times. It was then that Malone started brooding in joints like the bar called Cheers.
Malone had his best campaign in 1975, the year the Red Sox nearly dismantled the Reds in the World Series. Malone won one game right-handed and saved another throwing lefty. But in the Series finale, he was on the mound for more than an hour without ever loosing a pitch. Malone faced Pete Rose, a switch-hitter. When Rose dug in at the left side of the plate, Malone decided to throw southpaw. Rose called time out and moved to the right side. Malone called time and set righty. Left, left. Right, right. The standoff seemed to go on forever. If Malone hadn’t finally collapsed from dizziness, the Series might now be in its 15th year.
By ’77, both of Malone’s arms had gone south. The only switching he did was from Budweiser to Wild Turkey. He blew saves, his paycheck, his career. All over Boston, kids stuck Sam Malone cards in their bike spokes: The streets buzzed with the sound of wimp, wimp, wimp.
The end came with a whimper at Tiger Stadium in 1979. ”I didn’t have a drink the entire day,” Malone recalls. ”I knew it might be my last chance to prove myself.” But when the coach told him to warm up, Malone balked. ”My arm hurts,” he said. After that, Mayday’s life really hit the skids. Boozing and brawling, he lived a life of noisy desperation until he rehabilitated himself by taking a job at Cheers.
The one aberration in Malone’s pathetic career came against the Yankees on a hot August day at Fenway. ”The top of the ninth,” he recalls. ”We’re up by a run. The bases are loaded, two outs, and Thurman Munson’s at the plate. I throw Munson a left-handed forkball. Strike one! I throw him a right-handed slider. Strike two! I throw him a left-handed change-up. Strike three! We win the game!”
Alas, if you look at the box score, you find that Malone didn’t strike Munson out. In fact, he didn’t get anyone out: He balked in the winning run. As old-time sports editors used to say when confronted with facts that conflicted with the legend, print the legend.