Some time ago I wrote about the last left-handed thrower to earn a fielding chance as a second baseman: Cleveland Indians pitcher Sam McDowell, in 1970. The manager who pulled this unusual maneuver of putting a lefty at second base was Alvin Dark. It wasn’t the first time Dark moved a pitcher to another position, it wouldn’t be the last, and on two occasions the tactic turned out quite badly.
The first time Dark moved a pitcher off the mound in a game was when he was manager of the A’s on June 18, 1967, when with two out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth at Detroit he moved right-hander Catfish Hunter to first base and brought in lefty Tony Pierce to pitch to left-handed-hitting Gates Brown as the tying run. Brown struck out to end the game.
Then on June 7, 1968, with Dark now managing Cleveland, again with two out in the bottom of the ninth at Detroit, this time with nobody on base and the Indians holding a one-run lead, lefty Mike Paul had a 3-and-1 count on right-handed-hitting Bill Freehan when Dark decided to bring in righty Stan Williams, in the process moving Paul to first base. Freehan singled (through the left side of the infield, away from Paul) and Dark moved Paul back to the mound to face left-handed-hitting Dick McAuliffe. Lee Maye, normally an outfielder, entered the game to play first base for the first (and, as it turned out, only) time in his major league career. McAuliffe hit a bouncer between Maye and second baseman Vern Fuller; Russell Schneider wrote in the next day’s Plain Dealer that Fuller could have made the play, but Maye went after the ball and fumbled it, McAuliffe reaching on the error. Mickey Stanley followed with a triple to score both Freehan and McAuliffe and give the Tigers the win.
The first time Dark moved a pitcher in 1970, when McDowell got a putout at second base, worked out fine for the Indians, but when Dark made a similar move later in the season it was a disaster. It was September 2, and the opponent — as was the case in the game earlier in the season — was the Washington Senators, only this time in Washington. McDowell was going for his 20th win of the year.
Dark had developed a phobia of Senators slugger Frank Howard…and understandably so. From the start of the 1967 season through the start of the Sept. 2 game, Howard had hit .332 against teams managed by Dark (77-for-232), with 24 home runs and 60 runs batted in in 66 games. He also had a history of battering McDowell, especially in ’68 when he went 8-for-12 against Sam with two doubles, a triple and three homers. It’s true he hadn’t had an extra-base hit against McDowell since then, but he did have a .407 career average to that point against Sam. And it was Howard’s presence at the plate that led Dark to move McDowell to second base in the game at Cleveland on July 6.
But Dark would have an even more extreme approach to Howard in the September 2 game. In the bottom of the first, with Eddie Brinkman on second base and one out, Dark ordered McDowell to walk Howard intentionally…not a terribly unusual strategy. But when Howard led off the bottom of the third, Dark called for another intentional walk. Now THAT’s unusual. And when Howard led off the bottom of the fifth, it was another intentional pass. (That made 11 intentional walks for Howard in 15 games against the Indians to that point in 1970.) That one backfired on Dark, as Rick Reichardt and Aurelio Rodriguez followed with infield singles and Howard scored on a wild pitch to put the Senators in front 1-0.
That’s the way the score stood going into the bottom of the sixth. Ed Brinkman drew a walk with one out, Wayne Comer followed with a single to move Brinkman to second and bring Howard to the plate. Even to Dark, an intentional walk didn’t make sense here. So he brought in right-hander Dean Chance to face Hondo and moved the lefty McDowell to first base, with first baseman Duke Sims moving to right field, Vada Pinson moving from right field to left, and Roy Foster (who had made the last out in the top of the inning) coming out of the game.
McDowell didn’t have long to get comfortable at first base. Washington Post writer George Minot Jr. described what happened on Chance’s first pitch:
Howard sent a checked-swing grounder to the right side and first baseman McDowell went far afield, in front of the second baseman, to grab it. He had no place to throw it. Wayne Comer was in at second and Chance was slow coming off the mound to cover first base. The single loaded the bases.
The next batter, Rick Reichardt, hit a ground ball to shortstop Jack Heidemann, who tossed to second baseman Eddie Leon for a force out, Brinkman scoring. Leon’s relay to McDowell at first was too late to catch Reichardt, and Comer, perhaps banking on McDowell’s inexperience, kept running and scored from second base. That made it 3-0 Senators in a game they would go on to win 4-0. Chance got the last out of the inning (a force out at second base on a ground ball to short) and McDowell returned to the mound in the seventh and pitched the rest of the way. (McDowell did finally pitch to Howard, with one out and nobody on in the eighth, and retired him on a harmless pop fly to short.)
Having been burned twice, Dark would not put his pitcher in the field again in his major league managerial career that lasted through 1977.