Dick McAuliffe is remembered around these parts for a variety of reasons: there was his unorthodox foot-in-the-bucket batting stance; his smooth transition from All-Star shortstop to MVP-caliber second baseman; his hitting into a season-ending double play on the last day of the 1967 season; his overall feistiness.
To Chicago White Sox pitcher Tommy John, the combative Detroit Tigers infielder with the Groucho Marx eyebrows is remembered simply — and painfully — as the guy who nearly ended his career one summer night at Tiger Stadium.
It was August 22, 1968, and the 28-year-old McAuliffe was in the midst of his finest season. The Tigers’ spark plug and leadoff hitter was on his way to 95 runs scored, 50 extra-base hits (he would lead the American League in both categories), and a seventh-place finish in MVP voting.
The White Sox were in a pissy mood, having dropped an extra-inning affair the night before when Jim Price hit a walk-off homer in the 10th. The Sox, who a year earlier had been involved in a historic four-team pennant chase that went down to the wire, were buried in ninth place, 29 games behind the Tigers.
John started the night having already hit a league-high 12 batsmen, including four Tigers in a single game back in June. McAuliffe led off the bottom half of the first with a single off the Sox southpaw, then came around to score on Willie Horton’s base hit. The Tigers were still holding onto a 1-0 lead when Mac came up to bat again in the third inning. This time the bags were empty with one out.
McAuliffe described John as a “lowball, sinker-slider type of pitcher with great control and not a great deal of velocity.” This time, however, John threw hard at Mac, spinning him around with one pitch and hitting the backstop with another. “Boy, if that thing hit me it would really put me away,” he told home plate umpire Al Salerno.
With the count at 3-2, McAuliffe dug in, thinking there was no way John was going to throw at him again. But the next pitch sailed over McAuliffe’s head.
“And now I’m mad,” McAuliffe recalled. “But not mad enough to go out and charge him.”
That quickly changed. As Mac started towards first base, he glared at his antagonist. John took a couple steps in, yelling, “What the fuck are you looking at?”
Like a bull exploding out of the chute, Mac rushed at John, who awkwardly tried to tackle him. Both hit the ground as the benches cleared. With players, coaches, and umps suddenly converging on the field, John emerged from the melee doubled over, clutching his left shoulder. Mac had driven his knee into John’s pitching shoulder, separating it. He was through for the season, an abrupt and agonizing end to a typically brilliant (10-5 record with 1.98 ERA) campaign.
After order was restored, Salerno tossed McAuliffe out of the game. He was replaced by Ray Oyler. Dennis Ribant came in to pitch for Chicago and wound up taking the loss in a 4-2 Tigers victory. The following day, American League president Joe Cronin ordered an immediate five-game suspension and a $250 fine for McAuliffe.
In the flurry of charges and counter-charges that followed, John insisted the last pitch had simply slipped out of his hand, an explanation nobody in Detroit was buying. McAuliffe’s importance was underscored by the team’s dismal performance without him in the lineup. The Tigers lost all but one of the games McAuliffe was forced to sit out. Each loss was by a single run.
It all worked out in the end, of course, as the Tigers went on to win the pennant and the World Series. “I didn’t do it purposely,” McAuliffe said many years later about the night he ruined John’s shoulder and his season, “but I know they were trying to take me out of the game.”