Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Transistor Radio a Mile High Up

Entry to Camp Chawanakee, located on Shaver Lake, 50 miles northeast of Fresno
(I wrote this post because I noticed in baseball-reference.com that it lists June 1st as Ken McMullen's 69th birthday.  Happy birthday to one of my favorite Dodgers!)

It was August 14, 1973, and we were all crowded around a transistor radio listening to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett call the game.  We could barely pick up the audio, being 5,370 feet up in the High Sierras, about 50 miles northeast of Fresno.  It was Camp Chawanakee, a Boy Scout Camp that my Troop 719 was attending.  I was there in the process of earning Merit Badges in  Hiking, Pioneering, Nature, Canoeing, Rowing and Swimming.  At night, I wouldn’t miss my Dodger game with that battery operated transistor.  I took a lot of flack from the Scoutmaster for that who was of the belief that all modern conveniences should be left behind for a week.  No way that was going to happen.  My thinking was had there been Merit Badges in Baseball Field creation and Dodger Trivia, I’d have made Eagle within a year or two.  

I mention “Baseball field creation” because that is what I did along with a few of my accomplices that disappeared into the woodwork when the leaders of the facility found out.  We created a baseball diamond at our campsite.  We built up a real decent pitchers mound.  We cleared some brush and raked out an infield.  One of the guys made some decent bases out of some old rags and rope.  Where I got in trouble was when I used that awful powdered milk we were supposed to drink and chalked some baselines and batters boxes with it.  (Still don't get why it was a big deal, it's biodegradable).  Anyway, back to the game...
The Dodgers were playing the Expos and were down 3-2 in the ninth inning.  I was just hoping that they could get a man on, so my man, Ken McMullen, would come to the plate.
I thought McMullen was fantastic.  In my 12-year old mind, I couldn’t get over the fact that he wasn’t starting and a young rookie that ran real funny was starting over him at third base.  
McMullen started his career as a Dodger in 1962 and left the club to the Washington Senators in that blockbuster deal that sent Frank Howard, Pete Richert and others along with Ken in exchange for John Kennedy and Claude Osteen.  After lingering with the Senators for 5 years he was traded to the Angels where he started for three years.  When the Dodgers obtained him along with Andy Messersmith in another blockbuster trade for Frank Robinson, Bobby Valentine, Bill Singer, Mike Stahler and Bill Grabarkerwitz, it was thought he would be starting at third for the ’73 Dodger team.  But Ron Cey emerged to take the third base job from him a mere five games into the season when McMullen went down with an injury.  He took over in near Wally Pippesque fashion, starting 68 games in a row before McMullen got another start that season.
Ken was relegated to a pinch hitters role.  He had a few dramatic ones.  1973 was the first season with the core infield of Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey. Joe Ferguson was the team MVP.  Bill Buckner came into his own.  Steve Yeager arrived.  Lee Lacy was a super sub and spot starter.  Of course, Willie Davis was in fine all star form in his final season as a Dodger.  The team was young, gritty and they won 95 games finishing second to a Cincinnati team that won 99.  It is an often forgotten season, but I remember it because the team had arrived and the future looked bright.  I also remember that the N.L. East was mediocre at best and the Mets won the division with 82 wins, a full 13 games behind the Dodgers record.  That always irked me to no end.
By June 22nd, Ken McMullen had a mere 3 pinch hit appearances after returning from the D.L.  His opportunity arrived in a key battle against the defending division champion Reds on June 23rd.  Cey was removed from the game with and injury and McMullen hit the deciding 3-run homer in the 5-2 Dodger victory.  He started and homered in each of the following two games before being returned to the bench by Alston after Cey had healed up.
Again he was the Reds nemesis on June 28th with a key RBI single in the Dodgers 8-7 win at Riverfront Stadium.  He collected the game winning RBI double at Houston on August 8th in the top of the 11th inning in a 4-2 win.  By then, Walt Alston had figured out that McMullen’s role would the be power hitting right handed hitter off the bench for his club.  
So as we huddled around the camp fire listening to Vin Scully call the bottom of the 9th inning, the first place Dodgers were 74-45 and 2 1/2 games ahead of the second place Reds.  I remember saying to the guys, if they can just get one guy on and pinch hit McMullen, they’ll win this thing.  I remember one of the guys saying, “Who’s McMullen?”  They would find out soon though.  
Steve Garvey led off and flied out to left and then Wille Crawford popped out to first.  Things looked grim as the Dodgers were down to their last out.  That was until Bill Russell lined a single off of Montreal pitcher Balor Moore’s leg.  Alston made the call and put McMullen in to pinch hit for Jerry Royster.
I don’t remember the count and I’m not sure how many pitches were thrown, but I do remember that there were a few pitches fouled back.  Then it happened, the classic Vin call, “It’s a long fly ball deep to centerfield, back goes Woods, a-way back to the wall, she is GONE!”
There was absolute pandemonium at camp.  Hoots, hollers, back slapping, hugging.  Best of all, I was a freaking genious to everybody.  I had called the shot.
Fast forward 25 years.  I happened to be in South Georgia on a work related assignment.  I knew that Dodger fantasy camp was being held that week so I decided to drive the 200 plus miles or so and go check out Vero Beach for the first time.  To make a long story short, I sat down at Holman Stadium and watched the fantasy campers play while their Manager, Ken McMullen, looked on.
There wasn’t anyone else there, so I sat behind the dugout and we chatted.  What can I say?  He is really a nice guy.  I told him the story of the Scout camp and his home run.  He got a kick out of it.  I had a number of baseball cards with me to get signed.  I pulled out the 1964 Topps card of his.  He was surprised that I had it.  He signed it and and said to me, “Finding my rookie card is real hard, you know why?”  I thought about it for a moment and before I could answer he said, “Pete Rose is on it too.”  Sure enough, he is.

Ken McMullen's Topps Rookie card, with Pete Rose

One last note on Ken, if you look at footage of Henry Aaron's record setting 715th home run, you'll notice the Dodger players wearing black arm bands on their uniforms.  Sadly, the arm bands were there because Ken's wife died of cancer shortly before the season started.   I have read very little about what Ken went through when this occurred, nor do I even know his wife's name.  That is sad because her story has rarely been told.  She was one courageous woman.  Apparently  she was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant and she refused treatment for her condition until after the baby was born.  Tragically, it was too late and she passed away in early 1974.  I never knew he went through this ordeal while with the Dodgers.  It makes his accomplishments in 1973 even more amazing.

Al Downing and Steve Garvey watch Hank Aaron trot around the bases after hitting his 715th homer.  Note that the Dodger players are wearing black arm bands in memory of Ken McMullen's wife who died of cancer prior to the start of the 1974 season.

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