Sam (Mayday) Malone once said, "I was a relief pitcher before they became famous." True enough, but old Mayday did earn a certain notoriety nonetheless. Another former Boston Red Sox pitcher, George Ruth, was the Babe, but Sam Malone was the Babe Magnet, a long-ball-surrendering ladies' man with a head of hair like a manicured hedge. Malone's little black book was as thick as the Boston White Pages; and in 1978, he only added to his Romeo reputation by requesting that the Red Sox get Call Waiting in the bullpen. Manager Don Zimmer soon informed Sammy that he had made his last call as a member of the Red Sox. And now, as Malone hears another landmark last call, this seems an appropriate time to recall his seven terrible, swift seasons in the big leagues, and his improbable life since then. Take a look back.
Or shall we say, back...hack...way back. For in Boston, the righthanded Malone was taken downtown more often than the inbound Red Line. New York Yankee slugger Dutch Kincaid homered every time he faced Malone. When SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reported on baseball's most prolific gopher-ball pitchers, Malone made the cover, his head turned toward the Green Monster, beneath the memorable billing, WHAM, BAM, THANK YOU, SAM.
"I was a small player in a big town," Malone once lamented, but his sporting legacy is a large one. Since 1982, as the man behind the bar called Cheers, at 112½ Beacon Street in Boston, he has been serving pitchers of relief. The recent announcement that the place would close its door forever on May 20 has left its regulars feeling empty. Among the many patrons who have ducked beneath the cream-and-orange awning of the bar just downstairs from Melville's ("Fine Sea Food") have been a number of noteworthy athletes, including Boston Celtic forward Kevin McHale, then Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs, late Bruin goalie Eddie LeBec, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas (O.K., he didn't have to duck) and Czech hockey great Tibor Svetkovic.
Svetkovic, you'll recall, defected to the U.S. to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL. He dressed as a woman, hid in a haystack, crawled beneath barbed wire, swam two rivers and stowed away on a tramp steamer to reach freedom. "The next week," noted Cheers waitress Carla Tortelli, "the rest of his team came over on the Concorde. That's what he gets for not reading his schedule."
Tortelli, by the way, is one of two widows of Bruin bigamist LeBec, who drank his lucky pregame club sodas at Cheers until his untimely death in 1989. Having retired from hockey, LeBec was killed in a freak Zamboni accident while saving the life of a fellow ice-show penguin, which only goes to show you that....
Wait a minute. Where were we? Like any story told over cold ones in a neighborhood saloon, this one lends itself to a bit of babbling, one talc giving rise to another until, hours later, we all stumble out onto the street, trying to remember what the hell we were just talking about. Which was...Sam Malone. Right. Sam Malone. On this May day, we salute Mayday, as Malone was known in his heyday at Fenway. His is a remarkable story.
"Next to Sammy's life, my life looks dull," says Norm Peterson, a longtime friend who was spot-welded to his bar stool at Cheers. Then again, notes Peterson, "Next to a barnacle's life, my life looks dull."
Malone was born in....
Hold the phone. You gotta hear this one first, the story about Boggs dropping into Malone's bar. Have you heard this? It happened when Boggs was still with the Red Sox. He just burst through the front door, strode past the cigar-store Indian, bounced down the three steps to the bar area, and there he was: Wade Boggs.
Only nobody in the bar believed it was really him. It had to be an impostor, so they chased the joker out the door and into traffic, where they ripped his pants off. Back in the bar, Cheers patrons triumphantly waved the man's khakis and examined the contents of his wallet. That's when they discovered that the guy they had just de-pantsed was someone named...Wade Boggs.
Boggs is now safely ensconced in the Bronx, where he plays for the Yankees. "I'd like to get my pants back," he told SI's Albert Kim before a game last week. "They got my wallet and credit cards and all that. They were supposed to mail it all back to me. But they never did."
Samuel Adams Malone was born in Sudbury, Mass., on May Day of 1948. Contrary to popular belief, he was named for the Boston patriot and not the Beantown beer. In his rookie season, Malone boasted to reporters that he was "birthed" in a bathtub in the same farmhouse where the Babe lived when he pitched for the Sox. But in fact, records reveal that Malone was born at Sudbury General Hospital, where his mother, Lucille, was in labor for 32 hours. Even then, Sam was having problems with his delivery.
His father was just a ghost. His only sibling was older brother Derek, with whom Sam had a Cain and Abel relationship. To this day, envy is a Green Monster that lurks behind Malone. "I've got a brother," he has said. "International lawyer. Handsome, smart, funny, speaks four languages, flies his own jet. It seems like I've spent my whole life trying to get out from under his shadow."
Sam escaped Sudbury before finishing high school, signing in 1966 with the Sox Class A affiliate in Waterloo, Iowa, four months before graduation. Malone beat around the bushes for six years, until Boston general manager Dick O'Connell called and invited him to the big leagues. It would be nice to report that Malone, then 24 years old, never looked back, but in fact, looking back is exactly what Mayday spent most of his major league career doing. Looking back, as a baseball cleared the centerfield fence.
"You wanna talk about excitement," his pitching coach in Boston, the late Ernie (Coach) Pantusso once said. "Sam, tell 'em about Opening Day in New York. You come outta the bullpen in the seventh, the bases are loaded with pinstripes, Bobby Murcer's at the plate...."
Sam: "He hit a 400-foot home run off me, Coach."
Coach: "My Cod, it was the most exciting thing I ever saw!"
In his first major league appearance, against the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park, Malone loaded the bases with hit batsmen. ("So that's why they call it Beantown," Billy Martin, the Tiger skipper, quipped afterward.) In those first months, Malone's wildness was often mistaken for calculated ruthlessness. At least one benevolent observer, scout Twitch Halliday, still compares Mayday favorably to Sal (the Barber) Maglie. Says Twitch, "They both had the same...initials."
In September of that first season, the Red Sox were live games out with 10 to play when rookie Malone saved both ends of a doubleheader against the Baltimore Orioles. He threw only seven pitches. It was the undisputed heavyweight highlight of his career. Malone entered the first game with two out in the bottom of the ninth, runners at second and third, and the Brobdingnagian Boog Powell stepping into the box.
"I could feel the wind from his warmup swings," Malone once told ex-Sox teammate Dave Richards, a sportscaster on Channel 13 in Boston. "I mean, the guy had the heaviest bat in the league. Papers were full of him. I figure the only way I'm gonna get this guy, as good as he's going, is if I challenge him on the first pitch. If I try to get cute, he's gonna kill me." Boog grounded to third to end the first game, and Malone struck him out to end the second game—while Don Buford, the potential tying run, danced off first base. Forever after, no matter how unwarranted, Sam Malone would be Mayday.
(Speaking of nicknames: Coach Pantusso, who tended bar at Cheers for three years until he passed away at age 68 in 1985, was stunned to learn the origin of his own sobriquet. Said the inscrutable Coach, a member of the Red Sox brain trust for two decades, "I always thought they gave me that name because I never flew first-class.")
Following his flammable rookie campaign, Malone signed a modest endorsement deal with a lighter-fluid manufacturer. Mercifully, the Combust-O! TV spots were short-lived, though Malone's numbers never really did improve dramatically. His befuddling career statistics (page 64) trace a bell curve that peaks in 1975, when the success of the pennant-winning Red Sox raised all boats, levitating Malone's record that season to a career-best 5-5. Though a mysterious domestic groin injury kept him out of the postseason, Sam basked in the afterglow of that glorious October. He began to purchase Fenway tickets for underprivileged families. Alas, he could only afford some single seats with obstructed views, and Mayday's Mainstays mainly stayed away.
Still, it's the thought that counts, although Malone's thoughts (unlike his counts) seldom got very deep. Several years after his retirement, Malone donated one of his game jerseys to WGBH-TV, Boston's public-television station, which was holding an auction during its fund-drive telethon. Although Mayday's number 16 jersey wouldn't sell for several hours—and he eventually phoned in using a phony falsetto voice to offer $200—he was able to exploit the occasion to proclaim that PBS was his favorite network. "I especially like those two guys who talk about the day's events," he said.
MacNeil and Lehrer?
"No," said Malone. "Bert and Ernie. Wait a minute: Unless—maybe that's their last names."
You can hardly set foot in Cheers without hearing about the time Malone and some of the other boys from the bar snuck into Boston Garden in the middle of the night. They found themselves standing at center court in this otherwise empty basketball shrine. Norm Peterson looked around, mouth agape, and was moved to describe the Garden in properly reverential tones.
"Sacred, holy, like a cathedral," he said, in genuine awe. "I'm gonna rip a seat out and throw it in the back of my car."
Malone's breaking pitch was known as "the slider of death." Unfortunately, that was the sobriquet given it by his Red Sox teammates, who often saw the slider die in the nets above the Green Monster. During the 1970s, only Ray Kroc served up more taters than Malone. But which dinger was the deepest? "I seem to remember a long one he surrendered to Charlie Spikes of the Cleveland Indians back in '74 or '75," says Peter Gammons, who covered Malone's Red Sox for The Boston Globe. Spikes's slam was long—for a moment it looked as if the ball had a chance to punch through the "O" in the CITGO sign in Kenmore Square—but it wasn't the longest shot Sam surrendered. Not by a long shot.
Malone facilitated the longest home run ever hit at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. In his new book, It's done!...No, Wait a Minute...television writer and former Oriole announcer Ken Levine recalls interviewing Malone on an O's pregame show during spring training of 1991. Naturally, Levine mentioned the time Lee May took Malone all the way out of the yard in Baltimore.
"There is a plaque where [the ball] landed in the parking lot," writes Levine, "and Sam wondered casually if it was a plate in the ground or a standing monument that could accidentally be run over by a car. When he learned it was in the ground, he shrugged it off, knowing that we would be out of that park in a year anyway. Finally, I wrapped up the interview, with Sam interrupting me constantly, wanting to know what gift he'd receive: Tires, maybe even a CD player for his 'Vette."
Ah, yes, his 'Vette. Malone has always driven a red Corvette, which is hardly surprising. He was among the most self-obsessed players of the Me Decade. He dyed his hair and wore a rug, a breathtaking bit of vanity, especially in a hat-intensive sport like baseball. To this day, Malone insists on euphemistically calling his toop a "hair-replacement system," but he isn't fooling anyone.
But then, he never did fool anyone. How painful was it to watch Malone pitch? Perhaps this scene best illustrates the point: In 1992, at age 43, Sammy imprudently returned to the Red Sox Double A affiliate in New Britain, Conn. The notion of Mayday chasing the game again gave Norm Peterson pause for reflection over a beer at Cheers.
"Boy-oh-boy," he said. "The thought of Sammy out there on the mound, chuckin' 'em down. What I wouldn't give to see that, huh?"
"Norm," said Cliff Clavin, a postal worker and Cheers regular. "It's only a $30 train ride."
"Well," said Peterson. "That's what I wouldn't give."
Cliff, curious about Malone's pitching days, once asked him, "Did you have any superstitions, Sammy?" To which Sam replied, "Yeah, I had one crazy little one. I never pitched to anybody named Reggie, Willie or the Bull."
Unfortunately, the control problems that plagued Malone were never confined to the ballpark. He is a recovering alcoholic who was, you might say, line-driven to drink during his last seasons with the Sox. Malone had always hung out with teammates at the Eliot Lounge on Mass. Ave., but by 1977 the highballs were increasing in frequency as the hanging curveballs did the same. In the hideous final days of his career, Malone allows that he was even drinking during games. "Never on the mound," he once pointed out. "It sets a bad example for the catchers."
Mayday still has at least one vice left. "The closest I've ever come to saying no to a woman," explains Malone, "is, 'Not now, we're landing.' "
His wantonness has always masked loneliness. With unknowing but uncanny wisdom, an eight-year-old girl once called him Sam Alone. Sadly, the name rings true long after his retirement from baseball. Not many years ago Malone appeared (via a telephone hookup from Cheers) on Spoils Shorts, a local call-in radio program hosted by his buddy Richards. After opening the phone lines to listeners, Richards was forced to tread dead air for several torturous moments ("It is a toll-free call," he said) before a single line finally lit up.
"Sam," Cheers bartender Woody Boyd asked on the air, "where did you put the olives?"
Woody Boyd was behind the bar that day when Dutch Kincaid swaggered into Cheers looking for the man he took deep 27 times. Kincaid, who did his arm-waving Dutch Windmill during every home run trot, barked at Woody, "I'm lookin' for a yellow-bellied, runny-nosed has-been!"
Woody replied, "I can't make one of those—I'm out of cassis."
Sam Malone's career ended in Cleveland, a tattered Red Sock washed up on the shores of Lake Erie. In his final game, Mayday made the only start of his big league career. I le was facing the Tribe's formidable Sid Monge on that chill April day in 1978. The crowd sensed that Malone's future might turn on this one game, like Andre Thornton turning on a fat slider, and as Mayday took the mound in the first, there was no movement in the stands at Municipal Stadium.
There was no movement on Malone's fastball, either. After giving up a double to Paul Dade and a walk to Larvell Blanks, Sam served up back-to-back-to-back-to-back homers to Thornton, Buddy Bell, Willie Horton and John Grubb. He then beaned Duane Kuiper. Zimmer removed Malone before a single out was recorded, which is why Sammy's ERA for 1978 is represented in The Baseball Encyclopedia by that dreaded sideways 8, the symbol for infinity.
Diane Chambers, a pretentious barmaid at Cheers and former fiancèe of Malone's, once punctuated a recitation of the 17th-century poem The Bait with the words, "That's Donne."
To which Sam replied, "I certainly hope so."
That's the way it was with his baseball career: Done, and not a moment too soon. Out of baseball, he got onto the wagon. In fact, he saved the bottle cap from the last beer he ever drank, and it became a kind of lucky charm in Malone's baseball afterlife. Then he lent it to slumping Red Sox closer Rick Walker, who lost it in Kansas City, but...what the hey...by that time, Sammy had his life back on track.
By the way: When Malone lent that bottle cap to Walker one night at Cheers, Walker asked Coach for advice. Walker was told to relax, have fun, get himself a girlfriend. "In my day," Coach said, "there was always a lot of attractive young dames outside the stadium waiting for the ballplayers."
"They're still there, Coach," Walker noted.
"You kidding?" asked Coach. "Say hello to Rosie McGonaghal for me, will ya?"
Coach, God bless him, was sweet as a child. Except when he took over the Titans, a youth league team. It seemed like a good idea at the time. "Guy's home life is a can of SpaghettiOs and reruns of Baretta," Sam said. "This'll be good for him. Every guy needs a hobby."
"I wish I had time for one," said Norm.
"Norm," said Cliff, "you've got time to make your own coal."
But Pantusso, who spent half his life as a coach, badly abused his authority when finally named a manager. He terrorized his players with two-a-day practices and draconian disciplinary measures. They finally mutinied at the bar one memorable afternoon, 'I can't take it anymore!" a nine-year-old boy screamed at Coach. "You're too hard on me. I can't sleep. My pets hate me. I'm starting to smoke again."
To Malone, Coach was a sort of surrogate father. After spending his meager life savings to buy Cheers, Mayday was wise to hire his former coach, a man who had helped him beat the bottle. The bar, which had first opened its door in 1889, fell into Malone's hands when Gus O'Malley decided to sell in 1982.
As Mayday had it figured, the bar would give him a place where he could still see the guys he had played with in the bigs. It is where Tom Kenderson, Sam's roommate with the Sox, would hold the publication party for his coming-out-of-the-closet memoirs, entitled Catcher's Mask. ("The arrival of yet another thickheaded jock epic," sniffed Chambers. "Well, there must be confetti all over the Library of Congress.")
Cheers is where Richards could find Malone whenever a bigger-name interview fell through. Richards, a dead ringer for former Los Angeles Ram defensive lineman Fred Dryer, showed up with a microphone at the bar one night when John McEnroe, Gerry Cheevers, M.L. Carr, Jim Rice and Robert Parish all claimed prior commitments. "And Becky Bannerman, the junior high school gymnast, is on a field trip," added Richards. Mayday graciously agreed to do the interview, as long as it wasn't entirely about the same old silly sports pap.
Said Malone: "We can talk about what I'd do about the crisis in the Mideast."
Richards demurred: "Cubs got that thing by 3½ games, don't they?"
Kevin McHale's Hall of Fame basketball career ended two weeks ago when the Celtics lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but it came close to ending three years ago, when McHale turned his ankle while playing for the Cheers three-on-three team against Gary's Olde Towne Tavern. Shortly after the mishap, the boys at the rival bar put a scare into Malone by sending over some guy who purported to be "Dr. Walter Frohenmayer of the Celtics' medical staff," with an X-ray that purportedly showed that McHale's foot was broken, an injury that purportedly would sideline McHale for at least the rest of the season. Soon after "Dr. Frohenmayer" walked out of Cheers, McHale walked in. He said he was fine.
"Whose X-ray is this then?" asked a shaken Malone. "Is that not yours?"
"I dunno; lemme take a look at it," said McHale, holding the X-ray up to the light. "It says, 'Adult Male Gorilla.' That's not me. Could be Laimbeer."
Did someone say lame beer'! Mayday's baseball career was less memorable than the inane commercials he did for Field's Light. In those beer ads, teetotaler Malone relived old times by relieving former Red Sox starter Luis Tiant, who was having difficulty pitching in English. "You don't feel full with Field's," went Malone's tag line. "You just feel fine."
Malone would do anything for a buck (unless it was Buck Beauchamp of the Minnesota Twins, who choreographed his elaborate Tater Trot specifically to show up Mayday). He recently ventured capital on a chain of tanning salon/laundromats, but lost his shirt in Tan-N-Wash.
With the game's average salary hovering around a million dollars, Malone made his return to one of the lower rungs of the Red Sox organization. He actually pitched well for three weeks at Double A New Britain and recaptured some of his past glory. But his impudent young teammates called him Monday and Midday, and their towel-snapping and motel-trashing did not seem appropriate to this middle-aged man. The usual back-and-forth that Malone had always enjoyed now just seemed sick. "Did you see that one guy pat my butt?" Malone asked Carla Tortelli when she came to visit. "I mean, that's not right."
He tried to stay close to the game with a brief, humiliating turn behind a television anchor desk, but Malone's "I on Sports" commentaries were too idiotic for even the Channel 13 news team. And he wasn't helped by the way his pieces were introduced. One anchorwoman segued into the sports thusly: "...and Keller is scheduled to be executed on Friday. I guess he won't be around then for the Patriots-Buffalo game this Sunday."
Malone's friends watched all of this on the single TV suspended from the ceiling at Cheers. Though its walls are festooned with Red Sox and Bruin and Celtic memorabilia, Cheers is not a sports bar. Sports bars serve fried zucchini and have 23 TVs. Cheers serves beer nuts and has the one battered television—it looks like a Zenith at its nadir. But make no mistake, the tube is usually tuned to pro wrestling or roller derby or a basketball game, for sports are at the very soul of Sam Malone's saloon.
Woody once entered a sports trivia contest, and he drilled maniacally, reading sports record books until he was glassy-eyed and goofy. "What was the lowest round ever recorded in an officially sanctioned PGA tournament?" Carla would ask him in preparation for the contest, and Woody would respond robotically, his gaze fixed somewhere faraway: "Fifty-nine. Al Geiberger."
"The oldest heavyweight champion?"
"Jersey Joe Walcott. Thirty-eight years old."
Impressed, the barhounds began to congratulate Boyd. "Hey, that's good, Woody," Norm told him.
"Good, Woody. Elmer Goodwoody. Shortstop. Chicago White Sox...."
"Woody, take a rest."
"Take-a-Rest. Winner of the 1947 Epsom Derby...."
In both baseball and beer, there have always been bad hops, and who would know better than Malone? Baseball and beer have been his life's work. But not even Mayday, whose career fielding percentage was a respectable .970, is fully prepared to handle this: the last last call at his bar beneath Melville's. As of Sunday, Malone still hadn't revealed why he is closing the joint that has become a home away from home plate for so many ballplayers, and a clubhouse for those who never played the game. But two things are certain: The place is closing, and Malone has the courage to move on with his life.
"I gave my neighbor's kid a Sam Malone baseball card to stick in the spokes of his bike," Kincaid once told Mayday. "Now when he rides it it goes wimp wimp wimp wimp wimp."
But that was then. Recently, Boggs ran into Malone in Boston. Predictably, Mayday told his onetime patron the oldest lie there is: "The pants are in the mail." No surprise there. What is surprising are the circumstances in which their conversation took place. "We did a card show together," says Boggs. "I only had 50 people in my line. But Sam had about 5,000. I was done in 10 minutes. Sam took five hours. He was definitely the star."
The star? It is true. As the light fades from his beacon on Beacon Street, Sam Malone is no longer being taken for granted. He raised the spirits of the people who walked into his bar: it's about time they raised some spirits to him. After all this time, Malone is finally getting a proper send-off. Five thousand people at a card show. HUB FANS BID SAM ADIEU.
Isn't that a nice ending? Mayday Malone no longer hears the boos, but quite the opposite.
*With thanks to Cheers writers Tom Anderson, Larry Balmagia, Glen Charles, Les Charles, David Isaacs, Ken Levine, David Lloyd, Dan O'Shannon, Earl Pomerantz, Tom Reeder, Sam Simon and Kathy Ann Stumpe.