Fabulous flameouts: The sad case of St. Louis Cardinals’ Von McDaniel

A St. Louis Cardinals cap and glove rest on the step to the dugout during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on April 16, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
A St. Louis Cardinals cap and glove rest on the step to the dugout during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on April 16, 2014 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images) /

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Von McDaniel took the baseball world by storm in 1957. His career was over less than a year later.

One of the greatest hoaxes in baseball history began on April 1, 1985, when journalist George Plimpton concocted the tale of fictitious New York Mets pitching prospect Sidd Finch. The story ran in Sports Illustrated, and the thought of Finch, a flamethrower who could supposedly run his fastball up to an unprecedented 168 mph (actually) with pinpoint control, pitching for their team left Mets fans jubilant. A week later, a follow-up article announced Finch’s retirement, and it was revealed as a hoax on April 15.

If Finch’s hype and subsequent “career” could be compared to that of a historical player, the first one who comes to my mind is Von McDaniel.

The younger brother of two-time All-Star pitcher Lindy McDaniel, Max Von McDaniel was born in Hollis, Oklahoma, on April 18, 1939. Straight out of high school, he was considered a can’t-miss prospect with his lethal changeup. In his three years pitching for Arnett High School, he allowed 25 hits and 17 walks in 243 innings. Unsurprisingly, nearly every team was ogling over the thought of signing this wunderkind, who was also his class’s valedictorian.

McDaniel signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a “bonus baby” in 1957 at age 18 for the eye-popping (at the time) price of $50,000. As per the rules of the day, the Cardinals had to put McDaniel on the major league roster.

The phrase “burst onto the scene” is an understatement when talking about the beginning of McDaniel’s career. He made his first appearance in a game on June 13, 1957, where he faced 13 batters and retired 12 of them, only surrendering a single.

McDaniel made his first start on June 21 and threw a complete-game shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies. On July 2, he pitched six perfect innings against the Milwaukee Braves, beating Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. On July 28, McDaniel dazzled again, pitching a one-hit shutout against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The man was a sensation and contributed to a 20% increase in fan attendance on the days he pitched at home.

McDaniel’s arrival seemed to energize the Cardinals, who won 33 of their next 50 games after McDaniel’s first victory on June 16. In his first nine appearances, he pitched to a 2.67 ERA and batters hit .189 off of him. He looked to be next face of the franchise with Stan Musial at the tail end of his career.

But just as quickly as he rocketed to stardom, McDaniel fell apart. In his last eight games, McDaniel’s ERA was 4.30 and batters hit .287. He also walked 16 batters in 29.1 innings after walking only 15 in his first 57.1 innings. It would only get worse from there.

In McDaniel’s first appearance in the 1958 season, he allowed five consecutive hits and three runs without recording an out. On May 11, his final appearance in the major leagues, McDaniel pitched two innings and walked five batters.

McDaniel was demoted shortly after his five-walk appearance and spent time in the minor leagues for the first time in his career. Despite his coaches’ efforts, McDaniel still failed to produce, and out of desperation, they assigned him to the Class D Florida State league and put him at shortstop. It was a feasible move; McDaniel had hit .545 during his time in high school.

McDaniel split time between pitching and playing shortstop with the Daytona Beach Islanders, and for a while, it looked like he had figured things out, as he was named to the league’s All-Star team. But after a return to the Texas League, his pitching struggles resumed, as an unsightly 7.59 ERA led to his pitching only seven more times in the next six years he spent in professional baseball.

After the Cardinals finally gave up on trying to correct McDaniel on the mound, the expansion Houston Colt .45s grabbed him after he hit .266 with 15 home runs in 1961 with the Double-A Texas League Tulsa Oilers. The Colt .45s put him at third base in their farm system, where he was trapped behind prospect Bob Aspromonte and never cracked the major league squad.

After 1964, when McDaniel hit .264 with 18 home runs, the Chicago Cubs decided to nab him to provide minor league depth. But his hitting ability plummeted in 1965, where he hit only .219 with the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate. In 1966, McDaniel hit .224 and called it a career after the season. He was only 27 years old.

According to McDaniel, several years after his phenomenal arrival in the major leagues, he had failed to properly care for his arm in the offseason and thus struggled to control his devastating changeup, forcing him to rely on his underwhelming fastball.

McDaniel’s career is one of what-ifs: What if he had adequately conditioned his arm in the 1957-1958 offseason? What if Houston had given him a crack at second base, where the team needed a mainstay? It’s a sobering look on what might have been and a reminder that most players can’t rejuvenate their careers the way Rick Ankiel did.

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McDaniel died of a heart attack and stroke in 1995 at the relatively young age of 56. He has since become a name lost to time, swallowed up by the unforgiving force that is baseball.