An unflappable lefthander with great control, McNally was the first of Baltimore’s “Big Four” 20-game winners, joined later by Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, and Pat Dobson on the 1971 Orioles staff. But McNally’s place in baseball history may have less to do with how well he labored than with his impact on baseball’s labor relations. He and the Dodgers’ Andy Messersmith became baseball’s first two legal free agents in 1975.
Even before he won 20 games, McNally was a hero in Baltimore. He outpitched Don Drysdale to win the fourth and final game of the 1966 Series 1-0 on a four-hitter, bringing Baltimore its first World Championship. Though he led the AL with 24 wins in 1970, his best overall season was 1968, when he posted a 22-10 record, with career bests of a 1.95 ERA and 202 strikeouts. He helped the Orioles win the 1969 AL playoffs with an 11-inning, 11-strikeout, 1-0 victory against Minnesota in Game Two. However, he failed to hold a 3-0 lead in the fifth and final game of the 1969 Series against the Mets.
McNally’s shining World Series moment came in the batter’s box, not on the pitcher’s mound. In the sixth inning of Game Three of the 1970 Series against the Reds, he became the only pitcher ever to hit a grand slam in a World Series. Ironically, the blast came off Tony Cloninger, who once hit a record two grand slams in a game while pitching for the Braves.
After the Curt Flood case and a short players’ strike in 1972 failed to resolve the free agency issue, McNally and Messersmith decided to test the reserve clause and played their 1975 seasons without a contract. After the season, arbitrator Peter Seitz declared both players free agents. McNally, who had announced his plans to retire during a dismal season with the Expos, did not take advantage of his newly-acquired free agency, while Messersmith signed a large contract with the Atlanta Braves.