Valley slugger McEachen went yard at age 13

Modest and humble, Ottawa Valley’s McEachen was a megastar
By Danny Gallagher

Back in 1956, John McEachen was a mere slip of a boy of 13.

One day, Larry Moriarty, the coach of the Douglas team in Ontario’s South Renfrew Senior Baseball League, found out he needed help. The roster was shy so McEachen was summoned from the junior ranks.

“Larry called, he needed me for the next senior game because he was a man short,’’ McEachen recalled recently.

Playing amongst men 18-40ish, here was the young lad, yes, he was just 13, and in the course of one at-bat, came to the plate with the bases jammed against Cobden southpaw Peter McKercher.

McEachen became a boy-man in those few moments.

Feared clean-up hitter Tony O’Neill was intentionally walked by McKercher to load the bases, bringing the unknown McEachen up.

What does McEachen do? Isn’t it the dream of any batter with the bases loaded to hit a grand slam?

McEachen did just that.

A right-handed hitter, he hit a pitch that cleared the fence in right-centre at the Cobden fairgrounds.

“I didn’t play often in senior that season, just now and then,’’ McEachen said. “I don’t know what Tony thought about it but it was quite a thrill hitting the grand slam. It was my first home run in senior ball and it came in my first game. There was a racetrack at the fairgrounds in those days and the racetrack stands covered the baseball field in right-centre. I hit the ball into the racetrack stands.’’

McEachen, 71, can’t recall if the homer ended the game but he does know Douglas won the game.

As he got older, he would play more with the senior team and then became a regular when he was 15. Imagine. While the grand slam at age 13 was a memory he won’t forget, something bigger materialized in 1967 when Douglas didn’t field a team. At the time, he played for the Pembroke Pirates of the North Renfrew Senior Baseball League and it was the year he got married to Angela Ready of Pembroke, an event that left many Douglas and area girls distraught because they had a crush on McEachen.

One game that year, the Pirates fell behind 11-0 to their city rivals, the Ponies. Little by little, the Pirates fought back. Then it was 11-8 and McEachen was up with the bases loaded. Ponies coach Sam McConeghy brought Gerry Lepine in to pitch to McEachen.

You know what happened.

McEachen hit a walk-off grand slam and the Pirates won a shocker 12-11.

“I shouldn’t say this because Gerry was such a good pitcher but the grand slam was the biggest highlight of my career,’’ McEachen said. “After that, he probably struck me out 10 times in a row.’’

McEachen also became an excellent pitcher and established himself as one of the best in the Ottawa Valley in 1969 when Douglas returned to the SRSBL.

Was McEachen better on the mound than in the 1969 post-season?

Hard to dispute. He won all four games as the Douglas Expos beat Cormac 4-2 in an emotional best-of-seven, semi-final series.

We were down 2-0 but came back to win four straight.

In one of the strangest ways to lose a game, Douglas forfeited the second game in the fourth inning because pitcher Doug Lavallee began swearing at the umpire. Instead of following the traditional rule of just ejecting the player involved, the umpire called the game off and awarded the game to Cormac. Imagine. There was a mini melee at the Cormac bench and then we all went home. There were other things that happened after that game, especially involving me and the Cormac coach but it’s water under the bridge after 45 years.

That enormous slight of a forfeited game fired up us Douglas players so much that we won four straight.

All in all, McEachen won eight games in post-season play, including two against Killaloe in the final which Douglas won 4-1.

When we met Killaloe in the final, it was anti-climatic after we had beaten Cormac. We disposed of Killaloe in five games. We won the championship with an 11-3 win in Douglas on Labour Day with my brother Jim Gallagher stroking two solo homers.

“I was the lead-off hitter that game and homered in my first at-bat, a high fly ball to right,’’ Jim said.  People were joking that is was a kind of a lazy home run or something like that.  The second homer was a rising line drive with a lot of mustard on it, to right again, of course, since I pulled everything in those years pretty much.’’

Just think, our season didn’t end there.  Just how good were the Douglas Expos? We were talented enough to play into October like the Yankees, Red Sox and all those teams that play beyond the regular season. Wink. How’s that for a team from a wee-little village of about 400-500? We conquered the city slickers, the Ottawa West End Braves, who had captured the Hull Senior League title.

Somehow, coach Moriarty and people from the Ottawa team got talking and agreed to play a challenge series.

On Oct. 5, Douglas shellacked the Braves 10-2 to win the best-of-three series 2-1 with one game tied. The Braves had won the first game and the second one ended up in a tie. In game 3, Douglas mauled the Braves 13-4, setting the stage for the final game with McEachen the winner, outduelling Gerry Allard. It was McEachen’s eighth post-season win. Mike Moriarty and your truly collected three hits each, while McEachen, Lavallee, cousin Michael Gallagher, Dick Willie, Jim Welsh and Rod Wilcox had two hits each.

“The 1969 season was probably the No. 1 thing for me as far as satisfaction goes,’’ McEachen said, especially when it came to the Cormac series.

By then, McEachen had established himself as one of the elite players in the Ottawa Valley and Ontario. In some clippings McEachen sent me, they showed a small fraction of the number of batting titles McEachen won during his senior career which spanned from 1956 until the 1980s, a period of roughly 25 years, although he doesn’t know the year he actually stopped playing before starting Oldtimers ball.

The Eganville Leader reported that McEachen “hit at over a .500 clip’’ to win the 1964 SRSBL crown and another story in the Pembroke Observer said he won the NRSBL crown in 1972 with a .384 average. Of course, there would have been additional titles but there are no clippings to confirm it all.

From 1962-65, Douglas won four consecutive SRSBL titles with McEachen a huge part of them all.

Long-time lumberman, politician and sportsman Tom Murray of Barry’s Bay once said McEachen and Pat Dunn were the two best players he ever saw come out of Douglas.

“Mr. Murray travelled around the valley a lot to watch baseball and hockey and he got to know the teams and players from all over,’’ my brother Jim said. “He and Daddy talked a lot at games even though Tom was 27 years older.  He lived to be 101, so he saw a lot in his day.’’

McEachen is a man steeped in humility and few words, not one to brag about himself even though he is years removed from his days of excellence. It takes a lot to pry words out of him.

“John never boasted,’’ said my brother Jim, who began playing with McEachen in 1962. “Despite his many accomplishments over a long career, he was the most modest and humble of players. When I asked him how many homers he hit in his lifetime, he demurred, saying ‘Oh, I was more of a line drive hitter.’ I am sure he hit many home runs, more than most players, I expect. He was one of my favourite teammates all-time.  He was a rock, a quiet presence who exuded strength and perseverance.  He was a clutch hitter who was a tough out all the time.

“So often he could fight off a tough pitch and get enough of it to get a hit.  He never made excuses, never got upset over an umpire’s call or a miscue on his part.  He always tried to calm down his teammates if they were getting upset, realizing that flaring tempers took players off their game and reduced their effectiveness.’’

McEachen admits he never had a sore arm when he pitched and never got relieved very much. He walked very few batters.

“I loved to win, hated to lose,’’ McEachen said.

“Control was a big asset for John when he pitched along with his desire to win,’’ said Moriarty, his batterymate for years. “He was very good at hitting the corners. He could play any position. He was a hell of a batter. He was always in shape to play and never complained. He was strong as a bull. You could not ask for a better teammate. He never talked about losing, only win, win. You could always count on him. He was a hell of a guy.’’

He was a gentleman on and off the field but you didn’t want to mess around with him because he was a solidly built man.

“When pitching, if he threw an inside pitch and it looked like he might be hitting the batter, he would yell out, ‘Look out!’ hoping the batter would not be hit with the ball,’’ recalled my brother Bernard (B0). “He never tried to injure an opponent or anything like that.

“John was a down to earth guy, pretty serious on the field, and always ready to give the extra effort to help out. John played harder than anyone on the field. He used to sweat a lot because of working so hard for the team.  He never clowned around on the team. I can remember John carrying a quart of milk with him to road games.’’

How respected was McEachen? Here are two instances and both resulted in teams we played on forfeiting playoff series.

In 1970, the president of the SRSBL told coach Moriarty that he wanted Douglas to start playing Cormac on a certain date to begin the semi-final series. Moriarty balked because on that same date, McEachen was going to play for Pembroke in the NRSBL. As a result, the three other SRSBL teams abandoned us and went off to post-season play on their own.

Then in 1974, Renfrew Red Sox coach Clair Seeley didn’t want to start a series in the Interprovincial league on a certain date because, again, McEachen was playing that same date for the Pembroke squad. The Ottawa league president Merv Bonney ruled against Renfrew and the Sox forfeited the series.

“John was highly respected around the Valley as a player and was a feared opponent,’’ Jim Gallagher said. “He gave 100% all the time. He was intense during a game, concentrating fully on the task at hand, taking deep breaths at tough times and being ready for everything.  On the bench, while still quiet, he was always a supportive teammate who encouraged everyone.

“Even though he was a serious player who was always in the  game, John was fun loving and always enjoyed a good laugh.  He was great to travel with and room with on the road.  Being a teetotaler, preferring milk and soft drinks, he was always the designated driver.’’

It was during that 1974 season, 40 years ago, that Renfrew won the NRSBL crown, a team that included a trio of Gallagher brothers: myself, Lawrence and Jim. It was also the year we ran into a tough St. Catharines squad during the OBA playdowns. Late in one game, Ottawa-born George Korince, a former pitcher with the Detroit Tigers, came into the game to close out a 9-6 win. Moose Korince was throwing peas and struck out McEachen to end the game as St. Catharines won the series. It was one of those rare times McEachen struck out.

If he had been given an opportunity, McEachen could have had a shot at pro ball like Korince – he was that talented a player. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, potential prospects in smalltown Canada didn’t have the luxury of seeing scouts roam around, like they do nowadays.

Too bad there wasn’t a scout around to follow McEachen in the 1950s, especially the time he hit the grand slam as a 13-year-old.
    Ecstasy to Agony: the 1994 Montreal Expos co-authored by Danny Gallagher and Bill Young is now available in ebook format through Kobo and Kindle.

Danny Gallagher