Marty Niland: Ken McMullen draws birthday love from D.C. fans

Washington baseball fans still love Ken McMullen.

The former Senators third baseman’s 76th birthday was June 1, and there were dozens of likes and comments on a post recognizing the occasion on two D.C. Baseball History Facebook pages. The post included a photo of McMullen wearing a Senators uniform, in a fielding pose and wearing a batting helmet.

McMullen came to the Senators in the same seven-player blockbuster that brought Frank Howard to the nation’s capital, and McMullen flourished along with his tall, powerful teammate.

A native of southern California, McMullen signed with the Dodgers out of Oxnard High School in 1960, made his big league debut in 1962, and was in and out of the starting lineup for the 1963 season before an injury kept him from playing in the World Series. A bad start in 1964 got him sent back to the minors before the postseason trade to Washington.

With the cellar-dwelling Senators, McMullen no longer had to compete for a starting job, and he blossomed under the patient tutelage of Gil Hodges. He became one of the American League’s top fielders at the hot corner. McMullen tied an AL record by starting four double plays on Aug. 13, 1965 against Baltimore, and matched another AL mark with 11 assists against Boston on Sept. 26, 1966. He led the league in total chances for third basemen from 1967-1970 and led AL third basemen in double plays in 1967 and putouts in 1969.

Although he played in a pitcher’s park in DC/RFK Stadium, McMullen’s bat also prospered in Washington with 18 homers and a .263 average in his first season. He had another good season with the bat in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher,” when he hit .248 with 20 homers under former Senators slugger Jim Lemon. The following year under Ted Williams, he set career highs to date for average at .272, walks with 70, and doubles with 25, to go with 19 homers, helping the Senators to their only winning season.

His play drew praise from Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle, who called him “the most underrated player in the league.”

McMullen left Washington in a trade early in the 1970 season, going to the Angels a two-for-one deal that brought the Senators infielder Aurelio Rodriguez and outfielder Rick Reichardt.

He had two more good years with the Angels, hitting 21 homers in 1971 and batting .269 in 1972, with a defensive year that garnered him the only MVP vote of his career. He tied for 26th in the AL balloting with Bill Freehan, Brooks Robinson and Reggie Smith.

The following season, he and Andy Messersmith were dealt across town to the Dodgers in another blockbuster trade for Frank Robinson, Bill Singer and Bobby Valentine.

As we learned from McMullen’s 1973 Topps card, he made ends meet by working at a service station in the offseason. Such was life for non-superstars in the 1960s and 1970s.

His return to the Dodgers for 1973 was the beginning of the toughest time in his life. Not only was McMullen relegated to the bench, but he and his family faced their biggest possible challenge: McMullen’s wife, Bobbie, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was three months pregnant at the time with the couple’s third child, and she declined treatment that could have taken the life of the unborn child.

Even so, Bobbie insisted that her husband keep playing baseball, and he obliged after doctors told him it was best for the family to continue with normal life. The baby, Jonathan, was born healthy in November 1973, and Bobbie went right into treatment. However, it did not stop her eventual decline, and she died in April 1974, two months after urging her husband to report as usual for spring training. After some time off, McMullen continued as a reserve that season and finally made it to the World Series, where the Dodgers lost to the A’s.

McMullen played another season in L.A. and was released in early 1976, eventually catching on with Oakland as a designated hitter. He closed his career with Milwaukee, and in his final game on Sept. 14, 1977, he hit a homer in his final at-bat, taking an 0-1 pitch from Seattle’s Tom House over the left field fence at the Kingdome.

Since retiring, McMullen has run baseball camps, created a youth benefit golf tournament, co-owned a minor league team in California and done community relations work for the Dodgers, including fantasy camps.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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