Tom McGough didn’t experience a typical high school graduation celebration.
McGough participated in the commencement ceremony at Greater Johnstown High School as a member of the Class of 1973.
A few days earlier, the Cleveland Indians selected the teenage, right-handed pitcher in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball Draft.
“I was a 17-year-old high school kid,” McGough said. “I hadn’t even graduated from high school when I got the call, a call that I had dreamed about most of my life up to that point. I remember that draft day very vividly. I got the call at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.”
McGough barely had accepted his diploma when he was headed off to the minor leagues, beginning a professional career that eventually landed him on the Indians’ major league roster twice.
“I graduated on Friday. I signed a bonus contract and I made my first airplane flight,” McGough said. “I was away from home for the first time.”
More than 40 years later, McGough will return home for his induction into the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame. The Class of 2014 will be honored on Saturday night at the Pasquerilla Conference Center.
Baseball took McGough on what he considers an incredible journey, first as a player, and eventually as a nationally syndicated broadcaster and motivational speaker.
“I had a storybook childhood growing up in the All-American City, and I don’t know if there is a place on Earth like Johnstown,” said McGough, who resides in Plum Borough, Allegheny County. “I count that as one of the many blessings I’ve had. When I went away, I was a very young man, 17 years old. Every team I played on and every league I was in, almost every encounter I had, there somehow was a connection to Johnstown, Pennsylvania. People would make a note, ‘That’s the AAABA.’ That was such a wonderful time and place to grow up.”
McGough used a fastball in the mid- to high-90s to advance through the Indians organization during seven seasons. He pitched at the rookie, Class A, AA and AAA levels. Cleveland twice summoned him to the major leagues, but McGough never had an opportunity to pitch in a regular-season game.
In the minors, McGough won a combined 19 games in the Gulf Coast Rookie League and the Class A California League during his first two seasons. In 1974, he had a 13-9 record with Class A Reno.
At age 19, the righty tossed a no-hitter for San Antonio against the Shreveport Captains in Class AA.
“It was the signature game of my career,” McGough said of the game played on Mother’s Day in 1975. “That was the first game I had thrown a slider. When I came into professional baseball, I had this big roundhouse curve – a big 12-6 roundhouse that had a real sharp drop to it. It would drop a couple feet because of how hard I threw and I threw over the top.”
A student of the game, McGough added to his repertoire.
“In spring training in 1975 I was really watching these veteran pitchers. I wanted to have that pitch,” McGough said of the slider. “I asked pitchers how to throw it and how to get that rotation. In my bullpen session a few days before my no-hitter, I made the commitment. I said, ‘I”m going to throw that pitch right now and I’m going to mimic those other pitchers.’ It had a nice, tight break on it, and I was throwing it for strikes.
“That Sunday was the next time I was scheduled to pitch. I was nice and fresh with six days rest. It was a combination of throwing good and hard, and having this slider for the first time. There wasn’t a ball hit out of the infield. Mitchell Page walked on four pitches, and that was the only batter to reach base.”
Soon after the no-no, the Indians promoted McGough to Class AAA Oklahoma. Late in the season, he was put on the 40-man roster as the youngest player in the majors at age 20.
Another highlight was a shutout inning of relief McGough tossed during a spring training game against the California Angels. Both Nolan Ryan and Dennis Eckersley, future Baseball Hall of Famers, appeared in the game.
McGough got another call to Cleveland in 1977, but didn’t pitch in a major league game.
“As I look back, I am just very grateful to have had that opportunity,” McGough said. “I’m grateful to have those experiences to play at each level and to have a call up to the big leagues.”
After his playing career, McGough became a host and producer of the nationally syndicated SportsWeek television/radio program. He also spent several years working with Tim Rigby as WJAC-TV televised opening night AAABA Tournament games.
As a motivational speaker, McGough relies on his baseball experiences and his faith. He’s worked with Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NCAA.
He frequently shows young athletes several rubber-coated baseballs he threw against a brick wall during his formative years.
McGough said he uses three rubber balls and an autographed Cleveland Indians baseball during presentations at his Diamond Dreams baseball camps.
“I still have those rubber-coated baseballs, the Wilson Indestructo Baseball, that I’d throw off of that brick wall,” McGough said. “The wear shows all the different stages – youth, 12-years-old, 16-years-old. I would have the distances marked off and my strike zone would be one brick. My father would say, ‘Hit the left side of the brick. Hit the right side of the brick. Hit the center.’
“You can see the work. You can only imagine the countless times those balls were thrown off the brick wall. The fourth ball is an autographed Cleveland Indians baseball. That represents that my dream came true.”
The East Boros Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame inducted McGough in 2012. His Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame honor will be shared with wife, Luci, and baseball-loving sons Eric and Scott, both NCAA Division I scholarship players who signed pro contracts. Scott is in the Miami Marlins organization.
“It’s an exceptional honor. Everything about this has been first class and five stars,” McGough said of the Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame. “When I look on the Hall of Fame website and see the athletes enshrined, it just accentuates the honor. To think with all the great athletes in all of the sports, I am in that group. It’s exceptionally humbling.”
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.