By Glen Sparks
Denny McLain made winning look easy in 1968. He did it more than 30 times.
He challenged hitters with right-handed fastballs and sliders. He stood on the mound, the brim of his cap turned low, and looked into catcher Bill Freehan for the sign.
McLain, in the Year of the Pitcher, compiled a 31-6 won-loss record with a 1.96 ERA (154 ERA+). He completed 28 of his 41 starts and threw 336 innings. The writers voted him both the American League Cy Young Award winner and the league MVP. McLain was just 24 years old, already in his sixth big league season.
The following year, 1969, he finished 24-9 with a 2.80 ERA (134 ERA+). McLain completed 23 games and hurled nine shutouts. (He tossed six shutouts in ’68.) Once again, the writers voted him the A.L. Cy Young Award. This time, he ended up sixth in the MVP voting.
At this point, he sported a 114-57 career won-loss record (.667 winning percentage). Then, Dennis Dale McLain made a mess of things. He played just three more seasons. The young veteran struggled to go 17-34 (.333), the victim of a sore arm and his own foolish decisions.
Once, the future looked so promising for McLain. Detroit brought him up to the big club late in the 1963 season. The Chicago native and Mount Carmel High School graduate went 2-1 in 21 innings. The next year, he finished 4-5 in 100 innings and followed that by going 16-6 with a 2.61 ERA (134 ERA+) in 1965.
McLain’s ERA soared to 3.92 in 1966. He still went 20-14 and made the All-Star team, thanks in large part to a 13-4 start. McLain faded again in ’67. He won 17 games but none after Aug. 29. He put up another pedestrian ERA, too, 3.79.
McLain said his problems began that year when he stubbed two toes after hearing some raccoons making a ruckus outside his house. Detroit teammates insisted that McLain hurt his foot by kicking a water cooler in the dugout. The Tigers lost out to the Boston Red Sox in the pennant race.
Detroit easily won the pennant in 1968, going 103-59 and finishing 13 games ahead of the second-place Baltimore Orioles. McLain won his 30th game on Sept. 14, a 4-3 decision against the Oakland A’s. He won his 31st game less than a week later. No pitcher had won 30 games since Dizzy Dean did it for the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals.
The Tigers played the Cardinals in the ’68 Series. Detroit won the Series in seven games, but St. Louis ace Bob Gibson got the best of McLain. Coming off an incredible season highlighted by a 1.12 ERA over 304 innings, Gibson went 2-1 with a 1.67 ERA against the Tigers. McLain went 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA.
Not surprisingly, McLain hit the banquet circuit—hard–in the fall of 1968 and winter of ’69. He signed endorsement deals, did talk shows and ended up in Las Vegas a time or two. He did the same thing the next year. Trouble inevitably followed.
Sports Illustrated published a story in 1970 titled “Denny McLain and the Mob, Baseball’s Big Scandal.” The text was even worse than the headline. McLain, the article alleged, had fallen in deep with the Syrian mob in Flint, Mich. Not long afterward, the pitcher filed for bankruptcy, a $200,000 salary notwithstanding.
Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn put down the hammer. He suspended McLain for nearly a half-season. McLain came back July 1, but on Aug. 28, he tossed a bucket of ice water on top of some local sports writers. The Tigers’ brass didn’t get the joke. McLain was suspended for seven days.
Just a few day later, Kuhn found out that McLain had carried a gun onto a team flight earlier in the year. The commissioner told McLain to sit down. McLain ended the 1970 campaign with a 3-5 won-loss record and a 4.63 ERA.
Detroit, to no one’s surprise, traded McLain in the offseason. The Washington Senators, to everyone’s surprise, picked him up. McLain and Washington skipper Ted Williams, to no one’s surprise, hated each other. McLain, winner of 31 games just a few years before, led the A.L. in losses in 1971. He went 10-22 with a 4.28 ERA (77 ERA+).
By the end of the 1972 season, split between Oakland and Atlanta, McLain was out of major league baseball. His career record stood at 131-91. He was 29 years old. His troubles continued. He said his arm hurt, but he was out of shape. He kept putting on weight. He drank one Pepsi cola after another.
McLain made several business investments. Almost all of them were bad. He filed for bankruptcy again. Supposedly, he did some loan sharking. One story is that he flew his airplane out of the country with a fugitive in the passenger seat.
The U.S. Justice Department filed a bunch of charges against him (racketeering, cocaine trafficking, etc.) and got enough of them to stick. A judge sentenced McLain to 23 years, but the ballplayer only did 30 months. An appellate court threw out the case.
In 1993, for reasons known but to God or the Devil himself, McLain and a buddy bought an old meat-packing company in Michigan. Pretty soon, $3 million was gone from the company’s pension fund, and the feds wanted to know why. McLain faced another round of charges and spent seven years in a jumpsuit.
This is Denny McLain post-1969 in a nutshell: In 2011, the former pitcher took the wrong exit and accidentally drove into Canada from Michigan. He turned around, but, he had to go through U.S. Customs on the way back. Lo and behold, McLain had an outstanding warrant. He sat in jail for a week before being released.