Fifty years ago this very week, Denny McLain put his arms around a moment of baseball history, and no one has ever pried it away.
Would he trade his short, spectacular career for a longer one?
“Yes and no,” McLain said Monday night, before his speaking and signing program at the World Series Club of Hartford County dinner. “It’s nice to hold the distinction I hold. I’m the only guy in the modern era that won 30 ballgames [in a season]. It’s great to have the distinction, but on the other hand it would have been great to play another five to 10 years, because another five certainly would have got me in the Hall of Fame.”
McLain, 74, is of a different era. His way of communicating, his sense of humor, can still be coarse, his stories not always G-rated, and his pitching records from the late 1960s are almost beyond belief in view of the way pitchers are used today. In 1968, one of the most written-about years in baseball, and American history, McLain started 41 games, completed 28 and threw 336 innings, winning his 30th on Sept. 14 when the Tigers rallied for two runs in the ninth to beat Oakland, 5-4.
Five days later, he won his 31st, but drew a stern letter from the commissioner’s office for hinting that he grooved a pitch for aging Mickey Mantle, who needed a homer to pass Jimmie Foxx. Imagine, allowing two homers to a young Reggie Jackson and one to Mantle in the same week, all as he was winning his 30th game and the Tigers were nailing down the AL championship.
McLain won 24 and a second consecutive Cy Young Award in 1969, pitching 325 innings, then it was downhill, as he received countless cortisone shots in his right arm. He drew a suspension from baseball in 1970 for involvement with gambling, and in 1971 was traded to Washington, where he clashed with manager Ted Williams and went 10-22. His career was finished at age 29 in 1972, and his post-pitching life has included two stints in prison, one shortened when his convictions on racketeering, drug trafficking and other charges were overturned in 1987, another on embezzlement that lasted six years in the 1990s.
“It’s a surprise to me that I’m here,” McLain said. “It’s not like I’ve lived some wild life, like it’s been portrayed from time to time. I mean, I don’t drink, never smoked, never had those habits. The picture that they paint, Las Vegas every weekend, it’s just not true. My dad died at 36; my grandfather died at 38. I was the lucky one.”
McLain’s devotion is to his wife, Sharyn, the daughter of Hall-of-Famer Lou Boudreau, who has been with him 55 years and is suffering from Parkinson’s disease. “We battle it every day. We try to keep a smile on it every day, which is almost impossible,” McLain said. “She is a queen. I would have never got through my life without her.”
Whatever trouble or hard times have come his way, McLain is not forgotten, not in Detroit, where he has done a lot of radio work and blogging, and where the 1968 world champions have been celebrated this summer, or in places like the VFW Hall in West Hartford, where the 80-member, 92-year-old World Series Club hosted a packed house to hear the stories, get autographs, buy McLain’s memoirs or memorabilia.
“Once I got to 25 [wins],” McLain said, “all I had to do was stay healthy. I played on the best club in baseball. They were great players who knew how to play the game. They were pulling for me to win 30 because that was them also winning 30. If you stayed committed, which we did, good things will happen. It was a pretty wild club, but disciplined, always ready to play.”
One of his teammates, Dick McAuliffe, from nearby Farmington, who died in 2016, played 151 games in 1968, led the league with 95 runs scored, and did not ground into a single double play.
“Unbelievable player,” McLain said. “The guy could really run. Played great second base, great gentleman, loved playing the game. He lived to play the game every day. That’s all he wanted to do was play, play, play, play.”
McLain pounded the table when he recalls the pitches Jackson hit for homers in his 30th win, especially the second homer. “I got so damn bull-headed after the first one,” he said. “I did something I didn’t normally do: I made one very bad pitch, and I never should have thrown that [bleepin’] pitch.”
Al Kaline hit for McLain and walked to start the ninth, and the Tigers won the game on Willie Horton’s walk-off hit. The pitch to Mantle four days later was different; the Tigers had a 6-1 lead and had clinched the pennant. McLain let Mantle know what was coming and threw fastballs down the middle until he drove one into the seats at Tiger Stadium, the 535th and second-to-last of his career.
“There would have been no deal made of it,” McLain said, “if I don’t [mess] around a little bit. No one would have known anything. But I saw one picture, and I had a smile on my face. He was my idol, him and Al Kaline. Mantle epitomized the game for me. He was the game for me. he He was my hero, my iconic guy that meant everything good about the game.”
During the controversy, New York sports writer Red Smith wrote, “When you’ve bought 534 drinks in the same saloon, you’re entitled to one on the house.”
The 1968 season has been called The Year of the Pitcher because of the mind-boggling numbers posted by McLain and others, including Bob Gibson of the Cardinals, who matched up with McLain in the World Series, in which the Tigers came from a 3-1 deficit to win. After that, the mound was lowered for 1969, the designated hitter came in 1973, and five-man rotations, innings and pitch limits have lengthened careers, but made the complete game nearly extinct and have put 30-win seasons out of reach. McLain is the only man to accomplish it since Dizzy Dean in 1934, and no one has come closer than 27 since.
“In the game they’re playing today, it changes every time you’re out there,” McLain said, pounding the table again. “How can you expect to win 15 or 20 games if you’re only pitching five or six innings? The game starts in the seventh inning. It’s crazy what they’re doing to the pitchers.”