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Cooperstown Experience and Player Profile 9,789: Denny McLain

With the news that the National Baseball Hall of Fame will not be holding the annual Awards Presentation and Induction Ceremony in front of baseball fans at the traditional Clark Sports Center location for the second consecutive year, I thought it would be a good time to look back at the 2018 Baseball Induction Weekend when life felt more normal.

On July 28th, 2018 the town of Cooperstown was buzzing. The day before the Induction Ceremony there was a Hall of Fame Parade and the whole day leading up to that were former baseball players and personalities on every corner and sidewalk. At that time, I was not experienced in autograph signings and I was not prepared with multiple baseballs and pens or sharpies. I started to realize that some people are very prepared. When I started walking through the Museum, the guy in front of me looking at the displays with his young son was White Sox All-Star First Baseman Paul Konerko. I didn’t even notice until some guy threw a baseball at him for him to sign. This was my first inkling that this is a special weekend at Cooperstown. I did not feel right asking him for a picture and I didn’t have any baseballs to sign, but I remember how cool it was that he was spending time with his kid and enjoying the Museum, just taking in the displays like everyone else.

One good thing about this particular weekend was that there were several teams being represented for Induction Weekend with the Detroit Tigers having two members (Jack Morris and Alan Trammell) added to their Hall of Fame roster. This brought out several former players, and they were signing autographs and greeting fans along Main Street.

While I was standing in line for Lou Whitaker‘s autograph, I saw that there were two former players behind a table with some books and balls in front of them. There were no name plates or signs distinguishing who they were. Because they didn’t have a line of people waiting for their autograph, I figured that they were not famous or all star caliber. However, as I started moving down the line I began to recognize one of the players. He has a distinct look and then he started pointing towards me. I should note that the T-Shirt that I was wearing said, “Hall of Fame Justice Checklist: Morris (check), Trammell (check), Whitaker (unchecked)”. I created this T-Shirt a couple of days before leaving so that I could wear it during the Induction Ceremony. I did not know that Lou Whitaker would be there signing autographs.

So the person who was pointing at my shirt and talking to me was Darrell Evans. I started realizing this when he stood up and it began to click in my head who this guy was. I recognized him from baseball cards from the 1980’s sets and I know that he was a good ballplayer. The one stat that sticks out to me was from his 1986 Donruss card. It said that he became the 1st player ever to hit 40 HR in each league as well as the oldest player to win AL HR title in 1985. He pointed at my shirt and he said, “I agree. All of us who played with him (Whitaker) thought he was a Hall of Famer. I like the shirt.” This was a real cool moment for me since it really was completely unexpected. I will post more about this experience at a different time.

The other guy that was sitting next to Darrell Evans was Denny McLain. I did not recognize him. I had seen pictures of him with the 1968 Tigers Championship team, but did not know what he looked like recently. The only thing I knew about him outside of his 30-win season was that he spent time in jail. It’s safe to say that he has gained some weight since his playing days. Since there wasn’t a line for them, they were very approachable and I will say that these are the moments to actually be able to ask players questions and get pictures. The other big name players charge for photos and have too big of a line to be able to stop and talk to everyone. But for me, both Darrell Evans and Denny McLain had historic careers.

On this day, 58 years ago on April 8th, 1963 – the Tigers claimed Denny McLain on first-year waivers from the Chicago White Sox. Nearly a decade before the amateur draft as we know it today, Major League Baseball instituted the First-Year Player Draft in an effort to reduce signing bonuses to prospects.

Denny’s story is not really a happy one. He is basically known for two things: being the last 30-game winner in MLB and spending time in prison.

McLain’s condensed story is this. He was born on March 29, 1944 on Chicago’s South Side. He led Mount Carmel High School to back-to-back championships in his junior and senior years. He signed with the Chicago White Sox after graduating from high school in 1962. McLain pitched a no-hitter in his first pro start. McLain threw a no-hitter that first night for Harlan, blanking Salem, 3-0, while striking out 16. He struck out 16 in his next start and, though he lost, he didn’t allow an earned run in 18 innings. According to milb.com, The headline across the top of the front page of the local sports section read “McLean tosses No-Hitter as Smokies Whip Salem 9-0.” They had spelled his name wrong in the headline and throughout the story. In addition, the writer of the story, whose name didn’t appear on the page, seemed just as excited about Nanci Bowling — Miss Kentucky 1962 — being in attendance as he did about witnessing a no-hitter in the Smokies’ home opener, mentioning her in the same sentence at the top of the story.

Oddly enough, McLain served more than six years in the McLean Federal Correctional Institution in Bradford, Pa., until he was released in 2003. But I digress…

When McLain was moved up to Clinton of the Midwest League, the Tigers were scouting the state of Iowa at the time. As the story goes, apparently one scout decided to flip a coin to decide which direction to take: Clinton or Burlington. The scout ended up in Clinton where he saw McLain pitch, and told the Tigers that if he were to become available, the Tigers should claim him.

The White Sox chose to protect the investment they made in Dave DeBusschere at the time, leaving Denny McLain unprotected. Looking at the stats of the two players back then, DeBuscherre went 10-1 with a 2.49 ERA in the minors and McLain went 5-8 with a 2.97 ERA in the minors in 1962. McLain had the edge in strikeouts and a better K/BB ratio though. McLain was also only 18 years old and DeBusschere was 21 years old. DeBusschere did pitch for the White Sox briefly, but ultimately ended up in the Basketball Hall of Fame playing for the New York Knicks.

The Tigers claimed Denny McLain on first-year waivers in 1963.

Denny McLain was the 9,789th player in the history of Major League Baseball. He pitched a complete game in his big league debut against the White Sox picking up his 1st career major league victory. Also, in the 5th inning, he hit his first and only MLB home run against Fritz Ackley. The Tigers defeated the White Sox, 4-3.

A few days after the 1963 season, Denny married Sharyn Boudreau. She was the daughter of Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau.

In 1964, Denny was sent to the minors where he pitched in Syracuse. He finished with a record of 4-5 for the Tigers in a injury-shortened season. During the winter, he pitched for the Mayagüez Indians in the Puerto Rico Baseball League, where he posted a 13–2 record and helped the Indians win the league championship.

In 1965, Denny learned to throw a curveball and changeup and really started showing improvement. On June 15th, McLain set a major-league record for relief pitchers (until Ron Davis in 1981), when he struck out the first seven batters he faced after entering the game in the first inning to relieve starting pitcher Dave Wickersham. His record for the year was 16-6 with a 2.61 ERA.

Around this time is when McLain began to bet on horses. His manager Chuck Dressen helped spur his interest. Throughout his life, he had an obsession with gambling. This obsession would lead to him eventually falling in with the wrong crowd. Apparently, his idol was Frank Sinatra. Not so much for his singing, but his attitude, wealth and power.

One other thing about Denny McLain that is unrelated to baseball, he was an accomplished organist. I did not know this about him. When he cracked a joke about playing the organ, I thought it was just a dirty joke, but he actually does play the organ. He has a few records. One is called Denny McLain At the Organ / The Detroit Tigers’ Superstar Swings With Today’s Hits. It was released by Capitol Records in 1968.

In addition to headlining gigs in Las Vegas and flying his own airplane, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968 shortly after the World Series. Bob Gibson joins him on the guitar towards the end of the video.

Back to baseball, in 1966 he won 20 games for the Tigers going 20-14 with a 3.92 ERA. He was named an All-Star for the first time. McLain had a 13–4 mid-season record and earned the role of American League starting pitcher in the 1966 All-Star Game, where he threw just 28 pitches to retire all nine batters that he faced. This was also the first year he would receive MVP votes. He finished 15th in the American League MVP voting behind his teammates Al Kaline, Norm Cash and Earl Wilson and ahead of Bill Freehan and Willie Horton.

In 1967, McLain pitched good but not great, finishing with a record of 17-16 and a 3.79 ERA. During the pennant race of 1967 is when his other life started to become apparent when he wasn’t able to pitch down the stretch. On September 18th, McLain reported that he had severely injured two toes on his left foot, saying that he had stubbed them after his foot had fallen asleep. In February 1970, Sports Illustrated reported on a story involving McLain and a bookmaking operation. According to the magazine’s sources, mobster Tony Giacolone met with McLain in early September 1967 and, while threatening much worse, brought his heel down on McLain’s toes and dislocated them.

Entering the final game of the season against the California Angels, the Tigers needed a win to force a one-game playoff with Boston for the American League pennant. McLain started and lasted only 2 2/3 innings giving up 4 hits and 3 earned runs in the final game. Detroit lost to finish the season one game behind Boston.

This would become the question for McLain and baseball lore. What if? What if Denny McLain had stayed healthy? What if he didn’t get involved with mobsters? What if he did stay involved with mobsters and had a Hall of Fame career? Would we be debating his Hall of Fame credentials and the character clause? Luckily or unluckily for Tigers fans, his star burned bright for about 4 1/2 seasons and fizzled out. 3 or 4 more quality seasons and he would have been a viable Hall of Fame candidate. The question at the end of 1967 is whether or not he purposefully pitched bad to avoid trouble with the mob.

In 1968, everything came together for Denny McLain and the Detroit Tigers. It was a great year for the old English D. Of the 27 players to receive MVP votes in the American League, 7 of them were Detroit Tigers including Dick McAuliffe, Jim Northrup and Mickey Stanley.

Denny McLain won 31 games in 1968, going 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA. He won both the MVP and Cy Young Awards. When I got Denny’s autograph in 2019 at a Charlotte Knights minor league ball game, I decided to get the box score from his 31st win in 1968 signed. I like this better than his 30th win because of the Mickey Mantle story.

McLain Barnes Charlotte Knights July 12, 2019
McLain and Barnes at Charlotte Knights
(July 12, 2019)

McLain grew up idolizing New York Yankee center fielder Mickey Mantle, who entered the game tied with Jimmie Foxx for third place on the Major League career home runs list. When Mantle batted in the eighth inning with the Tigers leading 6–1, McLain intentionally threw a fastball over home plate. Mantle hit the third pitch for his 535th career home run, putting him in sole possession of third place on the all-time home run list, behind only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays.

Here is Mickey Mantle’s version of the story:

The Joe Pepitone part of the story of him asking for a similar pitch only to be knocked down by a high fastball is another anecdote to the history books where McLain won his 31st game tying him with Lefty Grove who won 31 games in 1931.

Earlier, on September 14th at Tiger Stadium, McLain pitched Detroit to a 5–4 victory over the Oakland Athletics in front of a nationally televised audience to become Major League Baseball’s first 30-game winner since 1934. Dizzy Dean, the previous 30-game winner, was in attendance to congratulate him.

During the World Series in 1968, Denny McLain having already thrown 336 innings and 28 complete games during the regular season, did not fare as well in the postseason. He went 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA, losing twice to Bob Gibson. However, he did win Game 6 on two days rest. Mickey Lolich ended up winning three games during the Series including a complete game victory in the deciding Game 7.

In 1969, Major League Baseball decided to lower the mound from 15 inches to 10 inches. “The Major League ERA in 1968 was 2.98 — the 13th lowest since 1901, and the lowest since 1918. Since 1969, there have only been two seasons with a total MLB ERA below 3.50 — ’72 (3.26) and ’71 (3.46). In 2019, major league pitchers combined for a 4.49 ERA the 110th highest in the 117 years of Major League Baseball.

One thing you can’t say about Denny McLain is that the mound effected him in any way or that he was helped by the higher mound. In 1969, he arguably had an even better year than in 1968. At least by bWAR standards, he went from 7.4 WAR in 1968 to 8.1 WAR in 1969. Again winning the Cy Young Award and finishing 6th in MVP voting. He was 24-9 with a 2.80 ERA and a league leading 9 shutouts. The Tigers won 90 games that year finishing 2nd in the AL East. Denny McLain in Las Vegas was released by Capitol Records in 1969 as well.

Back to 1970 and the Sports Illustrated article involving McLain’s bookmaking activities. This is considered the downfall to his career. And to think he was only 25 years old when the SI article was published.

Downfall Timeline:

1970: Bowie Kuhn suspended Denny McLain from baseball for the first 3 months of the season after the Sports Illustrated story was published.
He was suspended 2 different times later in 1970; once for pouring buckets of water on sportswriters and then again for carrying a gun on a team flight.
1970 stats: 3-5 record with 4.63 ERA.
Later in 1970: McLain was forced into bankruptcy despite being the first $100,000 player in Detroit Tigers history. Meanwhile, McLain and his friend Jim Northrup co-schemed to make more money; they were back in Detroit furthering a plan that they shared to generate a nude baseball model calendar. These efforts eventually fell short.
October 9, 1970: Detroit traded McLain, Elliott Maddox, Norm McRae, and Don Wert to the Washington Senators for Joe Coleman, Eddie Brinkman, Jim Hannan, and Aurelio Rodríguez.

1971: McLain became a charter member of the “Underminers’ Club”, a group of five players dedicated to getting Ted Williams fired. Williams’ use of a then-unusual five-man rotation for his starters irritated McLain. Ironically, McLain’s arm trouble led to numerous cortisone shots.
1971 stats: 10-22 record with a 4.28 ERA with 9 complete games and 3 shutouts. Went from leading his league in wins (tied with Mike Cuellar with 24 wins in 1969) to two years later leading his league in losses. McLain’s 22 defeats (a mark later tied by three pitchers, all in 1974) remains the most in a major-league season since Jack Fisher of the Mets lost 24 in 1965.
After 1971 season: McLain was traded to the Oakland Athletics for Jim Panther and Don Stanhouse.

1972: After five starts, one win, and a 6.04 ERA, the Athletics sent him to the minor leagues on May 15th. On June 29th, Oakland traded him to the Atlanta Braves for Orlando Cepeda. His final major league appearance came on September 12th against Cincinnati. He came into a tied game in the ninth and gave up three runs without retiring a batter, taking the loss. As fate would have it, the last batter McLain ever faced in the major leagues was Pete Rose, who also was involved in a gambling scandal. Coincidentally, in 1969 McLain and Pete Rose co-authored an instructional booklet called “How to Play Better Baseball.”
1972 stats: 4-7 record with a 6.37 ERA and 2 complete games.

March 26, 1973: The Braves released McLain during spring training. After short stints with minor-league clubs in Des Moines and Shreveport, McLain retired. He was 29 years old.


Post Baseball Career:
After baseball, McLain continued to earn side money playing the organ. But he was also in and out of trouble for multiple criminal charges. He also endured a tragedy of losing his oldest daughter in a car accident.
In 1996, he was convicted on charges of embezzlement in connection with the theft of an employees’ pension fund. He spent six years in prison and to this day says he knew nothing of the financial deals. He also claims he paid restitution for this incident.

Going back to my Cooperstown experience, I remember just how he was sitting on the side of Main Street and people passing him probably not knowing who he is. Not a lot of fanfare, considering the number of people in Cooperstown that weekend. Maybe it is justified considering McLain’s sordid past.

For 40 dollars, I purchased a baseball with lots of inscriptions on it. I got a picture taken that I didn’t have to pay for and I remember him talking about the organ. Knowing what I know now, I might have asked him some more questions that day.
One thing is for sure, Denny McLain has a lot of inscriptions and lots of stories to tell. He included the Mickey Mantle 535th HR story on the autographed baseball. The next year when I saw him at the Charlotte Knights game, he had an assortment of memorabilia he was trying to sell, but again there was hardly any line to wait in. Which was great for me considering I was in a time crunch to get home.

The one thing I know is that you don’t have to be inside the Museum to have baseball history come alive. Sometimes it approaches you.

Sources:
Acocella, Nick. “From the big time to the big house“. espn.go.com. Retrieved April 8, 2021.

Blau, Clifford. “The Real First-Year Player Draft“. sabr.org. Retrieved April 8, 2021.

The Downfall of Denny McLain: McLain-Kuhn: The Prequel to Rose-Vincent“. baseballprospectus.com. Retrieved April 8, 2021.

Czerwinski, Kevin. “McLain was masterful in Appy League“. milb.com. Retrieved April 8, 2021.

Harris, Bruce. “September 19, 1968: Denny McLain wins 31st game, serves up milestone homer to Mickey Mantle“. sabr.org. Retrieved April 8, 2021.

TheCowboy. “Lower Tommy John Surgeries? Try Raising the Mound“. si.com. Retrieved April 8, 2021.

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