Denny McLain did it all in his big league debut

Denny McLain called his autobiography “I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect,” which tells you a lot about his life.

McLain, who still haunts the Detroit area and co-hosts a sports podcast that’s pretty damn good, has lived a wildly interesting life. Few people have inhaled the air at the summit and also smelled the stench in the pits. McLain has been both hero and villain over the course of his 75+ years.

In 1968, McLain won 31 games, which is more than most pitchers start in today’s game. He completed 28 games and tossed six shutouts, won the Cy Young, and also won the Most Valuable Player Award. Most of you know, the Tigers won the World Series that year, with Denny getting a win in Game Six of the Fall Classic. He won another Cy Young Award in 1969.

McLain ended up suspended by Major League Baseball for associations with gamblers, and won a total of 17 games after the age of 26. His years after baseball were filled with adversity, some of his own making, some, such as the tragic death of his daughter in a car accident, placed upon him by the creator of the universe. Through it all, to Denny’s credit, kept moving forward, even through a long illness to his wife. Say what you will about Denny (and many have) but McLain has always been a relatable guy, even through it all.

McLain’s big league debut gave notice that something special was on its way. And it happened more than fifty years ago at The Corner in Detroit.

In 1963, McLain was 19 years old with the ability to shoot rapid-fire fastballs from his right arm. It’s not often that a teenager gets a chance to pitch in the major leagues, but McLain’s talent was obvious.

“He can pitch or we wouldn’t give him a shot in our rotation,” general manager Jim Campbell told The Sporting News.

McLain’s first big league start came against the White Sox, the team that first signed him to a professional contract. McLain was born in Marham, Illinois, and grew up cheering for the great Sox pitchers of the 1950s, including Early Wynn and Billy Pierce, a Detroit native.

Only days after his high school graduation, McLain was signed by the Sox. But the team had a logjam on their 40-man roster and waived him a year later. One of Detroit’s midwest scouts had graded McLain with high marks and quickly suggested the Tigers snatch him up, which they did. Denny made only 28 starts in the minor leagues and went 18-6 before the Tigers summoned him to The Show at the tail end of the 1963 season.

“We weren’t going anywhere,” star pitcher Jim Bunning recalled, “and the team called up all these young prospects to finish off the season with about a week to go. Denny was one of them.

“He was a little off, always a little different,” Bunning said, “he wore his hat low and he had these thick glasses. I didn’t think he could see where to throw the baseball.”

On September 21, manager Chuck Dressen placed the ball under McLain’s cap in the clubhouse before a Saturday afternoon game against the White Sox. How bad were the Tigers that year? Only 4,291 fans walked through the turnstiles at Tiger Stadium for the game. That left about 45,000 empty seats. A lot of folks missed out on a great major league debut.

21-year old Bill Freehan was in the clubhouse that day, and so was the hometown hero, 20-year old Willie Horton. Across the room was 22-year old pitcher Mickey Lolich, a happy lefty from Oregon who made his big league debut four months earlier.

“A lot of us had played together in the minor league system,” Freehan recalled. “but I didn’t know Denny until he came up to Detroit. He was one of the younger guys, [though] Willie and Mickey [Stanley] and Jim Northrup all told me he could pitch.”

McLain took the mound wearing uniform #34, twice what he would later make famous, #17 in his superstar days. No one really knew what to expect, and Dressen made sure to start veteran catcher Gus Triandos instead of Freehan, to provide guidance to the green rookie.

If you never saw McLain pitch, you missed a unique delivery. He reared back in a rocking motion and lifted both arms above his head to slingshot himself toward home plate. He kicked his left leg extremely high in the air, as high as anyone since. It looked as if he was climbing onto a tall bicycle. The leg kick was reminiscent of earlier star pitchers like Satchel Paige, Bob Feller, and the great Lefty Grove. When his arm came forward, McLain’s upper body shot toward home plate, so much so that frequently his had would slip to the side of his head.

There were so few fans at the ballpark that afternoon that Denny could probably eavesdrop in individual conversations. In the first inning he walked leadoff man Mike Hershberger, but a moment later he showed the Sox that he couldn’t be rattled. While Hershberger danced off first base, McLain calmly paused at his set motion, before rocketing a pickoff throw to first baseman Norm Cash to record the out and erase the runner from the bases. A polite applause came from the sparse Tiger Stadium gathering.

Using a lively fastball and slider combination, McLain struck out the next two batters in the first and retreated to the dugout, any butterflies settling in his stomach. The Sox didn’t get their first hit until the third, but McLain never really got into a jam in the early innings. It wasn’t until the fifth that the young pitcher was shaken a bit: a triple by Buford over the head of center fielder Bill Bruton scored the game’s first run. But Denny wouldn’t trail for long, and he made sure of that himself.

In the bottom of the fifth, McLain came to the plate to face Chicago hurler Fritz Ackley, a big farm boy from Wisconsin also making his big league debut. Ackley got a fastball out over the plate and Denny hit it into the lower deck seats in left field, about two feet over the screen.

“I always thought of myself as a decent hitter,” McLain said years later in an interview with Eli Zaret. “I wasn’t an automatic out.”

It was probably hard for Denny to keep a smile from crossing his face as he circled the bases with a home run in his first big league game, and only his second at-bat. The homer tied the game at 1-1 and helped Denny feel a little more comfortable.

“[When] I got back to the dugout after [hitting the home run] I felt like I belonged a little bit more,” Denny said. “The old guys on the team were patting me on the back, and it felt good.”

He must have felt really good a few pitches later when Bruton smacked a home run to right field to give Denny and the Tigs a 2-1 lead. An inning later, a sacrifice fly made it 3-1 and that helped Denny calm down.

“When you’re pitching at Tiger Stadium with Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash and all these guys you’ve heard about in the dugout, you don’t think it’s real,” McLain said, “but once I got a lead and the game started to get along, it started to feel like any other game, and I knew I could win it.”

But the White Sox had other plans, and in the eighth the top of the order sparked a two-run rally to tie the score. Old Man Dressen sat on his hands and let the kid pitch, refusing to remove Denny even after he lost his lead. McLain squirmed out of trouble by getting a popout to end the threat. A special teammate took care of him in the next half inning.

“Norm Cash became one of my favorite people on the team,” Denny said later, “and on my first start he made me love him when he hit a big fly at Tiger Stadium.”

In the bottom of the eighth, Stormin’ Norman turned on a fastball and lofted a high fly into the lower deck in right field to break the tie. No one was happier than Denny to see the big first baseman trotting around the bases. And when Dressen pointed at him to go out for the ninth, McLain was ready. He retired three Chicago pinch-hitters, the last two by strikeout, to finish off a complete game victory.

McLain struck out eight and walked four while allowing seven hits in the 4-3 win, the first of 117 games he would win wearing the Old English D. He blasted a home run in his debut, ironically the only homer he would hit in his entire career. It was an excellent coming out party. The following season he made 16 starts, and the next year he won 16. In 1968 he won 31 and followed it with 24 more in 1969. He was on top of the baseball world, though his quick tumble would soon follow.

Denny didn’t finish his career the way he hoped for, but for a major league debut, few Tigers have ever had as great a day as McLain when he used his arm and his bat to beat the White Sox in 1963.

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