Unfortunately when Denny McLain’s name is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is the former Tiger pitcher’s two stints in federal prison.
It’s a shame, especially when you consider that what he did during the 1968 and 1969 seasons is something that will probably never be duplicated.
It also explains why his career was shortened and why he possibly went down a very shaky path as he tried to make a quick buck or two while keeping his competitive adrenaline juices going.
In 1968 and 1969, while winning two consecutive Cy Young Awards, Dennis Dale McLain had a combined 55-15 record while throwing 51 complete games and 15 shutouts in 661 innings. Yes, I wrote 51 complete games, 15 shut outs, and 661 innings pitched. May I strongly suggest again, that the way pitchers are used today, McLain’s back to back seasons will never be matched and certainly it is very unlikely anyone will win 30 or more games. (It’s now been 41 years since Denny led the Tigers to the World Series with his 31-6 record in 1968.)
Due to the number of innings he pitched, towards the end of ’68, McLain started to receive cortisone shots and his magical arm soon turned to rubber.
McLain’s star fell faster than his rising fastball. His story could have been made into a made-for-TV movie.
In 1970 he was suspended for several months by Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn during an investigation into his involvement with a bookmaking operation. After being reinstated for the second half of the season, McLain was suspended a week by the Tigers for dumping ice water on two Detroit sports writers and then for the balance of the season by Kuhn for carrying a gun on the team plane. That same year, McLain filed for personal bankruptcy having squandered his earnings on speculative businesses, expensive tastes, and by the mishandling of his affairs by a local attorney.
Traded to Washington after the 1970 baseball campaign, the sore armed hurler was out of baseball by 1973 at age 29.
McLain briefly tried his hand at broadcasting, sold television sets, hustled golf bets, and became a partner in a mortgage company in Florida. In 1979 the McLain’s Florida home burned to the ground and all their personal possessions were lost.
By 1985 McLain was convicted of racketeering, extortion, and cocaine possession. Sentenced to 23 years in prison, he was released in 1987 after serving 2 ½ years when an appeals court ruled he had not received a fair trial. When the government reindicted him, he entered a plea bargain for five years probation.
Upon returning to Detroit, McLain played the organ at a supper club, and did autograph shows to help make ends meet. Soon the ever charming but brash Chicago native parlayed a successful radio talk show on WXYT which paid him handsomely.
And then tragedy once again struck the McLain family.
In October 1993, his eldest daughter Kristin was killed in an automobile accident by a drunk driver. Three months after Kristin’s death, McLain and Smigiel purchased Peet Packing and he was soon on his way to another prison term.
When I interviewed McLain for a Detroit Free Press article when he left prison in 2003, he had expressed a desire to return to broadcasting but to date the opportunity never came his way. He still lives in the Detroit area with his long time devoted wife Sharyn.
For me, I will always fondly remember Denny’s high kick delivery, how fast he worked, the home run ball he served up as a gift to Mickey Mantle in the Yankee great’s last Tiger Stadium appearance and the supreme confidence he had in himself.
Former Tiger Jim Northrup offered this gem to me about McLain a few years ago:
“Denny had given up a couple of hits and Mayo Smith (manager) walked to the mound. Denny had his back to him, and when Mayo reached the mound Denny said, ‘what the f*** are you doing here? Get out of here. No one you have out in the bullpen is better than I am. Sure enough, Mayo walked back to the dugout.”
As Ernie Harwell wrote in his song about number 17: “Denny McLain, Denny McLain, there’s never been any like Denny McLain.”