It wasn’t even the biggest sports story in town.
Instead, it was the Detroit Lions who were generating most of the headlines on September 15, 1971. The day before, they had released popular Alex Karras after a 12-year career in Honolulu Blue and Silver. It seemed like that was all the news media wanted to talk about.
But there was still a baseball season going on, although the second-place Detroit Tigers really weren’t going anywhere at 9 1/2 games back. There was a certain intrigue that Wednesday evening at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. The lowly Washington Senators had arrived, and so had Denny McLain. It was exactly three years and a day since he had won his 30th game of the 1968 season at The Corner. But those three years seemed more like thirty. Times were different. On this particular night, Denny’s record stood at 10-19. One more loss and he would be just another 20-game loser.
It was Denny’s third game at Tiger Stadium in ’71. On May 23, he had dueled his old teammate Mickey Lolich, who threw a complete-game four-hit shutout, while McLain gave up four runs in seven innings of work. That had been a highly-anticipated game, with over 50,000 fans packing the rafters at Tiger Stadium to see their prodigal son make his first appearance in Detroit since his off-season trade to Washington. It seemed just like old times. Denny McLain could always be counted on to draw a big crowd.
He pitched a second game in Detroit on August 3, before 22,171. In a strong performance, Denny went eight innings, giving up two runs, for only his sixth win of the summer.
It had been a rough year for McLain. His shoulder hurt, and he didn’t get along with his manager, Ted Williams (yes, that Ted Williams). A nine-game losing streak beginning in May set the tone for the season. McLain would have liked to sue the Senators for non-support (they scored a total of ten runs in the nine games). But the fact was his ERA during the streak was 6.13. When told that the two pitchers who hold the major league record for defeats in a season both pitched for Washington, McLain quipped, “It figures.” For Denny, D.C. wasn’t fun in ’71.
Only 8,066 fans made their way to Tiger Stadium for the September game. Frank Howard put the Senators on board in the first with a double, driving in Don Nelson. In the Detroit first, McLain gave up a solo homer to, ironically, Aurelio Rodriguez. The slick-fielding Rodriguez had been one of the players the Tigers had acquired from Washington in the package deal for McLain.
In the fourth, walks to Norm Cash and Bill Freehan, and a single by Mickey Stanley, plated two tallies for the home team. Washington’s Del Unser homered in the fifth to tie the game, before Detroit pulled ahead the next inning when Denny walked Norm Cash with the bases loaded.
Jim Northrup homered in the sixth, to make it Detroit 4, Senators 2, and that was all the scoring for the Tigers off their old teammate. McLain was removed for a pinch-hitter to start the seventh. His line score on the night: six innings, six hits, four runs (all earned), four walks, four strikeouts, and two homers allowed. The Tigers’ Joe Coleman went the distance, surrendering two runs for his 18th win. Denny suffered the loss, his 20th of the season. It would be his final appearance on the mound at Tiger Stadium.
He admitted that losing 20 games was a mild shock, but he had seen it coming since mid-summer. Lolich, who had lost 19 the previous season, admitted he felt sympathy for the former ’68 hero. Even Williams had to agree that McLain probably didn’t deserve his fate, that it was a bum rap. “He pitched well enough to win, he had good stuff, maybe as good as he has had all season. It’s a shame. We just don’t seem to get him any runs.”
McLain finished the 1971 campaign with a record of 10-22, and an un-Cy-Young-like ERA of 4.28. Much of his bad season was the result of tough luck. In 16 of his losses, the Senators scored two runs or less. That he lost so many games is even more amazing when one considers he missed nearly all of July with arm woes.
McLain pitched his last season in the majors in 1972, toiling for the Oakland A’s and Atlanta Braves, winning four while losing seven, with a 6.37 ERA. The post-Detroit years were not kind to Denny, in many ways.