It was 41 years ago today that Denny McLain won his 30th victory of the 1968 season before a national television audience and 44,000 fans at Tiger Stadium. He would finish the Tigers’ World Championship season with a remarkable 31-6 record, 1.96 ERA, 28 complete games, and 280 strikeouts. Of course, Denny was the runaway winner of the Cy Young Award in the American League. (The following season he shared the honor with Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar.)
A time span of 34 years had passed since the Cardinals’ ace Dizzy Dean had won 30 games for the Gas House Gang, and old Diz came to Tiger Stadium to witness McLain’s effort to tie his mark.
An upstart young power hitting right fielder for Oakland nearly spoiled the party.
The game was scoreless until the fourth when Reggie Jackson, playing in his first full major league season, sliced a two run homer into the right field seats that created a collective groan throughout the ballpark.
But in the bottom of the fourth, Stormin Norman Cash drilled a three run shot into the right field seats giving Denny and the Bengals a 3-2 lead. But the excitement quickly vanished when the A’s tied the score in the 5th before Reggie Jackson hit another homer to give Oakland a 4-3 lead in the sixth.
But as so often happened in that magical ’68 campaign, the Tigers got out of their cage just when you thought they had been trapped.
At the start of the bottom of the ninth, Tiger manager Mayo Smith inserted Al Kaline to pinch hit for McLain, who had thrown a six hitter.
Kaline walked but then Dick McAuliffe popped out in front of the Tiger dugout. Mickey Stanley then singled as Kaline raced to third as the crowd roared.
Jim Northrup bounced the ball to first baseman Danny Cater who threw it wildly past catcher Dave Duncan as Kaline slid violently into home. Kaline, trying to make sure he touched the plate, crawled back on his hands and knees and frantically touched home to make sure he had just tied the game.
With Stanley on third, the scored tied at 4-4, and one out, up stepped slugger Willie Horton as the Oakland outfield was pulled in to make a play at the plate.
Talk about exciting.
As a thirteen year old, I was on my hands and knees in front of my television set imploring Willie The Wonder to come through.
As reported by Detroit News writer Jerry Green, Dizzy Dean leaned on the rail near the Tiger dugout and mumbled within earshot of the photographers and writers “ain’t this thrillin.”
On an 0-2 count, Horton hit a deep fly ball over the head of pulled in leftfielder and Port Huron native Jim Gosger. As the ball rolled to the barrier Stanley scored giving McLain his 30th victory.
With Kaline’s arms wrapped around McLain, the twosome bounded out of the dugout seat only to bump their heads on the dugout ceiling.
The ballpark rocked as writers and photographers surrounded Denny.
Dean came onto to the field to congratulate McLain while NBC’s Sandy Koufax, interviewed Denny who thanked Diz., his teammates, and the fans.
The huge crowd chanting “We want Denny” would not leave the ballpark until number 17 came out of the locker room for a final curtain call.
As many baseball experts have stated, with the way pitchers are used today compared to McLain’s time, it is quite possible that we may not see another 30 game winner.
1968 was the Year of the Tiger, but it is also the year Dennis Dale McLain could have been elected President.