50 years ago today Denny McLain made his stellar MLB debut

As a 19-year old, Denny McLain made a big impression in his first major league game, hitting a home run and pitching the Tigers to victory.

As a 19-year old, Denny McLain made a big impression in his first major league game, hitting a home run and pitching the Tigers to victory.

Fifty years ago today on September 21, 1963 at Tiger Stadium, 19-year old Denny McLain made one of the greatest debuts in major league history.

In front of just 4,000 fans, the teenager picked off two base runners, hit the only home run of his major league career in his first official at bat, and threw a complete game seven-hitter in a 4-3 victory over the White Sox.

“I was scared to death until I walked out on the field,” McLain recently told me in an interview for Baseball Digest. “I’m a teenager, had barely been outside of Chicago, and I’m out there with Al Kaline, Norm Cash, and Rocky Colavito. I walked the first batter – Mike Hershberger – on four pitches and then picked him off first, and the next inning I picked off Don Buford. The home run I hit shocked the hell out of me. Kaline sat down next to me and said, ‘This league is kind of easy isn’t it?’”

Although he grew up in Markham, Illinois, McLain was recruited to play baseball with a full scholarship at Mt. Carmel High School in Chicago where he led his team to three city championships. After turning down a scholarship at the University of Notre Dame, the 18-year old signed with his hometown White Sox for $7,000 and a $10,000 bonus just days after graduating from high school in June of 1962.

Two weeks later, McLain made a spectacular professional debut with the Harlan Smokies of the Appalachian League when he threw a no-hitter while striking out 16 batters.

Although promptly promoted to the next level, during spring training in 1963 the Tigers selected him off waivers. Under baseball rules at the time, players with one year of service in the minors were subject to waivers if not promoted to the big leagues and McLain lost out on a roster spot to pitcher Bruce Howard after a winner take all pitching duel in an intra-squad game.

McLain quickly rose through the Detroit system before embarking on his Tiger career where he became one of the most dominant pitchers in the last half of the 1960s.

Three years after his debut and after starting the ’66 campaign with a 13-4 mark, McLain was chosen to start the All-Star game where he faced Sandy Koufax and experienced one of his greatest baseball thrills.

On 28 pitches, the Tiger hurler retired all nine batters he faced. He not only struck out Joe Torre, he also fanned Hank Aaron and Willie Mays who were both caught looking.

In one of the most remarkable seasons ever produced by a pitcher, forty-five years ago he became the last pitcher to win 30 or more games while leading the Tigers to a World Championship and capturing the American League Cy Young and MVP awards.

With his cap brim tilted down, and his high kick, McLain was an imposing figure on the mound as he challenged hitters with his sneaky-fast rising fastball that would paint the corners and make a fool of the best hitters in the game.

Just 24 years old and pitching in his sixth big league season, the numbers McLain produced in ’68 are astonishing, especially compared with starting pitchers today who have fewer starts, pitch count limits, and relief specialists who enter virtually every game.

McLain finished 1968 with a 31-6 record, a 1.96 ERA, 28 complete games, six shutouts and an astounding 336 innings pitched. In 1968 and 1969 he produced a combined 55-15 record while throwing 51 complete games and 15 shutouts in 661 innings.

McLain will be the first to say that he paid the price for those statistics. He finished the ’68 season with a sore arm that had been covered up by numerous cortisone shots and he received even more shots for the 1969 campaign.

Although he would win a second consecutive Cy Young Award as a co-winner with Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar in ‘69, three years later the 28-year old would be out of baseball with a sore arm that he had struggled with for much of his career.

Rest assured there will never be another 30-game winner considering pitchers now have fewer starts, pitch count limits, and relief specialists who enter virtually every game.

You will also be hard pressed to find a starting pitcher who has a major league debut as impressive as the one Dennis Dale McLain produced a half century ago.

11 replies on “50 years ago today Denny McLain made his stellar MLB debut

  • David

    What a sad story, most certainly sadder than that of another Tiger pitching phenom Mark Fidrych. What a waste of talent and what a wasted life in McLain’s case. When I think of all the people he hurt and all of the people he was able to cheat because of his celebrity it makes me sad. Nevertheless I admit to having an autographed 8×10 photo of Mclain in his high leg kick, an autographed rookie card, an autographed baseball and the LP record album of Denny on the organ all in my man cave. I’ve bought and read his self-serving books, and the fella’s and I watch him win number 30 at MY wedding reception in 1968. For all of his faults, for those years in the late ’60s he was the most dominant pitcher in the AL. Imagine the kind of long term contract he might have signed after the ’69 season if it were after the 2009 season instead.

  • magold

    Thanks for a great article. I remember that game well. I was 10 years old at the time.

    The White Sox had three promising young pitchers in ’63; they could only protect two from the draft. In addition to McLain and Bruce Howard, they had a right-hander named Dave DeBusschere, who made the majors and won a few games before giving up baseball. Wonder what ever happened to him?

  • Rick

    Hey Bill great story about a glorious time in Tiger history! I was and still am a HUGE McLain fan. Yes he had his issues but like the old saying goes “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. I wonder how many people know about the passing of his father at a young age and how it was handled? This is not to make excuses for him. He did what he did but I believe he has also paid the price for his sins. Back to the late 60’s a time when he was one of the most dominate pitcher’s and certainly the most entertaining in all of baseball. Much like the bashing that J.V. is getting it was all too easy for people to bash Denny after his demise but when he was on top EVERYBODY loved him! I have had the privilege to meet Denny at a few card shows over the year’s and find him kind and generous with his time. I guess we can blame management for ruining his arm having him take all those cortisone shots but I’m also sure he probably did it willingly. Bill your right there will never be another 30 game winner heck there will never be another pitcher throw 300 innings or 20 complete games. The golden era of Gibson, Seaver, Palmer, Hunter, Marichal, Koufax, Drysdale, Lolich, Perry and I know I’m forgetting some but those days are gone forever! Thanks for a great reminder of the past and a truly great time in baseball!

  • Bill

    I also remember him coming into a game as a reliever and tying the record for consecutive strikeouts to begin a relief appearance, something like 6 or 7. That was probably the year before he became a full time starter. He was one guy I watched whenever he was on tv and learned how to use control and changing speeds to be more effective. If you can ever hear him on radio interviews he is one of the best authorities on baseball and very entertaining.

  • Randy

    While growing up my brother and I always disagreed on our favorite Tigers. He liked Kaline, I liked Horton. He liked McLain, I liked Earl Wilson. But at 57 years old now I have never seen a pitcher dominate the way McLain did in 68. A truly remarkable feat when you consider the pitching stars of the 60s. They include some of the most dominating pitchers of all time. McLain didn’t have the longevity that many of the greats of his era had but none of the others approached the season McLain had in 68 either.

  • David Ehrart

    After he retired–He embezzled millions from his employees in Flint, Michigan==Have no respect for this convicted felon.

  • J.D.

    Was in attendance when Dr. Denny won #30. Greatest individual baseball achievement of my lifetime (far eclipsing Cabbage Patch’s triple crown). As Ernie penned in his tribute song: “There ain’t been many like Denny McLain”!!!

  • john

    he DESTROYED the lives of many people–and it wasn’t just one incident or misunderstanding. He is a lowlife– don’t care how good he was on the mound.

  • Patrick Warchol

    I met his nephew at one time and he said that along with an arm injury he had, denny was starting to gain too much weight and that impacted his stamina that is very important for a pitcher.

  • John Bartony

    His first game was on TV. It was a Saturday afternoon game and I watched the game in wonderful black and white. The Sox started a rookie pitcher by the name of Fritz Ackley. I will always remember reading that Charlie Dressen, the Tiger skipper, observed McLain warming up in the Tiger bullpen. He sensed that the Tiger made a major coupe by getting McLain by then saying to some of his coaches, “We just caught lightning in a bottle.”

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