An oral history: Denny McLain, baseball’s last 30-game winner

Denny McLain was a polarizing figure as a player and in his post-baseball career.

Denny McLain was a polarizing figure as a player and in his post-baseball career.

It’s a tagline that follows the former pitcher around like a loose shirttail: Denny McLain, baseball’s last 30-game winner. It’s invariably used in any media account of his latest exploit and could very well wind up being chiseled on his tombstone. However, some observers aware of McLain’s antics and activities over the years feel the more appropriate appellation is baseball’s lost 30-game winner.

McLain’s well-documented rap sheet after leaving the game as a sore-armed minor leaguer in 1973 includes numerous felony convictions, bankruptcies, and two stints in federal prison. His soiled reputation has all but obscured his phenomenal pitching ability. It’s easy to forget that McLain once was one of the most dominant pitchers in the game, a two-time Cy Young Award winner and three-time All-Star who for a spell in the 1960s was racking up Hall-of-Fame numbers.

The pinnacle of his career, of course, was 1968. That summer the organ-playing 24-year-old right-hander recorded 31 wins, an accomplishment that grows more imposing over time. He remains the only pitcher in the last 79 years — since gunslinger Dizzy Dean with the 1934 Cardinals — to reach the magical 30-win mark. And it’s likely to be another 79 years before someone else does it. As former teammate Jim Northrup once pointed out, “These guys today don’t even start 30 games.”

In countless media interviews and autobiographies over the years, McLain has had his say. Partly because he is so glib and quotable, his contemporaries have rarely been asked for their take. With this past September marking the 45th anniversary of McLain’s 30th victory, as well as the 50th anniversary of his first big-league game, it seems as good a time as any to round up remarks from those who knew him his during his glory days and the troubled years that followed.

“Everything was over the top”
“Denny was my man,” said Gates Brown, who spent 13 seasons with the Tigers as an outfielder and one of the game’s premier pinch hitters. “I mean, I loved him. I just enjoyed watching that son-of-a-bitch pitch. It was the way he wore his hat and he had that nice high leg kick, everything was over the top — I mean, the man was cool. There were two dudes I liked to watch in uniform. Denny was one and Mickey Mantle was the other. It was the way they carried themselves. Those two I would pay to see.”

Brown, who passed away earlier this month, earned his nickname after a stint in the Ohio penitentiary. He was a rookie outfielder with the Tigers when McLain made his big-league debut on September 21, 1963, against Chicago in front of a sparse Saturday afternoon crowd of 4,291 at Tiger Stadium. Fritz Ackley, also making his first big-league appearance, started for the White Sox. It was quite a day for the 19-year-old McLain. He went the distance, scattering 7 hits, striking out 8, and picking off two base runners. He also hit his first– and last – home run in the fifth off Ackley. McLain’s error in the eighth inning helped the Chisox to two unearned runs, knotting the game at 3-3. But in the bottom of the frame, Norm Cash homered off Jim Brosnan to give McLain and the fifth-place Tigers a 4-3 win.

McLain’s victory was the first of the 131 he notched in 10 big-league seasons. He was 117-62 during 8 seasons with Detroit, then 14-29 the rest of the way with Washington, Oakland, and Atlanta. The zenith of his career were the back-to-back Cy Young Award seasons of 1968 and 1969. In those two seasons, he racked up a composite 55-15 record with an amazing 15 shutouts. Collectively, he threw 661 innings, completing 51 of 82 starts in those magical seasons. Small wonder his right arm was all but burned out by the time he was 26 years old.

“He was something special with his fastball,” Brown said. “I remember one at-bat, Carl Yastrzemski kept fouling off his fastballs and finally McLain struck Carl out. It was a hell of an at-bat. I said, ‘Carl, is that man really that tough?’ He said, ‘He’s a son-of-a-bitch. His fastball keeps riding in on you.’ Along with his speed Denny had damn good control. Wherever he released that ball, it stayed there. If he’d go for the outside corner, it wouldn’t ride back over the plate. And he didn’t fuck around on the mound. We’d be out of there in two hours or less. Guys like playing behind someone like that.

“We were a special group, those Tigers. We played hard, we fought hard, and we partied hard, but when we got in that uniform between the white lines it was all business. We put our differences aside and we had one objective — and that was to beat the opposition in any way, shape or form. Denny did stuff he wasn’t supposed to and Mayo Smith let him do it. I think some guys resented it but Mayo, as manager, was caught between a rock and a hard place. I mean, what are you gonna do? He’d pitch and win for us and, hell, he might not show up the next day. Then he’d show up again and win and disappear with his damned airplane.

“I think Denny liked living on the edge. There was just something about him that was mysterious, you know what I mean? He liked trying to outwit people. Hell, when I got out of jail, man, I didn’t think about doing anything wrong. Not Denny. There’s something about him, you can’t dislike him for some reason. He’ll screw you over, come up with some excuse, and you’ll still end up liking him.

“I wasn’t really surprised when his career went downhill because, dammit, look at the way he pitched. He never missed his turn, he just kept pitching. That man was pitching over 300 innings a season. These guys pitch 200 innings nowadays and think they’re doing something.”

“I’d like to grab him and shake him up really good”
Hal Naragon, now living in retirement in Barberton, Ohio, was the Tigers’ bullpen coach from 1967 to 1970. The pitching coach was the brilliant Johnny Sain, who most observers insist had more to do with the team’s success than journeyman manager Mayo Smith.

“Denny was a good pitcher before we got there — just look at his record — but John and I thought he could improve his breaking ball,” Naragon said. “Denny had an overhand curve and a live fastball that got in on you in a hurry. John thought he would be a little more successful if he also threw a shorter curve because with the overhand curve it reduces your strike zone. That is, the bigger the curve, the harder it is to put it over the plate for strikes. He picked up on the short curve rather quickly.

“John always liked his pitchers to pitch fast, like Denny, if they could. He felt it kept the fielders on their toes and helped the pitcher get into a rhythm. I don’t think Denny really gets enough credit for what an outstanding pitcher he was. He was a very willing worker. He was a pitcher and not just a thrower. It’s doubtful that in today’s game someone will win 30 games again.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Denny and his teammates because, I want to tell you, they played hard and they were close. Denny was his own man, but I thought as long as he did his job and didn’t stop anyone else from doing their job, I didn’t have a problem.

“I remember when Denny was going for his 20th win against Baltimore [in 1968] and he said, ‘If we win I’m going to throw a party.’ Mayo Smith said, ‘Wait a minute, Denny, we have an afternoon game tomorrow.’ And Denny said, ‘Do you like managing this club?’ A lot of guys could’ve said that and it wouldn’t have gone over so good, but when Denny said it a lot of people laughed.

“One time Mayo came out to the mound to take Denny out. He said, ‘Now, Denny, you’ve done a good job…’ and before he could finish Denny interrupted him. ‘You’re right, Mayo,’ he said. ‘Now get the hell out of here and let me finish.’ It tells you the type of pitcher he was.

“At the time I thought he probably would wind up in the Hall of Fame. He had a lot of things going for him. It hurts to see any of your teammates have problems, and of course with Denny’s situation you just shake your head and ask, ‘Why, why, why?’ I like Denny, but I don’t approve of what he’s done. Sometimes I thought I’d just like to grab him and shake him up really good.”

“I got no use for him”
Jon Warden was a 21-year-old rookie in the bullpen in 1968, his only season in the bigs. “As far as pitching, you want a guy on the mound, Denny was your guy,” said Warden. “He was money. He could throw the ball through the eye of a needle. He pitched quick, the guys played well behind him, and we averaged about five runs a game for him in ‘68. It’s easy to pitch then.

“He was a good interview. The writers loved him because he would talk about anything. Mickey Lolich was more inward and sort of dry compared to Denny. He was sort of in the shadows. Mickey started out in the bullpen in 1968, but he got his just dues in the World Series, winning three games.

“I never knew Denny to drink much or do drugs, but he popped ‘greenies’ — amphetamines – like a lot of guys. On the road he used to take me places I probably wouldn’t have had the chance to go to, and he always picked up the tab. He was an interesting guy, but when you screw over your friends like he did with the paint company he started, holy cow!

“He called me when the checks came out after the World Series. He said, ‘Why don’t you come up for the weekend?’ I wasn’t doing anything, so I drove up and stayed at Denny’s house. On Sunday when I was getting ready to head back home, he said, ‘Come here, I want to talk to you.’ He said, ‘What are you going to do with your World Series money?’ I cleared about $8,600 from the Series, this after making $10,000 in salary. I said, ‘Gee whiz, I don’t know, Denny.’ He said, ‘I got this paint company and I’ve got contracts with Ford, Chrysler, and GM. We’re going to make a ton.’

“Luckily I didn’t have the money with me because, you know, there was a little peer pressure. I’m driving home and I’m thinking, ‘No way. That’s a lot of money. I’m not going to give it to him.’ And I didn’t. He said, ‘You’re making a mistake. It’s the chance of a lifetime.’ Some of my other teammates got into it. A year or so later some of the guys wondered how their investment was. They drove by the address and there wasn’t anything there.

“I wasn’t surprised when Denny got into trouble. You could see it coming, how he lied to guys and took advantage of them. I remembered he placed bets from the clubhouse. All you had to do was dial ‘9’ to get an outside line. I remember thinking, ‘Why would he call Santa Anita?’ I didn’t know where Santa Anita was.

“Heck, if you’re going to take advantage of guys who were like an extended family, what are you doing to people you don’t like? Denny was a great athlete but he’s a pathological liar. He’ll take advantage of anybody he can. The things he said in his last book about Kaline, Lolich, and Jim Price — I got no use for him.”

“All I cared about was what he did on the field”
Bill Freehan caught most of McLain’s games. “Denny was cocky, but every good pitcher I ever caught had lots of self-confidence,” said the perennial Gold Glove backstop, who is retired and lives in Walloon Lake. “He threw a lot of strikes, he was powerful, and he had good stuff. He pitched quick, so players liked to play behind him. Sometimes he’d give the hitter a sign, like ‘I’m throwing you a fastball,’ and the batter would step out of the box and ask me if he was telling the truth. I would say, ‘If you want to believe him, go ahead.’ He wanted to get the game over with.

“He would throw strike after strike after strike. With his fastball a lot of guys would get under it and hit lazy fly balls. He always had a good fastball and a good straight change and he had the big curve. He then toned it down so he could throw more strikes and that really made him a better pitcher.

“In ’68 and ’69 McLain and Lolich were the best duo in the major leagues. They weren’t the best of friends and in a way they were competing against each other. Lolich was more somber and quiet in the locker room before he pitched, while Denny was pretty much happy-go-lucky all the time. He was always joking and screwing around. Both Denny and Mickey threw a lot of innings. They were workhorses. Mayo didn’t take those guys out too often.

“When Denny’s arm started to hurt him he lost some of the magic he’d had. He wasn’t the kind of guy to do a lot of conditioning, either. I wasn’t surprised he was traded, just disappointed. When he got into trouble, my attitude was ‘Denny’s Denny.’ I didn’t care what he was doing off the field. All I cared about was what he did on the field.”

“Denny thrived on attention”
Longtime sports reporter Jim Hawkins first met McLain in the spring of 1970 at the pitcher’s home in Lakeland, Florida, after he’d been suspended by Bowie Kuhn for gambling. “That was my first year with the Detroit Free Press,” said Hawkins. “Denny thrived on attention as he does now. He was feuding with most of the Detroit writers because they had written stories critical of him, but I was the new guy so there was no reason to be mad at me. He had been barred from coming around the ballpark. He sent word that I could come out to his house. I spent the afternoon with him.

“He was engaging, just as he is now. He’s very glib, very entertaining, and a little bit reckless. I’ve always gotten along with Denny. It’s very sad what happened to him. He’s intelligent and articulate and could have been successful in any number of fields. It’s just too bad how things turned out.

“You could see in 1970 that his arm was pretty well shot. He couldn’t overpower hitters anymore. When you think where he was in 1968 and ’69 — back-to-back Cy Young Awards — and where he was a year later, winning just three games, it was a pretty dramatic fall. Back then ballplayers didn’t take good care of themselves like they do now, where the money is so great. Denny was never the most disciplined person anyway. He liked the quick buck. The 9-to-5 routine was totally alien to his nature.

“Denny was suspended three times that year. The second suspension was because of a prank involving me and another writer, Watson Spoelstra of the Detroit News. One afternoon before a game Denny dumped a bucket of water over my head. There was no animosity; everybody laughed. Nobody likes to be the butt of a practical joke but they go on all the time in the clubhouse. If you don’t like it then stay the hell out of the clubhouse.

“After it happened I went up into the press box and wrote a little three-paragraph piece for the first edition, making light of the whole situation. I dismissed it as a joke. At that point I knew nothing about Spoelstra also getting doused. I’m told it became a dare with Denny. Anyway, Spoelstra then called Jim Campbell, the general manager, and complained. About the third inning Campbell called me on my private line in the press box and asked if McLain dumped water on me. I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said, ‘Because it’s none of your business.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m making it my business,’ and slammed the phone down. After the game he suspended McLain. Later that year Denny was suspended a third time for carrying a gun onto a plane.

“Trading Denny wasn’t a surprise but we weren’t sure who would take him. Then during the playoffs Campbell was traveling on a plane with Bob Short, the owner of the Washington Senators. Short was star-struck with Denny. He thought McLain would sell a lot of tickets. Short and Campbell talked trade and Campbell wrote down the names he was interested in: Eddie Brinkman, Aurelio Rodriguez, Joe Coleman. It was on the back of an envelope and he passed it across the aisle to Short. Short looked at it and nodded okay to Campbell.

“Campbell wanted to jump out of the plane, he was so excited. He never expected Short to say yes. The Tigers got a division title in 1972 out of Denny. It certainly was one of the biggest deals in Tigers history. Nobody expected to get that much for him.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong”
“When Denny was in the minors he was really raw,” the late Jim Northrup recalled in a 2008 interview. “All he had was a fastball, no breaking ball, and he was wilder than a march hare. What really helped him were Johnny Sain and Hal Naragon. They always said, ‘Speed doesn’t mean anything if it is straight.’ Sain showed him how to make the ball move. Sain and Naragon were way ahead of everybody else. Hal would say, ‘You need to learn how to pitch with a lead without running out of gas. You don’t have to strike everybody out. Just make them hit the ball. You have to learn to pace yourself, pitch at 85 percent, then when you need to get someone out you go to 95 to 100 percent.’

“They also didn’t believe in pitchers running. John would say, ‘If a pitcher wants to run, that’s okay with me, but I’m not a track coach.’ He said, ‘Your arm stays strong by throwing. You don’t run the ball over the plate.’ That was music to McLain and Lolich. They didn’t like to run.

“What Denny did have was confidence. Nothing bothered him. It was, ‘Here, let me see you beat me.’ He didn’t pitch around a lot of guys. He never threw at anyone. His mental approach was that he wasn’t afraid of anybody and he threw what he had over the plate.

“I remember when we were playing Washington one time. We had them 3-0 in the ninth. First pitch, Denny threw a fastball. Upper deck. Second pitch, he threw a fastball. Upper deck. I thought, man, we’re in trouble. The next three guys he threw nothing but fastballs and struck them out. When I came in I said, ‘Denny, did you ever think of throwing a breaking ball?’ He said, ‘How many times have you ever seen three home runs in a row?’ I said, ‘Never.’ He said, ‘The odds were in my favor, weren’t they?’ That’s the way the crazy son-of-a-bitch did it. He’d say, ‘Here’s another fastball, let me see you hit three in a row.’

“McLain’s fastball was funny. When we faced him when he was with the Senators, Norm Cash said, ‘I always wondered how that son-of-a-bitch got people out.’ See, Denny’s fastball would rise just a little.

“Neither he nor Lolich ever wanted to come out of a game. They weren’t going to turn it over to the bullpen unless they had to. Hell, no. Back then you got paid on wins, starts, complete games, earned run average, and strikeouts. You might get another five or six thousand dollars in next year’s contract. As a result Denny was worn out by the World Series. He was tired. He pitched a lot of innings. The cortisone shots ruined Denny’s arm. Guys would use anything. You had to pitch.

“Personally, I didn’t care if he got special treatment and they let him fly his airplane. How can you go against a guy who is winning 31 games? Lolich didn’t like it, though.”

Northrup was the Tigers’ leading RBI producer in 1968. He hit five grand slams that season, including one in the World Series. Curiously, all but the first came in games McLain pitched and won. “There was never a closer bunch of guys that played the game of baseball than the Tigers in the late ‘60s,” he said. “It was like a bunch of brothers playing together. Each was unique but we accepted everybody. Denny was a great teammate and a helluva guy and I like him. He just had a lot of larceny in him.”

According to Northrup, McLain got the nickname “Dolphin” because of his dolphin-like features and because he was a fish in card games. “We took all his money,” he remembered. “He never won. But nobody got rich playing poker and nobody got poor. Once during the ’68 season we got into a fight in a card game when I saw him reach over and try to take my money. I grabbed his hand and said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ He said something and I whacked him. A fight broke out and Gates Brown grabbed me and damn near killed me. I said, ‘That son-of-a-bitch was trying to steal my money’ and Gates said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to protect him because he’s gonna take us to the pennant.’”

In 1967, “Denny came up with an injured foot and missed some turns down the stretch,” Northrup said. “The rumors were someone from the mob stomped on his foot as a warning. We heard he was doing the gambling but how do you know what really happened? I knew he was with some bad guys. Why would the Mafia want to hurt him when they were taking all his money?

“I was not surprised that Denny got into trouble with the law because he was on the edge of it all the time. His mentality was, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong.’ He’d never admit that he made a mistake. He believed in his lies.

“When he lost his daughter in a car accident a few years ago it really hurt him. You have to give him credit, he’s survived a lot of tough things. He’s always positive. He’s not crying in his beer. He did his time, he went to prison. I feel sorry for him because he suffered, but he did it to himself. We all tried to help him but he didn’t want to listen to us.”

“If you’re waiting for him to change, don’t hold your breath”
“When Denny became famous, it was really like a circus,” longtime sportswriter and broadcaster Dave Diles recalled a year before his death in 2009. “The more attention he got, the more attention he craved. He created situations that would draw people to him. I always had a feeling that because his dad died young, maybe he felt, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.’ Despite all that’s happened to him, he still loves the limelight. He pretty much believes there’s no such thing as bad publicity. You have to like Denny. I don’t know why. It’s like having chocolate ice cream all the time even though you know it’s not good for you. He’s got chutzpah. He’s a charming rogue. I don’t think he fools anybody. He’s the ultimate con man.”

In 1975, Diles co-authored McLain’s first book. “The book I did with him came about by accident,” Diles said. “The publisher called me. They had a writer who had some personal problems and kept missing deadlines. One of Denny’s pet phrases when he screwed up was, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ I thought that made a perfect title for the book. Denny really got on Ted Williams, his manager in Washington, in that book. I knew Williams very well. God, Williams got on me. He said, ‘You fuckin’ asshole, do you need the fuckin’ money that bad to write a fuckin’ book about that prick? He’s the biggest prick I know. He’s horseshit.’ Ted just hated McLain — in part because Bob Short’s trade for Denny had cost Ted the whole left side of his infield — and McLain hated Williams.”

Diles had one of the first sports talk radio shows in Detroit. McLain “would come by and just bust into the studio,” he recalled. “He could be very charming and persuasive. He’d say, ‘The show’s flopping so I thought I’d come by and perk it up.’ He was very good when he later had his own radio show. He was articulate and well-informed on most subjects. I thought he did an excellent job.”

When McLain was in prison, he and Diles exchanged letters about every month. “To a degree he was simply lonely, he reached out, and I was faithful in answering his letters,” Diles said. “I didn’t give him my phone number because I didn’t want a lot of collect calls. I also maintained contact with his wife, Sharon, and I knew what she was going through. He called her faithfully. One time she called me and said, ‘I want you to get hold of Denny and tell him not to bother me anymore. I’ve put his stuff in storage and it’s over, we’re not going to get back together again.’ Of course, the day he got out, she was the one who drove there to get him. Sharon’s a saint.

“Some people go through life so blithely, I wonder if anything bothers them. Denny just seems to pick himself up and dust himself off, get back in the batter’s box and say, ‘Okay, you son-of-a-bitch, show me your best stuff.’ He’s resilient. But what does it take to wake you up? If you’re waiting for Denny McLain to change, don’t hold your breath because you’re going to get a little blue around the gills.”

3 replies on “An oral history: Denny McLain, baseball’s last 30-game winner

  • Bob Henige

    I love the article. The 1968 Tigers were my all-time favorite sports team. I grew up rooting for all those guys. I dedicate a complete section to the team in my new book, Fantastic Sports Stuff, which is just released. I loved that team.
    Thanks for the entertainment,
    Bob Henige

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