Denny McLain dominated the American League and flamed out. He won two Cy Youngs, the MVP, started the 1966 All Star Game, and remains the last man to win 30 games in a season. Arm problems and poor life choices undercut McLain’s career. After an amazing five year stretch, he was basically finished.
The Chicago White Sox signed Denny McLain in 1962, but left the youngster unprotected. The Tigers swooped in and selected the pitcher off the 1963 first-year player waiver wire. It proved a major mistake on Chicago’s part. On the other hand, the Tigers discovered a gem.
McLain’s first full season came in 1965. He appeared in 22 games the previous two seasons compiling a 6-6 record with an ERA over 4.00. In 1965, the 21-year-old finished 16-6 with a 2.61 ERA, 13 complete games, 4 shutouts, 220.1 innings, 1.071 WHIP, and finished third in strikeouts with 192. Additionally, he made four relief appearances, earned a save, and set a record for relievers by striking out 7 consecutive batters after entering the game.
The 1965 season primed Denny McLain for greater things. In 1966, he joined the pitching elite. He won 20 games for the first time in his career. Overall, McLain started 38 games, completed 14, tossed 4 shutouts, pitched 264.1 innings, posted a 1.169 WHIP, but did have an elevated 3.92 ERA. The 22-year-old started the All Star Game for the American League, pitched three innings, and retired all nine batters on 28 pitches.
The Tigers did not contend for the postseason in 1965 or 1966. On the other hand, the 1967 campaign evolved into a four-team race involving Detroit, Boston, Minnesota, and Chicago. In 1967, McLain went 17-16 with a 3.79 ERA and 1.200 WHIP. He did not win a game in September. Rumors swirled that the mob broke his toes. The righty claimed he stubbed them after his foot fell asleep. Whatever happened, he proved ineffectual down the stretch and Detroit missed the pennant by a game.
Injuries did not slow the Tigers in 1968. They won the pennant by a dozen games. Personally, McLain finished 25 games over .500. He became the first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. In an amazing season, the 24-year-old went 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA, 28 complete games, 6 shutouts, 336 innings, 280 strikeouts, and 0.905 WHIP. Naturally, he made his second All Star Game and won the Cy Young Award. Additionally, McLain became the first AL pitcher to win MVP since Bobby Shantz in 1952 and the first Tiger pitcher since 1944 and 1945 when Hal Newhouser won the award back-to-back. Despite the success, he struggled in the World Series, but did win Game 6 to even the series at three a piece. Overall, McLain went 1-2 with a 3.24 ERA in the series. His mound mate Mickey Lolich won the other three Tiger victories.
The World Champion Tigers finished 19 games behind the Orioles in 1969. McLain won his second consecutive Cy Young Award and made his third All Star team. The Tiger ace led the league in wins (24), starts (41), shutouts (9), and innings (325). He finished with a 2.80 ERA, 1.092 WHIP, and 181 strikeouts. McLain finished sixth in the MVP race.
The twenty-something became a pop sensation. He played the organ on Ed Sullivan, starred in his own Vegas act, and released two albums. On top of this, he was a baseball star that set his own rules. McLain earned his pilot’s license, purchased his own plane, and even arrived late for the 1969 All Star Game. This swagger translated to the mound. He intentionally surrendered Mickey Mantle’s 535th career home run so the Yankee could move into third place on the all-time list. The next batter, Joe Pepitone, asked for a grapefruit of his own, and McLain buzzed him.
McLain’s lifestyle and inning load caught up with him in 1970. Sports Illustrated reported McLain’s involvement in a mob related bookmaking scheme. The magazine claimed the Mafia broke the pitcher’s foot in 1967 for failing to pay a debt. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended the Tiger for the beginning of the 1970 season. He returned after three months, but struggled to a 3-5 record in 14 starts. In September, a frustrated McLain dunked two reporters with water buckets leading to another suspension. Then, Kuhn suspended McLain for the rest of the season for carrying a gun onto a team flight. In late 1970, he filed for bankruptcy.
The Tigers had enough of McLain and decided to get rid of him. They traded the former ace to the Washington Senators in a blockbuster. The Senators shipped Joe Coleman, Eddie Brinkman, Jim Hannan, and Aurelio Rodriguez to Detroit for McLain, Elliot Maddox, Norm McRae, and Don Wert. It turned into one of the great deals in Tiger history. Coleman developed into a 20-game winner, Brinkman led the Tigers to the 1972 AL East title, and Rodriguez manned third base for a decade. The Senators received a disgruntled 22-game loser. Essentially, his arm died. McLain did not pitch in the majors again after 1972.
Denny McLain was one of the great Tiger pitchers. He won 117 games over eight seasons, posted a 3.13 ERA, tossed 26 shutouts, and had a 1.112 WHIP. From 1965-69, he won 16, 20, 17, 31, and 24 games. McLain appeared in three All Star Games, won two Cy Young Awards, and the 1968 AL MVP. His efforts led the Tigers to the pennant and world championship. However, personal problems and arm issues cut his career short.