He was brash. He was flamboyant. He had a lounge act in Las Vegas. He performed on TV shows, including Ed Sullivan’s. He paraded about in a white mink coat. He was Hall of Fame shortstop Lou Boudreau‘s son-in-law. He was also convicted of racketeering and smuggling cocaine and spent time in jail. And, for a while, Denny McLain was one of the finest pitchers in baseball.
In 1968 McLain was the league MVP and a unanimous Cy Young Award winner, going 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA, 28 complete games, and 280 strikeouts. He was the first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934, and helped the Tigers to their first World Championship since 1945.
McLain first came up in 1963 and he showed early flashes of brilliance, winning 16 games in 1965, 20 in 1966, and 17 in 1967. He might have won 20 in 1967, if not for an unexplained accident at home where he hurt his toe and missed his last six starts. His teammates, manager, and Tiger fans thought he was dogging it, and he was blamed for the Tigers’ close second-place finish in a wild, four-team scramble for the AL pennant.
Starting 1968, he could do nothing to erase the fans’ memory of the previous season. He was booed at home after commenting that Detroit’s fans were “the world’s worst.” But soon the victories started to pile up. He won nine straight starts from mid-June to mid-July to stretch his record to 18-2. On September 1, he converted a Boog Powell line drive into a triple play to preserve his 27th victory. He was in the dugout when he won his 30th, a 5-4 come-from-behind victory over Oakland. In his 31st victory, he had a 6-1 lead over the Yankees, so he grooved a pitch to Mickey Mantle in Mantle’s last game in Tiger Stadium. Mantle crashed what would be his next-to-last career homer, passing Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home run list. McLain would have won 33 games if not for two consecutive 2-1 losses.
In the 1968 World Series, McLain lost both starts in which he opposed the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson, who had won 22 games and set a major league record with a 1.12 ERA. But McLain won Game Six on two days’ rest, setting up teammate Mickey Lolich to beat Gibson in the seventh game.
Many thought that his nonstop off-season partying would adversely affect McLain, but his lifestyle didn’t stop Tiger management from awarding their cocky ace the team’s first $100,000 contract. McLain responded by winning a second Cy Young Award (he shared it with the Orioles’ Mike Cuellar) with a 24-9 mark and a team-record nine shutouts. But things started to unravel midway through the 1969 season. He angered manager Mayo Smith by not showing up until the fourth inning of the All-Star Game, which Smith wanted him to start. Then Sky King left before the game was over, flying out in his private Cessna.
In 1970 things fell apart. On April 1, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended McLain for three months for a 1967 bookmaking incident. In August McLain filed for bankruptcy, then dumped ice water on a couple of Detroit writers. On September 9, Kuhn suspended him for the rest of the season for gun possession. Finally, on October 9, after a dismal 3-5, 4.65 season, he was traded to the Senators. Amid constant run-ins with no-nonsense Washington manager Ted Williams, McLain lost 22 games in 1971. He spent the 1972 season in Oakland and Atlanta. At the age of 28, his fastball and money were gone and his career was over. He put on weight. He tried several businesses, all of which failed. In the early 1980s, he spent over two years in jail before being granted a new trial and being released early in 1989. As he began to reassemble his life, he played the organ in a Michigan bar where Leon Spinks was the bartender, while listening to offers from promoters looking to get him back in the spotlight.