Saturday, December 2, 2000
McLain did things his way
By Nick Acocella
Special to ESPN.com
Sept. 14, 1968 -- Denny McLain was the first pitcher to reach the magic number of 30 wins in a season in 34 years when the Detroit Tigers rallied for a 5-4 victory over the Oakland A's. The 24-year-old righthander also was the last to accomplish the feat in the 20th century.
In the crowd of 44,087 at Tiger Stadium was Dizzy Dean, the former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who was the last to win 30 games, back in 1934. He threw his arms around McLain amid the wild scene after the victory.
McLain, who had just five losses, gained the milestone in dramatic fashion. Though his pitching was solid - 10 strikeouts, one walk, six hits - two home runs by Reggie Jackson left McLain and the Tigers trailing 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth. However, a spirited comeback by the Tigers - ending with a game-winning hit by Willie Horton - enabled McLain to go from loser to history maker.
Odds 'n' Ends
Within a year of his father Tom's death in 1959, his mother Betty remarried. McLain resented his stepfather so much that he sabotaged the relationship, which lasted only a few years.
During high school, McLain moonlighted, for $5 a game, for a local firemen's softball team.
Three hours after graduating high school in 1962, McLain was on a plane to play in the minors. In his first start for Harlin (Ky.), McLain pitched a no-hitter and struck out 16.
Immediately afterwards, he went AWOL, borrowing a car and driving 600 miles to Chicago to see his girlfriend.
After two wins and 32 strikeouts, he was promoted to Clinton of the Midwest League.
By September of 1963 - after getting drafted by the Tigers and picking up a little seasoning at Duluth-Superior in the Northern League and Knoxville in the South Atlantic League - McLain was called up to Detroit.
McLain walked the first two major league batters he faced - and picked both of them off first. He also homered in his debut, which he won. With a blazing fastball and not much else, he went 2-1.
McLain's first nickname was "Dolph," short for dolphin, because he was such a big fish at card games.
Later dubbed Mighty Mouth for his intemperate remarks, McLain managed to alienate players, press and teammates in Detroit with his criticisms.
During one offseason, McLain bowled 250 games a week, despite advice that it would harm his arm.
McLain was among the most Hollywood of athletes. He thrived on the limelight and the media attention. He also loved his appearances on television shows with the likes of Ed Sullivan and the Smothers brothers.
Overindulgent in all things, McLain, at one point in his life, drank 100 cans of Pepsi a week. At another time, he devoured Twinkies by the boxful.
On Sept. 1, 1968, McLain turned a Boog Powell line drive into a triple play and went on to win his 27th game of the season.
Two of McLain's losses in 1968 were back-to-back 2-1 games.
McLain famously served up a nothing pitch to Mickey Mantle in the waning days of the 1968 season so the Yankee slugger could hit his 535th homer to put him ahead of Jimmie Foxx on the all-time list.
When Joe Pepitone, the next batter, asked for similar service, McLain threw the first high and tight, sending Pepitone to the ground.
McLain also served up a fat pitch to Kansas City's Joe Foy, then in the throes of a terrible slump. His reasoning was that because he believed he could get Foy out any time he wanted he didn't want Foy sent to the minors.
The tension with his manager Mayo Smith went on display nationally at the 1969 All-Star Game. McLain, the AL's scheduled starter, was late for the pre-game hoopla in Washington and then returned to Detroit for a dental appointment after rains had forced a postponement. By the time he got back to Washington the next day, Smith had given the start to the Yankees' Mel Stottlemyre.
McLain's roommate on the Tigers, shortstop Ray Oyler, took to answering the ever-ringing phone in their hotel room, "Mr. McLain's office."
Of McLain's 131 wins, 114 came before he was suspended in 1970 by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
While McLain and three other players went to the Senators on Oct. 9, 1970, the Tigers got four players, including Aurelio Rodriguez, Ed Brinkman, and Joe Coleman, all of whom contributed to Detroit winning the AL East in 1972.
McLain claims he was offered a $25,000 bribe to throw a game in Birmingham in 1972 but was called up to Atlanta before his next start.
McLain and his wife Sharyn had four children. Their oldest daughter Kristin was killed in a multi-vehicle accident in October 1993.
Sharyn divorced McLain after he went to prison for the second time, but
they remarried in October 2003, six months after he was released.
While in prison, McLain was indicted again, in 1998, on racketeering charges involving telephone credit-card fraud. The indictment was dropped in July 1999.
Among the numerous others indicted with McLain was John Gotti Jr., reputedly his father's successor as head of a New York crime family.
McLain has said his personal hero is Frank Sinatra, because "he didn't give a damn about anything."