On September 21, 1962, Denny McLain pitched his first major league game, a complete game 4-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox, the team that originally signed him.
The White Sox let McLain go after only half a season in the minor leagues. He had pitched well that season, but had already showed signs of being “trouble,” having gone AWOL a few times. Whether for that reason or based on a faulty assessment of McLain’s potential, the White Sox decided to protect Bruce Howard and Dave DeBusschere, rather than McLain, from exposure to the minor league draft.
Detroit snapped McLain up, and he had a terrific minor league season in 1963. The Tigers rewarded him with a late-season call-up and a late-September starting assignment.
In his debut, McLain starred on the mound and at the plate, but not in the field. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth inning, he belted a home run off of Fritz Ackley (also making his major league debut) to tie the score. This would be McLain’s only big league home run.
McLain carried a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning, but the White Sox tied the score in that frame. The key play was a McLain throwing error on an attempted sacrifice bunt. Both White Sox runs that inning were unearned.
The Tigers went back ahead in the bottom of the eighth on a Norm Cash home run off of relief pitcher (and author) Jim Brosnan. McLain then set down Chicago 1-2-3 in the ninth, striking out Pete Ward and Charlie Maxwell to close out the win.
McLain went on the great stardom and considerable notoriety. He won the CY Young award in 1968 and 1969, and was the American League MVP in ’68. That year, he won 31 games. No big league pitcher had reached 30 wins since Dizzy Dean in 1934, and none has done so since. It seems unlikely that any ever pitcher will reach that number again, absent big changes in the way baseball is managed.
Things began to fall apart for McLain in 1970 when MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for three months following charges that the pitcher was involved in an illegal bookmaking operation. To make matters worse, the Tigers traded him to the lowly Washington Senators at the end of the season.
Although McLain wasn’t awful for the Senators in 1971, he was a shadow of his former pitching self. Playing for an awful team, this translated into a record of 10-22. Thus, McLain was both a 20 game winner (twice) and a 20 game loser — quite a rarity among pitchers of past 50 years.
After a horrendous 1972 season, McLain was out of major league baseball at the age of 28.
Why did McLain’s career tank? He says it’s because he lost his fastball in 1970. I think that’s the correct explanation, as far as it goes. McLain relied on “the high hard one.” Once it wasn’t that hard, it was just a high strike waiting to be pounded.
But why did McLain lose his fastball at such a young age. Probably because of his life-style, including eating habits that caused him to put on about 10 pounds a year, according to this SABR biography.
McLain’s career gives rise to several “what ifs.” One of them is: what if the White Sox had kept him?
In 1964, the White Sox finished only a game out of first place. In 1967, they missed out by three games.
But McLain wasn’t particular good in either of those seasons. In fact, in ’64 his ERA of 4.02 was higher than anyone who started any games for Chicago, except for the aforementioned Fritz Ackley, who started only two.
Similarly, in 1967 McLain’s ERA was 3.79. Chicago’s team ERA was an incredible 2.45. Every White Sox regular or semi-regular starter had a lower ERA than McLain that year (not adjusted for ballpark effects).
What about Howard and DeBusschere, the two pitchers the White Sox protected ahead of McLain? In 1964, Howard gave up just two earned runs in 22 innings. In 1967, he pitched to a 3.43 ERA in 113 innings.
DeBusschere missed the 1964 season due to military service. By 1967, he was starring in the NBA. In 1963, though, he showed why the White Sox’s high regard for him was justified. Pitching 84 innings, he posted an ERA of 3.11.
By 1968-69, the White Sox had collapsed. As dominant as McLain was in those years, he couldn’t have kept them on the baseball map.
“What ifs” aside, McLain is a baseball legend. He was one-of-a-kind, and that’s probably a good thing. As his SABR biographer says:
McLain was a great pitcher for a few years before his shocking downfall. He lived by his own rules, and hurt countless people along the way, including teammates, friends, and his own family.