Baseball fans realized at the time that what Denny McLain accomplished in his most magical season was phenomenal, even in what was the most dominant year in memory for pitchers.
McLain didn’t set an MLB record with his 31 victories for the Detroit Tigers in 1968 but he did achieve what Bob Beamon accomplished in the Olympics long jump that same summer in Mexico City: He put up a number so startling that sports fans understood it could be generations before it was done again.
Beamon’s mark has been eclipsed, but there have been no 30-game winners since McLain.
Denny McLain’s 1968 season was extraordinary
Major-league pitching was so good in 1968 that the mound was lowered and the strike zone adjusted the following season to boost offenses. Bob Gibson dazzled that year with a 1.12 ERA, another superb accomplishment, and Denny McLain’s 1.96 ERA ranked fourth in the American League.
McLain’s 31 victories, the most since Jim Bagby of the 1920 Cleveland Indians also won 31, came to be more fascinating as time passed because the changes to how pitchers are managed – pitch counts and five-man rotations, for instance – have turned even 20-game winners into a rarity in recent years.
In the 1968 season in which McLain won 31, six other major-league pitchers won 20 games. The totals climbed to the recent high-water mark of 15 the following year but consider this: A total of just 14 pitchers have won 20 games from 2013-19.
His career faded as troubles rose
Denny McLain reached the majors with the Detroit Tigers in 1963 and his career was over in a decade. He was 131-91 with a 3.39 ERA, but McLain packed 108 of his victories into a span of just five seasons, including 24 in his follow-up to winning 31. He earned two Cy Young Awards and one American League MVP.
McLain’s troubles began with a three-month suspension handed down by commissioner Bowie Kuhn after two magazines reported before the 1970 season that the pitcher had become involved in gambling. Sources told Sports Illustrated that a foot injury in 1967 was inflicted for the pitcher’s failure to pay up for a lost bet.
An altercation with two sportswriters earned him a suspension by the Detroit Tigers in September 1970 and then Kuhn handed down another suspension after McLain was found carrying a gun on a team flight.
The year ended with McLain filing for bankruptcy and being traded to the Washington Senators, where manager Ted Williams was experimenting with the five-man rotations that are now the norm. His feud with Williams over the rotation and an arm injury led to the Senators trading McLain to the Oakland Athletics, who would soon send him to the Atlanta Braves.
His career would be over by the end of the 1972 season at the age of 29. Ironically, the last batter he faced in the majors was Pete Rose, who would run into his own issues with the commissioner’s office over gambling years later.
What is Denny McLain doing now?
The downward spiral for McLain continued with his imprisonment for drug trafficking, racketeering, and embezzlement, though the conviction under RICO Act statutes would be overturned. Another conviction in 1996 sent him to prison for six years on charges related to the disappearance of $2.5 million from the pension fund of a company he owned.
McLain worked frequently on radio and television talk shows in the Detroit area in between his run-ins with authorities and wrote his autobiography titled “I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect.”
McLain and a pair of local sportscasters created the “No Filter Sports” podcast in 2019 with new episodes two to three times a week.