Living life in the fast lane

Photo by Jim PetersDenny McLain signs a ball for a fan after his appearance in Three Oaks, Mich., on Saturday. McLain won 31 games with the Detroit Tigers in 1968, likely becoming the last pitcher to accomplish the feat. He shared stories of his career and that World Series season with fans.

THREE OAKS, Mich. — For a brief instant, back in 1963, a 19-year-old kid with a lightning bolt for a right arm considered giving up baseball and heading back to Markham, Ill., to get a job in the plant where his dad had worked.

“I said, ‘I’m going home, I’m quitting,’” Denny McLain told an audience at the Acorn Theater on Saturday.

For anyone who’s a Detroit Tigers fan from way back, they know that, one, McLain didn’t quit and, two, they’re glad he didn’t.

Five years later, McLain won 31 games, becoming likely the last pitcher to ever accomplish the feat, and helped the Tigers to the 1968 World Series title.

Garry Lange of Three Oaks opened The Biggest Little Baseball Museum in town in April. Just a few days later, he received an email from McLain about making an appearance.

“I called the number to confirm it was him,” Lange said.

Still just as blunt and outspoken as he was half a century ago, the colorful McLain was a treat for Tigers and baseball fans alike. He did a meet-and-greet, signing autographs before and after a two-hour talk that included recollections of his career and a question-and-answer session with the audience, many of them wearing Tigers apparel.

“The memories people bring to us every time we do a show like this is incredible,” the 75-year-old McLain said. “The reminiscing is just unbelievable. It gets to be an awful lot of fun.”

A graduate of Mount Carmel (Ill.), where he hit .601 as a junior, McLain was courted by most of Major League Baseball as a teenager.

“No matter how many games I was winning, the way I was hitting, I thought somebody would come along and say, ‘We want you to be the next Mickey Mantle, wear No. 7, play center field. You can hit anywhere in the lineup. You can come and go. We’ll get you an airplane,’” he said. “The next year, 18 clubs came to the house and not one person asked me to be a hitter. I was so disappointed.”

Not that it ended badly, at least once it all worked out.

McLain graduated on a Saturday afternoon and the following day, the parade of teams began coming to the family’s house. The Cubs offered $10,000, “an awful lot of money,” McLain described, for 1962. The Yankees, with ‘Moose’ Skowron in tow, pulled up in a black Cadillac, and placed a contract for $17,500, with $5,000 up front on the table. The White Sox, whose group included Nellie Fox and Minnie Minoso, followed with the same exact offer.

“We’re in awe,” McLain said. “My mom was tough. She was the most vicious Cubs fan in the world. She hated the White Sox with every ounce of her passion. My dad had died, four, five years earlier, and he was the same way. I was surprised she called them Mister. There was no chance in hell I was signing with the White Sox. But whether they hated them or not, the check’s got to be good. No matter what, man, I’ve got five grand coming.”

Much to McLain’s dismay, his mother told him he was signing with the White Sox, which he did the next day.

“She said, ‘did you see the Yankees guy’s shoes? Did you see the hole in the bottom of his shoe?. If they can’t buy him a new pair of shoes, you think the check will be good?’” he said. “True story.”

McLain promptly bought two cars, one for him and one for his mom -- with cash -- and a new wardrobe.

“And I still had $2,400 left,” he said.

After brief successful stints in the Appalachian (Rookie) League in Harlan, Kent., where he tossed a 16-strikeout no-hitter in his debut, and Class D Ball in Bristol, Iowa, he came to his an early crossroads in spring training with the White Sox. Manager Al Lopez told him they were going to keep two of three pitchers and one of those spots was guaranteed to Dave DeBusschere, a future NBA star who had been signed for $65,000.

“(Lopez) told me we all know you can’t win in the big leagues with one pitch, and he was right,” McLain said. “The loser of the game was going to be released.”

It came down to McLain and Bruce Howard in a head-to-head pitching matchup, which McLain lost 1-0, serving up a home run on his first pitch to Dave Nicholson.

“The ball could still be going today,” McLain said. “It sounded like murder when the ball hit the bat.”

McLain was on the brink of returning to Markham when Lopez encouraged him to be patient and wait to hear from another team.

“Twenty minutes later, I get a call from Detroit, they said, pack your bags, we’ll be there in two hours, we’re taking you to Tiger Town (Lakeland, Fla.)’” he said.

Sure enough, Detroit brass showed up with players Dick McAuliffe and Al Kaline, “Mr. Tiger,” in the car.

“I couldn’t believe it. I almost peed my pants, I was so nervous,” McLain said. “Until about a year earlier, I had about 40 Al Kaline rookie cards in my Schwinn. I called my mom to tell her. I’m with Al Kaline. Where are my cards? She said, “I threw them away after you left. I didn’t want all that garbage in my house.’”

Following a few months at Syracuse, McLain was brought up to the Tigers in June 1964.

“The biggest challenge was all of a sudden, you’re playing with men,” he said. “They look at the game a lot different when they’ve got a wife and family.”

The following year, he went 16-6, then won 20 games and started in the All-Star Game in 1966.

His career ascended further when the Tigers hired Johnny Sain as pitching coach. While Sain couldn’t get McLain to tone down his trademark high leg kick that his father had advocated, he and catcher Hal Naragon helped him develop “the best slider in baseball” to complement his fastball.

“(Sain) was the absolute best I ever saw,” McLain said. “I always ran into managers who were pitching coaches. That put me on the fast track.”

Throwing an astounding 336 innings and 28 complete games, McLain completed a 31–6 record in 1968 along with a 1.96 earned run average. He had 280 strikeouts and 63 walks.

“We pitched 300 innings almost every year,” he said. “It eventually jumped up and bit us. My rotator cuff is completely torn in half. When I shake your hand, I’ve got to lift (my left) hand to shake your hand. That’s how bad it is. I had a doctor say, ‘we can fix that.’ I’m 75, why would I want that fixed now? Where were you 55 years ago?”

McLain’s career took a downturn after his suspension for gambling in 1970, which was followed by two other suspensions. He was traded to the Washington Senators (or, as he put it, hell), managed by Ted Williams, that October, also pitching briefly for Oakland and Atlanta before retiring in 1972.

“The only club I saw where they really didn’t drink a lot, with a few exceptions, were the Tigers,” McLain said. “The reason is we all came up together in the minor leagues. That made a big difference. When I played, we played with one or two teams, maybe three. Normally you were with your first team forever. God, I hate Oakland. The (SOBs) didn’t give me a check for winning the World Series either.”

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