McLain, Dennis Dale ("Denny")

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McLAIN, Dennis Dale ("Denny")

(b. 29 March 1944 in Markham, Illinois), American League (AL) pitcher, two-time Cy Young Award winner, and the last thirty-game winner in Major League Baseball.

McLain and his younger brother were raised in a far-south suburb of Chicago. His father Tom McClain, who died when his rambunctious son was fifteen years old, was an insurance adjuster who had played semiprofessional baseball as a shortstop. His strict, spare-not-the-rod approach to child rearing had little effect, perhaps because of his early death. McLain's mother, Betty McClain, was forced by her husband's death into the workforce as a cashier. McLain's athleticism gained him admission to the prestigious Catholic Mt. Carmel High School in Chicago, where he played basketball and football and excelled in baseball. The right-hander's 38–7 record earned him a $17,000 signing bonus with the Chicago White Sox upon graduation in 1962.

Although McLain started his professional career with a no-hit, no-run game, his high living, frequent absences and scorn for the "hick" towns of Harlan, Kentucky, and Clinton, Iowa, caused the White Sox to put him on waivers for a paltry $8,000. He was quickly picked up by the Detroit Tigers in the spring of 1963 but was not permanently brought up to the parent club until 1965, when he went 16–6 and recorded 192 strikeouts, the third-best tally in the league. In 1966 McLain compiled a 20–14 record and pitched three perfect innings in the All-Star game as the starter for the American League. But the man who taught McLain how to throw a curveball to complement his smoking fastball, manager Charley Dressen, died in August 1966, and McLain temporarily lost his confidence. His dismal record of 17–16 in 1967 was worsened by his failure to pitch six scheduled starts in September, causing the Tigers to lose the AL pennant by one game. The Detroit fans and media were skeptical of McLain's story that he had been startled by raccoons and had accidentally stubbed his toes. Years later, McLain alternately confirmed and denied that an unpaid gambling debt resulted in an enforcement visit during which his foot was stomped.

In 1968 McLain added a slider to his repertoire, which helped him earn an amazing 31–6 record, including 6 shutouts, the most since Lefty Grove won the same number in 1931. Dizzy Dean won thirty in 1934; no one has won thirty since. With the advent of the specialized relief pitcher and the current five-starter rotation system, it is unlikely that McLain's record will be surpassed. His dominant pitching in 1968 carried the Tigers to their first World Championship since 1945. McLain completed 28 games, had 280 strikeouts, and compiled a 1.96 earned run average (ERA). For this he simultaneously and unanimously won the Cy Young Award and most valuable player (MVP) honors—a rare occurrence, as MVP status is traditionally reserved for nonpitchers. Plagued by a sore right shoulder, McLain lost both showdowns with the National League ace Bob Gibson in the World Series, but, aided by cortisone, he won crucial game six. Mickey Lolich won game seven and the championship for the Tigers.

McLain's success continued in 1969. He garnered the team's first $100,000 contract by winning his second Cy Young Award (shared with Baltimore's Mike Cuellar) and again attained All-Star status with a 24–9 record, including a team record of 9 shutouts. McLain missed the first three months of the 1970 season when the baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, suspended him for 1967 bookmaking transactions. His loss of income and his many failed business ventures caused McLain to file for bankruptcy later that summer. His second suspension of the season was for dumping a bucket of ice water over the heads of two sportswriters, his third was for gun possession. Fed up with McClain's misbehavior and his miserable 3–5 record, the Tigers traded him to the Washington Senators at the end of the season. In 1971 his frequent clashes with no-nonsense manager Ted Williams and his 10–22 record resulted in a trade to the Oakland Athletics. McLain's fastball was gone, and he finished the 1972 season in Atlanta after tallying a meager four victories for the year.

McLain self-destructed. On a certain path to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, his wanton disregard for the rules and his health cut short his career at age twenty-eight. Nevertheless, his career statistics remain impressive. Over the span of 10 years, McLain won 131 games and lost 91 for a winning percentage of .590. He started 264 games and completed 105. He had 1,282 strikeouts and a lifetime ERA of 3.39.

McLain proclaimed that music was actually his first love and that he had played the organ since childhood. He recorded two albums in 1968. His celebrity status enabled him to appear on several television shows, including the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968, and he also appeared on the Steve Allen, Bob Hope, Joey Bishop, Glenn Campbell, and Smothers Brothers shows. He spent time on the nightclub circuit, including Las Vegas, but this was never enough to pay for his high-flying lifestyle. His poor business sense and his eagerness to get rich quick resulted in many business failures.

In 1985 McLain was convicted of loan-sharking, book-making, extortion, and cocaine possession, but was released from prison after twenty-nine months because of prosecutorial errors. He regained his celebrity status quickly by becoming a popular radio talk-show host in the early 1990s on Detroit's WXYT. Sports was only a minor topic for the surprisingly well-informed liberal commentator. Few lessons were learned, however, as McLain loved to boast about his prison escapades, and past failures did not staunch his appetite for business deals. In 1994 McLain and two business partners purchased the ailing Peet Packing Company in tiny Chesaning, Michigan. The meat-products company had been the town's largest employer for over a century, and McLain was viewed as a savior. However, the new owners siphoned $3 million dollars from the $12 million-dollar pension fund for their personal expenses, and the company declared bankruptcy in 1995. McLain was convicted of conspiracy, mail fraud, theft of pensions, and money laundering in 1996 and sentenced to ninety-seven months at a minimum-security federal prison in Bradford, Pennsylvania. McLain is scheduled for release in 2004.

Married on 5 October 1963, McLain and Sharyn Boudreau, daughter of the Hall of Fame shortstop and manager Lou Boudreau, divorced in 1998. They had two sons and one daughter; another daughter died in a truck accident in 1992. There are four grandchildren. Although he is about six feet tall, McLain's prison weight is reportedly over 300 pounds, up from his playing weight of 190.

McLain has two autobiographies, Nobody's Perfect (1975), written with Dave Diles; and Strikeout: The Story of Denny McLain (1988), written with Mike Nahrstedt. The first book focuses on his baseball exploits and gambling problems; the second is a McLain-style apologia attempting to explain away his criminal misdeeds. For a straightforward account of McLain's career, see the "Dennis McLain" chapter in Bill Libby, Star Pitchers of the Major Leagues (1971). Steve Rushin, in the cover story for Sports Illustrated on the 1968 baseball season, "The Season of High Heat," (19 Jul. 1993), captures the personalities and the tumult of the times. Fred Goodman offers an analytical portrait of McLain in "Denny McLain Isn't Sorry," Gentleman's Quarterly (Mar. 1998).

Francis R. McBride