Glancing Back, and Remembering Denny McLain
In the last half of the 1960s, no American League pitcher was more dominant, or more flamboyant, than the hard-throwing Denny McLain. He was the first major league pitcher in 34 years to win 30 or more games in a single season. And he will probably be the last for years to come.
Denny McLain was 31-6 for the Detroit Tigers in 1968, the last major league pitcher to win at least 30 games in a season.
Since 1968, no major league pitcher has replaced McLain as the last of the 30-game winners. With 100-pitch limits, four-to-five days of rest between starts, and inning-by-inning relief specialists, it’s highly unlikely that a contemporary 30-game winner will – or can – emerge.
Yet are McLain’s accomplishments on the field celebrated today at any level of professional baseball? Hardly. His legal problems, both during his playing career and afterward, have almost completely wiped out major league baseball’s willingness to recognize what he accomplished on the pitching mound during the mid-to-late 1960s.
McLain was signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1962. Selected on waivers by the Detroit Tigers prior to the 1963 season, he won 18 games in the Tigers’ minor league system and made his major league debut at the end of that season, pitching a complete game with eight strikeouts to beat the White Sox 4-3.
Denny McLain was the American League Cy Young award recipient in both 1968 and 1969. Over those two seasons, he won 55 games with a 2.37 ERA and 15 shutouts.
His breakout season was 1965, when McLain went 16-6 with a 2.61 ERA. In a relief appearance against the Boston Red Sox on June 15, 1965, McLain struck out 14 batters in 6.2 innings, including the first seven he faced.
McLain won 20 games in 1966 and 17 in 1967. In both of those years, he led the American League in home runs allowed, a feat he repeated in 1968.
His 31 home runs given up in 1968 didn’t keep him from winning 31 games, the first 30-victory campaign since Dizzy Dean in 1934. McLain’s 31-6 record was achieved on a 1.96 ERA. He led the league in winning percentage (.838), games started (41), complete games (28), and innings pitched (336). He also struck out a career-high 280 batters. In the year of outstanding pitchers in both leagues, McLain collected both the Cy Young award and the Most Valuable Player award for the American League.
He followed up in 1969 with another outstanding season: 24-9 with a 2.84 ERA, again leading the league with 41 starts and 325 innings pitched. He was co-winner of the Cy Young award with Mike Cuellar of the Baltimore Orioles. At age 25, McLain had already notched 114 victories as the decade closed.
In 1965, Denny McLain pitched in relief against the Boston Red Sox and struck out the first seven batters he faced. In all, he fanned 14 Red Sox batters in 6.2 innings.
He would win only 17 more games for the rest of his career, as arm problems and suspensions brought such a promising career to such an abrupt end. He was traded to the Washington Senators for the 1971 season, and that year led the league with 22 losses. He split the 1972 season between the Oakland Athletics and the Atlanta Braves, going a combined 4-7 with a 6.37 earned run average. It was his final season in baseball.
In the five seasons from 1965-1969, McLain was 108-51 with a 2.95 ERA. Among pitchers in the 1960s, only Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson could match the magnificent five-year performance of Mr. McLain.
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