- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 19, 2007

“He’s the original flim-flam man. Any day I expect him to come riding on a Conestoga wagon selling elixir [and] probably being run out of town. But that’s Denny.”

former teammate Jim Northrup

How about a pithier description of Dennis Dale McLain?

Briefly a good pitcher and subsequently a bad guy (the latter because of various nefarious schemes that twice landed him in prison).

Washington baseball fans of some age will remember McLain as the loud loser who went 10-22 in the Senators’ last season of 1971 after owner Bob Short wrecked his club by trading third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, shortstop Ed Brinkman and pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan to get him.

But three short years earlier, McLain astonished the baseball establishment by going 31-6 for the pennant-winning Tigers. That made him the first pitcher to reach 30 since Dizzy Dean in 1934 — and possibly the last ever.

With all teams using pitch counts for their starters and setup men and closers flourishing everywhere, 20-game winners have become extremely rare; there were none in 2006. The idea of someone winning 30 in a season now seems as quaint as that of Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn winning 59 for Providence of the National League in 1884 (while completing 73 of his 75 starts and working 678 innings).

In 1968, however, McLain got it all together and then some as the Tigers won their first pennant since 1945. Although he didn’t win his first game until the Tigers’ 10th, he then breezed through the American League with astounding ease.

This, of course, was what has come to be known as the year of the pitcher — so much so that the mound was lowered the following season to re-establish competitive balance. In 1968, in addition to McLain, Bob Gibson finished with an ERA of 1.12 as the St. Louis Cardinals won the National League pennant, and Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox took the AL batting title with a mere .301 average.

A national TV audience was watching on NBC as McLain went for No. 30 against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 14 at Tiger Stadium. For a long while, it appeared he wouldn’t get it. Reggie Jackson’s two home runs helped stake the A’s to a 4-3 lead entering the bottom of the ninth inning, though the 24-year-old right-hander had allowed just six hits and struck out 10 while completing his 27th game in 38 starts.

Then the gods and the odds swung in Denny’s favor, probably for the last time in his life. After the Tigers put two on base, left fielder Willie Horton lashed a game-winning, two-run line drive over the left fielder’s head. McLain had done it, albeit with a bit of help, and now the crowd of 44,087 erupted.

When Horton’s drive landed safely, McLain bolted off the bench to embrace the stocky slugger and other teammates. They hoisted him to their shoulders and marched somewhat precariously to the dugout, where a gaggle of photographers, TV crews and fans were waiting.

When the players let him down, McLain exchanged a few words and a hug with Dean and submitted to a TV interview with NBC analyst Sandy Koufax, who approached the hallowed milestone himself with 26 victories in 1965 and 27 in 1966 before arthritis in his pitching elbow ended his superb career at age 30.

After McLain disappeared into the dugout, the fans remained on their feet, chanting, “We want Denny!” So the pitcher returned to the field for his curtain call, waving to acknowledge the cheers, pose for pictures and sign autographs.

It was a great moment for McLain — and his final one. In this last season before divisional play, the Tigers defeated in Cardinals in a seven-game World Series, and teammate Mickey Lolich swiped the spotlight by winning three games.

After losing Games 1 and 4 to Gibson, McLain did contribute by winning Game 6 to keep the Tigers alive. After the season, he resumed playing the organ and singing in a well-received nightclub act. At the Shoreham Hotel’s Blue Room in the District, he teamed on stage with Morris Siegel, an extroverted sports columnist for the Washington Star and later The Washington Times.

Denny had one more good season in him, winning 24 games in 1969, although his ERA climbed from 1.96 to 2.80. But the strain of working 661 innings over two seasons took its toll. After the disastrous 1971 season with the Senators, he won just four more games for Oakland and Atlanta in 1972 before retiring at the unlikely age of 28. All told, he won 131 games over nine mostly good seasons and one sensational one.

If McLain’s uninhibited, devil-may-care attitude served him well on the field, it led to his undoing off it. After Sports Illustrated and Penthouse broke stories about his extensive gambling and bookmaking activities, McLain was suspended by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn for the first three months of the 1970 season. Later that year, the Tigers sat him down for dousing two Detroit sportswriters with buckets of water. And finally Kuhn suspended him again for carrying a gun on a team flight.

McLain finished the year with a 3-5 record and an aching arm. But Short liked the idea of collecting “characters” at RFK Stadium and made the disastrous deal with Detroit over the violent objections of manager Ted Williams — perhaps hastening the Senators’ departure for Texas in September 1971.

Once McLain was done with the major leagues, his life spiraled further downhill. He served more than a decade behind bars for embezzlement, racketeering, mail fraud and conspiracy to steal pension funds from a company he owned. His wife, Sharon, the daughter of Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau, divorced (and later remarried) him, and an adult daughter was killed in a car accident.

“No one is sorrier for everything that happened than I am — nobody,” McLain told the Detroit News in 2003. In his case, the apology was too late and too little.

Upon his release from prison, McLain released a biography with the unnecessary title “I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect.”

But for one magic season, Denny McLain was pretty close.

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