Before I get to the story of Denny McLain, I’d like to start off with a few childhood memories…
Ah, spring is upon us and the baseball season is about to start. As a kid, I loved the game and, to some extent, I still do. Maybe it was because I grew up in Brooklyn, New York and was a diehard fan of the “Miracle Mets”. Maybe it was because my parents got me started early by encouraging me to play ball in something called “The Police Athletic League” (PAL) where neighborhood kids could all join and get their first taste of “organized” ball. Sure, there were plenty of pick-up games to be played but man, they supplied us with uniforms and it all felt so …official.
Anybody else remember the feeling you had when you donned your uniform for the first time? Sure, the pants were probably too baggy, the shirt didn’t fit and the cap was either 2 sizes to big or small but damn…The season started with a parade of all the teams through our local streets. Parents, relatives, neighbors, and curious onlookers all turned out to cheer the kids as they made their way to their first game. Maybe it was excuse for them to reacquaint themselves with one another after a long winter, maybe it was a sense of duty they felt towards their kids. Either way, it doesn’t matter, I still get warm feelings as I recall smiling and waving at the folks who lined the streets. I still get warm feelings recalling my first “home run” which was in fact more a comedy of errors than a majestic blast that cleared the wall over the outstretched arms of an opposing player. I still recall getting so nervous before games that I felt as though my bladder would explode and I would be standing in a puddle of my own pee in front of the entire world. I guess I can smile now but at the time, this was some damn important stuff. Anyway, so much for the trip down memory lane.
You would think that with all the nostalgia and reminiscing that I just went through that I would pick a baseball hero to write about. Quite the opposite, Denny McLain can probably be considered a baseball tragedy…
Life on the Field
If you’re a fan of baseball, Denny McLain will be remembered for two things. He was the last pitcher in the 20th century to record 30 wins in a single season (1968) and he wound up spending an awful lot of time in prison. He went 31-6 with a 1.96 earned run average for the Detroit Tigers that year and led them to their first pennant since 1945. He also won the league's Most Valuable Player award as well as the Cy Young Award winner. He was 24 years old at the time, had the world on a string and the future couldn’t have looked brighter.
It only took about 16 months for it all to start falling apart. After the 1969 season he was hit with charges of bookmaking that went back to the 1967 season. The Commissioner of Baseball, Bowie Kuhn, suspended him until July 1st of 1970. It marked the first of three suspensions McLain would receive that year.
It seems that in 1969 Detroit was again involved in a pennant race and heading into the homestretch of the season, McLain came up with a rather mysterious injury to his toes and was unable to take his place in the rotation. He gave conflicting stories about the circumstances that led up to his injury, none quite making any sense. Sports Illustrated then offered up a theory that his toes were broken by members of organized crime in return for welching on a $46,000 gambling debt that he had incurred.
Later in the year and possibly stressed over his mounting gambling losses, McLain was being interviewed by member of the press and responded by dumping ice water over two of them. His team, not the league, took action this time and suspended him again. It only took him about a month to run afoul of baseball authorities again, this time in Chicago. Witnesses reported that he was seen in a local restaurant waving a gun around, a violation of his probation and he was suspended for the remainder of the season.
Despite having earned over $100,000 the last season, McLain was forced to file for bankruptcy. In addition to the money being gone, so was his fastball. It wasn’t long before he was traded away to the Washington Senators (then managed by the legendary Ted Williams) where he promptly lost 22 games. By the time 1972 had rolled around, McLain had been traded twice more, once to the Oakland A’s and from there to the Atlanta Braves. He was cut later that year.
Life off the Field
Life away from the baseball diamond didn’t prove any easier. McLain took a number of odd jobs that included things such as trying to promote a minor league hockey team and buying and owning a radio station. The first one ended when there was some questionable items in the team budget, the second when his partners and fellow investors filed a lawsuit to get their money back. McLain was left stranded and strapped for cash.
He took a job playing the organ at local Detroit bars and lounges and even managed to get a record deal. He actually was able to obtain financing and open his own bar/restaurant by the name of Gaffner’s. It wasn’t long before that too failed. By now, his weight had ballooned to over 300 pounds and he took a job playing the synthesizer at a local Detroit bar whose claim to fame was that they featured ex-heavyweight champion Leon Spinks as one of the bartenders.
McLain decided to head for greener pastures and took off for Lakeland, Florida. It was there that he became involved in an outfit called First Fidelity Financial Services, rumored to be run by the Mafia. By the time 1985 had rolled around, McLain had been indicted on federal charges of racketeering, extortion and running narcotics. He was found guilty and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
McLain got a bit of a break in 1987 when his conviction was overturned on matters of procedure. The government re-indicted him and McLain decided to plead guilty. This time he got off easier. He received a sentence of 12 years but had it reduced to five based on time served and a probationary clause. He was out in 1990.
McLain decided to return to his old stomping grounds in Detroit. He found work as a radio announcer and he looked like he had his life straightened out.
I guess old habits die hard. In 1994, he convinced some associates and partners to buy a meat processing company. In 1996, it went bankrupt. Later that same year he was indicted for looting the company’s pension fund to the tune of 12.5 million dollars. He was subsequently convicted of conspiracy, theft, money laundering and mail fraud and sentenced to eight years in prison. He now calls the McLean Federal Correctional Institute in Bradford, Pennsylvania home, a long way from the baseball field...
Source for the childhood memories – my brain
Source for the McLain stuff – ESPN.com