It’s 50 years and counting for Denny McLain.

The former Detroit Tigers remains the last pitcher to win 30 games in a single major league baseball season. McLain went 31-6 in 1968 as he led the Tigers to the American League pennant. Detroit went on to capture the World Series, and McLain won both the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards.

No one is likely to win 30 games in a season again in Major League Baseball. Pitchers are now used in a five-man rotation instead of a four-man set-up, which means fewer starts and innings. Today’s pitchers are lucky to start 33 games and pitch 200 innings; McLain had 41 starts and threw 28 complete games in pitching 336 innings.

McLain will turn 74 on Thursday, the opening day of the 2018 season. His life has had all sorts of complications and controversies over the years, but no one will ever be able to take 1968 away from him.

He was in Depew on Sunday for a sports collectables show, and offered some tales about that magical season (some editing of the conversation has been done, mostly to provide background information and historical accuracy) :

Buffalo Sports Page: The Tigers had an outstanding lineup throughout the late 1960s, but you just missed winning the pennant in 1967. Was that team determined to make up for that in 1968?

McLain: We had a great team.  In 1967, we should have won. That was my fault. I got hurt in September. I had pitched that night. When I walked down the hallway, I kicked my locker. That didn’t help. When I got home, I was still fuming about losing the ball game. I fell asleep on the couch. Almost every night, I would watch the last show of the night on Ch. 7 ABC, “The Untouchables.” Then I’d go to sleep. I fell asleep and had my leg underneath my butt. I had an English sheep dog and he started chasing something in the garage. That scared the heck out of me. I jumped up, landed on my foot and sprained my ankle. I didn’t pitch until the last game of the year. We lost by a game. If I’d pitched, we’d win. There was no question about it. I’d already won 17 games.

During the winter of ’67, general manager Jim Campbell tried to trade me. They came very close to a deal with Minnesota. It was the best trade he never made, because we won it easy the next year.

LOADED LINEUP

Denny McLain’s autobiography, which was updated in 2013.

BSP: That team had a lot of power, with eight players hitting at least 10 home runs.

McLain: We had Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, Dick McAuliffe – all All-Stars. The outfield had Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, and Jim Northrop. Nobody had that kind of talent. We knew we were going to win it. It was a matter of staying healthy. Knock on wood, everyone pretty much stayed healthy except Al Kaline. But we had such a good team that when he hurt himself in May (broken arm), Horton, Stanley, Northrup, and Gates Brown could cover for anybody.

Offensively, nobody could hit better than Kaline. Nobody knew how to drive in a run like Kaline. But our production didn’t fall off because we still had bombers. Our consistency was better when he was in the lineup. I still say he’s the best player I ever saw on a day-to-day basis. The best player I ever saw was Mickey Mantle in the ‘60s when I came up. Al has been the face of the Tigers for 50 years – a really good guy.

BSP: You had pitched three full seasons at that point, so I would guess that at 24 you thought you were ready for a big year.

McLain: I had already won 16, 20, and 17 games, and there was no reason I wasn’t going to win some more – especially with the arguments I was having with the front office after ’67. Campbell told me at the end of the winter, “If I could have traded you, you would have been gone in a New York second.” I said, “Then you wouldn’t win anything.”

My first two starts I was 0-0. I pitched well, but the same relief pitcher, Jon Warden, got both wins. But it was quite a year. I had 16 wins at the (All-Star) break. At that point, it was a matter of timing. As long as I stayed healthy, I could stay ahead (of a 30-win pace). Ray Oyler, my roommate, said to me, “You got to tell me the truth. Are you going to win 30?” I said, “You’ve been my roommate all year. What do you think?” He said, “I don’t see how you can miss.” I said, “To be honest with you I don’t think so either. If I miss, we don’t go to the World Series.” That’s the only feeling I kept having.

BSP: That team was more or less in control of the American League almost all of the way, taking first place for good on May 10.

McLain: We were in a race with Baltimore until late August or so. It depends on how you define a race. I define a pennant race by saying if you haven’t clinched it, you’re in a race. (The Tigers won 11 straight games in mid-September to pull way ahead.) A lot of us had played together for several years by that point. We knew when a guy was going to get a base hit. We knew that guys knew what to do – hit-and-run, steal a base, whatever. Unbelievable.

BSP: Racial tensions existed throughout the country in the summer of 1968. The Tigers are credited for being a unifying influence in the community that year. What was it like to be there then?

McLain: Jim Campbell asked almost all of us if we could appear in high schools, community rooms, senior homes and things like that, to try to keep the roof on the place. We went out and did the right thing. I’m sure every day of the season (when the team was home) there were one or two Tigers out in Michigan.

That winter of ’67-‘68 was tough. We were relieved when we went to spring training – we weren’t around it anymore. Everybody was carrying a gun. Thank God nothing further happened. Cooler heads prevailed. That would have been real easy to happen again. ’68 was a hot summer again. While the city was under control, you never thought the city was completely calm. You knew it was one match away from something happening. I think we all got very lucky.

And the Tigers had a lot to do with it. Everyone went to bed with their (transistor) radios. The only thing people were talking about was, ‘Did the Tigers win last night?” The crowds in the ballpark were terrific. They were lined up every night. It was nice to have everyone pulling for you.

THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

Silent footage of Denny McLain’s 30th win in 1968. He’s wearing number 17. That’s Reggie Jackson (#9) hitting a home run for Oakland. Julie Nixon Eisenhower and David Eisenhower are shown in the stands. 

BSP: Your 30th win was on national television against Oakland on Sept. 14, and I still remember the way you ran out on the field after the Tigers rallied in the bottom of the ninth. What was that day like?

McLain: Nobody ever thought we’d lose the ball game, especially when we got the first hit. Kaline walked and later scored. Horton hit one off the left field wall to win it. Whatever was needed for us to win seemed to happen that year. It was one of those fabled times, and it was for a city that absolutely required it to survive. That was the biggest moment there in 10, 20, 30 years.

BSP: Your reward for the 103-win season was a date with the St. Louis Cardinals, the defending champions. They were led by Bob Gibson, who had one of the great years in pitching history (22-9 with a 1.12 earned-run average). What was the Tigers’ attitude going into the World Series?

McLain: They had no pitcher besides Gibson. He was good, but he couldn’t win more than two or three – which he did (two). That’s what we said before the Series. It may be hard to believe, but no one ever thought we would lose. I thought we took it for granted when we lost two of the first three games. They just did not impress us at all – especially the pitching staff. All we had to do was beat the other guys, and we did. (Mickey Lolich won three games, including Game Seven, and McLain took Game Six on two days rest to beat the Cardinals.)

BSP: One of the most amazing aspects of that series was that Mayo Smith put Mickey Stanley, an outstanding outfielder, at shortstop – where he had played only nine games in the majors. How did everyone react to that?

McLain: They put Mickey at shortstop for one reason – he could hit a little bit. Ray couldn’t hit his weight (.135 that season). He was a good guy, good team guy. Ray was terrific with it. He said, “I lived for this day. I’ll do whatever it takes. Please – let’s win this World Series.”

The best thing that could have happened to us took place in the first game. When I started the game, we were all up tight with Mickey at shortstop. Mickey was a really good athlete, as most guys are at that age. I remember saying, the most important thing is where the first pitch was hit. It was one hop to short, Mickey threw him out, the tension was over and the game was on. After that we had no concerns. Ray came in to play short later on in four games. He played his part and never said one word. It tells you about his character.

THE YEAR AFTER

BSP: After the season you won the MVP and Cy Young Awards, and were a world champion. That’s a tough act to follow. Did you think you could do it again in 1969?

McLain: I was two weeks ahead of the schedule I set the year before at one point. Mayo Smith was coming to me every few days asking if I wanted to pitch. He’d let me pitch every night if I wanted to. But I just wanted to take my normal turn. Then what happens is, you get shut out once, get shelled a time or two, and you’re even with the pace. The thought went through my head, “Can I do it again?” A break here and break there, and I could have done it. (McLain was 14-5 at the All-Star Break. He finished 24-9 and won another Cy Young Award).

We were surprised in ’69 that we didn’t win it. Lolich pitched a bit better in ’69. He was more consistent. We still had a good pitching staff. But when Baltimore wins 109 games, you can’t beat that. That team should have won it all a couple of times, but we all want to win once and we had that dream fulfilled. God, we had a great time.

BSP: Things turned sour after that, with arm problems and off-field issues, and you were out of baseball after the 1972 season at the age of 28. Now here we are, and it’s been 50 years since that 30-win season.

McLain: It’s hard to believe. I can’t believe I’m older than everyone else now. I was the youngest guy on the block forever. But no more.

BSP: But – assuming the game doesn’t change too much from the way it’s played now – you’ll always be remembered as the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season. How does that make you feel?

McLain: It’s nice. It’s very nice. I got my kids and grandkids, and it means a lot to them.

Denny McLain greets fans during a sports collectors show in Depew on Sunday.

(Thanks to Rob Schilling of the Sports Collectors Connection for help in setting up this interview. For more on the 1968 baseball season, see Tim Wendel’s book, “The Summer of ’68.”)

Budd Bailey

Budd Bailey has been involved in almost every aspect of the local sports scene for the last 40 years. He worked for WEBR Radio, the Buffalo Sabres' public relations department and The Buffalo News during that time. In that time he covered virtually every aspect of the area's sports world, from high schools to the Bills and Sabres and everything in between. Along the way, Budd served as a play-by-play announcer for the Bisons, an analyst for the Stallions, and a talk-show host. He won the National Lacrosse League's Tom Borrelli Award as the media personality of the year in 2011, and was a finalist for that same award in 2017. Budd's seventh and eighth books, one on the Transcontinental Railroad and the other about Ichiro Suzuki, are scheduled to be released in the fall.

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