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When Denny McLain stood baseball on its ear

The Year of the Tiger in 1968 was also the Year of Denny McLain. He’s shown here winning his 30th game Sept. 14, 1968.

1968 was The Year  of the Tiger in China, The Year of the Tiger in baseball and clearly the year of Tiger Denny McLain. The 24-year-old right-hander won 31 of  36 games — Detroit’s first and only 30-game winner, the major league’s biggest winner  in 37 years and the major’s first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934.

The 24-year-old right-hander won 31 of 36 games — Detroit’s first and only 30-game winner, the major league’s biggest winner in 37 years and the major’s first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. He won the Cy Young award, the Most Valuable Player Award and The Sporting News Pitcher of the Year and Player of the Year Awards.

The ’68 Tigers were a team of hell-raisers. They liked one another and hung out with one another. They won game after game after game with late inning rallies and grabbed the World Championship from the defending Champs St. Louis Cardinals, coming back from a three game to one deficit in a deciding seventh game.

It was a season to end all seasons coming just a year after one of the darkest times in Detroit history. The 1967 riots had the city burning for five days, 45 were killed and millions of dollars of property damage occurred. It was a violent time. In fact, credit has been given to the 1968 Tigers and their championship season as having nursed the city back to health, giving its residents a common thread to rally around.

McLain injured his foot late in the 1967 season, but offered several differing versions of how it happened. Sports Illustrated said a mob enforcer stomped on it.

As the fires died in 1967, the Tigers lost the pennant in the final play of the final game as Dick McAuliffe hit into a game-ending double play.

The Tigers believed they had the best team in the American League in 1967 and were determined to make up for it in the new season. This was a team that had been through the grinder. It had made them harder and tougher .

It didn’t take long to show how right they were. They won, and won, and won. Detroit captured first place for keeps on May 10 , won 103 games, and finished 12 games ahead of second-place Baltimore. The Tigers led the majors in home runs with 185 (52 more than any other club), led the American League in scoring and fewest runs allowed, and led the majors in fielding. Everything clicked as a team.

They proved adept at being down but never out. Forty times during the season the club won games when trailing or tied in the seventh inning or later and continued such play into the post season.

They were a colorful, feisty team. Their ultimate hero Mickey Lolich, threw left-handed and rode motorcycles to the ball park.

McLain drank 25 Pepsis a day, played the organ at night spots and placed bets over the clubhouse phone.

Gates Brown, a prized pinch-hitter, had spent time in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Slugger Wille Horton wanted to be a boxer and Center fielder Mickey Stanley, a top defensive outfielder, agreed to play shortstop in the World Series, so that Al Kaline could get into the lineup.

McLain with his enormous talent and competitive fire led the way for the Tigers. Nothing was impossible for him in 1968. The world was his. When you win 31 games, nobody asks questions — people tend to overlook things.

His magical season brought him unlimited fame and adoration. Here he meets Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower prior to the game the day after his won his 30th. Tigers owner John Fetzer is at center.

      Denny came to the Tigers as a brazen young pitcher in 1963. He was the son-in-law of Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau. McLain himself acted like a Hall of Famer — there was nothing he couldn’t do or wouldn’t say.

He told numerous stories about a foot injury the previous season that no one could follow. He sounded off about the Detroit fans and the ballpark. Reporters crowded around his locker, waiting for the good quotes. They were never disappointed. Management, of course, was furious about his comments. Fans would get mad but it didn’t last long … not as long as he was winning.

He even showed for Spring Training with a mop of red hair — denying he had dyed it. “I did not dye my hair, no matter what anyone says. It was Mother Nature,” he explained.

Tigers owner Fetzer congratulates McLain on his 30th victory.

      Sportswriters felt he was the best interview in the clubhouse, even if he didn’t keep his facts straight. As Detroit News columnist Joe Falls wrote, “anyone who could drink 25 Pepsis a day, play the organ in his spare time and win 31 games in a season was quite clearly, a very special person who deserved special privileges.”

But as remarkable as McLain was, he was not the only hero. In a season that saw only one American Leaguer hit .300, left fielder Willie Horton led the Tigers at .285 with 36 home runs. Right fielder Jim Northrup finished third in the league with 90 RBIs; four of his 21 home runs were grand slams, three in one week. Al Kaline (.287) started the season in right field, was out five weeks after being hit in the hand by a pitch, and returned to alternate with Norm Cash at first base.

But McLain definitely made the greatest impact on the game of baseball in the summer of 1968.

By June 13, the outspoken controversial pitcher had won 10 games. By mid-July, his record was 18 wins, 2 losses.

On September 14, McLain won his 30th game, making him the first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934 and the first American Leaguer since Lefty Grove in 1931.

The fans cheered “We want Denny! We want Denny!” demanding a curtain call from the dugout. McLain was already in the clubhouse surrounded by the media, but the cheers were so deafening he had to go out. For once McLain seemed speechless. He didn’t know how to handle all this love and emotion. He waved to the frenzied crowd.

McLain with his family during the 1968 season. Wife Sharon is at left.

      Three days later, September 17, the Tigers clinched the A.L. pennant in a victory over the Yankees.

The crowd at Tiger Stadium (46, 512) went wild! Fans actually tore down the left field screen trying to get out on the field to celebrate the Tiger’s first pennant since 1945. When it was announced Sept. 23 that World Series ticket applications would be taken through the mail, more than 50,000 cars descended on the downtown post office, virtually shutting down the entire downtown area.

“Everybody is celebrating up and down Michigan Ave. and Washington Boulevard — I feel very good. This is what you dream about from the time you’re a kid. Whether it’s playing, managing or coaching,” said Tigers manager Mayo Smith.

Detroit entered the World Series as underdogs against the Cardinals. Game one featured one of the finest pitching matches in World Series history as McLain, 31-game winner, took on Bob Gibson, 22 wins and an all-time-record low 1.12 ERA. But the game was all Gibson, who recorded 17 strikeouts and a 4-0 victory. St. Louis won three of the first four to back the Tigers to the brink of elimination. Then Mickey Lolich won Game 5, McLain won game 6 and Lolich, with only two days rest, captured the Series MVP award with a 4-1, five-hitter in Game 7 in St. Louis. Detroit exploded in celebration. The Tigers were winners again!

“The entire downtown area was jammed, said McLain. “There were so many people waiting to meet our plane, they had to close the airport. At the time, the world seemed wonderfully warm.”

As McLain could do no wrong in 1968, he could do no right in 1970. He seemed to have lost control of his personal life and his career. He squandered his wealth, and was suspended by Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in July for involvement in bookmaking. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Sports Illustrated alleged connections with the mob, he threw a bucket of water over the heads of two sportswriters, and was suspended by Tigers General Manager Jim Campbell for carrying a gun on a Tiger road trip. On the eve of the 1970s World Series The Tigers traded him to the Washington Senators and his days with Detroit were over.

McLain plays the organ in a St. Louis club on the eve of the opening game of the ’68 World Series in St. Louis. The crowd grew to standing-room-only as word of McLain’s appearance spread.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. References also used: Fifty Years with the Tigers, Fred T. Smith, 1983; The Detroit Tigers, An Illustrated History, Joe Falls, 1989; The Tigers of ’68, George Cantor, 1997)By Mary Bailey / The Detroit News