Chances are, if you’re interested in sports trivia, you’ve heard of Denny McLain.
The former professional baseball star was the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season when he earned 31 victories for the Detroit Tigers and walked away with the 1968 American League MVP award.
But that season is far more than a trivia answer to the city of Detroit, according to McLain. A permanent bond was created between the citizens of Detroit and the members of that team, McLain said after an autograph-signing event at Tuesday’s Bisons game.
The magic of the 1968 season started in 1967. That summer a talented Tigers team narrowly missed winning the pennant while the city descended into chaos as a riot large enough to warrant calling in the National Guard erupted in Detroit.
McLain maintains that the Tigers 1968 World Series run played a major part in the city’s healing process.
“The most important part of 1968 was what had happened in 1967 with the riots,” McLain said. “That team in ’68 kept that city together. Everybody went to bed with the radio in their ear.
“The night we won the pennant – black, white, green, yellow, pink – I don’t care what color you were, you were hugging and kissing each other. It was one of the great times the city has ever seen.”
McLain obviously knew he was an important member of the team at the time – he posted a 1.96 ERA and his 28 complete games led the American League – but he didn’t know his 31 wins would become so meaningful. He wasn’t the first to win 31 games and he didn’t know he’d be the last.
“It’s gotten to be – not in my eyes, but others – a bigger event as the years have gone by because no one has challenged it, no one’s come close … It’s become bigger than I ever thought it would. No one was chasing any records. We were chasing a pennant.”
The Tigers went on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series in seven games to cap a memorable season.
McLain further etched his place in baseball history when facing the Yankees late in the season.
McLain “grooved” a pitch to retiring New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle. Mantle was tied for third place all time with 534 home runs and was looking to hit at least one more round tripper before he left the game. McLain considered Mantle an idol and purposely threw a pitch directly over the plate that Mantle took deep.
The situation was similar to one at Major League Baseball’s most recent All-Star Game where National League Starter Adam Wainwright admitted to “grooving” a pitch to soon-to-retire Yankee Derek Jeter, which Jeter hit for a double.
McLain applauds Wainwright’s move and doesn’t have any regrets about his own.
“I appreciated it when he did it,” McLain said. “As soon as he hit the double, I knew something was up because a couple of his pitches were in the same place.
“He didn’t have to go on the record. We didn’t go on the record for years. But about four or five days after it happened I got a letter from the commissioner of Major League Baseball saying I was ruining the integrity of the game. He said ‘Mickey Mantle had 534 home runs, he didn’t need help getting to 536.’ But, what he didn’t realize was that Mantle did need help. And he still had to hit the ball.”
McLain won 24 games and his second consecutive Cy Young in 1969. He never won more than 10 games in a season before he retired in 1972.
But his 31-win campaign will likely stand as the last of its kind. And Detroit will always have that 1968 team.