One of the great things about this countdown is seeing how our readers compare longevity and peak performance. Denny McLain fits firmly into the latter category after spending just ten years in the big leagues. Of his eight seasons with the Tigers, he only posted an ERA better than league average in three. However, those three seasons were all exceptional, and his 1968 season is considered by some as one of the greatest single season pitching performances in baseball history. McLain's place in this countdown is highly skewed by familiarity -- he is the eighth member of the 1968 champs to crack the list -- but his short period of dominance captured the attention of the nation and the #32 place on our countdown.
Dennis Dale McLain was born on March 29th, 1944 in Chicago, Illinois. He signed with the Chicago White Sox as an amateur free agent in 1962 but only spent one year in their minor league system. He threw a no-hitter with 16 strikeouts in his professional debut with the Class D- Harlan Smokies but spent the majority of the year with the Clinton C-Sox in the Midwest League. After the 1962 season, McLain was put on waivers because he had not been called up to the majors -- this was an MLB rule at the time -- and got claimed by the Tigers.
McLain spent the majority of the 1963 season in the Tigers' farm system, but was called up in late September. In his major league debut, the 19 year old McLain pitched a complete game and hit a home run in a 4-3 Tigers victory. The home run -- a solo shot off White Sox starter Fritz Ackley -- would be the only one of his career. McLain finished the year with a 2-1 record and 4.29 ERA in 21 innings. Despite tossing two complete game victories in his first three starts, he began the 1964 season at Triple-A Syracuse. After a mid-June call-up, he finished the season 4-5 with a 4.05 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 100 innings.
Known for relying primarily on a high fastball, McLain had no trouble navigating the American League in his first full season in 1965. In 220 1/3 innings, he struck out 192 batters to just 62 walks and allowed a 2.61 ERA. His 16 wins led the team, while his 3.8 WAR was second to Mickey Lolich. McLain wasn't quite as good in 1966 -- he allowed 42 more walks than the season before and his ERA climbed to 3.92 -- but he won 20 games, made the All-Star team, and finished 15th in MVP voting.
In 1967, the Tigers were locked in a tight pennant race with the Boston Red Sox. The season ended in heartbreak as the Tigers were not able to clinch a tie with Boston on the last day of the season. McLain had a September to forget that year, going 0-2 with a whopping 8.27 ERA in five starts that month. Teammates were reportedly upset with McLain, who claimed that he injured his left foot by stubbing it on a garbage can at home.
McLain silenced his critics -- momentarily, at least -- with a season to remember in 1968. The talented Tigers won 103 games that year, with McLain claiming victories in 31 of those wins. He led the league with 336 innings pitched in 41 starts, including 28 complete games. His 4.44 strikeout-to-walk ratio was also a league best. Due to today's five-man pitching rotations and deeper bullpens, he may be the last pitcher to ever win 30 games in a season. McLain wasn't quite as successful in the World Series, losing two of the three games that he started. For his efforts, McLain won the AL MVP and Cy Young Awards. He is one of three pitchers in franchise history to win an MVP and Cy Young* in the same season.
*Hal Newhouser won the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year award during his 1944 MVP season, the era's equivalent of a Cy Young.
McLain followed up his MVP season with another epic campaign in 1969, winning 24 games and another Cy Young award. He once again led the league in innings pitched, and also tossed nine shutouts. In terms of WAR, McLain's 1968 and 1969 seasons rank among the best two-year stretches in franchise history. Only Justin Verlander's 2011 and 2012 seasons, and Hal Newhouser's four-year reign from 1944 to 1947 are better.
Unfortunately, McLain's off-field ventures would finally catch up with him. Catcher Bill Freehan wrote that McLain seemed to play by his own special set of rules, leaving many in the Tigers clubhouse to distrust the star right-hander. McLain was reportedly involved in a gambling ring with the Syrian mob, which may have been the reason for his mysterious foot injury during the 1967 stretch run. While he denied any involvement, he was suspended by Major League Baseball indefinitely before the 1970 season.
McLain's suspension was lifted on July 1st that year, but his performance left a lot to be desired. He went 3-5 with a 4.63 ERA in 14 starts, but was suspended by the team twice in late August, ending his season. The second offense, carrying a gun on a team flight, seemed to be the last straw for the Tigers. Shortly after the season ended, McLain was traded to the Washington Senators in an eight player deal that brought Joe Coleman, Ed Brinkman, and Aurelio Rodriguez to Detroit. McLain would only spend two more years in the majors, retiring in 1973 at the age of 29.
Without baseball to keep him busy, McLain turned to more sinister pursuits. He was arrested on charges of cocaine trafficking, racketeering, and embezzlement in 1984, but only spent 30 months in prison... that time. Twelve years later, McLain was arrested again for embezzlement, money laundering, mail fraud, and conspiracy to theft. After being released from prison in 2003, McLain has been arrested twice more for lesser charges, including an outstanding warrant in 2011.
It's unfortunate that McLain's off-field troubles took a front seat to his on-field performance, especially given his young age at retirement. Had he been able to keep things together, it's possible that we could have seen a few more amazing seasons like his back-to-back Cy Young years in 1968 and '69. Instead, we are left to wonder what could have been while appreciating the short glimpse of greatness that McLain provided in the late '60s.