Last season, the Detroit Tigers celebrated the 50th anniversary of the club’s 1968 championship team. It was a team loaded with big-name talent. Names like Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Norm Cash dotted the roster. And then there was Denny McLain. How McLain became a Tiger is an interesting story.
In 1963, the Detroit Tigers made a rather pedestrian waiver claim. They selected an 18-year-old pitcher from the Chicago White Sox.
The young right-hander was 5-8 in the minor leagues the previous year, but despite his subpar record, McLain did throw a no-hitter and had a strikeout rate of over 10 per nine innings.
Regardless, when the White Sox failed to put him in the major leagues the next season, baseball rules at the time dictated that he become available to other teams and the Tigers jumped.
It didn’t take long for McLain to reach the major leagues. In 1963, McLain put together an eye-opening season, going 18-6 with a 2.89 ERA in two minor league stops.
At the age of 19, the Tigers promoted McLain to the big leagues in September of that season.
The talented right hander’s first major league start came on September 21st at Tiger Stadium. Ironically he would face the Chicago White Sox, the same team that just one season ago decided he didn’t have a major league future.
Despite his tender age, McLain was not intimidated. The White Sox were 24 games over .500 at the time and McLain had never thrown a pitch in the big leagues. It did not seem to be the optimal time to make one’s debut.
He walked the first major league hitter he faced, center fielder Mike Hershberger. Yet, any nerves that may have existed quickly disappeared when McLain picked Hershberger off first base and proceeded to strikeout Don Buford and Gene Stephens.
McLain’s first big league inning was in the books.
By the time the evening had ended, the rookie had twirled a complete game, allowing one earned run and striking out eight. It is exactly what the Tigers had hoped for from their prized youngster.
What they didn’t expect was a jolt of offense as well. In his second major league at-bat in the 5th inning, McLain homered off Fritz Ackley for his first major league hit. It would be the only home run McLain would hit in his 10-year major league career.
While it was one of the best major league debuts by a Tiger over the years, few saw it. The attendance that day was only 4,291.
McLain would, of course, become best known for being the last pitcher to win 30 games, posting a 31-6 record in 1968, leading the Tigers to a World Series title.
No one had won 30 games in the major leagues since Dizzy Dean in 1934. No one has won 30 games in a season since.
The intriguing thing about McLain is that he posted some dominant seasons without overpowering opposing hitters. For his career, he averaged only six strikeouts per nine innings in the major leagues
These days, the league’s elite are averaging almost double that total.
Eight of McLain’s ten seasons were spent with the Tigers, and while wearing the Old English D, he would win two Cy Young awards and an MVP.
Not a bad for a guy claimed off the waiver wire.
Yet, his post-baseball career has been marred by a pair of felony convictions and prison terms.
Embezzlement and extortion charges are a permanent part of his resume. But, for Tigers fans, so is the magic of 1968.