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Fifty years ago, Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain, now 74, became the last major leaguer to win 30 or more games in a season. But after baseball, McLain’s life fell apart, and he spent time in prison. He talks about triumph, disgrace and the road to redemption.
You won 31 games in 1968 — the only player to win 30 since the 1930s. What is the most memorable moment from that season?
After we won the World Series in St. Louis, the plane flying in front of us as we headed to Detroit — it was not part of our contingent — was swarmed by fans when it landed. They mobbed the wrong plane! But that celebration was a moment frozen in time. It was a year after the ’67 riots in Detroit, and that day it didn’t matter if you were black, white, green, yellow or pink — everyone was hugging and kissing.
You pitched 336 innings and had 28 complete games in 1968, both of which would dwarf today’s best efforts. What did your arm feel like at season’s end?
I couldn’t wipe myself in the toilet. The longer I pitched (10 seasons), the worse it became. Today, my rotator cuff is severed. For me to shake your hand, I have to take my left hand and use it to lift my right. I am not going to cry about it, but I am in pain all the time.
Your right shoulder had regular cortisone shots. Did that cut your career short?
I had 230 to 240 shots, but it didn’t work out over time. The cortisone didn’t cure anything; it took away the inflammation. It allowed me to win more games because I was in my prime. You gotta do what you gotta do when you gotta do it.
Voters long ago passed on you for the Hall of Fame. Were they wrong?
Sandy Koufax [Hall of Fame pitcher with the Dodgers] and I are just a few games apart when it comes to wins [Koufax had 165 wins; McLain had 131]. I had a lot of shutouts and complete games. My family is hurt much more than I am. I have the memory and the thrill of being a player — that’s my Hall of Fame. The fan recognition is incredibly flattering. Nobody enjoyed the one-on-one competition as much as I did. After retiring from baseball, I played golf every day for money for about 20 years. It was in my DNA.
Was that part of what led to your troubles with the law?
When my baseball career ended, I was at a loss in many ways. History accurately depicts a guy that was out of control. I went through money like it was water. Looking for opportunities, I got involved with people I should not have. I paid the price in more ways than one. I hurt my family in numerous ways. I am sorry, very sorry. But I cannot change the past.
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You did two prison terms for, among other things, embezzlement and extortion. Was that the low point of your life?
Denny McLain has had two tragedies in his life: Our daughter was killed by a drunk driver [in 1992], and my wife, Sharon, getting Parkinson’s disease. Otherwise, I’ve had a great life. To worry about the other things that happened many, many years ago doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to a charity or a good cause. I enjoy helping people. I will continue to do so until the day the Lord decides he either wants me or doesn’t.
I’ve got a whole lot of things to talk to God about. Number one is, you have this damned old-age thing screwed up. We should have been born as old people and aged into childhood.
Do former Major League stars like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, who used performance-enhancing drugs, belong in the Hall?
I don’t think those big names ever will get into the Hall. Bottom line: If you used that stuff, you don’t belong.
Does Pete Rose belong in Cooperstown?
I love Pete. But I’ve told him this a thousand times — “You have nothing coming regarding the Hall of Fame.” He may be the greatest player in the history of the game. Pete did a terrible thing, betting on baseball. But if they let anyone in the Hall of Fame who used drugs, let Pete in.
What are you up to these days?
I work every day. I’ve got a very sick wife who I take care of the best I can. I do a lot of sports memorabilia shows. I am always looking to speak at a dinner — that’s my schtick.
I enjoy life today as much as I did when I was 24. This year I am being roasted by the Polish American club in Detroit. There’s enough material on me for that to last two days.
— Interview by Jon Saraceno