Childhood & Early Life
McLain was born in Markham, Illinois, US, on March 29, 1944, to Irish Catholic couple Betty and Tom McLain. He grew up with his brother, Timmy (some sources mention “Tim”).
McLain’s father encouraged him to play baseball from a tender age and traveled along with him to local leagues. McLain showed signs of a promising pitcher.
He attended ‘Ascension Grade School.’ Later, he joined Chicago’s ‘Mount Carmel High School’ on a baseball scholarship.
McLain played as a pitcher and shortstop for his high-school baseball team.
Following his graduation, he played in the minor leagues such as the ‘Appalachian League,’ the ‘Midwest League,’ and the league system of the ‘Detroit Tigers,’ and had a remarkable run.
He had a dream minor league professional debut with the ‘Harlan Smokies,’ against the ‘Salem Rebels,’ as he threw a no-hitter and struck out 16, on June 28, 1962
The management of the ‘Tigers,’ impressed with his performance, promoted him to play with their major league team.
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On September 21, 1963, at the age of 19, McLain made his major league debut with the ‘Tigers,’ against the ‘Chicago White Sox.’ His performance was as good as that of his minor-league debut. He held the ‘White Sox’ to an earned run on 7 hits, picked off two baserunners, and hit a home run. It was the only home run in his major-league career, and he was one of the six teenaged pitchers to hit one since the 1920s.
According to McLain, the tides turned in his favor after he pitched for the ‘Mayaguez Indians’ in the ‘Puerto Rico Baseball League’ of the 1964–1965 winter season. He posted 13–2 and helped his team emerge as the victors of the league. He resumed playing with the ‘Tigers’ in 1965. On June 15, he set a major-league record for relief pitchers by striking out the first seven batters.
His remarkable run continued in 1966, as he started the season with 13–4. His performance earned him the role of starter pitcher in the year’s ‘All-Star Game.’ He retired all the nine batters he faced in just 28 pitches. He closed the season with a score of 20–14, an earned-run average (ERA) of 3.92, and 192 strikeouts.
The 1967 season witnessed the new pitching coach, Johnny Sain, a former major-league pitcher. However, the season ended with a loss for the ‘Tigers’ in a hard-fought four-team pennant race among them and the ‘Boston Red Sox,’ the ‘Minnesota Twins,’ and the ‘Chicago White Sox.’ McLain ended the season with 17–16 and 3.79 ERA but remained winless after August 29.
The season of 1968 was arguably the best for McLain. With a 31–6 finish, he became the only pitcher after Dizzy Dean (1934) to have achieved this feat. He thus helped his team earn the pennant on September 17. His role in the team’s victory at ‘The World Series’ against starter Bob Gibson-led ‘St. Louis Cardinals’ was prominent. His performances earned him the ‘Cy Young Award’ and the ‘American League Most Valuable Player Award.’
Although McLain completed the 1969 season with an impressive 24–9 record, the team could only muster a distant second spot, behind the ‘Baltimore Orioles,’ in the division. However, he grabbed his second ‘Cy Young Award,’ sharing it with Mike Cuellar of the ‘Baltimore Orioles.’
The disappointing 1970 season was his last with the ‘Tigers.’ The year witnessed the beginning of the end of his illustrious career. It also saw the downfall of his personal life, as he found himself on the wrong side of the law due to his involvement in bookmaking.
As a part of an eight-player deal, McLain moved to the ‘Washington Senators’ in 1970. His feud with the manager, Ted Williams, was infamous. His ability to throw fastballs was also on the decline, and his troubled arm only made it worse. He took cortisone shots, which caused more problems to his arm. He was also gaining weight, which added to the existing troubles.
After a forgettable season in 1971, he was traded to the ‘Oakland Athletics.’ After five starts, he was traded to the ‘Atlanta Braves’ for Orlando Cepeda. His last major-league game was on September 12, 1972, against the ‘Cincinnati Reds.’ The ‘Braves’ released him on March 26, 1973. Later, he played with two minor-league clubs, ‘Des Moines’ and ‘Shreveport,’ for a short period and declared retirement at the age of 29. This brought an unceremonious end to a career which could have been perfect.
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He had a one-season stint with the ‘London Majors,’ in Ontario, Canada.
He continued to work in sports as an analyst, appearing on sports radio shows and working with a minor-league hockey team.
McLain’s first brush with the law occurred in 1967, when he got involved with bookmaking. This was brought to light in 1970, when the incident was reported in a ‘Sports Illustrated’ article. As a consequence of this, he was suspended by Bowie Kuhn, the then-commissioner of ‘Major League Baseball.’ He was suspended again by Kuhn for carrying a gun on a team flight. That year, he filed bankruptcy for the first time. In 1977, he became bankrupt again due to poor business decisions.
He has been convicted multiple times for crimes as serious as money laundering, theft, mail fraud, embezzlement, racketeering, extortion, and cocaine trafficking.
He was sentenced to 23 years of imprisonment in April 1985 but was released after 30 months, as an appeals court founds lapses in the procedures. His second stint in prison lasted for 7 years, till 2003. It was for financial fraud at ‘Peet Packing,’ a company he owned.
Family & Personal Life
McLain’s father, Tom, had married his mother, Betty, at the age of 18. During Tom’s high-school days, he was a star shortstop. However, he never pursued a career because Betty vehemently discouraged it.
McLain’s father was serving in the army when he was born. Later, Tom also worked as a truck driver, an insurance advisor, and an electric-organ teacher.
McLain learned to play the organ from his father and also became adept at it. He even earned by playing at various events, occasions, and venues during the off-seasons.
After Tom’s untimely death at age 36, due to a heart attack, Betty remarried. This event impacted the then-15-year-old McLain. He does not have good memories of his mother.
In his teens, McLain met Sharyn Boudreau, his future wife. She is the daughter of former major-league player Lou Boudreau.
McLain and Sharyn married in 1963. They divorced in 1998, when he was sent to prison. Upon his release in 2003, they remarried. They have four children: Kristin, Denny Jr., Tim, and Michelle. Kristin met a tragic end in a car crash.
McLain has authored two autobiographies: ‘Strikeout: The Story of Pitcher’ and ‘I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect.’
After Sharyn was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, McLain decided to get healthier and lose weight so that he could take better care of her.
He has made contributions to ‘Make-A-Wish Foundation.’
McLain credits his success to the then-manager of the ‘Tigers,’ Charlie Dressen, a person he has always admired. However, their association was short-lived, as Dressen stopped working with the ‘Tigers’ due to a heart condition and passed away soon after.
After a string of poor performances in 1967, he revealed on September 18 that year that he had injured two toes of his left foot. According to him, he had fallen asleep while watching TV and had stubbed his toes while getting up when he heard some noises in the garbage can.
The book ‘The Year of the Pitcher’ is based on the performances of McLain and Gibson in the year 1968.