When he got a chance to pitch in the Detroit rotation on a regular basis in 1965, Denny McLain had a plan. The the young right-hander knew that to be a respected pitcher in the big leagues he had to perform over several seasons. That’s why Denny had a three-year plan. Little did he know that he would only enjoy a handful of good seasons, they would be outstanding, and then his baseball career would plummet to unforeseen depths.
In ’65 the bespectacled McLain went 16-6 with a 2.61 ERA at the age of 21. He followed with his first twenty-win season in 1966, then took a slight step back in 1967 when he went 17-16 and surrendered a league-high 35 home runs. But in 1968 at the age of 24 he was the toast of baseball, winning 31 games and the Cy Young and MVP awards. He won Game Six of the World Series also. After a hectic off-season in which he squeezed every ounce of celebrity out of his status as a star athlete, McLain came back in ’69 and proved he was no fluke. He won 24 games and another Cy Young Award.
But after his second straight Cy Young season, McLain went 17-34 with an ERA near 5.00 in just three more seasons in the major leagues. His fall from the top was one of the sharpest and most disastrous in sports history. He was suspended for half of the 1970 season for associating with gamblers and organized crime figures. He was suspended later that season for a fracas with sportswriters. The conservative Tigers traded their former ace after the 1970 season to the Senators in an astute deal that netted them shortstop Eddie Brinkman, pitcher Joe Coleman, and third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez. McLain was someone else’s problem now.
McLain clashed predictably in Washington with string-willed manager Ted Williams, who objected to the trade in the first place. Denny lost 22 games in 1971 and he threatened to get Williams fired numerous times. At the conclusion of the season it was McLain who was shipped out, and he spent his last season in the major leagues split between Oakland and Atlanta. He tried unsuccessfully to pitch his way back to the big leagues for a few more years before retiring. His life in retirement was marred by scandals, convictions, and time in prison.