John Grindrod: Denny McLain’s LCC visit and his life’s peaks and valleys

On the first day of May, the students of Lima Central Catholic were given a rare opportunity to hear from one of baseball’s once-upon-a-time heroes, Major League Baseball’s last 30-game winner, Denny McLain. During the program, McLain spoke not only about his baseball life but also about the work it took to achieve success during his 10-year career. The former two-time Cy Young Award winner, the sport’s highest pitching honor, won 31 games in 1968, a magical year for his Detroit Tigers, that year’s World Series winner.

McLain’s 31-6 mark was the first 30-win season since 1934 when Dizzy Dean, pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals, accomplished the feat. Given the fewer starts and shorter durations of today’s starting pitchers, it’s a near certainty McLain will be Major League Baseball’s last 30-game winner.

McLain, who turned 80 this past March 29, touched on several subjects in addressing his T-Bird audience. The great love he still has for the sport over a half century after he threw his final Major League pitch was obvious.

It was a sport he once dominated for a short while, specifically 1965 through 1969 when he captured 108 of his 131 wins in a career that abruptly ended at just 29 years old four years after his greatest season when he was the American League’s Cy Young winner and Most Valuable Player as well. His early retirement was the result of a severed rotator cuff in his right (throwing) shoulder.

McLain’s main theme to the students was what he feels is the key to success no matter whether it’s throwing a baseball or achieving academically, a lesson he said he learned from his father.

“Although my dad died of a heart attack at just 36 years old before I even graduated from Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, he’s the one who gave me all of my fundamentals, not only the pitching basics but life’s most valuable lesson if you want to achieve success, which is the more you do something, the better you’ll get.”

As for the relative brevity of his baseball career when compared to many whose peak years in the sport have been at the age when McLain either was floundering or out of the game, in addition to his shoulder issues, there also was an issue with significant weight gain, something that his once-daily consumption of two dozen Pepsis was contributory.

An early indication as to how good McLain might be came in his first start for the Tigers as a 19-year-old in 1963. In that inaugural game, he yielded just one run in a complete-game victory, while striking out nine. Additionally, he also hit what would be the only homerun of his career that day.

He also experienced a dramatic increase in the velocity of his bread-and-butter pitch, the fastball, which he told the students he threw 80 percent of the time, after he bought an interest in a Detroit bowling alley in the winter of 1964, and the repetitive motion of throwing a bowling ball that winter, McLain recalls, was the key to increasing his fastball velocity.

“I bowled 100 lines a day all winter prior to leaving for spring training before the 1965 season, and that added five miles an hour to my fastball, from 96 when he first got to Detroit in 1963 to the 101 I reached in spring training.”

McLain’s 30-minute speech only included a quick reference to his at-times troubled past. While he mentioned some gambling involvement, he didn’t mention his suspension in 1970 from Major League Baseball for his helping to finance an illegal bookmaking operation nor did he mention any legal troubles following his career when he and a business partner served time for racketeering and embezzlement.

While there have been troubles, one undeniable fact about McLain is that his life has never been boring. Besides his athletic ability and fame, he also has been an accomplished professional musician as an organist, a licensed pilot, a sports-talk radio host and has held a variety of jobs and owned several businesses.

Now an octogenarian, McLain perhaps is doing what he’s perfectly suited, earning a living just by being Denny McLain by appearing at baseball card and memorabilia shows and speaking to groups.

Many, especially Tigers fans blessed with enough years might remember fondly the feisty kid in his late teens and early 20s who once dominated the sport he loved. I had a different thought while listening to him speak to an LCC audience born six decades or so after his athletic dominance.

I thought of a mayfly, to an entomologist, an ephemera, which has a lifespan of four days at the most. Seemingly, such was the nature of the Denny McLain phenomenon and his ephemeral moments in his and our national pastime, a time when an Irish Catholic kid from that all-boys high school in Chicago for a few brief moments in time ruled the baseball world from a pitcher’s mound.

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].