This is part of an occasional series looking back on the 1968 World Series champion Detroit Tigers.
Former Detroit Tigers great Denny McLain has never enjoyed life as much as he is now.
The former MVP and Cy Young award winner, who was known for his carefree attitude on and off the field, travels across the country appearing at sports trade-shows alongside other former MLB and Tigers players.
He hangs out at local high schools, ballparks and theatres, interacting and sharing stories with fans about the Tigers 1968 World Series team.
“I really enjoy being out with the fans, hearing a lot of great stories, especially here in Detroit,” said McLain, who lives in Livingston County. “It’s crazy how far people come out of their way to say hello.
“The memories they have are just unbelievable. I’m 74, and a lot of people who come are probably in their 50s. While they might not have distinct memories, they got memories their mom and dad or grandparents gave them, or they bring something I signed 40-50 years ago. Some of the stuff is like brand new. It is shocking how they’ve kept stuff in great condition.”
As enjoyable as McLain’s life is right now, that hasn’t always been the case since he retired from baseball in 1972.
He has served time in prison twice — for racketeering, extortion and possession of cocaine in 1985 and for embezzlement and money laundering in 1996.
In between sentences, he declared bankruptcy, and his wife, Sharyn McLain, filed divorce papers shortly into his second stint behind bars.
Sharyn and Denny later remarried in 2003, the first crucial step in helping the former MLB star turn his life around.
“It was not a nice experience,” Denny said of prison. “There wasn’t anything good about it. There wasn’t anything redeeming about it. The only thing I can tell you is you don’t want to do it. Period. It takes away some good years of your life, and it is unfair to your family, to your kids, grandchildren or whoever it might be out there who cares about you, because it is unfair that you deprived them of your company, of being around.”
McLain’s demise began during his playing career. He reached the majors in 1963 at age 19, quickly ascending into one of the game’s top pitchers.
He won MVP and the American League Cy Young in 1968 after finishing with a 31-6 record and 1.96 ERA in 336 innings.
The next season, McLain finished 24-9 with a 2.80 ERA to earn his second straight Cy Young award.
In 1970, though, he was suspended twice — first a six month ban for bookmaking and then another short suspension for dumping water on two sportswriters.
McLain was limited to 14 games that season, winning just three times with an elevated 4.63 ERA. Before the 1971 season, the Tigers traded him to the Washington Senators, where he lost a league-high 22 games.
In 1973, he was out of the major leagues.
It was a low point for McLain, but leaving baseball, or even being behind bars, was not the worst thing that McLain endured in his life.
Denny and Sharyn’s daughter, Kristin, was killed in a car crash by a drunken driver in 1992.
“It took me easily at least 15-16 years to be humbled a bit after she died,” McLain said. “It took me that long. Even today I will have some bad days that will shock the hell out of people. There is nothing in this world that can describe the loss of a child. Of all the things I have been a part of, good, bad or indifferent, losing a daughter is miles away from being in the slammer.”
Family is McLain’s top priority in life now.
His main focus is taking care of Sharyn, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement.
“It is a full-time job,” Denny said. “There is never a day off, but it is like I have told her 1,000 times, if I could trade places with you, I would right now. She been so good to, not just me, but to everybody. We have been married 53 years now, and I don’t know what I would have done had she not stayed with me. She has been my life.”
Denny and Sharyn have three more children and seven grandchildren. Although it was an uphill battle to get back to a good standing with the family, Denny said they are now closer than ever.
“You just have to work every day putting the pieces back together, putting the family back together, being there for your family,” he said. “That is the biggest thing. It is a real tragedy not to see your kids grow up, not see them ride their first bike, drive their first car. Those are all big things. It is just the worth.
“They were very upset. I had to live through that, but life is good now. Life is great.”
Part of what makes life fulfilling for McLain now is that he gets to remain involved with the game he fell in love with at an early age growing up in the suburbs of Chicago.
He gets to share with people how talented that 1968 team was, featuring eight players who appeared in three or more All-Star games. How the team and city came together after the 1967 riots to capture a goal. How the players never felt like they were out of the World Series even after falling behind three games to one to the St. Louis Cardinals.
McLain especially loves to debate anyone who says that St. Louis was a better team than them.
“It was a team that will never be matched,” McLain said of the ’68 Tigers. “When you start naming these guys — Bill Freehan, an 11-time all-star. Norm Cash, same kind of player, Dick McAuliffe, the best player I have ever seen was Al Kaline. We had a ballclub that was second to none. For anyone to even suggest they were the better team is just disingenuous at best. When we took the field for Game 7, we knew the game was over.”
McLain, after getting roughed up in his first two starts of the series, pitched a complete-game gem in Game 6 to extend the series. He allowed one run on nine hits, striking out seven.
The then 6-foot-1, 185-pounder had already pitched 336 innings during the regular season and another 16 2/3 in the playoffs, but when manager Mayo Smith came up to him before Game 7 asking if he would be available in relief, McLain couldn’t say no.
“I said, ‘Yeah, by all means’. I couldn’t touch the cheeks on my ass, that’s how bad my arm hurt, but nonetheless, that is where we were. We promised everyone we were going to win it, so we had to do what we had to do, and everyone stepped up.”
McLain wasn’t needed in Game 7, as Mickey Lolich tossed all nine innings in a 4-1 win. But the innings McLain pitched in ’68 and ’69 (325) took a toll on his right arm.
“That was my biggest problem,” he said. “I had constant attention to it by the trainers and the doctors. They just kept a full court press on it. Every day it was at least an hour of therapy as well as other things that had to be done to the arm just to keep it loose, keep it functioning.”
Nevertheless, the 41 starts he made in 1968 helped make him the last pitcher to win 30 games in the season.
“It is wonderful,” McLain said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
But what McLain is most fond of is that 1968 team, which featured eight players who had 10 or more home runs that season.
“There were home runs hit by just about everybody,” he said. “You name him — Freehan, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, he hit a home run.
“Everyone showed up to the ball park on time. Nobody was late, nobody was looking for someone else to help. They were there for each other. Everyone was there to accomplish what the mission was (World Series championship). It was the greatest example of teamwork I have seen.”
Now its is McLain’s job to continue to remind people of how special that team was, even if it was 50 years ago. But he is relishing every moment of it.
“I believe the older you get, the more you need to put your name out there because, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ What I am trying to do is keep these guys alive in everyone’s mind that they are still one of the best teams that have every played the game.
“We still have an awful lot of fun talking about the great memories. I say this a lot, but I wish everyone could take one day and walk in my shoes. I am enjoying life more than I ever have. That is how much fun we are having.”