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Commentary : For Awhile, McLain Was a Very Likeable Guy

April 28, 1985|RICHARD L. SHOOK | United Press International

DETROIT — The tragedy in Denny McLain is that he could have done so much for so many people--including himself.

He is the kind of guy you'd give your wallet to even though you knew its contents were as good as gone. Then two weeks later you'd do it again.

You want sincerity? He'll give you sincerity. You want a clown? He'll give you a clown. You want a story? He'll give you a story (and if you don't like it, he'll change it for you).

The "Dizzy Dean Dictum" was McLain's Motto.

"Them newspaper guys is so nice," Dean once said after telling a third version of an event to a third reporter, "I wanted to give them all an exclusive."

If you got there late for some sensational something McLain had said, he often would deny saying it just so you'd have a good story, too.

For awhile he so likeable, but it didn't last. McLain has no sense of shame. Many people liked that in him and soon learned to regret it. Many people also took him at his word and got into trouble because of it.

Newspaper reporters learned early on that if McLain's word was his bond, someone needed to supply a large amount of extremely strong glue.

Mickey Lolich got stiffed once when he depended on McLain to fly him home in his plane after an All-Star game. Lolich should have known better.

Many of McLain's teammates did not like him--off the field. On the field they were in love with the man. He was a winner.

In 1967 there was the famed "my foot fell asleep" incident--dislocated toes that kept McLain from one late-September start when Detroit needed him to help win a pennant it lost by the margin of one victory. The word on the street, never reliably acknowledged, was that some salty Mafioso type put McLain's toe to sleep with a steel boot because the pitcher didn't deliver on a lost bet.

That scenario gained credence through the years because McLain was later suspended for gambling and acknowledged placing bets from the clubhouse phone.

"You can say what you want about Denny McLain, but don't say anything bad about him to me," the late Mayo Smith said in 1969, pointing to the championship ring on his hand the Tigers had won when he managed them in 1968. "He got me this."

Smith took to McLain during the 1968 World Series. Smith was wondering whom to use when McLain, whose arm miseries were well-known to his manager at the time, volunteered to pitch the sixth game.

"Nobody else came in here and asked for the ball," Smith said. "I love the son-of-a-buck. You see any of those other guys come in here and ask to pitch?"

Mayo eventually came to feel the same way about McLain his players did. He declared he'd never seen such a competitor on the field, but privately would wonder if all the distractions were worth it.

But what always brought you back was the talent. Lord, he had it.

During that fabulous 1968 season he was the only pitcher in the last half century to win 30 or more games. He struck out 280 batters that year, had a 1.96 earned run average with a 31-6 record in 41 starts.

But the slide started that season. Cortisone shots kept the high hard one up there but the next season McLain got by on guile and by slipping the curve and slider in where the fastball traveled the year before. He was 24-9, had a 2.80 ERA but the strikeouts slipped to 181.

McLain was amoral. He got suspended and couldn't understand why. He was reprimanded for dumping buckets of water on two sportswriters--and couldn't understand why it wasn't seen as a prank.

Suspensions did not change him. Reprimands did not change him. Prison probably won't change him either.

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