Denny McLain held the world at his fingertips. Taught to pitch by his father’s motto: throw hard, harder and then even harder, McLain caught the world’s attention when he won 31 games, graced the cover of Time Magazine and led the Detroit Tigers to the 1968 World Series title. But shady side businesses, family tragedies and gambling debts rocked McLain’s world, eventually landing him in prison twice and tarnishing one of the most remarkable feats in baseball’s modern era. BEYOND THE GLORY: DENNY MCLAIN, the first ever episode of the award-winning documentary series to be narrated by its subject, airs on Sun., July 11 at 8:00 PM local.
This unique episode gives the subject a chance to narrate his own life. “His life has so many interesting stories, so many ups and downs and swirling rumors that no one really knows the truth,” said BTG Executive Producer Frank Sinton. “BEYOND THE GLORY has always tried to tell the story from the perspective of the people who lived it. In the story of Denny McLain, because of all the additional drama, we really wanted to tell it in his own words. Through his voice, he’s able to convey a lot more of the subtleties and a lot more of the emotions.”
McLain was drafted by the White Sox on the day he graduated high school in 1962. In his first game in the minors, he threw a no-hitter. On the field, things just came that easy for McLain. By 1964, he was already a member of the Detroit Tigers starting rotation. He loved the game of baseball, hanging with the guys, playing cards and drinking, enjoying the benefits of being a major league pitcher.
But the action on the field wasn’t enough, so McLain found action off the field. He started taking bets from around people around Michigan. But unlike most bookies, McLain couldn’t win. He lost thousands of dollars in just a few weeks and he knew he was getting hustled. He soon realized that he was the only sure bet.
On the mound, he was almost unhittable. In 1968, he had 16 wins by the All-Star break, 20 in July and he got No. 27 on the first of September. The Tigers were rolling through the American League and McLain was leading the charge. Detroit was enamored of its baseball team and McLain’s chase for 30 wins, a tally that hadn’t been accomplished since Dizzy Dean hit the mark more than 30 years earlier.
McLain got No. 30 on Sept. 14. His teammates and the city embraced him. He was a hero in a town going through tough times. And he was loved even more when the Tigers won the World Series that year.
He retired at age 29 and started a mortgage company in Florida. But this mortgage company had some questionable clients: the kind of clients who couldn’t get money from other banks. Those clients led to legal problems. In 1985, McLain was indicted on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and conspiracy to import cocaine.
He was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in jail. But just over two years into his sentence, his conviction was reversed, on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
He promised his wife he’d never do anything to hurt her again. For a while, he kept that promise, working hard and getting his life back on track. Or so it seemed. For Denny McLain, things were never that easy. He ended up back in jail years later, convicted of embezzling money out of a pension fund from a company he owned. McLain is now out of jail, reconciled with his family and hoping to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued him his entire post-baseball career.
Those interviewed in addition to Denny McLain include: wife Sharon McLain, legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell and others.
Excerpts from BTG: Denny McLain
Denny McLain: “There isn’t a job in the world better than a major league pitcher. You only work every 4 or 5 days. They carry your bags, they charter your planes, they rent your cars. You get the best and biggest rooms in the best hotels, choice tables at the finest restaurants. Sportswriters chase you around for just one line a day. And the fans are beyond belief, they’re incredible. But the best part by far: You’re in charge. Nothing happens unless you allow it to happen. Even the greatest hitters can’t do anything about a dominant pitcher, except wait for a mistake.”
McLain (on the 1968 Tigers): “I’m the guy people remember, for a lot of reasons. But that was the greatest team I’ve ever seen.”
McLain: “I’m not an alter boy, and I’ve associated with some funny people, but I’m certainly not Al Capone.”
Sharon McLain: “Winning 31 games was terrific, but it was also very bad to have to live with that. I think it was kind of a jinx on him.”
Ernie Harwell (on McLain wanting to help Mickey Mantle move ahead of Jimmy Foxx on the all-time home run list): “(Mickey) Mantle came to the plate late in the game and Jim Price the substitute catcher for (Bill) Freehan was back of the plate and Denny called him out and said we’re going to let him hit one. Jim came back and told Mantle, ‘He wants you to tell him where you want it. He’s going to groove it for you.'”
Upcoming episodes of BEYOND THE GLORY: Anna Kournikova, July 18; Pete Sampras, July 25; “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Aug. 1; Carl Lewis, Aug. 8.