Braves One Year Wanker: Denny McLain

Braves One Year Wanker: Denny McLain: Why we hate him

Actually this is a bit unfair as I barely remember the guy; however, there was a lot about Denny that raised eyebrows for the discerning fan on his acquisition. First a small digression: The 1972 Braves had the oldest roster in the majors and virtually nothing down on the farm. Outside of Knuxsie and Ron Reed the pitching sucked, while Hank and Dusty and Darrell were the only batsmen of note. Eddie Robinson got thrown into this on June 1st as the new GM and his response was to keep trading for more washed up old guys: hence, Denny McLain.

In an injury plagued final season, Mclean had put up a 6+ERA for the Swingin’ A’s in 23 innings and really had nothing — newspapers report that he had completely stopped throwing his fastball which his 8:8 SO to K ratio certainly agreed with. Nonetheless, we gave up the shell of the Baby Bull, Orlando Cepeda, in an effort to see if Denny had anything left in the tank. Coming off a 52-day DL stint, his first game for the team went well — a complete game 3-3 tie with the Cubbies called after 7 (managers in the 70’s were required to destroy all pitcher’s arms). This was the high water mark of his time with the team.

Denny’s 2nd start, against the Bucs, didn’t go as well. He was pulled after just 2.2 allowing 6 runs and leaving the bases loaded. This got him demoted to the bull pen for the next month where he was shockingly effective in short stints. The return of Eddie Matthews as manager also saw the return of Denny to the rotation as the role of 4th starter was a revolving door all season long. The first 3 turns weren’t even all that bad, although the 9:11 BB/SO was ominous. Then the wheels just came off — 5 more starts, only 16 more innings, and an ERA of 10.2 before a season ending DL stint. He would be released during spring training of 1973 having amassed -0.9 WAR in a Braves uni.

Braves One Year Wanker: Denny McLain: Where did he come from?

Before coming to the ATL, McLain was known for 3 things:

  • being the last guy to win 30 games in a season
  • being a horse’s ass to pretty much everybody who knew him
  • having organized crime and gambling issues. .

He had already been suspended twice by the commissioner for the mafia links and was actually running a book-making operation when we traded for him. He would later serve a federal prison sentence for cocaine trafficking and racketeering. Before all that, however, he was a great pitcher.

1968 was the “Year of the Pitcher” and McLain and Bob Gibson were the vanguard of the revolution. Denny threw 336 innings (plus 3 games in the World Series!) while compiling a 31-6 record, the first pitcher (and last!) since Dizzy Dean to get to 30 in a season. Even then there were questions however. His 1967 season was hamstrung by a foot injury allegedly suffered at the hands of a mob hit man for non-payment of a gambling debt. Even during his great run Denny got into quarrels with teammates and famously said he wouldn’t trade Bob Gibson for 10 Lolich’s. Mickey Lolich was his teammate…

1969 would see another great season and a 2nd Cy Young award somewhat marred by MLB’s late season investigation into his mob ties which would result in 2 suspensions during the 1970 season. After being traded by Detroit to the Senators in 1970 (over Washington manager Ted Williams‘ extreme objections) Denny created the “Gang of 5” or “Underminers Club” trying to get William’s fired as manager. In the offseason he was traded to the A’s for a single A pitcher who never got out of AA.

Braves One Year Wanker: Denny McLain: How we got him

The trade really was nothing for nothing as Cepada had the Hall of Fame portion of his career behind him at this point. The Baby Bull would play 3 more replacement level years before hanging them up. My local newspaper ran stories about how Denny was finally feeling healthy and that the 30-game winner was about to rebound. In reality, he was out of baseball at age 29.

Braves One Year Wanker: Denny McLain: What came next

Denny played one more season in the minors where he hardly pitched but did sport a .390 batting average while playing all over the infield. After that he had a small career playing the organ including a regular gig at a Detroit club where he mentored a young Leon Spinks. He also earned money hustling golf and reportedly once took $160,000 for flying a fugitive out of the country. Then came the 1985 federal racketeering charges, dropped on a technicality after he had served 22 months of a 23 year sentence. In 1996 he was convicted of embezzling $2.5M from a corporate pension fund some idiot had given him access to. He would spend 6 years in state prison for that.

Thanks for reading about Braves One Year Wanker, Denny McLain. If you enjoyed this piece, check out our first Wanker, Dan Kolb.

10 thoughts on “Braves One Year Wanker: Denny McLain”

  1. Great stuff, Karl. Unfortunately I remember McLain all too well. He was truly outstanding in 1968 and 1969. But even I knew he no longer had it by the time the Braves acquired him. That move was typical of so many decisions before the Cox/Schuerholz era finally built a team that was built to win.
    McLain was a complete mess as a human being but as you note he apparently was a fairly accomplished organist. Even there, though, nothing cool like his contemporaries Al Kooper or Booker T or Garth Hudson. Easy listening stuff.

  2. Thanks Karl. Why wouldn’t they kick a guy out for being involved in organized crime and gambling?

  3. Hard to imagine McLain from 2020–a pitcher with immense talent–using it to pitch 300 plus innings, and being compared with Dizzy Dean, while seemingly skirting the margins of professionally acceptable behavior at every turn. That said, 1968 was my first year as a fan–and McLain was truly awesome–his 30th win was televised on NBC’s Saturday game of the week, as it was a big national story.

    I saw him pitch in Detroit in July 1969 and he was lights out. Going into 1970 he was among the biggest names in baseball.

    So, the Braves took a risk on him, but it was a failure from the start. I witnessed his first game that he pitched in Atlanta (mentioned above) and it was over quickly, leaving fans watching everything in the stadium, except the game. My best 1970s memory of McLain came from viewing the brief hype about his expertise on the organ….

  4. Great piece, Snowshine. For those that don’t know, I cross-post this to about 10 Braves Facebook groups and there are a whole lot of them that have loved this piece. They’ve essentially all agreed that they were pretty fascinated with him, happy when he came to the Braves, then greatly disappointed in him personally and professionally.

  5. @3–yes, I well recall the 30th win in 1968 on the Saturday game of the week. It’s hard to imagine now but that was my first opportunity to see him pitch that year (other than the All Star game—which is why the ASG was a much bigger deal then). Very fortuitous that it came before a national audience.
    I also remember it because my father had just bought our first color TV the day before, so seeing it in full color was also a thrill.

  6. @6

    Had to watch it in black and white–we did not get a color set for another 2 years…

    I am still impressed by 31 wins–I wonder how much the game will have to change to make it possible (and feasible) for that to happen again….

  7. I’d hesitate to say never—the world has so recently reminded us that our expectations for the future can be so rapidly upended.

    But the game would have to change a lot to make a 30 game winner possible. Current understanding of the health benefits of limits on pitch counts in a start and innings in a season would have to change radically. I don’t think either management or players have a desire to risk an ace’s health that way.

  8. Maybe if you paired a reliever used as an opener with a knuckleballer coming in behind him and used them in tandem 55-60 games a season, you might be able to pull it off. Not sure how often pitcher #2 in these arrangements is involved in the decision though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *