In 1968, Denny McLain owned the baseball world. He won 31 games, endorsed Pepsi, and even had a lounge act. The 24-year-old pitcher was a very popular eccentric celebrity. At 29, he was out of baseball after setting up a bookmaking scheme and developing a sore arm. The Tigers finally decided to rid themselves of the troublemaker and shipped him to Washington for a number of players. While McLain struggled and flamed out with the Senators, Detroit gained several major contributors that helped the team win the AL East.
Denny McLain’s love of Pepsi led to an endorsement deal with the soft drink. The Pepsi representative and McLain became friends that shared a gambling habit. The two lost a lot of money and decided they could turn a profit through bookmaking. They attempted to run the operation quietly as silent partners. However, Sports Illustrated broke the story and McLain was suspended for three months during the 1970 season.
This was not McLain’s only brush with controversy. Rumors persist to this day that the mob broke his foot during the 1967 pennant race for failure to pay off a gambling debt. In 1970, he dumped a bucket of water on two Detroit sportswriters leading to another suspension. When he returned, MLB suspended him again for carrying a gun. Had McLain been successful on the field, the Tigers might have looked the other way. However, he experienced severe arm troubles. The sore arm made it easy for Detroit to trade McLain.
McLain went to Washington and struggled. Arm problems compounded and he could not longer throw a fastball. On top of this, he did not get along with manager Ted Williams. He lost 22 games in 1971 and Washington traded him to Oakland. He finished his career in 1972 with Atlanta. In his final season, McLain finished 4-7 with a 6.37 ERA. After his playing days ended, McLain continued to run afoul with authorities and eventually went to prison.
While McLain struggled, the Tigers scored several high contributors from the Senators. Ed Brinkman stabilized the infield at short, won a Gold Glove, and finished ninth in the 1972 MVP voting. Aurelio Rodriguez played Gold Glove third base for nine years in Detroit and remains a fan favorite. Meanwhile, Joe Coleman replaced McLain in the rotation winning 88 games over five seasons. He topped 20 wins on two occasions and won 19 in 1972.
Joe Coleman teamed with Mickey Lolich to provide a devastating one-two punch in the rotation. In 1972, Detroit returned to the postseason as McLain’s career fizzled out. The Tigers came within a hair of defeating the Oakland A’s in the ALCS falling in five games. Without Coleman, Detroit does not edge Boston for the playoffs.
Denny McLain had it all and blew it. His actions combined with arm problems ended his career prematurely. Before the end, Detroit shrewdly traded McLain to Washington for three players that helped the Tigers make a playoff run. The McLain trade proved one of the best in Tiger history. All three proved major contributors while McLain’s career sadly ended.