THREE OAKS — What better way could there have been for baseball fans to spend part of the first full day of summer than in the company of baseball legend Denny McLain during “Denny’s Day” in Three Oaks on Saturday, June 22?
McLain seemed to have as good a time as his fans as he exchanged reminiscences and stories with attendees while signing autographs and shaking hands during an autograph signing session at the Biggest Little Baseball Museum section of the Three Oaks Township Public Library in the morning. McLain then headed over to the Acorn Theater where he spent a couple hours on stage regaling the audience with tales of his historic career, with most focused on 1968, known as “The Year of the Pitcher,” when McLain ruled the mound with an astonishing 31-6 record, an MVP award, and a Cy Young trophy as he led the Detroit Tigers to a World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals.
Garry Lange, who organized and hosted the event along with his wife, Liz, got a kick of seeing folks after they’d had a chance to visit with McLain and get his autograph.
“People leaving after having the opportunity to meet this legend, interact with him and get his autograph are just ecstatic,” Lange said with a smile. “They’re over the moon.”
One of the many fans who lined up outside the library Saturday morning was Peter Carey of Harbert, who said he portrayed Ernie Harwell in the Mitch Albom play “Ernie” at the City Theater in Detroit and went to the 1968 World Series in Detroit.
Along with baseballs, bats, cards and the like, McLain had several opportunities to sign vinyl record albums of him playing the organ such as “Denny McLain in Las Vegas” brought by John Payne and “Denny McLain at the Organ” which John Miller had with him in line on the second floor of the library near the museum.
John Grelak brought his father (also John) to the meet-and-greet event at the Three Oaks library to celebrate his 60th birthday.
“It’s the first World Series I remember,” said Grelak. whose birthday was June 24.
Three Oaks has always been a baseball town, so it’s no surprise that McLain seemed right at home on June 22. When people addressed him as “Mr. McLain,” he asked them to please just call him “Denny,” saying that “Mr. McLain was my father.”
At the Acorn, McLain began his remarks by talking about his longtime connection to Harbor Country and New Buffalo.
“My teenage sweetheart and now wife of 55 years, Sharyn, was the daughter of baseball all-timer Lou Boudreau, who was the player-manager of the Cleveland Browns when he was only 24,” McLain said. “Anyhow, we wanted to get married, but I was only 18 and in Illinois I had to have a consent form signed by a parent, and my mother wouldn’t do it.
“So my future father-in-law Lou, who was a great guy, said he’d give me $2,500, which was a huge amount of money back then, if Sharyn and I would elope,” McLain continued. “I thought he was crazy, but he told me he thought he was saving $7,500 by not having to plan and pay for a huge formal wedding.
“So, he added, “we ended up driving to New Buffalo where we were married by Judge Dominic Farina who was a very nice man. So our roots and history in Michigan started right here.”
New Buffalo native (now a resident of Detroit) James Karagon said his family owned Karagon’s Grill at the time, adding that the McLains were married there. He brought copies of a newspaper article on the wedding and gave one to Denny.
As a lifetime White Sox fan I couldn’t keep from cringing when he related the story of being signed by the Sox after his senior year at Mt. Carmel High School on the South Side where he batted .601 his junior year and figured he may have a career in the big leagues as a slugger, but it was his talented right pitching arm all the Major League clubs that pursued him were interested in back in 1962.
“I think representatives from 18 different ball clubs came to the house, and although we were big Cubs fans, my mother gave her opinion that I should sign with the Sox, so I signed a contract for $17,500, and they gave me a $5,000 advance, which we immediately took to the bank,” McLain said. “I ended up buying a car for my mother, one for myself, and some new clothes, and there was still quite a bit of money left over.”
His legend began to take shape with his very first minor league start that summer when he hurled a no-hitter and struck out 16 batters. While it still took some time, with his talent and hard work his ticket to the majors was punched.
“I thought I had been pitching well for the White Sox organization, but after less than a year they ended up putting me on waivers and I was claimed by the Tigers, and I guess the rest of it is history,” he said
He gives some of the credit for his iconic 31-win season in ’68 to the good fortune of having coaches and managers who had been pitchers rather than position players during their playing days.
“What a difference that made, and that put me on the fast track,” he related.
Johnny Sain, considered by McLain and many others to be the best pitching coach in history, joined the Tigers staff in 1967, and that helped set up that historic next season for McLain and his teammates.
“Sain told me that unless I developed a good slider I’d have to eliminate my trademark high leg kick, so I worked and worked until I could throw a good consistent slider, and the next two seasons I won 55 games and two Cy Young Awards,” McLain said. “I also won the MVP in 1968, and 20 years earlier my father-in-law Lou Boudreau was the MVP, so that was pretty great.
“I tried to throw one spitball in my career, and slugger Jim Fregosi ended up hitting it about 700 miles, so that was my one and only spitball,” he added.
Hard to believe in this day and age of relief pitchers, middle relievers and closers, but McLain pitched 336 innings and threw 28 complete games in 1968.
The Acorn presentation ended with images of baseball cards featuring his Tigers teammates being flashed on a screen and McLain giving comments and telling tales about them.
While he ended up playing for four different teams, he said his manager in Detroit, Mayo Smith, was the best he ever played for.
Most of his stories were funny; some a bit poignant and sad; but all were interesting and insightful.
“Mickey Lolich, my fellow pitcher on the Tigers, had the greatest arm and the best stuff I’ve ever seen, but he’d get ahead of batters 0-2 and then would try to finish them off with a slider or curveball, and he’d end up getting hit hard in those situations,” McLain recalled. “But if he had the lead in the sixth or seventh inning, the game was over.”
McLain said he believes that Max Scherzer, the former Tiger now pitching for Washington, is the best pitcher in baseball right now.
He still expresses awe for his former teammate and Hall of Famer Al Kaline.
“He went right to the big leagues out of high school, and that’s still incredible to me,” Mclain said. “You go right from playing with boys for fun to playing with men who have families and are playing baseball as their work and careers, and somehow he did that.”
He said that the late Norm Cash loved the game and loved Detroit, and that Detroit loved him in return.
“I have to talk about Willie Horton because he drove in the winning run when I won my 30th game,” he says with a smile.
McLain saved perhaps his most heartfelt words in praise of his beloved battery mate, catcher Bill Freehan, who was also a slugger who set a Big Ten record by batting .585 while playing his only year for the University of Michigan in 1961.
“Bill was my best catcher and had the quickest pair of hands I’ve ever seen,” he said. “He was an 11-time All-Star, and he should be a member of the Hall of Fame.”
He added that Freehan is also doing battle with dementia.
When asked how many games he might win if he was pitching today, the 75-year-old quickly replies, “Fifty…but it would probably take me five years.”
His advice to pitchers is: “Use your best stuff and throw strikes, strikes, strikes.”
“It’s a strange game because batters who fail at the plate 70 percent of the time are considered great .300 hitters make millions of dollars. Really good pitchers are able to stay ahead of the hitters most of the time. I also went after the hitters.”
McLain said that he had a great time in Three Oaks and enjoyed exchanging stories with everyone he talked with.
It is always said that, especially in sports, records are meant to be broken, but it’s been over a half-century now, and McLain’s 31 wins seem just as unreachable now as they did way back when.
He was the king of the mound, and he still wears that crown very well, and he will for a very, very long time to come.
— David Johnson contributed to this report