Mighty Mouth, who is known in the box scores as Denny McLain (see cover), expresses his attitude toward life quite bluntly. "When you can do it out there between the white lines," he says, "then you can live any way you want. Me? I like to travel fast—and always first class. Why, there's no other way to go, is there?" McLain has won 18 games already, and it looks as though he will pitch the Detroit Tigers to the American League pennant. He may even become the first pitcher in 34 years to win 30 games. He is, as he says, "doing it between the white lines." Outside the white lines, Denny travels with his own antic, diamond-in-the-rough version of the jet set.
During the All-Star break a few weeks ago, Denny borrowed a friend's Lear jet, complete with pilots and stereo and liquor drawer, and flew to Las Vegas with his wife Sharyn. After checking their luggage with a bellman, he dragged Sharyn to the craps table. "She turned out to be a lousy roller but real good with the one-arms," he says. Denny himself rolled all Sunday night and most of Monday morning. "I had $500 when I started and four-something when I quit," he explains, "so I didn't do too bad."
Early Monday afternoon the McLains reboarded the Lear and popped over to Disneyland, where they played tourist for several hours. Then, after dinner, they abandoned Mickey Mouse for Houston and Tuesday night's All-Star Game. Denny pitched the fifth and sixth innings, shutting out the National League hitters, and before the game was even over he was back in the Lear en route again to—you guessed it—Vegas.
"I shot craps until I got tired," he says, "and then I switched to blackjack. That's easier on the mind. Hell, I hadn't slept more than four-five hours in almost three days. It kind of gets to you after a while."
July 28, 1968
The McLains finally flew home to Detroit Wednesday evening. Denny stayed about 10 minutes, just long enough to pack another suitcase, and then he was back in the Lear and flying to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the Tigers were playing the Twins Thursday night. "Something went wrong with the door, and we had to fly pretty low all the way up there," he says. "We even had to crawl out a window hatch when we landed. It was all pretty scary, now that I think about it."
In Minneapolis, McLain and his roommate, Shortstop Ray Oyler, were quartered in something called the Hacienda Suite of the Radisson Hotel. The average room for two baseball players has two small beds, a fuzzy television set, a telephone, a Bible and dirty socks hanging on chairs. The Hacienda Suite is not an average baseball player's room. It includes a large bedroom and an even larger living room, two color-TV sets, real shuttered windows, telephones everywhere and maybe even two Bibles. "Yes, operator," McLain would begin about every 20 minutes, "I'd like to place a credit-card call to...."
A few days later the Tigers had moved on to Anaheim, across the freeway from Disneyland, but not much else had changed. The room-service waiter knocked on the door of No. 906 every half hour. The refreshments arrived first. "Thank you, Mr. McLain," the waiter said. The appetizers, shrimp or crabmeat. came next. "Thank you, Mr. McLain," the man said again. And a bit later the entrees—filet mignon, medium rare—were wheeled in. "Thank you, Mr. McLain," the waiter said once more.
That, unhappily for the waiter, was all. There was no dessert. Denny McLain does not need the weight, thank you. He is listed at 5'11" and 185 pounds, but he seems shorter and heavier. His Chicago tough-kid face is shaded by the blue Tiger hat that perches on his head, looking at least a size too small. He wears contact lenses, and he is at present in the middle of a mouth-lift—half his teeth are capped, and the other half soon will be. You would never mistake Dennis McLain for a professional organist, which he is.
The next day, in fact, was a business day for Denny in Anaheim. First some executives from a record company dropped by to discuss a contract with McLain the Organist. Then some booking agents from Las Vegas called to inquire about possible dates for a winter appearance by the Denny McLain Trio.
"Ah," said Denny, reflecting on the good life. "Just imagine what will happen if I win 30."
It is not at all inconceivable that McLain, still only 24 years old, just might win 30 games in this year of the micro-mini batting average. After all, he is no fluke. He won 16 games in 1965, his first complete season in the majors, and then won 20 games in 1966 and 17 more last year. And now, in order to become the first 30-game winner since Dizzy Dean finished with a 30-7 record in 1934, McLain must win only about 60% of the rest of his starts. As a matter of record, he won 86% of his first 21 decisions—18 victories and three defeats.
Nevertheless, until this season McLain was better known for his performances outside the white lines than between them. He had quickly gained a reputation as Super Flake—a hot-tempered, eccentric kid with a million-dollar arm, million-dollar tastes, million-dollar dreams and a ten-cent attitude. "I'd always look at him and start to wonder—just wonder, that's all," says Bill Rigney, the manager of the California Angels.
There were, for instance, the Pepsi-Colas. Denny used to drink 100 Pepsis each week—slurp, slurp, slurp, 5,000 times a year. He even had a cooler installed in the back seat of his automobile so he could quench his thirst while driving. "I'm down to about 60 or 70 bottles a week," he says, "but now I cheat a bit and get the king-sized 16-ounce bottles instead of the small 12-ounce bottles. And I don't drink any of that diet stuff, either."
There was also his moonlighting on the organ console. When word passed through opposing dugouts that Denny was a professional organist, it was pointedly suggested that he must play Looney Tunes all the time. Still, McLain makes more money playing the organ than some of his colleagues earn playing baseball. Denny gives lessons, conducts recitals in music-store windows and plays night clubs with his trio.
Once the trio was appearing in Minneapolis when McLain suddenly remembered he had a recital scheduled in Detroit. After a hurried flight he arrived at the site of the recital only to discover there was no audience. He asked the manager of the music store, "Isn't Denny McLain supposed to be playing the organ here?" The manager answered, "Yes, next Saturday." No problem at all. "I just walked out," Denny said, "and went back to the airport, got on another plane and flew back to Minneapolis. It was all very simple."
Then there was the controversy last winter over the true color of McLain's hair. For three and a half years in Detroit, McLain always had dirty blond hair cut in a short Ivy League style. During the past winter, however, he let his hair grow and it assumed a deep reddish color. At a banquet Bill Freehan, the Tigers' catcher, refused to introduce McLain, saying: "I don't know who this guy is. The only Dennis McLain I know has short blond hair." When Denny reported to spring training, the rest of the Tigers got in the act.
"Do you use a rinse?" asked Pitcher Joe Sparma.
"Only his hairdresser knows," said Second Baseman Dick McAuliffe.
All this commotion infuriated McLain. "Damn it, I did not dye my hair. It's mother nature. I was born with red hair but it turns blond in the sunlight." Whatever the reason, Denny's hair now is dirty blond again and even shorter than before.
Flakes—even Super Flakes like McLain—rarely get themselves into trouble. They keep a baseball team loose, providing the daily comic relief players need to endure one another for seven months of the year. On the other hand, Mouths—particularly Mighty Mouths like McLain—always seem to find themselves with their spikes between their capped teeth.
"I always say what I want—what I think—without any reservations," Denny says. "And I guess you could say it's got me into plenty of trouble. But I've been misquoted only once. I've said everything else. From now on I'm just going to try to say it a bit more diplomatically."
The alleged misquoting incident occurred in the middle of the 1966 season. Charlie Dressen and Bob Swift, the two men who had managed the Tigers during the first half of the year, both were sick and dying, and Frank Skaff, another coach, was running the team. Stubby Overmire, who had been Dressen's errand boy, was handling the pitchers. Overmire and McLain never did get along.
One night in July Denny reportedly called the Tigers a "country-club team where everybody does what they want." This remark was printed the next day in the Detroit News. When Jim Campbell, the Tigers' general manager, read the quote attributed to McLain he immediately fined Denny and ordered him to say he was misquoted.
"May God strike me dead if I said those things," Denny suggested. At which point Joe Sparma, who was McLain's roommate at the time, asked Charlie Creedon, the Tigers' traveling secretary, to change his room assignment. "God might make a mistake and get the wrong guy," Sparma said. Another Tiger said, "I can see it now. Denny's on the mound, taking his windup, and all of a sudden the skies turn dark and there's this huge bolt of thunder and...."
McLain was not amused. "The one thing I never said was all that about the country club, but I don't think anybody believes me," he says. "It was the worst time of my life. I got chewed out in the clubhouse in front of the rest of the team for 20 minutes. Frank Skaff never let me say a word."
Another time, when Denny did get a chance to speak, he was presenting awards at a banquet in Detroit and was scheduled to introduce John Gordy, the Lions' All-League offensive guard who recently led the NFL players in their hassle with management. Denny said, "And now for John—John Gordy—whoever he is." Gordy was furious. "Tell that punk kid," he said, "that I'll show him who John Gordy is." Wisely, Denny no longer jokes with football players, particularly 250-pound All-League guards.
This year, because of the newspaper strike in Detroit that has lasted since November, Mighty Mouth's speeches have been necessarily confined to out-of-town dispatches, an inconvenience that does not seem to have inhibited him. Hardly had the season begun before he remarked to a visiting writer, "The Detroit fans are the worst I've ever seen anyplace."
Denny later amended that, saying, "Some of the Detroit fans are the worst I've ever seen." The "some" came too late, however, and McLain had said the wrong thing again. One fan reportedly was so incensed that he placed a smoke bomb, which fortunately proved to be a dud, in Denny's automobile.
"I can't condemn all of our two million fans," McLain said the other day, "but we've got a lot of bad fans in the ball park. The other team takes its life into its hands if they've got us beat in the late innings. The fans throw bottles and firecrackers, and one night when Boston was in here they hit Ken Harrelson in the back with a firecracker. They could have blinded him."
After hearing McLain criticize the Detroit fans, Jim Campbell simply decided he would never listen to him again. "From now on," he said, "what Denny says goes in one ear and out the other." Mighty Mouth himself laughed at this. "We have a mutual irritation society, anyway, Campbell and me," Denny said. "It looks like he did not think too much before he said that. Yes, we've talked several times the last month or so. He wants me to be a diplomat. Hey, who knows? I might even make it to the U.N. Are you kidding?"
There have been other problems, too. Denny had a pile of unpaid bills, and he also overextended himself with the banks. "I just wasn't mature enough to handle it. I always had this great urge to go spend money—on anything. I'd get an itch, and the money would be gone. Now I think I've bailed out about 90%. I've put my money—all of it—with a man who handles money for a living. Hell, I don't know how to handle it. He gives me an allowance, pays the bills and invests some of it. I've lost about a thousand money battles, but now I think I'm going to win the war. You know," Denny McLain said, "I'd have made one helluva millionaire. Hell, I'd still make a wonderful millionaire."
For now, McLain would be satisfied with a $100,000 salary—about a 200% raise—if he does win 30 games. "But I doubt I can get $100,000 from Detroit," he says. "They don't even pay Al Kaline $100,000—and he should have been getting that much for the last five years.
"I don't understand baseball. Except for guys like Koufax and Marichal, they pay you on the way out. Look at Mantle. He didn't start to make $100,000 until he was damn near an invalid. I want to make it when I'm 25—not in a wheelchair."
This year, though, Denny has performed like a $100,000 pitcher. In fact, he is the reason Detroit is way out in first place. Consider these facts:
•McLain is 15 games over .500; the won-lost record of the rest of Detroit's regular starters is one game below .500.
•McLain has won nine games after the Tigers had lost their previous game.
•McLain pitched complete games in 16 of his first 24 starts, averaging eight innings per start.
•McLain has been relieved only once during the middle of an inning all year.
Johnny Sain, the Tigers' pitching coach, attributes McLain's development this season to maturity and experience. "Denny has always known what he can do with the baseball," Sain says. "Now he has learned the technique of doing it correctly. He knows when to throw a rising fastball instead of a sinking fastball, when to throw a change-up instead of a curve. He knows a lot more about what he is doing than the 30,000 people in the ball park think he does."
Denny agrees with Sain, but he also thinks there are several other factors hat have helped him become the best pitcher in the American League. One is a mean sidearm fastball that he uses to scare right-hand hitters. He threw the sidearm pitch in 1965 until he injured a shoulder muscle late in the season. Now he is at last able to throw it again—and the hitters are not hitting it. "You can't hit the ball when you're running for the dugout," Rigney says.
McLain's slider used to be a home-run pitch. He gave up 42 home runs in 1966 and 35 last year, the majority off sliders. "It got so bad that I forgot about the slider completely," he said. This spring, with Sain's encouragement, Denny started to throw the pitch again. "It became my miracle ball," he said. "I'd throw it and they would hit into a double play or strike out. It never failed." McLain now throws the slider quite effectively, although eight of the 18 home runs he has given up have come off the pitch.
"You pitch as many innings as I do, and in a hitter's park like we have in Detroit, and you've got to expect to give up a lot of downtown jobs. When I pitch, I always tell my infielders not to worry, that no one is going to hit any hard ground balls to them," says McLain, who does not stop talking just because he is also pitching. "With me, they always hit the ball in the air. Of course, sometimes they hit it too far."
Roommate Oyler almost caused a disaster for McLain early in the season, when the Tigers were in Boston. After proving that shatterproof glasses really are not shatterproof—for instance, when they are hurled against stone walls in a clubhouse—McLain switched to contact lenses. "I really need some kind of spectacles," he said, "because I can't see across a kitchen table."
McLain bought three sets of contacts, but somehow managed to lose two of them before the season started, and when the Tigers went to Boston he was on his last pair. He left them in a glass of water when he went to sleep. "Well, I got up in the morning and went to get a glass of water," Oyler says. "I emptied out the glass, refilled it, took a drink and then went back to bed without really thinking about it. Denny got up an hour or so later and started to yell, 'Where are my contacts?' Very interesting. We had to get the hotel plumber to come upstairs and take the sink apart. We found them—and I still don't know how he can see out of them. They were absolutely muddy."
But now the Tigers are clawing their way to the pennant, and Denny McLain can see it all. The rest of the league is seeing him differently, too. "The kid never seemed to care before," Bill Rigney says. "Everyone felt this way about him: all the pitches you ever need but a bad attitude. Now it looks as though he wants to be a good pitcher. Maybe he wants to be the best."
"They all think I never gave a damn," Denny McLain says. "Now there's only one way I can alter what has happened the last three years. I've got to do it between the white lines."