Neither his 90-day suspension for bookmaking nor his declaration of bankruptcy in the face of debts totaling $446,070 appeared to put as much fear into Denny McLain as did his start against the Yankees last week. "What the hell am I doing out here?" he asked Al Kaline before his first game in nine months. Earlier, McLain had been telling almost everyone that he was "scared. Golf, tennis and basketball are fine, but the concentration isn't the same, and you don't have 50,000 people watching."
Scrutinizing might have been a better word. McLain was stared at from a distance and probed from in close. He was cheered loudly and hooted lightly, and all but peeled like a grape when he returned to Detroit for his first game since he was slapped, ever so gently, by Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
There were 53,863 fans at Tiger Stadium, the largest regular-season crowd in Detroit in nine years, and all of them had their eyes on McLain. They looked to see if he could perform the miraculous and pitch like a 30-game winner despite his long layoff. They were also checking to see if the old swagger was still there.
Perhaps the most interested onlookers were McLain's 24 teammates, the beneficiaries of his brilliant pitching in the past and also the victims of his storied selfishness. They know McLain can pitch, although their professional knowledge correctly told them he would not be ready to defeat the Yankees. They wanted to find out if his troubles had succeeded in humbling him.
July 12, 1970
"He's a showboat and he digs the pressure," Tiger fan Dr. Fred Kellman told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Dan Levin at the game. "This is like a World Series. The big hero's come back."
"This game means more to him than any other he's ever pitched," said another fan sitting in the stands nearby. "I think he'll try harder than he's ever tried. He's different from an ordinary person. He's an egotist, and a little eccentric, and it takes a lot of that to be a good pitcher."
Most of the fans who came to Tiger Stadium seemed satisfied that he was the old Denny, the one they loved. He was cheered for 45 seconds when he came onto the field and acclaimed almost as boisterously—with a few boos mixed in—when he was removed in the sixth inning trailing 5-3. He had needed 96 pitches to get that far and had allowed eight hits, three of them home runs.
McLain had said he would be disappointed if he were unable to pitch a complete game, and his style on the mound was vintage. He threw the ball over the plate and challenged the hitters. The Yankees made it plain that his challenges, for the moment, were not too tough, however. McLain accepted his near-defeat—the Tigers won the game 6-5 in 11 innings—philosophically. "Nine innings?" he replied to a question. "Well, I did, technically speaking. I threw about 100 pitches, and that's about how many I throw in a complete game. I guess the hitters were a bit better than my friends I've been practicing against at Lakeland High School."
McLain's wife, Sharyn, sat in Section 16, wearing white gloves despite the humidity and 91° heat. An oppressive swarm of news photographers had crowded around her seat before the game, causing her first to cry and then take refuge in the Tiger offices. She returned in time to see her husband pitch, the bright gloves forming a megaphone around her mouth as she yelled encouragement and flicking quickly as she applauded when Denny set the Yanks down in order in the first inning.
Across the street in Hoot Robinson's bar, a few oldtimers were not cheering. "I got $10 he loses," said a man with no teeth. "I'm saying he'll win," his friend countered. "He's a wonderful athlete, but as a moral man I can't see him, and I'm not a churchgoer." A beery customer down the bar said, "I think they oughta take that McLain out of town and tar and feather him."
Apparently that solution would be acceptable to some of the Tigers if they did not need McLain's arm to put them into the pennant race. In a conversation with New York Daily News Columnist Dick Young, Outfielder Jim Northrup asked, "I've been answering a lot of questions. Now, do you mind if I ask you one? Are the flies hovering over the garbage or is the garbage landing among the flies?"
Catcher Jim Price added, "Everybody is waiting. They're waiting to see if he has learned to live with others, to be one of the team from now on."
The Tigers' other top pitcher, Mickey Lolich, who was stranded in Washington at the All-Star Game last year when McLain flew off after promising Lolich a plane ride back to Detroit, said, "The guy pulled the worst trick, in the world, and he's getting a royal welcome back. Daa-da-da-dum. Bands, trumpets, probably a parade."
In talking about his bankruptcy, McLain said humbly, "I'm just a dummy. I made some terrible investments." So did his creditors. His bankruptcy petition shows that while he made poor investments he also simply welched on many of his bills at gas stations, hotels and stores. He failed to pay one creditor for $19.95 worth of coffee, and he owes $2,000 to his father-in-law, Lou Boudreau, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this month.
Detroit Manager Mayo Smith did not offer the censure voiced by many of Denny's teammates or the ready forgiveness of his fans. "Next year will tell," Smith said. "After he is exposed to the glamour and the glory and the hangers-on all over again, then we'll see if he falls into the same trap or whether he has really learned something."