Monday, November 15, 2010


Nearly spilled my Coke Zero all over my laptop; for some inexplicable reason, that made me think of Denny McLain. (As many of you know, one of Denny's claims to notoriety stemmed from a classical addiction to Pepsi-Cola; legend states that he could polish off a case of the stuff in a single day.)

No, don't know why the reason for that brand-name reversal: neural lesions, probably. But anyway, given Denny's Pepsi propensity it's a freakin' miracle that the last 30-game winner and organ-playing ex-con is still with us. (He probably kicked the Pepsi habit while he was behind bars, anyway.)

Our hero, sometime before he lost the "Pepsi challenge"...

But it's that word--reversal--that keeps McLain in one's mind. There's something compelling about reversal: it's the extremity of it, the sheer mind-numbing cosmic shoulder shrug that makes fate random and vice-versa. Nobody--except for Bernie Madoff, possibly--flew higher and crashed back to earth with such a resounding bitch slap.

So in honor of that vagrant thought, here's a look at the very beginning of Denny's big league career. The date was September 21, 1963, just two months before JFK's fatal day in Dallas, and only a few weeks ahead of the Dodgers' shocking sweep of the Yankees.

Denny (all of 19 years old) had spent most of the summer on a tour of the Detroit Tigers' farm system, with a combined 18-6 record across A, AA, and AAA affiliations. He was a tad wild (a tad over four walks per nine innings) but his fastball crackled. Bill Freehan, who caught him in the Tigers' bullpen before the game, later said that the young Denny had the loudest fastball he'd ever heard: "Nobody made the seams of a baseball scream the way Denny did when he was young. It was like the ball was tearing itself apart."

September 21st was a dull Saturday in the American League in 1963: the Yankees, despite Mickey Mantle's foot injury, had lapped the rest of the league and were coasting toward the World Series. The Chicago White Sox, developing one of the "pitcher's decade" most effective (and most unsung) ensembles under Al Lopez, had recently been eliminated from the pennant race en route to the first of three consecutive second-place finishes.

Fritz Ackley, in uncharacteristcally good company...
With zilch on the line, Lopez matched Tiger manager Chuck Dressen by tapping untried right-hander Fritz Ackley, the late-blooming "king of the monobrow" (already 25) who'd stumbled around for nine years before mastering a change-up. With a matchup of pitchers both making their debut, the fans decided to stay at home polishing their spittoons: less than five thousand clicked through the turnstiles at Tiger Stadium that day.

They missed a good game. In the top of the first, McLain had trouble finding the plate, falling behind 3-0 and ultimately walking Mike Hershberger. He quickly made amends, however, by picking off the White Sox leadoff hitter, and then fanning Don Buford (playing 3B in his pre-Oriole days) and journeyman outfielder Gene Stephens.

Ackley matched McLain in the bottom of the first, and the two pitchers kept things scoreless through four. Denny picked Buford off to end the top of the third; Ackley upped the ante by picking off a sleeping Dick McAuliffe to snuff out a Tigers' rally in the bottom of the inning.

In the fifth, the White Sox took a 1-0 lead on Buford's run-scoring triple, but McLain had a surprise up his sleeve. Perhaps taken aback when pitcher Ackley had punched out a single off him in the third, McLain practiced extreme payback by hitting a home run with one out in the fifth. (It would be the only tater of his big league career.)

Ackley, a bit rattled, then proceeded to serve up a second consecutive homer to Tiger leadoff hitter Billy Bruton. An inning later, Detroit would push across an unearned run to lead 3-1.

Charlie Maxwell, still with us at age 83, and
blissfully unaware that his strikeout was
the last out of Denny McLain's first win

In the eighth, McLain weakened: he walked Hershberger, and Buford followed with a single to right. With runners on first and third, Gene Stephens hit a slow dribbler into no-man's land between the mound and the third base line: McLain fielded it and threw wildly to first, pulling Norm Cash off the bag. Hershberger scored, cutting the Tigers' lead to 3-2, and two batters later Tommy McCraw's sacrifice fly tied the game.

Fortunately for McLain, Norm Cash didn't waste much time in breaking the tie: the slugging first baseman blasted a home run off Jim Brosnan to give the Tigers a 4-3 lead. Denny didn't waste much time himself in the ninth, striking out pinch-hitters Grover (Deacon) Jones and Charlie Maxwell to wrap up his first major league win.

All in all, he'd struck out eight, walked four, and he'd done two things in a single baseball game that he'd never do again:

a) hit a home run; and
b) pick off two runners in the same game.