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On This Date in Sports September 14, 1968

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With a 5-4 win over the Oakland Athletics at Tiger Stadium, Denny McLain becomes the first pitcher to win 30 games in a season since 1934. McLain would finish the season with a record of 31-6, with a 1.96 ERA and 280 strikeouts to earn both the American League MVP and Cy Young as helped Detroit Tigers win the Pennant and the World Series.

Dennis McLain was born March 29, 1944, in the suburbs of Chicago. After being signed out of high school by the Chicago White Sox, McLain was picked up off waivers by the Detroit Tigers and made his debut in 1963. Denny McLain’s breakout season was 1965 when he won 16 games. In 1966, McLain made it to his first All-Star Game and won 20 games, but had a disappointing 17-16 season in 1967.

Looking to move past the letdown in 1967, Denny McLain was the opening day pitcher as the Detroit Tigers hosted the Boston Red Sox. Detroit won the game 4-3, but McLain was not around to get the decision. Denny McLain’s first win in 1968, would come on April 21st as he went the distance as the Tigers beat the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park 4-2. McLain would his next five starts, and eight of nine to hold a record of 8-1 at the end of May. As the Tigers climbed to the top of the American League standings, McLain became the most reliable pitcher, winning six games in June and seven in July to sit at 21-3 entering the month of August. He continued his strong pitching through the dog days of August, winning five and won his first three starts in September to sit at 29-5 entering a Saturday afternoon start against the Oakland Athletics at Tiger Stadium.

While Denny McLain got the start for the first place Tigers, Chuck Dobson was called upon by Bob Kennedy to start for the Oakland Athletics. After neither team was able to score through the first three innings, Oakland struck first on a two-run homer by rookie Reggie Jackson. The Tigers answered in the bottom of the fourth with a three-run shot by Norm Cash. Burt Campaneris singled in the tying run the fifth, while Reggie Jackson hit a second home run to give the Athletics a 4-3 lead in the sixth. Despite the struggles, and trailing 4-3, McLain stayed in the game and pitched nine full innings, allowing four runs on six hits with ten strikeouts. With Diego Segui pitching his fifth inning in relief for the Athletics, Detroit looked to rally to support their ace pitcher. Al Kaline started the inning with a walk. Following a pop up by Dick McAuliffe, Mickey Stanley singled to put the tying run on third. Jim Northrup came up and hit the ball to Danny Carter at first. Looking to keep the lead, Carter threw home but the ball got away, allowing Stanley to advance to third with the winning run. From there Willie Horton got the big hit to win the game 5-4. Prior to Denny McLain, the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season was Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1934.

Complete games were not uncommon for Denny McLain as he had 28, during his 30-win season. McLain’s final win of the season came five days later on September 19th a 6-2 in at home against the New York Yankees. The win would become infamous as McLain grooved a pitch to his idol Mickey Mantle so he could hit his 535th career home run to move past Jimmy Foxx into third on the all-time home run list. The 1968 season was remembered as the Year of the Pitcher, but Denny McLain was solid again in 1969, as he shared the Cy Young award with Mike Cuellar of the Baltimore Orioles while posting a 24-9 record. After the 1969 season, McLain’s career rapidity fell apart as he was suspended for association with gamblers and later traded to the Washington Senators, losing 22 games in 1971. A year later, he was out of the game completely.

In the 50 years since Denny McLain won 30 games, only two pitchers have come close winning 27 games, Steve Carlton in 1972 with the Philadelphia Phillies and Bob Welch of the Oakland Athletics in 1990. With 20-game winners becoming rare, a great reliance on bullpens and pitch counts it is beyond doubtful that anyone will match McLain’s 30-win season again.