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On This Date in Sports March 19, 1984: The Fall of Denny McLain

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The downfall of Denny McLain continues, as the two-time Cy Young winner is indicted on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking, and embezzlement. The 39-year-old who was the last 30-game winner in 1968 had his career descend rapidly after he was suspended in 1970. By 1984, he was weighing over 300lbs a shadow of his former self. McLain would be found guilty though the conviction was later overturned on appeal.

Denny McLain was born on March 29, 1944, in Chicago. Initially signed by the Chicago White Sox, McLain was drafted out of the minor leagues by the Detroit Tigers and made his debut in 1963. Denny McLain had a breakout season in 1965, posting a record of 16-5. A year later, he made his first All-Star team and was a 20-game winner. In 1968, Denny McLain had his finest season during the year of the pitcher. In posting a record of 31-6, McLain became the first 30 game winner since Dizzy Dean in 1934. While also posting an ERA of 1.96, Denny McLain won both the Cy Young and MVP in the American League as the Detroit Tigers won the World Series. Denny McLain again led the American League in wins in 1969, going 24-9 as he shared the Cy Young Award with Mike Cuellar of the Baltimore Orioles. Following the season, it all began to unravel.

The troubles for Denny McLain began when articles appeared in both Sports Illustrated and Penthouse, linking the Tigers ace pitcher to gambling and bookmaking activities. It was even alleged that a late foot injury in 1967 came from retribution for not paying off a bet. The article led to Denny McLain being suspended for the first three months of the 1970 season. When he returned, McLain struggled and posted a record of 3-5. The troubles continued throughout the season as he was suspended for dousing a pair of reporters with water and carrying a gun on a flight. When the season was over, Denny McLain was forced to declare bankruptcy despite being one of the highest paid players at $100,000.

After his troublesome 1970 season, Denny McLain was traded to the Washington Senators where he feuded with Manager Ted Williams. By now, McLain was also having arm troubles and finished the year with a dreadful record of 10-22. The soon to be Texas Rangers would rid themselves of McLain after one season, trading him to the Oakland Athletics. Denny McLain’s stay in Oakland would be a short one, as he made just five starts before he was traded to the Atlanta Braves for Orlando Cepeda. The 1972 season would the final season that Denny McLain spent in the majors, posting a record of 4-7 combined between Oakland and Atlanta.

After playing independent baseball in Canada in 1974, Denny McLain began going outside of the law to make money as his weight ballooned to 330lbs. During this time, he also had troubles with cocaine and spent time in rehab. After being found guilty of five counts of racketeering, drug trafficking, and embezzlement, Denny McLain was sentenced to 23 years in prison in 1985. However, the conviction was overturned on appeal two years later. McLain would later plead guilty and served probation along with a 12-year suspended sentence.

After returning to Detroit, Denny McLain briefly had a sports radio show and appeared to be getting his life in order, when he suffered a grave personal loss, with his daughter being killed by a drunk driver. Denny McLain would later spend another six years in prison after he was convicted of embezzlement and mail fraud from a meat packing company he purchased in 1994.

Since being released from prison in 2003, Denny McLain has been able to live a clean life occasionally doing radio shows, while working the autograph circuit with the fame of his 30-win season making him one of the most in-demand former players around Michigan.