If you look into the abyss
The abyss will look into you
I was 16 years old when Denny McLain took the country by storm by winning 31 games. He also won the MVP and Cy Young Award - a perfect trifecta. In a peculiar twist of fate, McLain released two albums for Capitol Records and made extra money performing the Hammond organ in a three-day whirlwind romance with the Riviera Hotel. It seemed like an odd coupling at the time, but according to McLain this was only the beginning of a long descent into a self-made hell.
McLain describes life in his family of origin as one of violence and invalidation. His father would beat him; his mother rarely stepped in. The ghosts in the nursery exerted an undue influence on McLain and set the seeds for his later anti-social behavior. His father was a severe alcoholic who ruled by the force and threat of the omnipresent leather strap. It was a brutal existence that few children could live through unscathed.
As a traumatized kid, McLain was never able to clear out the discord and accurately assess safety and risk. This would lead to his ultimate downfall - poor decisions resulting in years of imprisonment, divorce and the ongoing disdain of his former colleagues on the Detroit Tigers.
McClain was a natural athlete who was initially courted by Notre Dame; but when the Major League scouts from the Yankees and White Sox to the Phillies offered an impressive amount of money, it was enough to turn the head of a working class lad. In 1962 McLain accepted a $17, 000 bonus from the White Sox. He was on his way. At this point in his career McLain could only throw a fastball (and it would forever be his “go to” pitch.
McLain threw a no hitter in his rookie debut. It was a sign of things to come. He was “The Natural.”
I found the early chapters of the book to be exhilarating. McLain learned to throw curves, sliders and change ups from the legendary Johnny Sain. He could throw over 90 miles per hour and could over power even the best hitters. He had the killer instinct. But in 1965, McLain hurt his arm and was sent to Henry Ford Hospital to start a series of treatments. This is when cortisone came into his life. It would salvage his career in the moment, but the injury would ultimately lead to a shortened career (10 years).
McLain mentions his feud with Mickey Lolich - no loved lost on either side of that coin. It was interesting to me that McLain was critical of Al Kaline and intimated that he was not well liked by his teammates. According to McLain the guys on the team resented Kaline for turning down a $100,000 salary. The media played him up to be a hero (I did too) but the players knew it cost them thousands of dollars, as the financial threshold was kept artificially low. The door for increasing the players' salaries was slammed shut - for the time being.
A few years later collective bargaining would provide professional baseball players a legal right to negotiate for salary increases; and free agency would follow, establishing multi-million dollar athletes and an ongoing debate about the astronomical salaries enjoyed by modern athletes in all major sports.
They are the modern descendants of ancient Rome - gladiators giving the masses bread and circuses.
There are 398 pages in 37 chapters and at times McLain's writing is a bit tedious. I was less involved in his dramatic decline and connection to organized crime. I wondered why he could be so callous and hurt so many people, especially his family. His long-suffering wife divorced McLain while he was in prison only to re-marry following his six years of confinement.
McLain devotes the first chapter to the death of Kristin, his oldest daughter. It was a tragic accident caused by a drunk driver on M-59. There was a fire and she was trapped inside her car. It became a sentinel event in Denny McLain's downward spiral into mob affiliations, prison terms and the controversial purchase of Peet Packing in Chapter 27. McLain insists to this day that he had no knowledge of his partner's raid on the pension fund of the workers who toiled for Peet Packing. He may have been disingenuous about his role in accepting a $2.5 million bank loan during his brief tenure at Peet - only to later discover that it was the workers' pension money. He savaged the retirement income of the long-suffering Peet workers. To this day he's universally despised in Chesaning Michigan
In the nineties (pre-Peet expose) McLain was the featured speaker at the AHHS Letterman's Banquet. I was excited to see him and he did not fail to impress. He was articulate and funny in a self-deprecating way. He seemed to give an honest account of his life, including his connection to organized crime. He was entertaining and accepted questions from the audience. I left feeling as if I knew him a little bit better. The person behind the myth - but then again I'm a sucker for a good story.
McLain is out of prison and yet, to this day, he's still getting into trouble. On September 22nd, 2011 McLain was arrested in Port Huron after officials discovered an outstanding warrant against him from St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. He now weighs over 300lbs and is barely recognizable as the young steed that took the baseball world by storm in 1968.
He's paid a heavy price in a type of self-immolation that haunts his every step. Today he can only make a living playing Denny McLain, signing baseballs, rookie cards and telling stories.
I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in sixties baseball and character studies. There's a little bit of Denny McLain in all of us.
It can be purchased at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com.