Denny McLain spent a decade pitching at a high level in Major League Baseball.
Spending the bulk of his career with the Detroit Tigers, the Markham, Ill. native was a revelation early on for the team in the Motor City. In 1968, the big right-hander became the last pitcher to win 30 or more games in a single season, finishing his magical run with an astounding 31-6 record.
The storybook start to McLain's career was solidified when he won Cy Young Awards in 1968 and 1969 and the American League MVP award in 1968. McLean was a three-time All-Star and a World Series champion.
After battling through many highly publicized off-field issues, McLain retired after spending part of the 1972 season with both the Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves.
He finished his career with 131 wins, more than 100 complete games and nearly 1,300 strikeouts.
In this exclusive interview with SCD’s Tony Reid, McClain talks about thinning out his massive collection of cards and memorabilia, idolizing Mickey Mantle as a kid and taking pride in still signing for fans decades after his retirement.
You were a star at Mt. Carmel High School and made it to the Major Leagues early in your career. Do you remember the very first time you were asked for your autograph?
My God. It was a hundred years ago. It had to happen the first night in the big leagues back in 1963. We were playing the Washington Senators. Back in those days, the Senators didn’t draw very well at all. I’m sure there was somebody hanging over the dugout or after the ballgame as we got on the bus that wanted an autograph. It’s been forever. I do about 125 shows a year. We are on the road all the time. We are always on to the next stop. We enjoy it. We have enjoyed it over the past 20 years.
I’m sure all the fans appreciate your efforts. What is the most memorable fan interaction from your time playing ball or your time on the road in retirement?
There are a number of them. They all deal with their fathers or grandfathers. Their father met me, or the grandfather met me. Their father had dinner with me, or their grandfather had dinner with me. There has to be a thousand stories with people like that. We literally talk to everybody. We have been pretty good with our time when it comes to telling stories and explaining some things to kids who haven’t been around a professional in order to understand what it’s all about. We have had a great time. If it ends tomorrow, God forbid, I have no criticisms at all.
You are a prolific signer and you have a great signature that you have signed countless times. How much pride do you take in signing a good autograph for a fan?
We take a lot of pride in it. Number one, I went to all Catholic schools. One thing is that they commanded that. They wanted you to be able to read and write. We had to take writing classes at Mt. Carmel High School. They were really tough guys. If you didn’t fulfill what you had for homework, you got wacked the next day. Period. In today’s society, they would have arrested the priest. The kids pick up the phone and say a priest hit them. If you are really going to turn a priest in you aren’t going to heaven, there’s not a chance. That is what it was all about.
I have written a number of books and I wrote most of them out long hand. When we write letters to folks that are sick or in the hospital or what have you, we take great pride in what we should say and how we should say it, but just as importantly, we hope that they can read it.
Baseball cards are such a part of Americana and our sports culture. What was the experience like when you first saw yourself on a trading card?
The 1965 Topps card was my rookie card. That was the first card I saw. That is a big moment for a guy. All of a sudden you are getting a major league card with your picture on it. They are showing your stats and telling people how you are and, whether you won any games or not, they are going to make up something that sounds good. It’s all about the progression. The better you get the better the card becomes. The cards have so much value. One sold recently for over $6 million. Everything is built in this country and that’s why we live here. If you have something valuable you will sell it.
You had an estate sale recently where you sold off an amazing collection of bats, balls, cards and other memorabilia you collected over the years. What led you to collect yourself and hold and preserve those great items?
When the business became a business in the late ’80s and early ’90s, everybody took notice, especially the older players. A lot of us didn’t have the ability to augment our lifestyles like we had when we played. These shows fell right in and if you do enough of them you should do relatively well. We have been doing this 20 years so something has worked. We hope to do another 20 years. It’s a great business. It’s a family thing. Everybody loves it. Everybody comes out to hear good stories. Until the good Lord says ‘The inning is over. Let’s go home,’ I’m going to keep doing it.
You have Cy Young Awards, World Series rings and some amazing items in your collection. Are there certain items that are too special to ever let go?
That stuff is going to be passed down to my children and grandkids. We had four children. Three are still with us. We have nine grandchildren. I don’t know how they are going to split all of this stuff up, but I am very happy that I won’t be here to be the judge.
If you could go back in time and do a jersey swap with anybody you played with or against, who would it be?
Mickey Mantle. He was my idol growing up. Mickey was my guy. I wanted to play center field. I wanted to wear number 7. I was a switch hitter in high school. I led the city of Chicago in hitting one year. I hit .600 as a junior. Not one team after I graduated a year later ever came to me and said they wanted me to play center field. Everybody wanted me to pitch. I was really taken back by that. I thought I was hot poop. I thought I was going to go up there (in the majors) and hit .600 and it wasn’t going to be that tough. The only good news I can tell you is that my first time up against the White Sox, the team that released me, I hit a home run. That was the last one. I guess I have one more than most.
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— Tony Reid has written about sports collectibles for such publications as Beckett and Sports Collectors Daily. He works full-time at a sports card shop in Central Pennsylvania and collects RCs in baseball, basketball and football. You can reach him on social media at @reidrattlecage.