Denny McLain and the Raccoon That Changed Baseball History*
*Or did it?
One of the more curious, and disturbing, episodes in baseball history came at the end of the 1967 season, during one of the closest pennant races ever. And it occurred in the time without any divisions or playoffs–there were no extra chances for finishing in second place and no postseason-participation trophies.
At the end of August, the Twins, Red Sox, White Sox and Tigers were all within one and a half games of each other. The Twins were a potentially great team, wracked by dissension. The White Sox were hitless wonders, made even more hitless by the skulduggery perpetrated by their field maintenance crew to help their pitchers. The Red Sox were the surprise team, a bunch of youngsters led by Yaz who was having an amazing year. The Tigers appeared to many to be the favorites, however. They were a deep, talented bunch with the best catcher in the league, Bill Freehan, along with sluggers Norm Cash, Willie Horton and the venerable Al Kaline. They also had a great pitching staff topped by Earl Wilson, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain.
After 159 games, absolutely nothing had been settled–four teams were still within one and a half games of the promised land. The White Sox finally dropped out after 160 games and three teams went into the last weekend with a chance for the pennant.
But something was wrong in Detroit.
McLain, who had already established himself as one of the best pitchers in the majors, was not performing up to par. In 1966, he had become the youngest twenty-game winner in the American League since Bob Feller. In 1967, at the age of 23, he should have been on top of his game. His record stood at 17-14 after a complete game 3-hitter August 29 but, during the tight pennant race, he would not win another game the rest of the year.
The brash McLain was a man of excess. He threw continuous fastballs, even when the situation called for something offspeed–and seemed unrepentant about giving up homers in such situations, joking that “I like to challenge a hitter, unfortunately this year I’ve lost 34 challenges.” He reportedly drank as many as 25 Pepsis a day. And he made a habit of playing in nightclubs on his Hammond organ into the late night hours throughout the midwest, bragging that he was the best 20-game-winning organ player around. No one, especially Tiger manager Mayo Smith, seemed to mind because McLain usually won on game day. He had quickly become one of the most outspoken, widely-quoted fan favorites in baseball.
McLain was said to have “wrenched his back” in late August, 1967. In September and October he made 5 starts, did not get out of the sixth inning in any of them, averaged 3 innings and 3 runs per start, and Detroit went 1-4 in those games. Most perplexing was that he showed up September 18, the day after losing to the Red Sox, with a swollen foot, hobbling on crutches and appearing to be done for the year. The team physician examined him and reported that he had dislocated the two outside toes on his foot.
There was apparently some confusion as to the exact cause of the foot injury. The story that McLain repeated most often, and seemed to be believed by out-of-town writers (those in Detroit, who knew McLain more intimately, strangely had their doubts), was this version, printed in the December, 1967 issue of Sport Magazine: “my wife went to bed and I sat on the living room sofa to watch TV. Up here The Untouchables comes on at 1 A. M. . . I fell asleep. . . . A raccoon knocked over an empty garbage can and it startled me. . . So I jumped up. My left leg was sleeping and I turned my whole left ankle.” Because the foot was asleep, he didn’t realize the pain and took a few more steps, further injuring the foot.
Other stories soon popped up, however. One had him outside chasing the raccoons when he injured his foot. Another (attributed to Mickey Lolich) had him kicking a water cooler. Some reporters said McLain told them he kicked some lockers in the clubhouse in anger after the loss to the Red Sox. The Associated Press September 21, 1967 quoted Mayo Smith as saying, “He was sitting down at home Tuesday and his foot went to sleep. When he stood up, his ankle rolled out from under him.”
Whatever the cause, McLain was on crutches for about a week, then Smith started him the second game of a double header on the final day of the season. A Tiger win would have forced a playoff with the Red Sox. McLain lasted only 2.2 innings, gave up 3 runs and the Tigers lost, paving the way for the Impossible Dream of the Red Sox.
And so the story ended: a bad luck injury had knocked out one of the best pitchers in the majors during the heat of a pennant race in which one win would have made the difference. Everyone had a good laugh and the particulars were forgotten. Sport Magazine noted that the Tigers would probably win the pennant in 1968, “provided, of course, no one falls off a couch.”
The next season, a healthy McLain lit up the baseball world, winning 31 games for the World Champion Tigers. In 1969, he won 24 games and his second consecutive Cy Young Award. He had won 108 games in 5 years and was still only 25 years old. He was bigger than the game.
And then, things got interesting.
In January, 1970, the FBI conducted a crackdown on a five-state gambling ring with ties to organized crime. Their haul included numerous underworld figures and low-level gamblers.Some of the unindicted co-conspirators, as unindicted co-conspirators are wont to do, sang to save their miserable necks. In doing so, they alerted authorities to some interesting happenings in the Detroit-area sports arena.
Morton Sharnik, who had written for Sports Illustrated for a decade on boxing and baseball, picked up some of the rumors and nosed around. He did not name his sources other than to say that they were “several law-enforcement agencies” and a one-time Detroit Mafia lawyer who spilled his guts to the authorities. Sources also apparently included a Flint, Michigan sportswriter who covered the Tigers and a Flint detective–both of whom spent a lot of time hanging out, drinking and gambling at a seedy Flint club and steakhouse named the Shorthorn.
The result of Sharnik’s work made the cover of SI on February 23, 1970 in one of the magazine’s biggest block-busters to date:
Denny McLain and the Mob! The American League’s two-time reining Cy Young Award winner and one of baseball’s most popular and biggest personalities apparently, according to the magazine, was mixed up with “The Mob.” Organized crime. Underworld figures. Gangland members. Leave the glove, take the cannoli. It was unbelievable.
The article claimed that McLain was involved in a bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn in Flint, which was under the protection and backing of the Syrian Mob, apparently an organization of great importance in the Detroit area. McLain bet heavily with the Syrians on basketball and hockey and lost regularly, resulting in a large debt. He apparently so flaunted baseball’s rules that he openly placed bets on the phone in the clubhouse. Also, it claimed, in February of 1967, McLain had agreed to put up his own money to back the bookmaking operation. Things turned sour, however, as McLain was later swindled by the bookmakers–they kept the winnings themselves and sent lost bets to McLain to pay off.
Allegedly, trouble started in mid-summer 1967 when a Battle Creek man won $46,000 on a long shot in a horse race and he was sent to McLain for the funds. When McLain refused to pay, the man went to a street fixer with Mob ties for help. The article claimed that it was this mobster who stomped on McLain’s foot in September of 1967 as a reminder to pay his debts. A “gangland source” stated that the mobster had bet heavily on the Red Sox and Twins to win the pennant and against the Tigers in McLain’s last start.
In the most salacious detail, and an act stretching the limits of respectability of journalism, the article concluded with the news that the gambler who was owed the $46,000 dollars was later found dead at the scene of a very suspicious single-car accident on a lonely road (adding that it was in a period of good visibility and weather). The obvious conclusion left for the reader was that someone (possibly even McLain?) involved in the gambling ring was responsible for the man’s death.
Sports sections all over the country blew up with the news. It was indeed, as stated by the UPI, “Baseball’s worst scandal since eight members of the White Sox were banned for life for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series.” If the article was to be believed, here was one of the game’s biggest stars who was not only heavily indebted to gamblers and organized crime personalities, but participated with them in organized crime; that one of the mobsters had played a role in a pennant race by damaging a key pitcher for a contender and, possibly, had influenced that pitcher to throw other games.
And, by the way, they may have killed a guy.
Behind the scenes, notified by the magazine of the article a week ahead of time, Commissioner of Baseball Bowie Kuhn immediately called McLain to his office in New York and questioned him. McLain admitted to gambling quite often on basketball and hockey and to being involved with the bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn. But he stated that he gotten out in midseason and, since he was himself swindled and received no money, he felt that he was an innocent victim. He denied everything else in the article.
Bowie Kuhn was then in a precarious situation. He astutely realized that we can’t have, um, raccoons running around affecting the outcomes of pennant races. But he faced the classic Baseball Commissioner-conundrum: How to ensure that raccoons don’t influence pennant races, and punish those who may traffic with raccoons, without admitting publicly that baseball may have a raccoon problem–or any other kind of a problem. It’s a delicate two-step that other commissioners had successfully pulled off in the past. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, of course, established the precedent by banning for life the members of the Black Sox and then later refusing to acknowledge that any similar crime could ever be committed (see Cobb/Speaker).
Happy Chandler suspended Leo Durocher for a year before the 1947 season for associating with low-lifes with organized crime and gambling ties, but conspiracy theorists can point to the modern cover-up perpetrated in the otherwise excellent movie “42” in which the stated cause of the suspension was the outrage of Catholics over Durocher’s dalliance with married actress Loraine Day–throwing Happy under the bus in the process by making him look like a dolt–and not even mentioning gambling.
Bowie Kuhn, if nothing else, considered himself to be a master of maintaining the appropriate appearance. He famously wore a short-sleeved shirt during a frigid night World Series game, in hopes of convincing the television audience that the rest of the Nanook-dressed crowd was overly sensitive and that, obviously, it was not at all cold. Later he suspended the retired Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays from baseball activities because they had taken jobs shaking hands and schmoozing customers at casinos where, gasp, gambling took place.
Kuhn released a well-crafted statement the day the magazine hit the racks. He announced that he was suspending McLain indefinitely, pending further investigation. He was careful to make it clear that the suspension was for the bookmaking activities and was “not based on allegations contained in a magazine article, many of which I believe will prove to be unfounded.” He added that “his [McLain’s] own gullibility and avarice had permitted him to become the dupe of the gamblers with whom he associated.”
Soon thereafter, Kuhn announced that the investigation was completed and that McLain would be re-instated July 1. In case anyone was wondering, he added “There is no indication that [McLain’s activities] in any way involve the playing or outcome of baseball games.”
Not long after McLain returned, perhaps having realized how popular he still was when more than 53,000 fans crammed into Tiger Stadium for his first 1970 appearance, Kuhn suspended him for the rest of the season, this time for a very vague charge of carrying a gun on a Tiger road trip. McLain stated that he did indeed have a gun, legally owned and registered (perhaps to fend off marauding raccoons) but that he never took it on a road trip. Confusingly, no one could be found who actually saw the gun–there were only unsubstantiated rumors of a guy who knew a guy who said he heard McLain had a gun on the road trip. Many felt that it was Kuhn’s way of further punishing McLain and removing him from the limelight without saying the dirty G-word again.
Baseball could have had a very big problem on its hands (imagine, a Hall of Fame-talent star who felt himself to be bigger than the game being mixed up in gambling) but Kuhn was rescued from any further decision-making as natural history played itself out and McLain’s arm was soon deader than his organ-playing career and he was out of the game within two years.
But that brings us back to the original question–what really happened in 1967?
McLain wrote two autobiographies, the last of which, published in 2007, was aptly called, “I told you I wasn’t perfect.”
In it, McLain speaks very freely and admits that he: a) gambled heavily on football, basketball and hockey during the sixties, b) became involved as a financial backer for the bookmaking operation run out of the Shorthorn, and c) occasionally, in his youthful arrogance, did call in bets from the clubhouse or press room at baseball fields. But he maintains that, finding out that he was being taken, he opted out of the bookmaking operation in early August of 1967–before any of the alleged bad things happened.Regardless of anything else, McLain obviously showed a propensity for getting himself mixed up with very unsavory and unreliable characters. Early in his Detroit career, when reporters mentioned his fantastic consumption of Pepsi, a Detroit Pepsi Vice President and marketing director, who McLain referred to as a classic jock-sniffer, immediately contacted him, befriended him and began delivering 10 cases of Pepsi to his house each week and got him a $15,000 promotional fee from Pepsi. He also introduced him to his gambling buddies and bookie. McLain and his new friend bet, and lost, heavily. McLain claimed he lost as much as $200 to $300 a week (at a time in which his baseball salary was around $25,000).
McLain’s organ playing also led him to unsavory characters. He had developed a nightclub act that was quite entertaining to boozed up sports fans. In 1966, he played a gig at the now-infamous Flint club called the Shorthorn. The owner, a low-grade mobster, took bets on the side and became the bookie for McLain and his Pepsi friend. With their gambling losses mounting, McLain and his friend decided they would do better if they were the bank. They agreed to join the bookmaking operation of the Shorthorn as the financial backers. McLain took out personal loans totaling over $10,000 to bankroll the deal. All these things McLain readily admits, but he steadfastly denies any of the other claims of the SI article and sticks to the story of the raccoon.
Who else can we look to for the truth? In 1970, amid all the hoopla over the article, a Detroit television sportscaster who knew the alleged mobster, brought said alleged mobster to the TV studio and, in a live interview, asked him point blank, “Did you ever step on Denny McLain’s foot to prevent him from pitching or whatever else?” The mobster, who appeared to be a very nice gentleman and was appropriately perplexed by all the fuss, denied that he had ever even met McLain and stated categorically that no, he did not ever step on McLain’s foot to prevent him from pitching. Or whatever else. He didn’t add, but we can safely assume, that he was also shocked, shocked to find out that there was gambling going on in Detroit.
And so there you have it–from the mouths of the alleged perps. Although there are those who remain doubtful, all we really have to go on is speculation and the old statements of some very unreliable characters, some of whom were trying to save their own hides when talking. McLain’s post-baseball career has been well-documented and includes several major prison terms for some very nasty offenses, including racketeering, loan-sharking, cocaine trafficking and looting the retirement fund of a company of which he was part owner. He eventually became a footnote to a very troubling time in baseball history; a once-great talent and a cautionary tale.
The amazing thing is that, for all the bombastic claims, the original 1970 article from Sports Illustrated appears to have been quickly forgotten. The sports world simply moved on to a new topic next week–who’s hot? who’s not? No one seemed to care about the poor dead gambler or any of the other details. No one was ever prosecuted regarding anything printed in the article.But this still leaves us with the very unsettling thought: Did a raccoon, or some other nocturnal creature, really influence the outcome of one of the closest pennant races in baseball history?We will never know the truth–and that’s probably just as well, for all of us.
Doug Wilson is the author of four baseball biographies, including Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk, to be released October 20, 2015. Visit him at Doug Wilson’s Baseball Bookshelf