September 14, 1968: Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers defeats Oakland, 5-4, to win his 30th game of the season—the last time a pitcher has done that. McLain’s record for the season would be 31-6. He was the first 30-game winner in Major League Baseball since Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1934 and the first in the American League since Lefty Grove of the Philadelphia A’s in 1931. Only 11 pitchers reached the 30-win milestone in the 20th century. The closest anyone has come since McLain is 27, by Steve Carlton of the Philadelphia Phillies in 1972 and Bob Welch of the Oakland A’s in 1990.
McLain was on top of the world 55 years ago. He also produced a sparkling 1.96 ERA that season and would go on to win the American League Cy Young Award and MVP honor, becoming the first player ever to win both AL awards in the same season. McLain would repeat as the Cy Young winner in 1969, when he went 24-9. But cracks were already appearing in the foundation. McLain was named the starting pitcher in the 1969 All-Star Game, but he missed the beginning of the contest due to a dental appointment. He treated people around him poorly, and suspicions grew that he was involved in bookmaking activities.
In February, 1970, Sports Illustrated published an article alleging that a foot injury suffered by McLain in late 1967 was caused by an organized crime figure stomping on his foot after he failed to repay a bet. McLain was suspended for the first three months of the 1970 season and was never the same. His career and reputation unraveled from there, and 1972 would be his final season in the bigs. McLain ultimately served several terms in prison for drug trafficking, embezzling and racketeering.
Back to baseball: there were four pitchers in the 20-win club as recently as 20 years ago, when Roy Halladay, Esteban Loaiza, Jamie Moyer and Andy Petitte reached the plateau in 2003. Now, the majors are about to go a third straight season without a 20-game winner for the first time in modern history (2020 would be a fourth, but it has an asterisk due to the COVID-shortened season). The current MLB leader is Spencer Strider of Atlanta, who picked up his 17th win Wednesday night as the Braves clinched the NL East. Strider doesn’t have three starts left this season.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)