A little over a year ago in late-March 2018, my son, Barrie, and I attended a sports memorabilia meet in Buffalo, New York, about an hour’s drive away from my home in Oakville, Ontario. That morning, before heading south of the border, I couldn’t decide what logoed cap would be the most appropriate to wear. I have three sports caps: representing the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings. With spring upon us at the time, I went with the baseball theme--the Detroit Tigers home cap.
And off we went…
At the convention center in a Buffalo suburb, Barrie and I were waiting in the lobby: We got there a few minutes early, as did many others. There was a good hundred or so of us milling around. When the front doors did finally creak open and the assembly line began to move, we could see from our vantage point several feet away a large color poster on a wooden stand of a right-handed pitcher in his windup.
“Hey, dad,” Barrie said, “Isn’t that Denny McLain?”
“Yeah, it is,” I replied. That high, ramrod leg kick before McLain’s delivery was unique in the baseball world.
To the right of the poster appeared to be McLain--at least it looked like him--sitting down behind a long table stacked with books. Older, heavier, but, yeah, it was him, all right. To those unfamiliar with Denny McLain, he was one of the best pitchers in the late-1960s, a two-time Cy Young winner, and the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, which he did in 1968 with the World Series winning Detroit Tigers.
There he was signing and selling his books. Ironically, my son and I were discussing McLain during the drive down and the often-told story behind his serving up a particular home run ball in 1968 to my favorite ball player of all time, Mickey Mantle. Damn, I was going to meet Denny McLain! And, I was lucky enough to be wearing my Tiger cap!
Barrie and I were two of the first ones to approach McLain after a short wait. When it was our turn, we told him we were Tiger fans.
“That’s the way,” he answered.
Barrie then asked him, boldly, “Did you really groove one to the Mick?”
“You’re damn right I did,” he answered, without hesitation.
Barrie had another question. “Did you throw at Pepitone right after that?”
“Yeah,” McLain grinned. “I did that, too.”
OK, let’s turn back the clock fifty years…
The date: September 19, 1968. Sporting an impressive 98-54 record, the Detroit Tigers had already clinched the American League pennant and were hosting the 80-74 New York Yankees in the last game
of a three-game set at Tiger Stadium before a meager crowd of 9,000, the last time these two teams would meet in the season. McLain had also clinched his 30th win (five days before), a feat not duplicated since and only previously accomplished in 1934 by legendary St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean.
In the top of the 8th inning with the Tigers up 6-1, Yankee catcher Jake Gibbs popped out in the infield, bringing up first baseman Mickey Mantle who was tied for third with slugger Jimmie Foxx on the lifetime homer list at 534, behind only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Many in the baseball world knew that 1968 would be Mantle’s last season in the majors and that he wanted to go out with a bang by owning the third spot on the homer list all to himself. The local fans realized too that this would probably be the last time they would see Mantle hitting at Tiger Stadium.
The Mick was in a slump, however, and hadn’t hit a homer since mid-August. Tiger Stadium had been one his favorite targets, having cleared the right-field double-decked roof with “tape-measure” shots on three occasions: 1956, 1958, and 1960. In his outstanding career, the switch-hitter had won a Triple Crown, three MVPs, hit over 50 homers twice and had been on seven World Series winners in his 18 years as a New York Yankee superstar. Now on his way down, his body beaten-up by injuries at age 36, he approached the plate to bat left-handed. In masse, the Detroit fans stood and gave Mantle a well-deserved standing ovation, leading players in both dugouts to do the same.
Out of respect for Mantle, McLain--who idolized Mantle growing up--stepped off the mound so that the Mick, emotional at this point, could drink it all in. In his three previous plate appearances, Mantle had hit a single and walked twice, in that order. So far, that much we know as fact…
I was a big fan of Mantle myself, now owning over a dozen books related to my hero. I found this September 19, 1968 incident in eight of those publications, and have put together the following story, heavy on McClain’s version, which he shared in his autobiography, I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect by Eli Zaret...
So…McLain called his catcher, Jim Price, to the mound and in no uncertain terms informed him that they were going to give Mantle a homer so that he could pull away from Jimmie Foxx on the home run list. At first, Price thought his pitcher was kidding, and then finally gave in by saying, “OK. How am I supposed to tell him?”
“All you gotta do is say, ‘Be ready Mick.’”
Price nodded and went back behind the plate to inform Mantle what McClain had told him. But the Yankee slugger was suspicious. McLain wound up and threw what was probably best described as a batting practice fastball at about 50 miles per hour right over the plate. Strike one.
Mantle took it and turned to Price. “What the f--- was that?”
“Just be ready,” Price repeated.
McLain threw a second pitch similar to the first, which Mantle also let go by. Strike two. McLain took a few steps off the mound, stopped, and shrugged at the star as if to say, “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Mantle then asked Price, “Is he gonna do it again?”
“I’m not sure. Let me ask him.”
Near the mound, Price did just that, to which McLain replied, annoyed, “Of course I’m going to do it again. Tell him to be ready this time.”
Mantle hit the next juicy pitch foul down the right-field line. McLain then stepped off the mound and yelled at his idol, “Where do you want the f----- ball?”
Mantle pointed to a spot over the plate below his waist, then hit the next pitch into the right-field upper deck a few feet inside the foul pole. In his home run trot around the bases, he kept yelling “thank you, thank you!” and yelled it one last time when he touched home plate.
The next batter was cleanup hitter Joe Pepitone, playing Mantle’s old position in center field. By this time everyone in the park knew what was going on. Pepitone put his hand over the plate and shouted, “Right here, Denny!”
McLain shook his head, then threw a 90 miles-per-hour fastball at Pepitone’s head, leaving him diving for the dirt. In the Yankee dugout, Mantle laughed so hard he almost fell over. After the game, reporters headed for McLain’s locker to ask whether he had really grooved one in. McLain replied, coolly, “He hit a good pitch.” Nobody believed him, of course.
Meanwhile, a few days later, baseball Commissioner William Eckert wrote McLain a letter to say he was very displeased with the pitcher ignoring the “integrity” of the game and promised an investigation of the incident in the near future. But nothing came of it. Those in the know, didn’t seem to care. Famed sportswriter Red Smith said it best when he wrote of the affair: “When a guy has bought 534 drinks in the same saloon, he’s entitled to one on the house.”
Mickey Mantle finished the 1968 season and his Hall of Fame career with a total of 536 homers, having cracked his final round-tripper off Boston Red Sox’s Jim Lonborg the very next day at Yankee Stadium. That one wasn’t grooved in. At least not that we know of.