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Sports

The Swinging Pitcher: A Look at Denny McLain's Easy-Listening Career

Our occasional series on records made by professional athletes continues with disgraced Tiger ace Denny McLain's competent, super-square easy listening career.
April 24, 2015, 5:40pm

Baseball is a weird sport, but also a conservative one. It's the kind of institution where even the eccentrics are off the beaten path in a kind of square-assed way. It took until the 1970s for the lingering subversive elements of the 60s to trickle into the game, at which point we were treated to Oakland's facial hair mutiny, Dock Ellis's unapologetic, political blackness, and Bill Lee's Bill Lee-ness. So when one learns that one of the most notorious pitchers of the Early Astroturf Epoch put out a record, a cleats-and-stirrups version of Hot Rats is off the table pretty much right away. You'd be right. Denny McLain's album of organ music is both more conservative and weirder than that.

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As this sharp Chris Molanphy piece on the music of Mad Men pointed out, the 60s were only marginally about the caricaturized Freedom Rock mindset that younger generations had been told it was. The Establishment bought records, too—records by artists like Acker Bilk and Herb Alpert and Percy Faith—and this is the kind of context where Denny McLain thrived. This might seem kind of weird when you consider how young McLain was at his peak: when he became the last major league starter to win 30 games for the 1968 World Champion Detroit Tigers, in a season that won him the American League MVP and Cy Young awards, McLain was only 24—which, as Motor City-based musicians go, makes him younger than Bob Seger or anybody in The Stooges.

Read More: Joe Frazier's Forgotten R&B Career

For a Chicago-born kid of that age, who learned to play the organ from his dad, you could at least assume McLain had some interest in R&B or garage rock. Maybe he caught a few Paul Butterfield Blues Band shows as a teenager and got super-inspired.

Nope. Nope, not at all. McLain's offseason career playing the organ was enough to score him a couple LPs for Capitol—Denny McLain at the Organ and In Las Vegas, released in 1968 and 1969 respectively—but his style was strictly swingin' lounge-jazz, far more trad than the soul-inflected stuff that Hammond legends like Jimmy Smith or Richard "Groove" Holmes were making around the same time. The back cover of At the Organ, which also touts the unique distinction of the LP being the first-ever recording of Hammond's X-77 model, quotes McLain briefly on the subject of his influences. "My father played records much of the time around our house… Mostly, I remember Frank Sinatra things." Of the offerings on the LP itself, McLain touts the bossa nova standard "For Me" as "the maddest, swingin'est track" and singles out the gauzy "Lonely Is the Name"—recorded by Sammy Davis, Jr. the previous year—as the prettiest. "But the other 10 tunes are all pretty darned good, too," he throws in. Which, I don't know. I've heard his version of "Hurdy Gurdy Man".

Most of the tracks on McLain's albums skim the surface of the pop and jazz standard world, with that ludicrously character-destroying Donovan cover the closest he gets to even engaging with anything genuinely trippy. You might find either of these albums going for cheapo bucks on Discogs or some other internet-based vinyl purveyor, but even the dankest corners of semi-dormant obscurity-peddling MP3 blogs generally come up short on hosting copies.

Not that it matters much: it doesn't take much more than a trip to YouTube to get the gist of McLain's whole aesthetic, as filtered through his appearances on the '90s kitsch-baiting Ultra-Lounge compilation series. He operates in two modes: swoony balladeering and chirpy upbeat swing, the kind of music meant to make elevator rides less claustrophobic and conversation unnecessary at a Nixon-era Holiday Inn lounge.

That seems fairly unremarkable in a lot of ways, so much so that it's easy not to notice that McLain is actually pretty talented at this whole easy-listening thing. "The Girl from Ipanema" isn't cutting-edge stuff for the twilight of the '60s, but listening to his version is enough to reveal some flash and flourish that at least succeeds in setting him apart from casual amateurs. An article in the St. Petersburg, Florida Evening Independent revealed that, the year before his legendary '68 season, he was charging $3.50 a half hour for organ lessons, and had been performing a series of gigs in the upper Midwest and Las Vegas—the novelty of a talented ballplaying organist was still a grabber even before he notched one of the greatest pitching seasons ever.

It didn't last, as anybody who's even remotely familiar with McLain's career can tell you. In 1970, McLain was suspended for half the season by MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn for getting involved in a bookmaking operation with connections to organized crime. Despite a six-figure salary that included countless endorsements, he wound up having to file for bankruptcy when both his lawyer and the money said lawyer was entrusted to handle both made themselves scarce. And the strain that comes with throwing more than 660 innings over the course of the two previous seasons caught up with him: he hucked 91 ?…" mediocre innings to the tune of a 4.63 ERA (an 81 ERA+), and by that October he had been shipped off to the cruddy Washington Senators. There, in his final full season, he'd lose 22 of the 32 games he started and earn the eternal enmity of manager Ted Williams.

McLain would retire from baseball a couple years later, with a combination of arm problems and weight issues keeping him off his game. On the way down, a brief stint on the A's opened up an opportunity that his five-game tenure never got around to fulfilling. A March 6, 1972 AP article stated, albeit on McLain's notoriously shaky word, that A's owner Charlie O. Finley had offered McLain potential for a double-duty role: "Mr. Finley welcomed me to the club and sounded enthusiastic… we've already talked about my playing the organ out there. He asked me if I could play on the days I'm not pitching. He was joking—I think."

McLain's post-baseball years were the stuff of third-act Scorsese: just a series of investment after investment and enterprise after enterprise, banking money any way he could, from running a paint company to selling big-screen TVs to golf hustling—and then, fatefully, through racketeering and cocaine trafficking and embezzlement. His music career suffered long before that: as it turns out, his auditorium engagements and record deals hinged more on his baseball notoriety than his musical talent, as though his early '70s decline on the mound would somehow lead to one at the keys.

He still played when he could, though—a 1989 article in the Pittsburgh Press revealed one of McLain's strangest gigs: playing the keyboard at a suburban Detroit yuppie bar where Leon Spinks poured the drinks. "When it's all said and done some day in the future," McLain's quoted on that sleeve of At the Organ, "I hope they will remember Denny McLain as an outstanding professional musician." Among other things.