With over 100-plus seasons of professional baseball to choose from, Denny McLain turned in the single greatest individual performance.

More so than in any of the four major pro sports in America , statistics is what separates baseball from the rest of the  bunch.

Tape-measure home runs, perfect games pitched, incredible ERAs recorded (Jacob deGrom 0.56 as of this weekend), stolen bases, Triple Crown winners, the list is lengthy of what baseball fans could use to determine who they believe has turned in the best performance in any given season.

Is the decision who should be considered the very best of all-time clear-cut? I say yes.

In the end, I believe my vote for McLain is irrefutable.  I've been waiting a long time to state my case.

Baseball’s last 31-game winner Denny McLain and Don Laible (2019) in Cooperstown, NY. (Photo courtesy of Don Laible for TSM.
Baseball’s last 31-game winner Denny McLain and Don Laible (2019) in Cooperstown, NY. (Photo courtesy of Don Laible for TSM.

The first game that I attended live came during the 1968 season - how ironic.  It was at Yankee Stadium; a doubleheader. Yankees - Detroit. My mom took me and my brother to see Mickey Mantle play in his final season. We sat in the right-field bleachers for two games, for the grand price of 75 cents per ticket.  What a fabulous season 1968 turned out for McLain and his Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers won the World Series, and McLain collected many individual awards that season. Many.

McLain's amazing 1968 season gets some stiff competition, when considering the game's best ever individual performance.  There is Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski who in 1967 won the American League Triple Crown.  Remember Barry Bonds cracked 73 home runs in 2001?  Rickey Henderson swiped 130 bags with the Oakland A's in 1982.  Pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 1988 season, Orel Hershiser threw 59 consecutive scoreless innings.

All impressive, and all should be in the mix when debating who turned in the single-season, greatest individual performance.

When you mention the 1968 season, along with McLain, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson's name immediately comes to mind for most fans.

Gibby, like McLain, collected a Cy Young and league MVP, while compiling a 22-9 record.  That season the St. Louis hurler registered a 1.12 ERA, pitched 28 complete games, over a 304.2-inning span.

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1968 was the Year of the Pitcher.

McLain was Superman, minus a cape, during the 1968 season.  He led the Tigers' charge to the championship.  A team record of 103-59, they were destined for greatness with McLain leading the charge.

The list of McLain's accomplishments is beyond impressive - Cy Young, MVP (first time an American League pitcher wins both awards in the same season), World Series championship (won Game 6), all-star game selection, Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, 280 strikeouts (3 behind league leader Sam McDowell), an ERA of 1.96,  an astonishing 28 complete games turned in, and a 31-6 record.

Has baseball changed since the 1968 season? Of course.  Greatest this, greatest that, it's all subjective.  But, not everyone has earned their way into the conversation of greatness.  Not everyone has the numbers that allows them to come to the table. McLain is a card-carrying, bona fide member of baseball's exclusive club.
It has been 53 seasons since McLain won 31 games. His accomplishment has yet to be duplicated. That season, in 41 games on the mound, McLain worked in 336 innings - which led both the American and National Leagues.

The Tigers won the pennant by a dozen games, but speaking with McLain recently from his Michigan home, he continues to credit his teammates for his individual results in 1968.

St. Louis Cardinals v Detroit Tigers
DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 08: Members from the 1968 World Series Championship team gather on stage in honor of their 50th anniversary before a MLB game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Comerica Park on September 8, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Things just fell in place for us (Tigers).  From 1967 through 1969, we were among the best teams in baseball.

"Things just fell in place for us (Tigers).  From 1967 through 1969, we were among the best teams in baseball. We had a good ball club that knew how to play the game.  If we were down by a run in the ninth-inning, our players did what they had to win. Al Kaline would sacrifice bunt. You knew Kaline would come through."

When the Tigers broke spring training in Lakeland, Florida in 1968, McLain was 24-years-old.  His life would change forever, when October rolled in.

McLain was baseball's first 30-game winner since 1934, when Dizzy Dean reached that milestone.

Physically, McLain was in great shape to get him through that magical season.

"I was bowling all winter leading up to the season.  My legs were ready. I never felt tired when I had a lead," says McLain.  " After I won (game 31), I was ready for the World Series the following week. I was on top of the world."

Crediting the Tigers for having a good manager (Mayo Smith) and a good pitching coach (Johnny Sain), McLain came to pitch nine innings each time he was given the ball.  That was the mentality, or should have been, for every pitcher in 1968.

McLain didn't disappoint.

Forget judging a player's life off the field. Forget you, as a fan's allegiance to their home city ball club, and forget about individual statistics from seasons before or after 1968 (McLain repeated in 1969 at American League Cy Young winner), based on the numbers compiled, who could not seriously consider McLain in a league of his own - still?

Granted, there have been others since 1968 who have captured both the CY Young and MVP awards in the same season - Vida Blue ('71), Rollie Fingers ('81), Willie Hernandez ('84), and others.  Yes, by 1972 McLain was out of baseball with a record of 131-91. His run in Detroit ended after the 1970 season, and split the next two seasons with Washington, Atlanta, and Oakland.

Super Bowl XL - A Salute to Detroit Black Tie Dinner
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue with Denny McLain and Al Kaline before a Salute to Detroit black-tie dinner kicking off Super Bowl XL at the Fox Theater in Detroit, Michigan on January 30, 2006. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

In athletics, the human body is on the clock constantly. Participants can run, jump, and throw for a relatively short time, before their being competitive is compromised.

McLain in 1968 was beyond special. His performance is what legends are made of.  As the man himself says, "Everyday is always a good thing."  With the many obstacles that McLain's life has confronted, he remains optimistic at what tomorrow will bring.

Heroes and memories are what bring smiles to faces of kfans of all ages, especially to this "kid" who has reached social security age.  McLain tops my individual list of baseball superstars as the game's all-time individual best - and you can look it up.

Kristine Bellino, WIBX

Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley.  He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com. 


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