Detroit Tigers: Once-In-A-Lifetime Home Runs

Daniel Norris of the Detroit Tigers rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs on August 19, 2015. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
Daniel Norris of the Detroit Tigers rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Chicago Cubs on August 19, 2015. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /
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Denny McLain

Denny McLain was born in and went to high school in Chicago. After graduating in June 1962, he signed his first professional contract with the Chicago White Sox and received a sizeable bonus. McLain was one of three “bonus baby” pitchers that would have to spend the entire 1963 season on Chicago’s 25-man roster or else there would be ramifications for the team.

Per Major League Baseball’s rules regarding “bonus babies” in effect at that time, no more than one of those prized prospects could be optioned to the minor leagues, although that player would still count against the major-league roster. Essentially, that meant the White Sox would be operating with only 24 active players if they went that route. If they chose to option out a second member of the trio, that guy would have to pass through waivers first.

The White Sox faced a roster crunch as they prepared to break camp in April ’63. Management decided that only one of their three “bonus babies” would go north with the team. Chicago kept Dave DeBusschere, a Detroit native who later went from MLB to the NBA and starred for the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks. Bruce Howard was optioned out, which made him a phantom 25th man. The hometown kid, McLain, was subjected to the waiver wire. The Detroit Tigers swooped in and claimed the young right-hander from the White Sox.

The Tigers were able to send McLain to the minors, where he went 18-6 with a 2.89 ERA and 1.179 WHIP across two levels. He was only 19 years old when he was called up, and he debuted at Tiger Stadium on September 21, 1963. McLain was Detroit’s starting pitcher that afternoon, and his opponents were none other than the Chicago White Sox. After the game, the rookie acknowledged that, besides the nervousness he felt while warming up, he was “a little more anxious” to beat his former organization.

McLain threw four shutout innings before the White Sox tagged him for a run in the top of the fifth. With one out in the bottom half of the inning, he stepped in for his second plate appearance against right-hander Fritz Ackley, a 26-year-old who was also making his major league debut. Batting right-handed, McLain hit a line drive that carried into the lower-deck seats in left field. The Tigers’ next batter, veteran Billy Bruton, quickly broke the 1-1 deadlock with a solo home run of his own.

Detroit added a run in the sixth. Chicago scored a pair off McLain in the top of the eighth to re-tie the game, 3-3. In the bottom half, Norm Cash, another player that the White Sox had given up on too soon, homered to put the Tigers up, 4-3. McLain pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning, striking out former Tiger Charlie Maxwell to end the game and seal the victory.

In later years, “cocky” was often a word that was used to describe McLain. That cockiness was already apparent as he fielded questions from reporters after his successful debut. Joe Falls of the Detroit Free Press documented the pitcher’s first sparring session with the press.

"Press: “Denny, I notice you’ve got glasses. How often do you wear them?” McLain: “Only when I want to see.” Press: “Was this the first home run you’ve ever hit?” McLain: “It was the first extra base hit I ever got.” Press: “You’re not much of a hitter then.” McLain: “I’m better than Hank Aguirre.”"

McLain had a point there. Aguirre, a veteran pitcher on the Tigers, hit only .132 with no homers in 1963. In three games that September, McLain posted a .200 average in his five at-bats.

Detroit Tigers
Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers became better known for his pitching than his hitting. (Photo by: Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images) /