On September 19, 1968, en route to his 31st win of the season, Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain tossed a soft ball to New York Yankees’ Mickey Mantle, giving the slugger his 535th career home run.
With not much to play for in the American League standings (Detroit was well on its way to winning the pennant, and New York was stuck middle-of-the-pack in fifth), it may seem odd that this late summer contest at Tiger Stadium has a unique place in the annuals of baseball lore. However, once we dig deeper, its significance is rather obvious.
For starters, the game will forever be remembered as the game where Denny McLain and Tigers catcher Jim Price teamed up to gift Mickey Mantle a home run.
A homer that day would be special; Mantle came into the game with 534 career home runs, good for a tie for third all-time with Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Red Sox great Jimmy Foxx. A home run against Detroit would mean that Mantle’s total would trail only Babe Ruth (714) and Willie Mays (585). With retirement looming after the season for the 16-time all-star and future Hall of Famer, it would likely be one of Mantle’s last chances to up his tally.
And so, with the Tigers safely leading 6-1 in the top of the eighth inning, Price asked Mantle if he wanted an easy pitch. Confused at first, but understanding the ruse once he saw McLain nodding, Mantle asked for “high and tight, mediocre cheese,” according to Price.
After Mantle took one pitch (or two—accounts differ) and fouled another, the 36-year-old center fielder got what he asked for, and he drilled a shot into Tiger Stadium’s right field upper deck. Mantle rounded the bases to a standing ovation from the 9,063 fans in attendance. McLain, who idolized Mantle growing up, joined in with the applause and gave the Yankee legend a wink and grin as he rounded the bases.
Because the game ended 6-2 in favor of Detroit, the contest had one more piece of baseball history left in it thanks to McLain earning an incredible 31st decision on the year. He would later lose his final regular season start to finish the year 31-6.
While he had already joined the 30-win club five days prior against Oakland—a fraternity with 146 other members—no one had achieved the feat since Dizzy Dean hurled 30 for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1934 and only 10 others had managed it in the 20th century. And McLain’s feat grows evermore impressive with each passing year; not a single pitcher has reached 30 wins in a single season since. This means that the victory against the Yankees on September 19, 1968 was the last time a pitcher recorded his 30th or higher win.
I was wondering if I’d ever get it. It doesn’t really mean anything because Hank Aaron will probably pass me next year. But right now it’s quite a thrill.
The New York Yankee on his 535th home run
McLain initially denied that he purposefully tossed Mantle an easy pitch. However, he later confirmed that the planned the gifted toss (first in his autobiography in 1974, and then later to the New York Post). Perhaps somewhat ironically, considering that his later betting scandal would be called “the worst blight suffered by baseball since the infamous 1919 Black Sox scandal” by the Associated Press, McLain told reporters immediately following the 1968 game that if he had deliberately thrown Mantle a home run ball that “there would be a scandal and an immediate investigation of baseball.”
Detroit cruised to the AL pennant with a 103-59 record. The ballclub went on to win the World Series by defeating St. Louis in seven games. McLain started thrice in the Series and went 1-2 from the rubber.
New York didn’t do anything to improve their position and finished fifth in the AL, 20 games back of the Tigers.
Mantle hit one more homer in 1968 (against Boston the next day), and his 536 career homers has him sitting 18th all-time as of 2019. He would officially retire from baseball on March 1, 1969. In his post-playing career, Mantle spent some time as a color commentator for television broadcasts and profited from the sports memorabilia craze in the 1980s. He passed away on August 13, 1995 at the age of 63 after complications related to alcohol abuse.
McLain, who was in his sixth major league season in 1968, only pitched four more years at the top level. A 1970 suspension for bookmaking activities and fallout from cortisone injections ultimately spelled doom for the hurler, and he stepped away from the game in 1974. He later spent various stints in prison for drug trafficking, embezzlement, and racketeering. As of 2019, he is a co-host of a Detroit-centric podcast titled “No Filter Sports”.
As mentioned above, McLain’s 31 wins was the last time (and probably will be the last time) that a major league pitcher recorded 30-plus wins in a single season. The closest to reach 30 victories since 1968 was Bob Welch, who went 27-6 for the Oakland A’s in 1990.
[Mickey Mantle’s sons] told me about their mom and how grateful they were for the home run. … I had tears in my eyes.
The last pitcher to win over 30 games in a season
I couldn’t dig up any footage of the homer or the game. However, Mantle discussed the moment in Mickey Mantle: The American Dream Comes To Life, which has be uploaded to YouTube and I’ve embedded below. Note that Mantle recalls that Bill Freehan was the Detroit catcher that day. However, the box score (and Jim Price himself) confirm that Price actually called the game.
Photos of the moments following the home run do exist, however. This image does a nice job capturing both Mantle (up top) and McLain (No. 17):
An image of Mantle rounding third base after the homer also lives. The photo has some excellent composition, and I especially appreciate the shot of Mantle’s face:
McLain was clapping as Mickey was rounding the bases. And when he crossed home plate, Mickey thanked me. The next batter was Joe Pepitone, and he said, “Give me one, too.” And I go, “No way, you’re not Mickey Mantle.”
The Detroit Tigers catcher
- New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle was gifted his 535th career homer during a mid-September contest against the Detroit Tigers in 1968. The dinger meant that Mantle moved into sole possession of third place in the list of all-time home run leaders.
- Pitcher Denny McLain and catcher Jim Price paired up to tip Mantle the pitch in the top of the eighth inning with Detroit ahead 6-1.
- The game was also noteworthy for featuring McLain’s 31st and final win of the 1968 season. It would be the last time a major league pitcher recorded 30-plus wins in a single season.
- The Deseret News, February 20, 1970 via Google News
- The Palladium-Item and Sun-Telegram, September 20, 1968 via Newspapers.com
- Statesville Record & Landmark, September 20, 1968 via Newspapers.com
- “New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Box Score, September 19, 1968”, Baseball-Reference.com
- “Single-Season Leaders & Records for Wins”, Baseball-Reference.com
- “New York Yankees: 50 years ago this week, Denny McLain helped Mickey Mantle hit homer No. 535”, Fansided
- “No Filter Sports | Podcast”, No Filter Sports
- “Spirit of ‘68 – McLain’s Tigers – and his life – are finally back in order”, New York Post
- “The Day the Tigers Tipped Pitches for the Mick”, The New York Times