At the aforementioned autograph session in Ann Arbor, Ed Hamalainen, a 61-year-old Tiger fan, asked McLain to sign a large framed picture of the 1968 Tigers. All of them, row upon row, wore stolid team-picture expressions. All of them, that is, except McLain.
"You have your hand over your mouth," said Hamalainen, showing McLain the picture.
"That figures," said McLain.
There were all those ballplayers, looking very straight and Tiger true, with their hands at their sides. And there, in their midst, was McLain. He did have his left hand over his mouth and, of course, it somehow does figure. There were the Tigers, and then there was McLain.
Interpret it as you will—McLain suppressing a laugh at the world, or McLain biting the hand that feeds him, or McLain shielding from the camera his feelings of anger and loss—that renegade figure in the team picture says something important about the man.
Two of the central events in McLain's life—his father's death and his mother's remarriage—took place when he was a pitching star for Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, and they left him with an emptiness and anger that he carries with him today. When McLain was 15, his father, Tom, was driving to watch him pitch for Mount Carmel when he pulled off the road, slumped over the steering wheel and died of a heart attack. McLain revered his father, and Tom's death left a void in Denny's life that no one else ever filled. To make matters worse, McLain says, his mother married again within a year. Her involvement with another man so hurt and angered McLain that, even now, he has trouble talking about the remarriage.
In the sudden absence of the most important authority figure in his life, he resented being told what to do. "I rebelled," McLain says. "If my father had lived, I would've had somebody I really respected to tell me what to do. I don't think I would have developed the confrontational attitude about authority that I had for so long."
For years, though, he hid his feelings behind that inimitable swagger and whirling life-style. At times he would make people wince. In the golden days he said things like, "Money impresses me. Big business impresses. Important people impress. I'm a mercenary. I admit it. I want to be a billionaire. When you can do it out between the white lines, then you can live any way you want. Me? I like to travel fast and in first class. There's no other way to go, is there?"
They called him Mighty Mouth. He made all the shows—Ed Sullivan, the Smothers Brothers, Steve Allen—and said his hero was Frank Sinatra. "Not only is he a great entertainer and has fans and friends and money by the millions, but he also has power," said McLain. "That's what I want."
Of his relationship with Tiger general manager Jim Campbell, McLain said, "We have a mutual irritation society." And no wonder. McLain irritated a lot of people in those days. Detroit catcher Bill Freehan, for instance, wrote in the May 15 entry of his diary of the 1969 season (SI, March 2, 1970), "The rules for Denny just don't seem to be the same as for the rest of us."