It was done with a wink—a victimless act perpetrated at a rather harmless time. The boys in blue were all over the place, but not one of them sounded the alarm.
The specter of competition took a back seat for the moment, as the Hall of Fame-bound slugger strode to the plate at Tiger Stadium. It was a Thursday afternoon—September 19, 1968—and the Tigers had wrapped up the league pennant a couple of days prior. They led this game over the New York Yankees, 6-1, in the eighth inning.
A quick bit of Internet research says a paltry gathering of 9,063 attended the contest. Given the score, the inning and the relative unimportance of the game, it’s likely just a few thousand remained when Denny McLain, already with his 30 wins for the season, grooved one in to Mickey Mantle.
McLain has come clean. The story isn’t apocryphal. As Stengel would say, “You can look it up.”
It’s a tale in Detroit sports lore that sounds like urban legend, like the one about Alex Karras throwing his helmet at Milt Plum in the Lions locker room after a tough loss.
The Karras tidbit is true, and so is this one about Denny and The Mick.
Yeah, McLain has said, I served up a fat ball to Mantle on that overcast September afternoon in 1968. Yeah, I hoped he would drive it out of the ballpark for a home run. It was his 535th career dinger, after all.
Mantle, a boyhood idol of McLain’s, came into the game—his last ever in Detroit—tied with Jimmie Foxx for third in all-time home runs, with 534. Only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays had clubbed more.
McLain wanted Mantle to break the tie, and shoot into third place all by his lonesome, on McLain’s watch.
So yeah, McLain grooved it, after Mantle told catcher Jim Price that a belt-high batting practice pitch would be lovely, in response to McLain’s query as to where Mantle would like the next pitch.
Mantle clubbed McLain’s offering into the green seats, which were barely dotted with paying customers.
McLain was among those applauding as Mantle rounded the bases on his gimpy, almost 37-year-old legs. The Mick nodded McLain’s way, a subtle act of respectful thanks.
The victimless crime had been perpetrated.
Twenty-six years and some change later, the gauntlet was again temporarily picked up, like a wayward penalty flag. But this instance was hardly victimless. Shameless, yes.
Here’s former Lions offensive tackle Lomas Brown, crowing on ESPN Radio last week, about a 1994 game quarterbacked by (then) newly-signed free agent Scott Mitchell:
We were playing Green Bay in Milwaukee. We were getting beat, 24-3, at that time and (Mitchell) just stunk up the place. He's throwing interceptions, just everything. So I looked at Kevin Glover, our All-Pro center and I said, "Glove, that is it." I said, "I'm getting him out the game." ... So I got the gator arms on the guy at the last minute, he got around me, he hit Scott Mitchell, he did something to his finger ... and he came out the game. Dave Krieg came in the game. We ended up losing that game, 27-24.
Or, the Reader’s Digest version: “I purposely let my quarterback get waylaid, so he’d get hurt.”
No shame. No honor. No class.
Brown played for the Lions from 1985 to '95. He was the team’s starting left tackle for every one of those seasons. Mitchell, a lefty thrower, didn’t need Brown to protect his blind side; that job was fulfilled by the right tackle.
Brown’s self-revelation of his blatant disregard for his own quarterback’s health should be a bigger story than it is. Maybe it was the timing, coming right before Christmas, today’s Lions out of the playoff picture.
Denny McLain’s fat pitch to Mickey Mantle, while done on purpose, caused no one any physical harm. It didn’t imperil the game; Mantle’s knock (in the eighth inning) made the score 6-2, which turned out to be final. The only thing McLain’s act hurt was one of the old green, wooden seats that Mantle’s home run ball nicked.
Lomas Brown’s recollection of his “gator arms,” a clever way of saying that he let his man beat him and have a free shot at the quarterback, is one of the darkest admissions I’ve ever read in sports.
Don’t snicker. Don’t chortle because the victim was Mitchell, who was hardly beloved in this town. I wasn’t a fan of Mitchell’s, either. The last image of him that I have is of Mitchell lying face down on the turf in Tampa during a playoff game in 1997, acting as if he’d been shot, when he was apparently injured during a quarterback sneak, of all things. You can question Mitchell’s toughness (and it was questioned a lot while he was the quarterback in Detroit from 1994 to '98); that’s fine.
But Mitchell should no more have been the victim of Brown’s friendly fire than Bobby Layne. Brown wanted Dave Krieg in the game. So what if Krieg had stunk up the joint?
Pro football is a brutal game, and that’s not hyperbole. In fact, that’s a statement that should stand along with “water is wet” and “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”
Pro football is locomotives crashing into each other every Sunday afternoon. It’s the perfect storm of size, speed and crossing paths. There’s a reason why the average length of an NFL career is less than three years. Too often, players walk onto the field as rookies and their careers are ended by being carted off it.
It’s a dangerous enough sport without being double-crossed by your teammates.
Mitchell was lucky that all he hurt that day was his finger. Damn lucky.
“Detroit was actually down, 24-0, in the second quarter and never trailed 24-3, as Brown said,” Crawford wrote, putting facts front and center. “Mitchell suffered a broken bone in his right hand when he was hit by Green Bay's Sean Jones. At the time, the Lions were only down, 10-0, and Mitchell was 5-for-15 for 63 yards and two picks.”
Oh, and the Lions lost the game, 38-30—not 27-24 as Brown “recalled.”
Brown not only inexplicably confessed to his shameful act, he made it into a fish story. You know who does that? A braggart.
Mitchell, understandably, was appalled. “Reprehensible” was the word he used when he responded on Wednesday. He recalled of having Brown over to his house for dinner when they were teammates, with the other O-linemen.
It matters not that Brown, several days later, backed off and showed some remorse. The deed was done.
“You get frustrated during the course of the game,” Brown told ESPN2’s First Take a couple of days ago. “You do things that, a lot of the time, you think about later in life—you don’t think about right there, because it’s in the heat of the moment…
“The one thing I can say is I should have been more tactful at how I said that. That was wrong on my part. I should have humbly said that. It came off as boastful. I shouldn’t have said it that way.”
No, Lomas, you shouldn’t have done it that way.