The death of Ray Fosse reminded me of the second play in a baseball game I can actually remember seeing live on TV — Pete Rose running Fosse over on the last play of the 1970 All-Star game (This play injured Fosse pretty badly and probably not coincidentally he was never the same player afterwards. It also triggered my lifelong hatred of Pete Rose, who severely injured a fellow player in an exhibition game because Charlie Hustle. God how I’ve always hated that guy, especially during the years when he was worshiped by every white middle-aged sportswriter who harbored frustrated dreams of athletic greatness, i.e. pretty much all of them).
It also reminded me of the first baseball game I ever listed to on the radio: Denny McLain’s comeback start that same month after his half-season suspension. (For some reason our family didn’t have a freestanding radio — only the one that was part of the stereophonic record system — so I had to go out in the garage and listen to it on the Chevy Impala’s radio, which several years later became my first car. Misty water-color memories . . .)
Anyhoo, in looking some stuff about Fosse up, I discovered something that I either didn’t know, or didn’t remember knowing, which is that McLain — the 1968 MVP, and the Cy Young winner both that year and in 1969 — was suspended in the winter of 1970 by Lord High Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for bookmaking. Not for gambling on baseball a la Pete Rose, which is what my vague memories of the whole saga incorrectly recalled, but bookmaking! Like, an actual bookie.
The story of how this happened is really wild. When he became a star McLain gave an interview during which he casually mentioned that he drank a case [!] of Pepsi a day, and some Pepsi rep decided to try to sign him to a promotional deal. It turns out both the rep and McLain were big gamblers, who lost a lot (redundant obviously), and together they got the bright idea that it was more profitable to be booking bets rather than making them.
Again, this is the AL MVP, who had just signed the first $100,000 annual salary in the history of the Detroit Tigers — peanuts by today’s standards of course, but still equivalent to $770,000 in today’s money, and close to the highest salary in the sport (Willie Mays was making $135K).
And he’s running his own little bookmaking shop, like a small time hood!
It turns out that small time hood was pretty much Denny McLain’s destiny, as his post-baseball biography makes amply clear. Still, this really blew my mind, as Eric Burdon said in the song.
A nice little coda to this stroll down memory lane is that fellow degenerate gambler Pete Rose was the last batter Denny McLain faced in his major league career, in September of 1973.
RIP Ray Fosse (McLain and Rose will probably each live to be 100, just like Donald Trump).