Phineas Taylor Barnum was a born showman. He was placed on this Earth to sell tickets, fill houses, and count receipts. He was the Columbus of show business—P.T. discovered acts, and freaks. Sometimes they were one and the same.
Barnum had a wonderfully simple explanation of how he was able to become a millionaire with traveling shows that featured lizard boys, bearded women, and the “Feejee” mermaid (a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish).
How did ole P.T. do it?
“There’s a sucker born every minute,” he said.
And a whole bunch of them, apparently, paid admission into Barnum’s shows.
Jim Campbell was as far removed from P.T. Barnum as a human being could get.
Campbell was the Tigers’ general manager from the early-1960s through 1983. He was a staid man with a bald head and a round face and he said “Hell” a lot.
“That was a hell of a game.”
“Hell, I don’t know.”
“Hell, we’re real happy.”
Campbell was as much of a showman as sardines are a dessert. He wanted his team to make money, no mistake about it. He just didn’t want any pomp and circumstance in the process.
Campbell once closed the centerfield bleachers at Tiger Stadium for weeks, because there were too many beach balls being batted around up there. He abhorred the bashing, rock-and-roll music played at ballparks. Campbell was an organ guy.
Campbell lived and died with his Tigers, 162 times a year. There was a ten-game losing streak that caused him to lose so much weight, he looked like he had a disease.
But there wasn’t any showman in Campbell.
Still, he found himself a sucker anyway.
Forty years ago this month, Bob Short, the owner of the Washington Senators, dialed up Campbell. Several discussions later, Campbell fleeced Short so badly that if it had happened on Wall Street, the SEC would have begun an investigation.
Campbell not only wasn’t a showman, he had a great disdain for the malcontent, for the miscreant. Rocky Colavito, Hollywood handsome and a basher of home runs, once tested Campbell with a contract holdout. Rocky might as well have had a staring contest with a statue.
Campbell won; he signed Colavito but traded him out of Detroit forthwith.
So by October 1970, Campbell had had his fill of one Denny McLain.
Two years prior, Denny was on top of the baseball world. He won the MVP, the Cy Young Award, and 31 games, pretty much with two pitches—a fastball and a curve. But it was a very fast fastball and a very curvaceous curve.
Denny flamed out in the World Series in ‘68, but he came back to co-win another Cy Young in 1969.
But in 1970, Denny started to go sideways.
The warning signs had been there. Even when he had success on the diamond, Denny flaunted team rules. He jetted across the country, playing the organ—during the season. He engaged in shady financial practices, once involving some of his teammates in a failed paint business.
There were whispers—more like shouts—that Denny had also got himself involved with some mobsters. He gambled freely. He commiserated with bookies. Rumor still has it that gangsters stomped on Denny’s foot late in the 1967 season, knocking him out of commission while the Tigers were embroiled in a tense pennant race.
Denny was a free spirit and he marched to the beat of his own drummer and Jim Campbell hated that.
In 1970, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended McLain for the first half of the season for the gambling and mobster allegations. Then Denny doused a couple of sportswriters with a bucket of ice water. Later, Kuhn suspended him again for carrying a gun in violation of his probation.
Denny had turned into a full-time pain in the ass and won all of three games in 1970, so when the Senators’ Short showed interest in acquiring McLain, it was all Jim Campbell could do to not choke on his own saliva.
On October 9, 1970, Campbell finalized the deal—one that was so lopsided that Campbell practically stumbled all over himself to phone it into the league offices before Short came to his senses.
For McLain, third baseman Don Wert, pitcher Norm McRae and outfielder Elliott Maddox, Campbell had coerced Short to cough up third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, shortstop Eddie Brinkman, and pitchers Joe Coleman and Jim Hannan.
Campbell had gotten from the Senators: a starting left side of the infield, a young, up-and-coming starting pitcher, and a bullpen arm for McLain, an aging Wert, and two players the Tigers had no intention of developing.
Rodriguez, Brinkman and Coleman were productive Tigers for several years each. Wert went 2-for-40 for the Senators and retired. McRae did nothing; Maddox did slightly more than nothing.
And Denny McLain?
Denny battled manager Ted Williams and his own degradation of skills all summer. He won 10 games and lost 22. A year later, McLain was finished, performing horribly for Atlanta and Oakland before calling it quits. He was 28 years old.
P.T. Barnum was right—there really was a sucker born every minute.
Ironically, Campbell made another move that off-season that seemed counter to his persona.
Campbell fired manager Mayo Smith—he was nothing like he was in 1968, either—and replaced him with the volatile Billy Martin, who wasn’t the type of manager that Campbell normally fancied.
But Campbell felt the 1970 Tigers had laid down so badly for Smith—and he was right—that the players needed a fiery type to jump start them.
It worked, for a time.
Martin performed his magic and furthered his reputation as a manager who could make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. He guided his aging, creaky team to the 1972 American League East Championship, taking them within one run of the World Series.
By the next season, Martin’s bizarre antics wore thin on Campbell and owner John Fetzer, so Campbell fired Billy.
The GM wasn’t going to be anyone’s sucker.