July 28, 2014

“Sudden” Sam McDowell, Tribe’s Conflicted Star (With Bonus Trivia!): Reliving Yesteryear

Sam McDowell LIFE Magazine

When I am grilling in the backyard, my wife may ask me, “How long?” I’ll hold my cigar in one hand, measure the remaining length with the index finger and thumb of my other hand, and say, “This long.” She thinks I am hilarious (sarcasm alert). My wife is also familiar with one of my favorite admonitions from the television show, Cheers. Again, while holding the index finger and thumb a couple of inches apart: “Hey, don’t ever do this to a guy, in public!”

That rule to live by came from Cheers bartender Sam Malone. In the show, “Mayday Malone” was a retired major league pitcher whose career was hampered by his alcoholism. Sam Malone’s past struggle with binge drinking was (very) loosely based on the playing career of a Cleveland Indians star from the 1960s, Sam McDowell.

Star pitcher. Career cut short. Could have been a Hall-of-Famer if it hadn’t been for the drinking. That’s what one commonly hears about Sam McDowell. But was the drinking the cause of his troubles, or perhaps one result of inner turmoil?

Sudden Sam was a left-hander signed by the Tribe out of high school, with a six-figure bonus. This was a huge amount of money for 1960. He was rushed to the majors, starting a game in 1961 (the year Cleveland writer Bob Dolgan gave him his immortal nickname). He had control problems, walking almost seven batters per nine innings. He threw uncommonly hard—he once broke three ribs while trying to put a little extra on a pitch. He bounced between the big league club and the minors for a couple years, and began to be more consistent by 1964.

Sam McDowell wind-upIt was said that Sam McDowell was able to throw a baseball 108 miles per hour. Writers speculated that he was almost as fast as Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax in his youth. There was some unchallenged sentiment that he was faster than the legendary Walter Johnson.

McDowell began a stretch of pitching dominance in the American League in 1965. His ERA was an AL-leading 2.18. He struck out 325 batters, which was fourth-best in big league history at the time. His 10.71 strikeouts per nine innings that year—occurring during an era when hitters viewed low strikeout totals as a source of pride—was a then-MLB record, lasting until Dwight Gooden’s unbelievable 1984 season.  From there:

  • From 1965 through 1971, Sudden Sam was an All Star six times.
  • In 1966, he led the league in shutouts and in strikeouts, despite an arm injury during the season. He threw back-to-back one-hitters and was named “Pitcher of the Year” by The Sporting News.
  • In 1967, he finished second in strikeouts to Boston’s Jim Lonborg.
  • In 1968 and 1969, he again led the league in strikeouts.
  • In 1970, he won 20 games and was again named “Pitcher of the Year”.

Cleveland Indians fans voted Sam McDowell the Cleveland Indians Player of the Decade of the 1960s.

Trivia Question 1: Who was the contemporary of McDowell, who was also considered flakey and who seemed obsessed with comparing his production with Sam’s?

In 1971, Sam McDowell’s record dropped to 13-17. Although his ERA was 3.40 (not bad even for that era), his act had worn thin with the Indians. Prior to the 1972 season, he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for Gaylord Perry and Frank Duffy. Duffy did hit for average during some of his six years with the Tribe, but his true worth was as a top defensive shortstop. Perry won 24 games for the last-place Indians in 1972, and won his first Cy Young award. He was a box office draw during a long personal winning streak in 1974, and he enjoyed three solid seasons with the Tribe. Sam McDowell bounced back and forth from the Giants to the Yankees (twice), and then to his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates before he found himself unwanted by Major League baseball. Trading their Player of the Decade turned out to be one of the best moves the Cleveland Indians ever made.

Trivia Question 2: Gaylord Perry’s winning streak in ’74 was over how many games? His streak is second-longest in Indians history. Which pitcher boasts the longest winning streak for the Indians, all-time?

Alcohol (and amphetamines and barbiturates, as McDowell later admitted) was blamed for Sudden Sam’s flameout. He played during a time when players respected those who could do some hard drinking one night, and then come out the next day and have a good game. McDowell fell into a cycle of addiction, and has admitted he could have been a better player had he not been a drinker.

However, there seemed to be something deeper inside Sam McDowell that was holding him back. He seemed to suffer from an inner conflict during his baseball career. Despite his ability, Sam didn’t like baseball much in his youth, and was known to play hooky from the game. His sports love was football. Sam’s father, a steel worker, wanted his son to have more than he’d had, and when scouts indicated the level of baseball talent Sam had, his father moved him in that direction.

QUOTEDuring his professional career, Sam exhibited his obsessive-compulsive nature, which he acknowledged later in life. His interests seemed a mile wide and not very deep: collecting and building guns (as many as 185 at one point in time), constructing model boats inside bottles, training German shepherds, shooting pocket billiards, painting. He ran a pizza parlor, a pool hall, and owned a guitar distributorship. He was a salesman for an organic cosmetics company.

Sam was liable to say anything to anybody. He’d contradict himself at various times when talking with reporters. For example, he’d say he didn’t care about strikeouts and then say it’s what he was concentrating on. He said he never lost his temper, and then said he once got so angry with an umpire that he threw the ball into the upper deck. He supposedly would never throw at a batter, but then insisted he’d throw at his mother if she dug in against him. Indians players and management generally treated him as an irresponsible child.

Tribe announcer Herb Score, by all accounts a kind and gentle man, seemed irritated with Sam McDowell’s lack of competitive fire.”To be great at anything, you have to give up a lot,”  Score would say about McDowell’s varied interests. “Some guys just don’t want to make the sacrifice. They’d rather do great now and then than be great permanently.”

McDowell exasperated observers by challenging top hitters such as Harmon Killebrew and Carl Yastrzemski with his dominating fastball, but often trying to get lesser hitters out with off-speed pitches. It became apparent to some that either McDowell was bored with getting easy outs, or was afraid to succeed.

Trivia Question 3: In the 1960s, there were two main starting catchers with the Indians, with one additional starter who played on the 1969 team. Can you name all three? Who was the rookie starting catcher in 1970?

Score, on hard throwers throwing off-speed pitches: “A change can be an effective pitch, but only to a good hitter, to get his timing off. A bad hitter can’t hit a good fastball. Throw him a change and you do him a favor.”

Some fans and reporters grew bitter at McDowell—in an expression of indictment that has crept into the mainstream sports vernacular, one local sportscaster labeled him as having “a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent head.”

One top hitter was particularly tough for Sudden Sam: Frank Howard. Once, Cleveland manager Alvin Dark moved McDowell to second base and let Dean Chance face Howard—a much better matchup for the Tribe. After the inning, McDowell resumed pitching. This arrangement seemed to suit Sam’s preference for variety just fine.

Once Sam McDowell retired, he hit rock bottom, getting into barroom brawls and eventually losing his family. He was deeply in debt. Ever a man of principle, he vowed to pay back his debt in full. He lived up to this promise. He ultimately did become clean and sober, finding personal fulfillment with the challenge of being a counselor and an alcohol rehabilitation worker.

For a man who has said he’d never wanted to be a baseball player, and who just didn’t want to embarrass himself on the field, perhaps Sam McDowell’s struggle with alcohol wasn’t simply the cause of his fall from grace. As he has seemed to have viewed it in hindsight, maybe it was more the result of his obsessive-compulsive nature and low self-esteem. Regardless, like Sam Malone, Sam McDowell finally found some peace after baseball.

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Trivia

  1. Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers followed a career path that was similar to McDowell’s. He was also considered flaky, as well. McLain was known to communicate with McDowell during the season, comparing production. McDowell apparently tended to laugh it off.
  2. Johnny Allen won 17 straight games in 1936 and 1937. Gaylord Perry won 15 straight in 1974.
  3. Sam McDowell’s main catchers during his decade with the Indians were Johnny Romano and Joe Azcue. In 1969, the starter was veteran Duke Sims. The rookie in 1970 was Ray Fosse.

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Sources: Bbaseball-Reference.com; The Cleveland Indians Encyclopedia, Schneider; this sabr.org article; these SI Vault articles; Wikipedia

  • MrCleaveland

    Hey, that’s “the immortal” Joe Azcue to you, bub.

    Terrific article.

    Like you said, Sam and Gaylord both had star power. They generated excitement when they pitched, and people went to the Stadium to see them and not necessarily to see the game. We haven’t had such an exciting pitcher since then that I can think of. I wish we had one or two now.

  • Harv 21

    McDowell always seemed to me a slightly better version of Bartolo Colon, or maybe early Sabathia. The fact that he was the Indians’ all-star rep 6 times and “player of the decade” mostly makes me want to cry. The stadium was empty, the farm system was stripped for financial reasons and virtually any kid with promise in the years Sam faded out – Chris Chambliss, Graig Nettles, Eckersley, Luis Tiant – was dumped in bad deals. That Indians era was about as much a cesspool as the post-’99 Browns.

  • mgbode

    the only pitcher in my lifetime that generated huge buzz everytime it was their turn was CC. but, I have no idea if it was anywhere near those two.

  • mgbode

    another great article. I mainly came to the site today because it’s Thursday and I wanted to see what this week’s article would bring (as I had the day off).

  • tsm

    Great article. I was a big fan of his, since I was also a tall lefty pitcher who could bring it………back in those days. It was an early lesson for me that there was more to success in life than talent, hard work and discipline were also needed.

  • Greg Popelka

    I honestly don’t remember McDowell’s games. I remember the baseball cards that confirmed he was a premiere strikeout pitcher. Perry, I remember pretty well. And when his streak was happening, he was the talk if the town. I recall little league moms talking about his games.

  • Craig Miller

    A lot of talent. Booze killed it. It was routine for him to be waiting outside the pool hall after hustling pool, getting rolled and never quite learning his lesson. He was still a damn good pitcher for a lousy team. I guess that would get me drinking too.