Sam McDowell’s fastball blazed through the 1960s and early ‘70s, filled with strikeouts and intimidation.
“Sudden Sam,” a 6-foot-5-inch left-hander, also threw a 12-to-6 curveball and a nasty slider. He led the league in K’s five times and topped the 300-mark twice.
“I never saw anyone so fast,” star shortstop Luis Aparicio said. He probably wasn’t the only one.
Slugging outfielder Reggie Jackson said this of McDowell: “I like Sudden, and I think he has the greatest fastball, curveball, slider and change-up I ever saw. I call him ‘Instant Heat.’”
Then, there was that other thing. Much to the disappointment of opposing hitters, McDowell lacked pinpoint control. He walked more than 100 batters in eight straight seasons (1964-71) as a Cleveland Indian and led the American League in wild pitches three times. McDowell made for a nervous, fidgety at-bat. Not a few left-handed batters—and right-handed hitters, too—came down with a cold on the day Cleveland sent Sudden Sam to the mound.
McDowell, out of Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, drew comparisons to some of the game’s legends. On May 23, 1966, Sports Illustrated made him the magazine’s cover boy. The caption read “Faster than Koufax?”
That was Koufax as in Sandy Koufax, of course. The lefty for the Los Angeles Dodgers had been carving up hitters with fastball and curveballs for a handful of seasons. In 1965, he won his second Cy Young Award and finished as runner-up in the National League MVP vote. Koufax struck out a record 382 batters in 335.2 innings. He finished the season 26-8.
Could McDowell ever be as a good as Koufax? Could he ever harness his control and turn himself into a true baseball superstar?
He was close. Despite issuing 132 free passes in 1965, McDowell fanned a career-high 325 in 273 innings. He compiled a 17-11 won-loss record. Not only did the fire-baller lead the A.L. in strikeouts, he topped it in K/9 (10.7), H/9 (5.9), ERA (2.18) and, yes, wild pitches (17).
Sudden Sam was only 22 years old in ’65. When Koufax was 22 years old, he went 11-11 with a 4.48 ERA. In 158.2 innings, the one-time prodigy struck out 131 but surrendered 105 walks. Like McDowell, Koufax issued 17 wild pitches, in 114.1 fewer innings. By comparison, McDowell was a control artist.
The Indians had known for a while they had something good in McDowell. They signed the four-sport prep star (football, basketball, baseball and track) in 1960 for $75,000. In late 1961, he made his major league debut, as an 18-year-old. Over 6.1 innings, he struck out five and walked five. McDowell gave up three hits but no runs.
Over the next few seasons, the talented young pitcher moved between the minors and the majors. McDowell still needed to learn how to harness that 95 mph fastball and wicked off-speed stuff.
By 1964, Cleveland decided to stick the wild-armed hurler into the rotation. McDowell went 11-6 with a 2.70 ERA in 31 games and 24 starts. Over 173.1 innings, he fanned 170 hitters. Sudden Sam walked an even 100.
From 1965-71, McDowell compiled a 105-91 mark in Cleveland and a 2.82 ERA (126 ERA+). He struck out 1,844 batters in 1,777.1 innings and gave up just 1,308 walks. He made six All-Star teams.
Arm problems sometimes bedeviled McDowell. During one start late in the 1966 season, he struck out 14 batters in six innings against the Detroit Tigers but had to leave the game due to a barking left shoulder. He was four K’s short of the single-game strikeout mark at the time, held by Koufax and Bob Feller.
“I’m sure I could have got at least four more strikeouts if I could have pitched those last three innings, McDowell said in a SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) article written by Joseph Wancho. “But my arm was getting tired.”
Also, Sudden Sam didn’t always get much run support. In 1968, he went 15-14 despite striking out 283 batters and finishing with a 1.81 ERA. Tony Horton led the Cleveland offense with 14 home runs and 59 RBI.
“What can I do?” McDowell asked in the SABR article. “I know the guys are trying hard.”
Further, it bothered McDowell that his Cleveland managers, Birdy Tebetts and then Alvin Dark, called pitches from the dugout.
“I wasn’t learning anything,” McDowell said. No one ever sat down with him between innings or before starts to discuss how to attack hitters. Sudden Sam was on his own.
McDowell won 20 games in 1970, the only time he reached that mark. He led the A.L. with 305 innings pitched and 304 strikeouts to go with a 2.92 ERA. The Sporting News selected him as the league’s Pitcher of the Year.
Then, things began to unravel. He held out to start the 1971 campaign, asking for $100,000. He signed for $72,000 with incentives. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn voided the deal; incentive-laden contracts were against the rules. That made McDowell a free agent, according to McDowell. Baseball and the Indians disagreed. Walkouts and suspensions followed. McDowell ended the year just 13-17 and with a 3.40 ERA.
Trade me, McDowell said. The Indians did just that on Nov. 29, 1971. They shipped him to the San Francisco Giants for future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry and shortstop Frank Duffy. In a poll conducted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 70 percent of fans disliked the trade.
McDowell, who was just 29 years old in his first year in northern California, never did much with the Giants. He did even less with the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates, the other teams he played with in the final four years of his career.
Arm and neck issues plagued McDowell. He also batted the bottle. “The last four years of my career, I was a full-blown, third-stage alcoholic,” he said.
McDowell retired from baseball at the age of 32. Five years later, he checked into a rehab clinic for alcohol addiction. His turnaround began as he sat on his couch in Pittsburgh and said to himself, over and over, “You beat me.” McDowell was talking about alcohol.
Rehab changed McDowell. In 1982, the state of Pennsylvania certified him as a addictions counselor. Through the years, he has helped many athletes overcome their demons.
Was he faster than Koufax? Maybe. Was he better? No, he never got there. McDowell retired with a 141-134 won-loss record, but he did strike out 2,453 hitters in 2,492.1 innings. He threw hard and was one of the most exciting pitchers of his era.