Sam McDowell

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Samuel Edward Thomas McDowell
(Sudden Sam)

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Biographical Information[edit]


Sam McDowell was one of the major strikeout forces in baseball through the 1970s, leading the American League in fans five times in six years (and finishing second the year he wasn't first). Riding a blazing fastball, "Sudden Sam" retired as #8 on the all-time strikeout list with 2,453, behind only Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson, Jim Bunning, Cy Young, Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, Christy Mathewson, and Don Drysdale in the Live ball era. At the time, his 8.86 K/9 was #2 all-time to Sandy Koufax's 9.28, such was his stature as a fireballer in the game.

Reeling back and firing away as hard as possible towards the plate, he also led the league in walks five times and in wild pitches three. His wildness, solid 6' 5" build, and chronic bout with the bottle all contributed to a very intimidating presence on the mound. Sadly, alcoholism undermined and shortened his career.

The Pittsburgh-born McDowell attended Central Catholic High School and broke in as an 18-year-old at the end of the 1961 season, five years younger than the next Cleveland Indians hurler. He spent most of his career in Cleveland, capturing the AL ERA title at just 22 in 1965, placing second in 1968, topping the AL in shutouts in 1966, and winning 20 games in 1970. Twice, he topped 300 strikeouts in a season, his 325 in 1965 being #4 all-time then behind only Sandy Koufax's 382 in 1965, Rube Waddell's 349 in 1904, and Bob Feller's 348 in 1946. In May of 1968, he struck out 76 batters during the month; he was only the second pitcher to accomplish the feat of striking out 75 or more batters in a calendar month, after Koufax in May of 1965; only Nolan Ryan, who did it 5 times, and Chris Sale have since matched that. That same year he set another record by racking up 70 Ks against the Oakland A's, the most ever by a pitcher against one team in a season; he did it in 53 innings.

Seemingly still in his prime, just one year removed from an AL-leading 305 IP/304 K, 20-12, 2.92 ERA season, he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for veteran Gaylord Perry after the 1971 season. Even though only 29, he was already on the decline while, surprisingly, the four-year older future Hall of Famer Perry's best years - which were to include Cy Young Awards in both leagues - were still ahead.

After a disappointing 1972, a mid-season sale to the New York Yankees in 1973, and rattling around the Bronx in relief in 1974, McDowell ended up with the Pittsburgh Pirates for a final, abbreviated 1975 season. Even then he could still bring it, going 2-1 in 14 games with a 2.86 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 34 innings.

Interestingly, McDowell played two games in the field during his career, both in 1970 under manager Alvin Dark as part of double switches creating righty-on-righty match-ups. In an extremely strange development for a tall, blocky left-hander he played second base in the 8th inning on July 6th, to give way for Dean Chance, even recording a putout when he accepted a relay from 3B Eddie Leon to force out even more lumbering 6'7", 265 lb. Frank Howard. He then returned to pitch the 9th, struck out the side, and earned the win. On September 2nd, he appeared at the more logical first base, with Chance again brought in to face a pair of right-handers.

After he retired, McDowell got hold of his drinking and eventually became the Pirates' drug and alcohol counselor, being credited with turning around the life and career of a lifetime minor leaguer struggling to make it into the Bigs:

"He's my best friend. He's my life-support system, I remember when I got out of rehab, I must have called that man every day, at every hour of the night, for four straight months. I mean, I was calling him at 5 in the morning, midnight, it didn't matter. He was always there when I needed him."

Mike York to the Los Angeles Times in 1992.

Notable Achievements[edit]

  • 6-time AL All-Star (1965, 1966 & 1968-1971)
  • AL ERA Leader (1965)
  • AL Innings Pitched Leader (1970)
  • 5-time AL Strikeouts Leader (1965, 1966 & 1968-1970)
  • AL Shutouts Leader (1966)
  • 15 Wins Seasons: 4 (1965 & 1968-1970)
  • 20 Wins Seasons: 1 (1970)
  • 200 Innings Pitched Seasons: 6 (1965 & 1967-1971)
  • 300 Innings Pitched Seasons: 1 (1970)
  • 200 Strikeouts Seasons: 6 (1965-1970)
  • 300 Strikeouts Seasons: 2 (1965 & 1970)

Further Reading[edit]

  • Sam McDowell and Martin Gitlin: The Saga of Sudden Sam: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Sam McDowell, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2022. ISBN 978-1-5381-5641-4

Related Sites[edit]