Sam McDowell has no regrets about the destructive path he traveled down as a younger man.
The dynamic and dominating left-hander was one of the brightest stars of the 1960s, a decade marked by some of the best pitchers baseball has ever seen. His potential led to comparisons with Sandy Koufax while his fastball and high walk totals made for an early version of Nolan Ryan. And, for a while, it appeared as if his ultimate destination would be Cooperstown.
Instead, McDowell’s star burned out nearly as quickly as it appeared. Alcoholism combined with injuries ultimately cost the Pennsylvania native his playing career. Though his time on the mound ended prematurely, McDowell used the addiction that cost him so dearly on the field to build an incredible second life away from the mound, one in which he dedicated himself to understanding why he was the way he was while helping other ballplayers, young and old, not make the same tragic journey he took.
McDowell, 78, was a six-time All-Star, perennial Cy Young candidate and owner of a 103 mile-per-hour fastball. Reggie Jackson once said that McDowell had the greatest fastball, curveball, slider and changeup that he had ever seen. McDowell used that arsenal to win 92 games between 1965 and 1970, a stretch that saw him lead the American League in strikeouts five times.
He topped 300 strikeouts on two of those occasions but also led the league in walks four times and wild pitches three times during that period. McDowell was entertaining, exciting and electrifying and it all just fell apart for him as the 1970s unfolded. He won only 32 games in his final five seasons, never fully reaching the heights that many thought he would when burst onto the scene as a teenager in the early 1960s.
“I have no regrets because I would not be where I am and would not have done what I did if I had changed anything,” McDowell said. “I was very happy with my second career and very happy with baseball as it was.”
“They would call my pitches, I’d get my ass kicked and sent back down to the minors. I’d go down there and there was no one there to say anything and I just starred. They’d bring me right back up, immediately start calling my pitches and I could never do anything on my own.”
A STAR IN WESTERN PENNSYLVANIA
McDowell was born in Pittsburgh and played several sports, starring in just about all of them for Central Catholic High. Whether it was baseball, football, basketball, tennis or cross country, McDowell was always on the move. When he wasn’t playing he was busy working, so busy in fact he never actually got to Forbes Field [the then home of the Pittsburgh Pirates] to see a game.
That, however, doesn’t mean that he was never at Forbes Field. McDowell was such a talented a high school pitcher that the Pirates often invited him to pitch batting practice prior to games. While he and his family were always welcome to stay for the game, McDowell never did. He pitched, got cleaned up and made a hasty exit because he had to work.
“I never had a dull moment,” McDowell said. “Because my family was so poor, every kid had to have a job. I was a soda jerk. I finished practice or a game and I would immediately go to the pharmacy, put an apron on and become a soda jerk until 10 o’clock when they closed and then I’d go home and do my homework. Weekends I worked all day long if I wasn’t playing, whatever the season.
“My parents never had any money to send me to [Pirate] games. My high school was one block away from Forbes Field and my junior year the Pirates had me pitch batting practice. They had me come over for BP after school. I never knew much about pro sports, though. I never had sports on the radio and back then, we finally got a television my senior year of high school but my mom was very strict and would only allow us to watch on weekends. And then it was just cowboy shows and variety shows.”
While McDowell knew little about pro ball it didn’t prevent scouts from making his starts a must-see event. He had one scout from the Tigers begin watching him as a freshman and by the time he pitched his team to the state championship as a senior – he tossed a no-hitter in that one and hit a solo homer in the 1-0 victory – scouts from every Major League team were in attendance.
And why not? He tossed 63 innings as a senior without allowing an earned run. And, his no-hitter in the championship game was the 40th of his amateur career, encompassing high school, The Colt League, Little League etc. While the Yankees, Braves and his hometown Pirates were among the teams chasing him, he signed for what was reported at the time to be a $75,000 bonus, the largest in Cleveland history.
Cleveland Indians Pitcher Sam McDowell at Yankee Stadium May 5, 1966.
McDowell said it didn’t matter to him whether or not he signed with the Pirates. He was happy with his choice, as were the Indians, who sent him to Lakeland of the Class-D Florida State League, where he went 5-6 with a 3.35 ERA in 16 starts. The 104 2/3 innings he would throw that summer proved to be a microcosm of much of his career. McDowell struck out 100 and walked 80 with 16 wild pitches and six hit batsmen as a 17-year-old.
“When I became a pro I had no idea what was going on or where I was,” said McDowell, who recently put the finishing touches on an autobiography that will be out later this year. “It was a whole new world to me. Previously, as an amateur, I was just having fun and winning or losing was no big deal. Now everything was serious and they were all about winning. And I really didn’t know what I was doing. When I was pitching I would do whatever the catcher or the manager told me because I wasn’t aware of anything.”
McDowell would go on to lead the Winter Florida Instructional League with seven wins. He also topped the circuit in strikeouts  and walks  in 61 innings, impressing several people along the way, including Fred Hutchinson. The Cincinnati Reds manager told The Sporting News that “the strong left-hander on the Cleveland team, Sam McDowell, looks like the one with the greatest promise.”
THE BIRTH OF SUDDEN SAM
When McDowell arrived in Arizona for Spring Training in 1961, the lightning in his left arm was on full display for everyone to see. It was here that he is said to have acquired his famous nickname, Sudden Sam, bestowed on him by a Cleveland writer, but McDowell said that his moniker was the result of his performance in his Major League debut that September against Minnesota.
“We still have some controversy about that [where it came from],” McDowell said. “The way I heard it, my very first game in 1961 I broke two ribs because I was throwing too hard. I pitched seven [6 1/3] shutout innings and they asked them about the teenager and [Hall-of-Famer] Harmon Killebrew said that his fastball gets up there all of a sudden.
Cleveland Indians Sam McDowell (48) pitching during spring training, Nogales, Mexico 3/31/1966 (Photo by George Long/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
“I think it [the nickname] is uninteresting. I’m still Sam McDowell. When people send me things to sign or ask for an autograph they ask me to sign Sudden Sam but I prefer just Sam.”
‘Just Sam’ spent his 1961 season at Salt Lake City of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, going 13-10 in 32 games [28 starts] with a 4.42 ERA. He led the league in strikeouts  and walks  while Gaylord Perry, the man for whom he would one day be traded, led the circuit with 16 victories for Tacoma.
McDowell made his aforementioned Major League debut on Sept. 15 against Minnesota and received a no-decision when a rib injury forced him from the game in the seventh. He struck out five and walked five but didn’t allow any runs.
He split time in 1962 between Salt Lake City, where he went 3-2 with a 2.03 ERA in six games, and Cleveland, where he was 3-7 with a 6.06 ERA in 25 games. While McDowell appeared on the verge of breaking through completely, he was still having control issues and was soon be butting heads with Cleveland managers Birdie Tebbetts [who took over in 1963] and then, to a degree, Joe Adcock. The issue – Tebbetts was calling McDowell’s pitches from the dugout. It frustrated and bothered McDowell, who pitched well at the Triple-A level but struggled to put up similar numbers in the majors which he attributes to not being able to plan his own efforts on the mound.
McDowell split 1963 between Jacksonville of the Triple-A International League [3-6, 3.41 ERA in12 starts] and Cleveland [3-5, 4.85 ERA in 14 games]. His disagreement with Tebbetts came to a head the following spring.
“My big trauma came because of the managers, Birdie Tebbetts and Joe Adcock, from day one had never seen me pitch but decided to call every one of my pitches,” McDowell said. “They would call my pitches, I’d get my ass kicked and sent back down to the minors. I’d go down there and there was no one there to say anything and I just starred. They’d bring me right back up, immediately start calling my pitches and I could never do anything on my own.
“I had no idea what I was doing. I was in a fog, playing a kid’s game and getting paid for it. I was totally frustrated because I knew I could pitch better but was never permitted to. I wasn’t permitted to learn how to pitch. I would continually go to Tebbetts and ask why are you calling my pitches? I asked, ‘What am I doing wrong? Please just teach me.’ He would ignore me and just sat say listen to me kid and I’ll make you a star. He wasn’t doing it with everyone, just me.”
McDowell never found out why Tebbetts was calling his pitches. He said the day of reckoning came during spring training in 1964. McDowell had a bad outing against the Giants with Tebbetts calling his pitches. Tebbetts and general manager Gabe Paul informed him after the game that they would be sending him back to the minor leagues and that’s when McDowell took a stand.
“I’m sitting there with Birdie Tebbetts and Gabe Paul and I said, do me a favor, don’t call me up. Let me stay in the minors for the rest of the year,” McDowell said. “They said don’t be like that Sam, we’re trying to teach you. I said again do me a favor and leave me in the minors and I walked out. I wanted that for two reasons. If they left me there for the whole season, with the rules the way they were, they would lose me because I would be eligible for the draft at the end of the year.
“And, I was just fed up. I wanted to find out if I could pitch or not. I never had any problems in amateur baseball or the minors. But they were calling my pitches and I had nothing but problems and trouble. So they send me to the minors [Portland of the PCL] and I go 7-0 with a 1.61 ERA and after the seventh game, I get a call from Gabe Paul. He says you’re having a great year and we’re going to bring you to the big leagues and I told him not if Birdie is going to continue calling my pitches. He said Sam don’t be like that but I told him I’m not going to pitch for Birdie.”
McDowell added that Paul told him he would “bury him” because of his behavior but McDowell shrugged it off and traveled with the team to Hawaii, where he would make his next start. McDowell threw a one-hitter and struck out 16 in that game. He was now 8-0 with a 1.18 ERA in nine starts with 102 strikeouts and only 24 walks in 76 innings.
Paul called again following the Hawaii game and the conversation went a bit differently, according to McDowell.
“He said I talked to Birdie and he’s not going to call your pitches,” McDowell said. “It was fine from that point on. He tried on two occasions later that year to call my pitches and I called Gabe Paul and told him to get me out of there. From that point on, I was a pitcher. I never mentioned that story totally.”
McDowell went 11-6 with a 2.70 ERA in 31 games [24 starts] after rejoining the Indians on his terms. He struck out 177 in 173 1/3 innings to lead the AL in strikeouts per nine innings [9.2].
Manager Earl Weaver #4 of the Baltimore Orioles and the American League AllStars comes out to talk with pitcher Sam McDowell #48 of the Cleveland Indians against the National League in Major League Baseball All Star game July 14, 1970 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. The National League won the game 5-4. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
TAKING THE AMERICAN LEAGUE BY STORM
McDowell said that he considers 1964 the greatest season he ever had in the Major Leagues. He slowly began to learn how to pitch and he came to realization that he could win.
“It was the year that I made my transition and took total responsibility for myself and could care less what Birdie and Gabe thought,” McDowell said. “I was going to make it or break it on my own. So to me, that was my greatest year ever. In 1965 and ’68 everything seemed to work for me in terms of being able to do what I wanted to do on the mound. I would say I was my happiest with ’64.”
McDowell’s happiness in 1964 translated to a coming out party in 1965. He went 17-11 and led the American League with a 2.18 ERA in 42 games [35 starts]. He also led the American League in strikeouts for the first time, fanning a career-high 325. He topped the circuit in strikeouts per nine innings [a career-high 10.7], walks  and wild pitches .
He was named to the first of his six All-Star teams and finished in the top-20 in the American League MVP race. McDowell was also beginning to draw comparisons to Koufax while developing into a dominant starter on a Cleveland staff that sported other top-end starters such as Luis Tiant, Steve Hargan and Sonny Siebert. McDowell liked how the staff pushed each other and themselves and considered that group special.
“We knew the guys would give everything they had and more,” McDowell said. “It was kind of a family thing; there was pride there.”
The following season, however, was when McDowell began to exhibit some of the wear and tear that comes along with being a power pitcher. He was on the shelf for periods of time in May, June and August and finished the season at 9-8 with a 2.87 ERA. He led the AL in strikeouts again  despite pitching 79 fewer innings than the year before and made his second consecutive All-Star team.
McDowell closed out the season with an interesting September, pitching a complete game in a 12-inning loss to Detroit in which he struck out 12 on Sept. 4 before striking out 14 against the Tigers, this time in Detroit, in a six-inning no-decision on Sept. 18. He closed out the year with a complete-game shutout at California on Oct. 1.
“I hurt my arm in the middle of the year and had all kinds of pain because of the way I was abusing my body,” McDowell said. “It had gotten to be too much for me and started on cortisone shots. But I had the whole winter off and was able to give my shoulder a chance to heal. I had torn part of my rotator cuff but ’67 was great and ’68 was great.”
New York Yankees Sam McDowell in action during spring training, Bradenton, FL 3/6/1974 (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)
McDowell went 13-15 with a 3.85 ERA in 37 starts in 1967, striking out 236 to narrowly miss his third consecutive K Crown. Boston’s Jim Lonborg  took that title.
Then there was 1968. The Year of the Pitcher treated the folks in Cleveland well as Tiant went 21-9 with a 1.60 ERA. McDowell went 15-14 but had a career-low 1.81 ERA while leading the league in strikeouts  for a third time and strikeouts per nine innings [9.5] for a fourth time.
Additionally, he made his third All-Star team but the Indians could do no better than third place due to a woeful offense that contributed to McDowell’s record. Both he and Tiant lamented the fact that the offense was so anemic and that it put that much more pressure on the pitching staff to perform. The Indians averaged 2.84 runs in McDowell starts.
“We had the best pitching the entire year and no matter where we went, no one wanted to face us,” Tiant said. “And those years that Sam was with me in Cleveland, he was phenomenal. He had the best stuff you’d see in baseball. [Detroit’s Denny] McLain won 31 games that year. Forget about McLain, McDowell was the best pitcher in baseball.
“To me he had the best stuff. With how powerful he was, though, no one wanted to face him. Other teams would come in and guys weren’t in the lineup. They’d be sick or have a fever or a bad stomach because they didn’t want to face him. I saw him throw a slider to some right-handed hitters and they would swing and miss and the ball would go behind his back. I’m telling you that’s what I saw, my eyes don’t lie. I was there. The ball was behind his back and he was swinging and that happened three or four times. He was a tough guy to hit.”
Alvin Dark had also taken over as manager in 1968 as well, replacing the rigid and ineffective Adcock and from that standpoint McDowell couldn’t have been happier. He felt that for the first time he had people in Dark and pitching coach Jack Sanford that were actually teaching him how to pitch.
McDowell had grown and filled out and was throwing faster than he ever had before but without refinement. Dark and Sanford provided that refinement and the results were obvious in ’68.
Left to right, Cleveland Indians starting pitchers in 1965: Luis Tiant, Ralph Terry, Jack Kralick, and Sam McDowell.
“Once I gained weight and my conditioning changed it to muscle, I was throwing harder and harder,” McDowell said. “And once I started to throw harder and harder I wanted to throw even harder and I was focusing on speed rather than control. I threw 103 miles an hour and once I acquired that speed the emphasis was on that speed.
“I was just rearing back and firing and I really didn’t know anything about or understand the science of pitching, why you throw certain pitches and follow them up. I didn’t understand at all until Jack Sanford and Alvin Dark took the time to sit down and explain the science of pitching. That totally changed my focus and concentration. They gave me the ability to throw to spots which I never did up until that point.”
McDowell was a full-blown star by 1969 and continued to dominate the American League. While Cleveland struggled as a team, he enjoyed individual success, leading the Indians in victories [he went 18-14] and the league in strikeouts  and strikeouts per nine innings [8.8]. McDowell posted a 2.79 ERA and was named to his fourth All-Star team.
His success continued in 1970 as he recorded the only 20-win season of his career. McDowell was 20-12 with a 2.92 ERA. He led the league with a career-high 305 innings pitched and 304 strikeouts. He was named yet again to the All-Star team and pitched three shutout innings in the Mid-Summer Classic. McDowell finished third in the Cy Young voting behind Minnesota’s Jim Perry and Baltimore’s Dave McNally despite having a better ERA, more innings pitched and significantly more strikeouts than either hurler.
Still, McDowell thought he was at his best two years earlier.
“From a pure pitching standpoint, 1968 was my best season,” McDowell said. “I would say that year I had the greatest focus I had, the greatest conditioning and I was able to maintain that conditioning better that year than ever. Nothing interfered with me and it was one of those years.
“Everything came out pretty good for me even though I didn’t win 20 games. It was greater than in 1970 when I did win 20. In 1970 I had a month where I didn’t win a game and everything was going wrong. My walks rose and my concentration wasn’t as acute like it was in 1968.”
Sam McDowell with the San Francisco Giants.
DRINKING AND THE BEGINNING OF THE END
1971 proved to be a pivotal year for McDowell. He felt that after his spectacular season in 1970 that he deserved a raise and held out early in Spring Training. He, along with Graig Nettles, Vada Pinson and Ken Harrelson, ultimately signed incentive-laden contracts that could have resulted in hefty raises for the group. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn got wind of the deals midway through the season and voided the contracts.
“I disliked Gabe Paul very much,” McDowell said. “I won 20 games and never got a raise. He pulled a trick on me and Graig Nettles and Vada Pinson. He had us sign clause contracts where we could double our raises if we had a good year. We went through half a season and somehow the commissioner found out about the contracts, which were illegal.
“He [the commissioner] called us into his office and made us sign contracts which were the same salary as the year before. So I won 20 games without a raise.”
McDowell’s issues on and off the field were beginning to wear on management. He went 13-17 with a 3.40 ERA and it was clear that a change was needed. He didn’t want to leave Cleveland but felt that it was something that needed to be done. He was traded to the Giants on November 29 for Gaylord Perry and Frank Duffy.
“I didn’t want to leave Cleveland, I would have preferred to stay, McDowell said. “I wanted Gabe Paul to go. I happened to love Cleveland and the fans. I still have many friends in Cleveland. I love everything about Cleveland.
“Going across the country was extremely hard. I knew nothing about San Francisco. It was a whole new world and it was frightening. I didn’t have family out there, didn’t know anything about the league, the new strike zone was smaller and different and I didn’t realize how different till I started pitching. It was extremely different and strange.”
McDowell’s 1971 season also proved to be an indicator of what had become a much larger problem for him away from baseball. While he says he began drinking as early as 1965, it wasn’t until 1970, ’71 and ’72 that he began drinking heavily. He said by the time he reached San Francisco he was getting drunk once or twice a week.
The drinking was only part of the problem, though. He began experiencing back, neck and shoulder issues that would keep him sidelined for much of the summer. McDowell ended up going 10-8 with a 4.33 ERA and suddenly Sudden Sam had become more ordinary that he had ever been. Compounding matters was the fact that Perry won 24 games and a Cy Young in Cleveland.
BRONX, NY - UNDATED: Sam McDowell of the New York Yankees poses for a portrait circa 1973 - 1974 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images)
Eventually, McDowell’s health, poor performance and drinking contributed to his being traded the following year to the Yankees. He spent parts of two seasons in the Bronx and went 6-14 over 29 games [22 starts]. He left the Yankees in September of 1974 and was given his release shortly thereafter.
McDowell signed with Pittsburgh but his homecoming was bittersweet. The Pirates stuck him in the bullpen, a place with which he was not familiar, and it didn’t work out well. His drinking had gotten to a point where he wasn’t able to control it and though he had a 2.86 ERA through 34 innings, the Pirates released him in June. His last Major League appearance was a four-inning stint in Philadelphia on June 24. McDowell struck out Greg Luzinski that inning and closed out his career by getting Tommy Hutton to hit into a double play.
What was amazing about McDowell’s situation was that despite the drinking he spent time every off-season going to school to study psychology in order to get a better understanding of why he was the way he was.
“Throughout my entire career, from 1964 on, I would do coursework,” McDowell said. “I had a personal friend who was the director of the psychology program at Duquesne and when there was an opening, he would encourage me to attend class and do the coursework. So I was going back to school while I was pitching. What the problem was what was going on with me. We never broached the subject of alcoholism because I was in denial and I never wanted to bring it up.
“I knew something was wrong with me. I had thought that all along but I couldn’t figure it out. I took courses for seven or eight years to try and figure it out. I acquired so many credits. I went to different workshops and colleges. I even took a Harvard Medical Correspondence Course for two years. This was a new field. Everything was new and they were beginning to prove that alcoholism was a disease whereas before they thought it was a psychological problem.”
McDowell began selling insurance when he stopped playing baseball but continued drinking. It would take several more years for him to reach sobriety. By then, he had received a degree from The University of Pittsburgh in sports psychology and addiction and had begun working for the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays counseling young players.
He began working with other teams and eventually became a counselor with the Baseball Assistance Team [BAT] in 1987 and the Players Alumni Association. He retired last year after counseling hundreds of players while sharing his own story.
“I never thought I would be back in baseball,” McDowell said. “I thought I burned too many bridges.
McDowell also thought, briefly, about making a comeback once he became sober. He was still young enough and still had some of that old electricity in his left arm.
“Jacksonville was having an old-timers game and they invited me back for the game,” he said. “While I was warming up, I wanted to see what I could do because I couldn’t throw that hard in an old-timer’s game. So while I was warming up I was throwing harder and harder. After the game two scouts, who were there for the Jacksonville game, came over to me and asked if I knew how hard I was throwing [warming up]. They had a gun on me and said I was throwing 95-96.
“They asked if I would consider coming back if I could get a spot on a Triple-A team. I went home and started thinking about and with the conditioning they would have put me through, I would have gotten stronger and stronger but my sobriety meant too much to me and I was afraid to take the chance. I hadn’t pitched for three or four years but I did think about it. ”
McDowell, who lives in Florida, is now working with his close friend Dr. Michael Ray to tout the benefits of stem-cell research and the positive impact it has had on certain injuries and diseases.