Day 6 of 2022 baseball books: All of the sudden, Sam McDowell has to tell his side of the story

“The Saga of Sudden Sam: The Rise, Fall
and Redemption of Sam McDowell”

The author:
Sam McDowell
with Martin Gitlin

The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
171 pages
Released March 9, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At PagesABookstore
At BarnesAndNoble

The review in 90 feet or less

Coming up on his 80th birthday, Sam McDowell still knows how to keep a fan on the edge of his seat.

Sam McDowell was inducted in the Cleveland franchise Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2014, a list of the 100 greatest Cleveland players of all time listed him at No. 17.

The opening lines of the opening chapter of his one-and-only autobiography is about … spoiler alert … a suicide attempt. A loaded .38 revolver to his head. Trigger pulled. A dead shell in the chamber didn’t fire. He writes:

The retrospection began. I remember thinking that I could not even do this right.”

It’s the winter of 1963, and this 20-year-old kid from Pittsburgh who was supposed to be the next Sandy Koufax — a contemporary reference, but he’s also been measured up to Bob Feller, since we are talking Cleveland Indians (uh, Guardians) history — is trying to end the agony of expectations. He’s only been with this flailing franchise for three seasons, pasting together a 6-12 mark and an ERA around 5.00 through 40 appearances. His walk-to-strike out ratio is about 1-to-1.

Sounds like comparisons to Koufax at that age are pretty accurate.

But McDowell’s wife couldn’t take it anymore, all his emotional craziness and drinking that was coming with his struggle. She snatched up their young daughter and moved out. She had experience with relatives who had created a mess of their lives with booze and broads, and her husband’s flight pattern wasn’t comforting that this was going to end well.

In the end, as far as his pitching career went, McDowell would figure out how to become a 20-game winner seven seasons later, when he topped 300 innings pitched. The next season, the aura around that mystical 1968 time when so many pitchers dominated, he’d post a brilliant 1.81 ERA despite a 15-14 record. He’d make six American League All Star teams from 1965 through 1971, lead the league in strikeouts five times in six years stretch — as well as the league leader in wild pitches three times and in walks five times in that general window.

In the all-time Baseball Reference list of Starting Pitchers JAWS leaders, McDowell is at No. 144 (39.9). Ahead of Hall of Famers like Addie Joss, Satchel Paige, Jack Morris, Jack Chesbro, Lefty Gomez and Catfish Hunter.

But wearing out his time and finding himself traded to the San Francisco Giants in 1972 in exchange for future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, McDowell devolved into a long reliever with a reputation that would soon derail any sustainable time in the game, a period that would have allowed him to pad his career stats into those of all-time dominance categories.

Never appearing in a playoff game in his 15-year run that also included stops with the Yankees and, at last, his hometown Pirates, he was done by age 32. His strikeout rate of 8.86 per nine innings at the time was third all-time behind Nolan Ryan and Koufax at his conclusion.

Have a toast to a memorable career? Maybe not.

Remember the character that Ted Danson played on “Cheers” (from 1982 to ’93)? Sam “Mayday” Malone, the alcoholic ex-Boston Red Sox star, was fashioned after McDowell.

Instead of buying a bar, McDowell lost his money in a failed business venture, moved back in with his parents, and checked into a rehab center. He found himself at the University of Pittsburgh working on a degree in sports psychology and addiction, became a counselor for the Toronto and Texas franchises (given a ’93 World Series ring with the Blue Jays) and gave himself up to help with the Baseball Assistance Team and the MLB players alumni association.

This self-actualization process thanks to a very supportive family has led him to admit to being an addict, battling depression as much as narcissism (a word he seems to enjoy using to describe himself), anger and arrogance, hitting that proverbial rock bottom, and coming out on the other side deciding he wanted to be of aid to others in big-league baseball who may be suffering the same emotional issues.

And now McDowell gets to lay it all out there in his own verbosity.

They call these things cautionary tales. They are better reads when you sense there will be a positive outcome. As this appears to be.

How it goes in the scorebook

A story in The Terre Haute Tribune from May 2, 1968 via

A quality start, but not one that comes with getting in and out of trouble.

This first-person tale might have fit better in a larger collection of confessional works, such as in Peter Golenbock’s “Whispers Of The Gods” that we just reviewed, Instead, McDowell decided he needed more space, and his journey is given away in the book title that allows him to lament all the time he was swimming in the deep end of the pool with sharks circling his existence.

Most of his story goes beyond the big-league tell-all stuff, as he is in scholarly mode explaining ways he’s righted his ship and should be known now for all he’s done in the framework of rehabilitation. All those things we still hold him up to from our baseball card collection aren’t important now.

A forward by Steve Garvey, who likely didn’t really face the true McDowell when they squared off in National League meetings in the early ‘70s, makes an interesting point we should all take to heart: “The challenge of potential is that it is usually most celebrated by those who are invested in judging talent. They do not have to perform. They have no responsibility for failure or to live up to levels reached by only a few in history. In Sam’s case, trying to live up to the expectations of others led to mental strain and a pressure to perform that was beyond reality. With these demands came fragility and insecurity, and that led to the need to escape.”

There are a few other issues to know. The references to dates and games could use some fact checking and cleaning up. The person who helped McDowell piece this together seems ill-equipped for this kind of author guidance. It’s far too repetitive.

And the decision to use what we can best tell is 10-point type paragraphs crammed on the pages doesn’t give the reader much of a chance to have a pleasurable read, if that’s even under consideration. Why does this have to happen?

You can look it up: More to ponder

== Consider this 2015 book by retired Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bob Dolgan, whose collection of his best columns went with the title: “The Sportswriter Who Punched Sam McDowell: And Other Sports Stories.”

The story behind the title?

As he wrote in 1971, the incident in questioned happened in April, 1965. Dolgan had been a former Indians beat writer who now was doing a PR job for another company. He said he went into a restaurant where McDowell happened to be playing pool in the back room.

Dolgan said McDowell was suddenly yelling at him for things he wrote about him years earlier. Then he got too close. “Remembering the way John Wayne did it in the movies, I closed my eyes and threw two right-handed punches, which landed in McDowell’s face before he even touched me,” wrote Dolgan.

McDowell told him to meet him outside and headed to the back door. Dolgan said he went out the front door instead, “got into my car, drove away.”

Dolgan finished the column, writing about how McDowell had overcome his alcoholism and was now helping people.

“It’s ironic that Sam was my hero growing up because of the way he threw a baseball. Now he’s my hero for an entirely different reason.”

McDowell uses pages 56-58 of his book to explain his disdain for Dolgan, “with whom I often clashed” because “he did not write truthfully about me.”

Dolgan, McDowell insisted, used too much opinion in his news stories at the time. “Dolgan was ahead of his time in constantly offering his opinion not as a columnist but as a beat writer. There is a difference. Quite often, at least in my case, he was wrong.”

McDowell also gives his side of what “nearly led to a physical confrontation. One night I was particularly upset with a published report he wrote about me and my pitching. We nearly came to blows at a local bar (both of us were sober at the time). Though it was considered bad form for beat writers to go to bars the players they covered often frequented, he did on occasion to try to get a scoop. I got up in his face to express my anger and he grabbed my coat lapel. I swing him around and asked if he wanted to step outside. The fight never happened. I walked out the front door and waited for him. He walked out the back door and ran home. So much for barroom brawls. The drama peaked then died just as quickly.”

He adds: “By that time in my career my inability to partake in moderation did often result in a drunken stupor or physical altercation. I have been arrested 12 times in my life and never been convicted of a crime.”

Maybe McDowell is still upset with Dolgan over the fact it was this writer who pinned the nickname “Sudden Sam” on him when he was an 18-year-old phenom in ’61.

== McDowell was the cover story in a 1966 Sports Illustrated about his Koufaxian abilities in a piece headlined “Sam, You Make The Ball Too Small,” by Jack Mann. That would be Koufax’s final season as it turned out.

McDowell was also an SI subject in 1990 by Sonja Steptoe about his role as a counselor with the Blue Jays.

But the one McDowell seems to remember most is one about him by Pat Jordan for SI in 1970 headlined “Sam of 1,000 Ways.” In it,  Jordan spins: “Like a character from an Ayn Rand novel, he has discovered that he has the kind of awesome impact that stills all motion in its wake — only McDowell does not know why all motion is stilled in his wake and, furthermore, he could not care less. He seems to be afraid that if he let his talent flower to fulfillment, he might cease to possess it and it, in turn, would possess him. So he treats it like some unruly growth he must periodically prune before it becomes too unmanageable.”

McDowell circles back to that in his book and remembers most from the story is how Jordan mentions his hobbies as “painting, collecting guns, constructing model boats inside bottles, selling organic cosmetics, training German shepherds as well as running a family pool hall. Critics claimed that the variety of activities, all of which has nothing to do with baseball, indicated that I was a man without direction. But Jordan observed that several of those pursuits could be worked at in solitude and isolation, away from the judgmental eyes of others. He was right. And the cynics were wrong.”

== McDowell was given a nice piece of real estate to write the forward in the 2020 biography of Steve Dalkowski, “Dalko: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Fastest Pitcher,” which we reviewed. McDowell explains: “In my view, Steve Dalkowski had the same problems and mental blocks that all hard throwers have. Clearly he didn’t possess the skill set to ‘right the ship’ on his own. But most of us don’t possess that skill set either … When I look at myself, I see a thread of Steve Dalkowski in Sam McDowell and in every hard thrower that has ever taken the hill. … Through my work as a career enhancement professional, I recognize how alone and helpless Steve must have felt when he couldn’t address and remedy his pitching issues … Steve’s inability to correct his course was a tragedy for baseball and fans alike.”

== Why didn’t McDowell have a Topps card of himself in his final year with the Pirates? This guy created one. Mean stare and all.

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