Sudden Sam McDowell Finds Spot in All-Time Tribe Rotation
By Ronnie Tellalian
Sam McDowell was one of the most interesting pitchers in the Indians post World War two era. He blew hitters away with a fastball that earned him the nickname “Sudden Sam”. The pitch that earned him four of the top five single season strikeout totals in Indians history also led him to being one of four Indians ever to walk over 1000 batters in their career. He burst onto the scene as a teenager, and took the City of Cleveland and the American League by storm.
Starting Pitcher: Sam McDowell
The Indians signed McDowell as an amateur free agent in 1960 at the age of 17 out of Central Catholic High School outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He made his first Major League start on September 15th 1961 at just 18 years old. From 1962 to 1963 McDowell struggled to make a positive mark in the Majors. He moved up and down from Cleveland to their AAA affiliate in Salk Lake City. His downfall was his control. He posted walks per 9 innings of 7.2 and 6.1 in those first two turbulent seasons.
In 1964, at age 21, he again began the season at AAA. This time he had things figured out. He made nine starts, winning eight with an ERA of 1.18. His most critical change came in the strikeouts and walks department. In 76 innings, he struck out 102 batters while walking only 24. He made his season debut with the Indians on May 31st. He made 24 starts the rest of the season pitching 173.1 innings. He struck out 177 batters and led the league with 9.2 K/9 innings. He posted a 2.70 ERA to go along with all those strikeouts.
The following season McDowell proved he was one of the best in the game. He pitched to a 17-11 record and an American League leading 2.18 ERA. He also led the league in K/9 with a mark of 10.7. His 325 strikeouts that season not only led the AL, but it is the second highest single season total in Indians history. McDowell also made his first of six All-Star games.
McDowell struggled over the next two seasons. Arm problems kept his innings pitched down to 194 in just 28 starts. He still managed to lead the league with 225 strikeouts and posted a very good 2.87 ERA. 1967 saw more decline as his 3.85 ERA was his worst in five years. He struck out 236 batters, but walked a league leading 123.
In 1968 Major League baseball raised the pitcher’s mound, and McDowell’s stats rose along with it. He won just 15 of his 37 starts but pitched to a career best 1.81 ERA. He once again led the AL in strikeouts with 283 and made his third All-Star appearance.
He continued his domination in 1969 winning 18 games and again leading the league in strikeouts with 279. He allowed only 13 home runs in 285 innings pitched to lead the league in HR/9. In his fourth All-Star appearance, McDowell struck out four batters in two innings of work; among the National League strikeout victims was Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente.
Arguably one of McDowell’s best seasons came in 1970. He made 39 starts, and finished with a 20-12 record, the only time in his career that he would reach the 20 win plateau. He completed a career high 19 games and to go along with that, led the league in innings pitched with a career high of 305. He led the league for the fifth time in strikeouts with 304. McDowell is the only Indians pitcher to record 300+ strikeouts in two seasons. His 2.92 ERA was among the best in the AL. For his efforts on the season, McDowell was voted Sporting News’ AL Pitcher of the Year.
1971 was his last in an Indians uniform. He held out in spring training for a bigger contract. Once he was finally granted that contract, it was voided by the commissioner for containing illegal incentives clauses. He finally returned to the team and made 31 starts on the years. He won 13 games and posted an ERA of 3.40. His strikeouts dipped to 192, the first time he failed to reach the 200 mark in eight years. At the end of the season, after a year of turmoil, McDowell demanded to be traded. On November 29th 1971, McDowell was shipped off to San Francisco for Shortstop Frank Duffy and alleged spit-baller Gaylord Perry.
McDowell retired in 1975 with 141 wins and 2453 strikeouts. At the time of his retirement only Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax had a better career strikeout rate than McDowell’s 8.9/9 innings. He was an endearing figure in Cleveland sports, and one that may have gained the most fame. A largely forgotten fact about Sudden Sam; the character of Sam Malone, the ex Major League pitcher in the hit sitcom Cheers, was based on the life of Sam McDowell.
Photo: Sports Illustrated