McDowell Had Cheers and Demons Throughout His Career
Vince Guerrieri | On 28, Oct 2014
He had a wicked fastball, a catchy nickname and a career waylaid by alcoholism. This should sound familiar to anyone who’s ever watched an episode of “Cheers,” and the adventures of fictional Red Sox pitcher Sam “Mayday” Malone.
But the inspiration for Sam Malone was Indians pitcher “Sudden Sam” McDowell.
McDowell was signed out of Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School (whose famous athletic alumni include Dan Marino) for a whopping $85,000 bonus in 1960. He was already being touted as the next Bob Feller.
He made his major league debut with a cup of coffee in September 1961, and started 1962 in the minors before being called up in April. He bounced back and forth between the majors and minors in 1962 and 1963. In 1963, he had the dubious distinction of throwing nine wild pitches in 66 innings.
By 1964, he was in the majors to stay, with an 11-6 record and a 2.70 ERA, along with 177 strikeouts in 173.1 innings pitched. The next year, he lit the world on fire, going 17-11 and making the first of six all-star game appearances. He led the league with a 2.18 ERA, 325 strikeouts 132 walks and 17 wild pitches. Feller has the record for most strikeouts by an Indians pitcher in a season, with 348 in 1946. McDowell has the next best four.
He struck out 225 to lead the American League in 1966, and although he only won nine games, five were shutouts, tying him for the league lead with teammate Luis Tiant. McDowell led the league in strikeouts in 1968, 1969 and 1970. In 1970, McDowell had his only 20-win season, and was named the Sporting News Pitcher of the Year, to go with 304 strikeouts.
McDowell’s last season in Cleveland was 1971, when he went 13-17 with 154 walks. McDowell had been asking for a trade for several years, and Tribe management obliged him, sending him to San Francisco for Gaylord Perry. The Indians got the better end of that deal, as McDowell’s career and control – both at the plate and at the bar – continued to slide downward. He spent two years in San Francisco, and a year with the Yankees.
After a stint with the hometown Pirates, McDowell retired in 1975 with a 141-134 record and 2,453 strikeouts – an average of 8.86 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, still ninth all-time.
On April 27, 1980, Sam McDowell quit drinking, and turned his life toward advising others to avoid his mistakes. He went to the University of Pittsburgh and became a substance abuse counselor with major league teams, earning a World Series ring while trying to help the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993. He also worked with the Texas Rangers and his hometown Pirates. His son Tim McDowell played for four seasons in the Pirates farm system.
McDowell is a member of the Indians Hall of Fame.