Today continues our countdown to the start of Indians pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear, Arizona on February 20. We’ll count down the days, profiling a former Indian who wore the corresponding number. Some players will be memorable, others just our favorites and some, the only one we could find who wore that number. Today, we chronicle the troubled, yet All-Star career of Sam McDowell.
In an era where the Cleveland Indians had little to cheer about, left handed pitcher Sam McDowell may have been the brightest ray of sunshine on the shores of Lake Erie. McDowell entered the scene just after the Tribe’s run of success in the 1950s was coming to a close.
McDowell was a high school phenom from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area who was scouted by several major league teams. The Indians signed McDowell prior to the 1960 season for a bonus of $75,000 and the promise to not rush him to the big leagues. McDowell would work his way through the minor leagues, but still making his major league debut late in the 1961 season at only 18-years old.
He would still spend much of the 1962 and 1963 seasons in the Pacific Coast League before becoming a cornerstone in the rotation in 1964. McDowell was given the nickname, “Sudden Sam,” by a Cleveland sportswriter in spring training of 1961 because he, and his fastball, suddenly burst onto the Cleveland scene.
Now a full time member of the Indians’ rotation, McDowell became the staff ace in 1965, going 17-11 with a league low 2.18 ERA and league leading 325 strikeouts in 273 innings. It may not have been sudden, but McDowell had burst onto the scene. He dominated the American League from 1965 to 1971, including six All-Star appearances. He led the AL in strikeouts each season, except 1967 and was often referred to as the AL’s version of Sandy Koufax.
McDowell’s demeanor and attitude was as volatile and fierce as his fastball, and often as inaccurate. McDowell had several skirmishes with managers, always hating that they called all the pitches from the dugout and would not allow him to call his own game. After years of disputes with management and contract issues, he demanded a trade after the 1971 season. Gabe Paul, Indians general manager, jettisoned the left-hander to the highest bidder, the San Francisco Giants, for Gaylord Perry and Frank Duffy.
Sudden Sam would never be the pitcher he was in Cleveland. Arm and back issues would hamper McDowell in San Francisco and they would send his contract to the New York Yankees and former Tribe GM, Gabe Paul. McDowell’s arm and back issues were not the only downfall to his career, as alcohol became his biggest demon. McDowell admitted after his career that he was a full-blown stage three alcoholic in the last three seasons of his career.
After his career he continued to drink and eventually divorced from his wife before admitting that his addiction had beat him. After entering a rehabilitation facility, the former pitcher turned his life around and resides in his home in Pittsburgh. McDowell retired from baseball with a 141-134 record, with a 3.17 ERA and 2,453 career strikeouts. His six All-Star appearances and dominance in his career was all with the Indians.
Photo: Sheedy & Long/Sports Illustrated