A strikeout is one of a pitcher’s best weapons.
When a pitcher strikes out a batter, an out is achieved without all of the risks associated with a batted ball, including a bad hop, a bloop hit, a bad fielding play, or a sacrifice that advances a runner.
Sam McDowell was one of the greatest strikeout pitchers in Cleveland Indians history, leading the American League in strikeouts in five seasons.
Nicknamed “Sudden Sam”, McDowell, besides his strikeouts, otherwise was an excellent pitcher, as he made the All-Star team in six seasons.
— Vintage Jerseys & Hats (@PolyesterUnis) July 12, 2021
We take a look at the life of Sam McDowell – before, during, and after his major league baseball career.
The Early Years Before Major League Baseball (1942-1961)
Samuel Edward Thomas McDowell was born on September 21, 1942 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
His father, Thomas, was a heat inspector for U.S. Steel.
McDowell had four brothers (Tom, Warren, George, and Don) and one sister (Margret Ann).
At Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, McDowell starred in four sports – baseball, basketball, football, and track.
Yet, it was his ability as a baseball pitcher that attracted the most attention.
In 1959, in the Colt World Series, McDowell pitched two no-hitters and a one-hitter.
As a senior at Central Catholic High School, in 1960, McDowell had an 8-0 record, did not allow a single earned run, and struck out 152 batters in 63 innings.
It is estimated that counting all of his Little League, Pony League, Colt League, and Central Catholic High School games, McDowell (a left-handed pitcher) had thrown 40 no-hit games by the time he graduated from high school.
In recalling his years growing up in Pittsburgh, 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. . . . 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.”
15 major league teams scouted McDowell in high school.
The Cleveland Indians outbid the other 14 teams and signed McDowell to a $75,000 contract.
After his high school graduation, at the age of 17, McDowell was sent by the Indians to Lakeland, Florida to pitch for Cleveland’s-affiliated minor league team, the Lakeland Indians, in the Class D Florida State League.
For Lakeland, in 1960, McDowell compiled a 5-6 record, with a 3.35 earned run average.
In 104-2/3 innings in 1960, McDowell had 100 strikeouts and allowed 80 walks.
In 1961, the Indians sent McDowell to Cleveland’s-affiliated minor league team, the Salt Lake City Bees, in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League.
McDowell posted a 13-10 record, with a 4.42 earned run average, in 1961.
He had 156 strikeouts, bur allowed 152 walks, in 175 innings.
Late in the 1961 season, Cleveland decided to call McDowell up to the major leagues.
The Major League Baseball Years (1961–1975)
On September 15, 1961, McDowell (at a height of six feet and five inches and a weight of 190 pounds) made his major league debut, starting against the Minnesota Twins.
McDowell shut out the Twins over 6-1/3 innings, allowing three hits and five walks.
He had five strikeouts.
Until Cleveland allowed three runs in the ninth inning (the Indians lost to Minnesota 3-2), McDowell was in a position to claim his first major league victory.
The game was also significant because it helped give McDowell his “Sudden Sam” nickname.
“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.”
The September 15 game against the Twins was McDowell’s only appearance for the Indians in 1961.
With a 78-83 record, Cleveland finished in fifth place in the American League in 1961.
In 1962, over the course of the season, McDowell went from the minor leagues in Salt Lake City, to the major leagues in Cleveland, back to the minor leagues in Salt Lake City, and then back to the major leagues in Cleveland.
With Salt Lake City in 1962, McDowell had a 3-2 record, with a 2.03 earned run average.
He had 34 strikeouts and allowed 23 walks in 40 innings.
On April 26, 1962, McDowell, in relief, earned his first major league win, as the Indians defeated the Los Angeles Angels 6-4.
McDowell pitched four hitless innings, striking out one batter and allowing two walks.
McDowell had his first major league win as a starting pitcher, in a 4-3 Cleveland victory over the Angels on September 30, 1962.
He had 10 strikeouts and allowed three runs, four hits, and two walks over 7-2/3 innings.
For Cleveland in 1962, McDowell had a 3-7 record, with a 6.06 earned run average.
In 87-2/3 innings, he posted 70 strikeouts and allowed 70 walks.
The Indians had an 80-82 record and finished in sixth place in the American League in 1962.
In 1963, McDowell started the season with the Indians.
He earned his first major league complete game and shutout victory on April 16, 1963, in a 3-0 Cleveland win over the Washington Senators.
He had 13 strikeouts and allowed two hits and seven walks.
McDowell, with Cleveland in 1963, compiled a 3-5 record and had a 4.85 earned run average.
In 65 innings, McDowell had 63 strikeouts and allowed 44 walks.
The Indians had a 79-83 record in 1963, finishing in fifth place in the American League.
At the end of June in 1963, McDowell was sent down to Jacksonville, Florida to pitch for Cleveland’s-affiliated minor league team, the Jacksonville Suns, in the Class AAA International League.
Spending the rest of his 1963 season with Jacksonville, McDowell posted a 3-6 record, with a 3.41 earned run average.
He had 84 strikeouts and allowed 50 walks in 87 innings.
McDowell’s first three major league seasons generally had been mediocre at best.
However, his performance significantly improved in 1964.
He started the 1964 season in Portland, Oregon, pitching for the Portland Beavers, Cleveland’s-then affiliated minor league team in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League.
With Portland in 1964, McDowell pitched three consecutive shutouts, one of which was a no-hitter.
McDowell had an 8-0 record with Portland, with a 1.18 earned run average, in 1964.
In 76 innings, he posted 102 strikeouts and allowed 24 walks; it was his first minor league or major league season with any team having an amount of strikeouts that was more than double his amount of walks.
Following his fine performance with Portland, McDowell was called up to the Indians in late May, 1964.
After leaving Portland in 1964, McDowell was not to return to the minor leagues in his baseball career.
In his first start after joining the Indians roster in 1964, on June 2, 1964, McDowell had a complete game victory, as Cleveland defeated the Chicago White Sox 3-2.
McDowell had 14 strikeouts and allowed nine hits and three walks.
For his 1964 season with Cleveland, McDowell continued his fine performance in 1964, compiling an 11-6 record, with a 2.70 earned run average (seventh in the American League).
In 173-1/3 innings, McDowell had 177 strikeouts (eighth in the American League) and allowed 100 walks.
In 1964, McDowell led the American League in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (9.19) and ranked 10th in the American League in fewest hits allowed per nine innings pitched (7.685).
McDowell cited two reasons for the turnaround in his play in 1964.
First, McDowell made more of his own decisions about his pitching.
“During those first four years, I listened to everybody and anybody who had a theory on pitching and I tried to do everything they told me. I made up my mind to stop listening to everybody and figure out a few things on my own. I made up my mind I wasn’t going to worry about my wildness; that I would throw where I wanted.”
Second, McDowell credited his manager with Portland, Johnny Lipon.
“[Lipon] suggested things instead of telling me and respected my opinion. We’d sit around and talk about pitching and exchange ideas. He was the first person in baseball to handle me that way.”
The Indians finished tied for sixth place in the American League in 1964, with a 79-83 record.
McDowell had an even better season in 1965.
On May 19, 1965, McDowell allowed three hits and six walks, in a 2-0 Cleveland shutout of the Baltimore Orioles.
McDowell had 10 strikeouts.
Later in the season, on September 4, 1965, McDowell shut out the Orioles over 10 innings, striking out 16 hitters and allowing two hits and four walks.
After McDowell left the game, Baltimore defeated Cleveland 1-0 in 11 innings.
Future National Baseball Hall of Famer Orioles shortstop Luis Aparicio said:
“[McDowell] just overpowered us. . . . I’m glad I’m a right-handed batter. I never saw anybody so fast.”
In 1965, McDowell, who posted a 17-11 record, led the American League in all of earned run average (2.18), strikeouts (325), strikeouts per nine innings pitched (10.714), and fewest hits allowed per nine innings pitched (5.868).
— John Skrtic (@SkrticX) December 6, 2020
He ranked tied for sixth in the American League in shutouts (three).
Allowing 132 walks in 273 innings, 1965 was the first major league season in which McDowell had an amount of strikeouts that was more than double his amount of walks.
McDowell was named to his first All-Star team in 1965.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) February 11, 2021
With an 87-75 record, Cleveland finished in fifth place in the American League in 1965.
On April 25, 1966, McDowell allowed only one hit (and six walks), in a 2-0 Indians shutout of the Kansas City Athletics.
He struck out eight batters.
In his next start, on May 1, 1966, McDowell pitched another one-hitter (allowing five walks), with 10 strikeouts, as Cleveland shutout the Chicago White Sox 1-0.
Bothered by arm and shoulder injuries in 1966, McDowell only had a 9-8 record.
However, when he pitched in 1966, McDowell was very effective.
In 1966, McDowell led the American League in strikeouts (225), strikeouts per nine innings pitched (10.42), and fewest hits allowed per nine innings pitched (6.021), and was tied for the lead in the American League in shutouts (5).
May 23, 1966: #OurCLE P "Sudden" Sam McDowell graces SI cover. 6x AllStar,led AL in K's 5x,CLE team HOF. Perfect nickname from PD's Bob Dolgan. Inspiration for Sam "Mayday" Malone character on Cheers. Gave back much to the game/players in later life #Sudden #CLE #FasterThanKoufax pic.twitter.com/vdIBrTVwmL
— On This Day: Cleveland Sports (@CityfanC) May 23, 2021
He ranked eighth in the American League in earned run average (2.87).
He allowed 102 walks in 194-1/3 innings in 1966.
McDowell again made the All-Star team in 1966.
Cleveland had an 81-81 record in 1966, finishing in fifth place in the American League.
On July 20, 1967, McDowell allowed six hits and four walks, in a 4-0 Indians shutout of the New York Yankees.
He had eight strikeouts.
McDowell had a 13-15 record, with a 3.85 earned run average, in 1967.
He ranked second in the American League both in strikeouts (236) and strikeouts per nine innings pitched (8.987).
In 1967, McDowell allowed 123 walks in 236-1/3 innings.
With a 75-87 record, Cleveland finished in eighth place in the American League in 1967.
On May 1, 1968, pitching a complete game, McDowell had 16 strikeouts and allowed three hits (and no walks), in a 3-1 Indians victory over the Oakland Athletics.
In his next start, on May 6, 1968, McDowell, pitching another complete game, struck out 14 batters and allowed seven hits and three walks, as Cleveland defeated the New York Yankees 3-2.
McDowell led the American League in strikeouts (283) and strikeouts per nine innings pitched (9.468) in 1968.
Pitchers with at least four games of 14 strikeouts in a season:
R. Johnson: '93, '97, '98, '99, 01, '02, '04
P. Martinez: '99
Clemens: '88, '98
Mark Langston: '86
Sam McDowell: '68
N.Ryan: '72, '74, '76
Rube Waddell: '04
— New York Mets Stats (@NYMStats) July 2, 2021
He ranked second in the American League in earned run average (1.81) and third in the American League in fewest hits allowed per nine innings pitched (6.056).
In 1968, McDowell had a 15-14 record and allowed 110 walks in 269 innings.
McDowell made the All-Star team in 1968.
Cleveland had an 86-75 record and finished in third place in the American League in 1968.
On August 19, 1969, McDowell allowed only one hit (and two walks), in a 3-0 Indians shutout of the Oakland Athletics.
He had 10 strikeouts.
Future National Baseball Hall of Famer Athletics outfielder Reggie Jackson said:
“I like Sudden and I think he’s got the greatest fastball, curveball, slider, and changeup I ever saw. I call him ‘Instant Heat.’ Sudden simplifies things out there. You know he’s gonna challenge you, his strength against yours, and either you beat him or he beats you. And he won’t throw at you, either, because he’s too nice a guy. He knows that with his fastball he could kill you if he ever hit you.”
In 1969, McDowell again led the American League in strikeouts (279) and strikeouts per nine innings pitched (8.811).
He ranked tied for fourth in the American League in shutouts (4) and sixth in the American League in fewest hits allowed per nine innings pitched (7.011).
McDowell had an 18-14 record, with a 2.94 earned run average, in 1969.
He allowed 102 walks in 285 innings.
In 1969, McDowell again made the All-Star team.
With an 62-99 record, Cleveland finished in sixth place in the East Division of the American League in 1969.
On May 15, 1970, McDowell allowed three hits (and no walks), with eight strikeouts, as the Indians shut out the Boston Red Sox 3-0.
The shutout of the Red Sox was McDowell’s second victory in a stretch from May 10, 1970 to July 23, 1970 that he posted a 12-1 record.
On September 17, 1970, McDowell pitched a complete game, allowing seven hits and one walk and striking out nine batters, in a 6-2 Cleveland win over the Detroit Tigers.
The victory was McDowell’s 20th win in 1970 – his only major league season with 20 victories (he had a 20-12 record in 1970).
In 1970, for the third consecutive year, McDowell led the American League in strikeouts (304) and strikeouts per nine innings pitched (8.971).
He ranked fifth in the American League in earned run average (2.92) and second in the American League in fewest hits allowed per nine innings pitched (6.964).
Pitching 305 innings in 1970, McDowell allowed 131 walks.
McDowell again made the All-Star team in 1970.
In addition, he was named American League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News,
In 1970, the Indians had a 76-86 record and finished in fifth place in the East Division of the American League.
On June 13, 1971, McDowell allowed two hits (and four walks), in an 11-0 Cleveland shutout of the Milwaukee Brewers.
McDowell struck out nine batters.
However, McDowell’s 1971 season with Cleveland was marred by a contract dispute, a five-day holdout in spring training, and two episodes during the season of McDowell leaving the team and then being suspended by the team.
McDowell had a 13-17 record, with a 3.40 earned run average, in 1971.
He ranked seventh in the American League in strikeouts (192), second in the American League in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (8.050), and second in the American League in fewest hits allowed per nine innings pitched (6.708).
He allowed 153 walks in 214-2/3 innings in 1971.
In 1971, for the fourth consecutive season, and sixth time in seventh seasons, McDowell made the All-Star team.
Cleveland, with a 60-102 record, finished in sixth place in the East Division of the American League in 1971.
After the 1971 season, McDowell asked to be traded.
On November 29, 1971, the Indians traded McDowell to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for future National Baseball of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry and shortstop Frank Duffy.
McDowell was to remain in the major leagues for four more seasons, but generally was unable to match the success that he had with Cleveland.
With San Francisco in 1972, McDowell (bothered by a circulatory issue that caused a sore shoulder and numbness in his fingers) had a 10-8 record, with a 4.33 earned run average.
In 164-1/3 innings, McDowell struck out 122 batters and allowed 86 walks.
He did rank ninth in the National League in strikeouts per nine innings pitched (6.682) in 1972.
San Francisco had a 69-86 record and finished in fifth place in the West Division of the National League in 1972.
McDowell started the 1973 season with the Giants.
He had a 1-2 record, with a 4.50 earned run average, with San Francisco in 1973.
He had 35 strikeouts and allowed 29 walks in 40 innings.
On June 7, 1973, the Giants sold McDowell to the New York Yankees for $100,000.
San Francisco went on to have an 88-74 record, finishing in third place in the West Division of the National League, in 1973.
With New York in 1973, McDowell had a 5-8 record, with a 3.95 earned run average.
Sudden Sam McDowell pic.twitter.com/woocEgAOGf
— 70sYankees (@70sYankees) December 14, 2020
He struck out 75 hitters and allowed 64 walks in 95-2/3 innings.
The Yankees had an 80-82 record in 1973, finishing in fourth place in the East Division of the American League.
In 1974, McDowell was hampered by a slipped disc.
Pitching 48 innings for New York, McDowell had a 1-6 record, with a 4.69 earned run average, striking out 33 batters and allowing 41 walks.
Sam McDowell pitching for the Yankees during spring training, 1974 pic.twitter.com/6M03rBns45
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) July 6, 2021
Unhappy about his lack of use by the Yankees, McDowell left the team on September 13, 1974.
New York, with an 89-73 record, finished in second place in the East Division of the American League in 1974.
After the 1974 season, McDowell asked for his release from New York, and the Yankees released him on December 20, 1974.
Just before the beginning of the 1975 season, on April 2, 1975, McDowell signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
McDowell had a 2-1 record, with a 2.86 earned run average, for Pittsburgh in 1975.
He had 29 strikeouts and allowed 20 walks in 34-2/3 innings.
On June 26, 1975, McDowell was released by the Pirates (who ended up winning the East Division of the National League, with a 92-69 record, before losing the National League Championship Series to the Cincinnati Reds, in 1975).
The release by the Pirates ended McDowell’s major league career.
The Years After Major League Baseball (1976-Current)
McDowell married his high school sweetheart, Carol Beisgen, in 1962.
They had two children, Debbie and Tim.
Unfortunately, McDowell was an alcoholic.
The problem began during his major league career.
“The last four years of my career, I was a full-blown, third-stage alcoholic.”
After McDowell’s retirement from the major leagues, because of McDowell’s alcoholism, Carol divorced McDowell and obtained custody of their children.
McDowell was living with his parents in 1980 when he began to turn his life around.
He entered a rehabilitation facility and has been sober ever since.
McDowell earned associate degrees in sports psychology and addiction from the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1982, he became certified as a counselor by Pennsylvania.
He began to use his counseling to help other major league players.
McDowell worked as a sports addiction counselor with the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers.
He was a consultant for the Baseball Assistance Team, which helps current and former players with personal, health, and financial issues.
He also has helped players in the National Football League and the National Hockey League.
McDowell founded City of Legends, a retirement community for former professional athletes, in Clermont, Florida.
He married Eva.
In 2006, McDowell was inducted in the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame.
"Sudden" Sam McDowell
5x AL leader in Strikeouts
1965 AL ERA leader pic.twitter.com/kjqakzD5Bz
— CirclinTheBases (@CirclinTheBases) April 13, 2021
In assessing McDowell’s 11-year career with Cleveland, there is a tendency to only focus on his strikeout statistics.
It is true that McDowell was one of the best Cleveland pitchers at getting strikeouts; he ranks second in Cleveland career strikeouts (2,159) and fifth in Cleveland career strikeouts per nine innings pitched (9.21).
However, McDowell also ranks high in other non-strikeout Cleveland career pitching statistics.
He ranks tied for 11th in wins (122), 13th in earned run average (2.99), and eighth in shutouts (22).
McDowell certainly had a problem with wildness.
He ranks fourth in Cleveland career walks (1,072).
On the other hand, McDowell was one of many great strikeout pitchers who also had problems with walks.
It should be highlighted that in five of his seasons (five of his seven full seasons) with Cleveland, McDowell had more than double the amount of strikeouts than the amount of walks.
McDowell did not play on the greatest Indians teams, and a general lack of offensive support definitely adversely affected his win totals.
In addition, his alcoholism and injuries negatively affected his performance.
If not for these issues, McDowell would be viewed as an even better pitcher.
While his failure to fully realize his potential should be noted, even with this limitation, “Sudden Sam” McDowell remains one of the greatest strikeout pitchers, and otherwise one of the top pitchers, in Cleveland Indians history.