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Sports Then and Now

Sudden Sam McDowell

Posted on July 04, 2017 by Dean Hybl

Sudden Sam McDowell

The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was a hard-throwing lefthander who often led Major League Baseball in both strikeouts and walks. His off-the-field story also made him the prototype for a famed television character.

Sudden Sam McDowell made his Major League debut for the Cleveland Indians a week before his 19th birthday and pitched in the majors for 15 seasons.

At 6-foot-5, McDowell was a power pitcher who could wrack up the strikeouts. Unfortunately, he also often had control issues. He led the American League in strikeouts and walks six times each, including three seasons in which he topped the league in both categories.

He pitched six innings of scoreless baseball in his major league debut in 1961 and spent parts of the 1962 and 1963 seasons with the Indians before reaching the majors for good in 1964.

After posting an 11-6 record with 2.70 ERA in 1964, McDowell emerged as an elite pitcher in 1965. He earned his first All-Star trip while posting a 17-11 record with a league best 2.18 ERA. He also led the league with 325 strikeouts, 132 walks and 17 wild pitches.

He was an All-Star again in 1966 and then a member of the All-Star squad for four straight seasons from 1968-1971.

In 1968 he posted only a 15-14 record, but registered a career best 1.81 ERA while leading the league with 283 strikeouts and 110 walks.

The finest season of his career proved to be in 1970 when McDowell registered his only 20 win season (20-12) with a 2.92 ERA in a career-high 305 innings. He again led the league with 304 strikeouts and 131 walks. He was named the American League Pitcher of the Year by the Sporting News and finished third in the Cy Young voting.

Following the season, McDowell became engaged in a contract dispute with the Cleveland Indians. He eventually rejoined the team, but struggled through the 1971 campaign. He posted a 13-17 record with a 3.40 ERA. He led the league with 153 walks in only 212 innings while his strikeout total fell to only 192.

After the season, McDowell demanded a trade from the Indians and was eventually dealt to the San Francisco Giants in a trade that sent Gaylord Perry and Frank Duffy to Cleveland.

The Indians definitely got the better of that trade as Duffy spent six seasons as the starting shortstop for the Indians and Perry won the 1972 Cy Young Award.

On the other end, McDowell continued to struggle. He posted a 10-8 record with a 4.33 ERA. He was sold to the New York Yankees in a straight cash deal during the 1973 season. He was released by the Yankees following the 1974 season and completed his career with a brief stop in Pittsburgh in 1975.

McDowell battled alcohol addiction during his career and the drinking increased as his career was ending. His alcoholism, along with failed business ventures left him broke and divorced. He eventually enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh and earned associate degrees in sports psychology and addiction. He returned to baseball as a sports addiction counselor and earned a World Series ring with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993.

In the early 1980s, McDowell’s career was loosely used as the basis for the character of “Mayday” Sam Malone on the popular television show Cheers.

He eventually moved to Florida and started a retirement community for former baseball players.

For his career, McDowell finished with a 141-134 record with a 3.17 ERA and 2,453 strikeouts. At the time of his retirement, only Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan had higher strikeout rates.

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