Review by Budd Bailey
It’s time for another look at the tragedy and triumph of unfulfilled potential in the sports world.
Sam McDowell seemed as if he was one of those people who was handed a powerful arm by the gods. “Go forth and conquer opposing batters” came the command, and McDowell set about doing just that. He was considered the top high school prospect in the country, with all 16 existing major league teams pursuing him in 1960. McDowell announced his signing with the Cleveland Indians on the TV game show, “To Tell the Truth.”
The Indians pushed him up the ladder quickly. He was pitching in Cleveland a year later around the time he turned 19, and by 1964 “Sudden Sam” (because his fastball arrived “all of a sudden”) was an established starter. He was one of the Indians’ few bright spots for the rest of the decade. There was no questioning his talent; batters only hit .215 against him in his career, and he was named to five All-Star teams.
But McDowell was traded to San Francisco before the 1972 season, and it was straight downhill from there. The former king of strikeouts and earned-run average in the American League never led the league in anything after that, and went 19-26 through 1975. Sam was out of baseball after that at the age of 32.
What went wrong? That’s the crux of the book, “The Saga of Sudden Sam.” McDowell teams up with co-author Martin Gitlin to tell the story of a sometimes fascinating if erratic career. Telling that story has some definite highs and lows to go along with them.
McDowell seems to have arrived in baseball quite unprepared emotionally for the demands of the business. He could throw like a man, but that doesn’t mean the rest of his personality had caught up to his talented left arm. Sam arrived on the scene with plenty of baggage that no one really bothered to examine. He had all sorts of self-image problems left over from childhood. McDowell also had two alcoholic parents, and he was carrying that disease in him without knowing it was waiting to be released.
The problem was that the baseball lifestyle often led to alcohol use – it was almost necessary to drink to rank as “one of the boys.” Soon McDowell became a serious problem drinker, somehow managing at first to restrict it to days before pitching before that idea collapsed. The stories he tells are quite harrowing, and the pain he causes family and friends was quite real. By the way, the Sam Malone character in the television series “Cheers” is said to be based on McDowell’s story.
What’s more, McDowell appeared to be surrounded by “old school” baseball men who weren’t exactly enlightened. Trying to cope with emotional and addictions were way out of the job descriptions back then, and manager Birdie Tebbetts and general Gabe Paul seemed particularly unequipped for that responsibility at the time. They also knew little about injuries, and when McDowell developed shoulder problems they had no clue about what to do.
Sam’s story certainly contains plenty of drama. However, there are a few problems in the telling that spoil it a bit. McDowell appeared to have a problem with someone on the bench calling his pitches, to the point where he refused a major-league promotion for a brief period. He wanted – no, demanded – the right to decide what to throw. McDowell still seems upset about it, to the point where the discussion dominates a couple of chapters. Sam never mentions his catcher in all of this, the player who is assigned to work with pitchers on pitch selection. It’s easy to guess that a manager might want to have a say in what a very young pitcher might throw on the mound, to take that part of the game off the player’s mind and let him concentrate on the immediate task at hand. It sounds as if this those discussions never took place.
There are also some moments of exaggeration and difficult-to-prove claims that pop up along the way. The 1968 Indians are called one of the greatest pitching rotations in history. Obviously, they were pretty good; the top four starters all had ERAs under 3.00. But you wouldn’t trade McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert and Stan Williams for Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz/Avery (the first three were Hall of Famers with the Atlanta Braves in their glory years). Sam can talk about outings of close to 200 pitches or ranking as the fastest pitcher ever, but such claims are tough to proof without the evidence we have today. There’s a little repetition of information along the way too.
Addiction stories can make for difficult reading, but McDowell doesn’t dwell on the subject too much in a book that is less than 200 pages of reading. He stopped drinking soon after retirement, and became a counselor to others in organized baseball with personal problems. The chapters on that era of his life is more general by necessity, since the particulars are confidential. A rare exception is when Sam writes about his involvement with 1970s outfielder Bernie Carbo, who was on the verge of trying to commit suicide after retiring from the game. McDowell seems have had plenty of success stories, as he worked for teams and organizations.
If you are getting the idea that “The Saga of Sudden Sam” offers a portrait of a somewhat complicated personality, you’re right. It may not be easy to slot McDowell as a likeable personality after reading this, but it is easy to congratulate him on turning his life around …. and helping to change the lives of others for the better. For that, a hearty “well done” is in order.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)