If southpaw Sam McDowell (see cover) of the Cleveland Indians ever gets the baseball "smarts" he may become a big-league pitcher. He could even begin to like baseball and stick around for seven more years, until he is 30.
Sam is not a big-league pitcher, you see, because last year, in his first full season, he won only 17 games. "You're not a big-league pitcher unless you win 20," he insists. "I don't give a damn if Ford didn't win 20 for nine years; he wasn't a big-league pitcher for nine years."
Last year, at 22, McDowell struck out 325 batters in 273 innings, 23 strikeouts short of Bob Feller's American League record. Had he pitched 371 innings, as did Feller in that memorable year of 1946, he could—in statistical theory, at least—have fanned 442. Feller, 27 years old and a 10-year man in that season, also had the lowest earned-run average of his glorious career, 2.18; McDowell matched that in 1965. If the figures seem to make McDowell look suspiciously like a big-leaguer, Sam considers the evidence circumstantial.
"Pitching is a matter of attitude," he says. "I had a long talk with Koufax this spring, and he agrees with me. I have to beat a team in my mind before I can beat it in a game." So confidence is the thing, right? "Hell, no. I can't win if I'm confident. I have to be scared to death to pitch. I'm no good if I'm not scared."
May 22, 1966
"Sam," visitors to the Cleveland clubhouse are quietly warned by everybody, from his roomie, Outfielder Jim Landis, to his manager, Birdie Tebbetts, "is likely to tell you almost anything."
Sam can be facetious. "You think they pay you for strikeouts? I'm making $10,000. Would you believe 15?" He is making $25,000, which he considers grossly inadequate.
Sam can be serious. Jim Grant of the Minnesota Twins, with 21 victories last year, qualifies by McDowell's rigid standards of big-leagueness. He was also "a very good friend" of Sam's during the 1963 season at Cleveland, and can remain so if he can get this down: "With his ERA [3.30], Grant's got a hell of a nerve to say he's half as good as Koufax. I'd like to have five runs a game, the way he did."
This and other intemperate observations have marked McDowell as a pop-off. The jargon of baseball, however, is all things to all men: I say what is on my mind, you talk too much, and he pops off. "As long as I stick to the truth," McDowell says, "I don't see why I can't say whatever I want."
Neither does his general manager, Gabe Paul. "There are things you can do when you have talent," Paul says, "that are colorful. If you do them without talent, they're bush. Sam has talent."
Paul did not mention it, but when you can throw the way McDowell does you may also wear long sideburns. A number of people thought they detected creeping conformity this spring when McDowell trimmed his hair to normal length "Sure," Sam concedes, "but I just felt like seeing what I looked like. I believe there's one best way for a person to look. I'm a big guy, and I think I look silly with short sideburns." So he is back to abnormal. If Sam holds out next year ("and, boy, will I hold out if I have the kind of season I want!") all they will have to give him is a horse and a gun, and the movie cameras can roll.
Is Sam McDowell dumb? "There ain't two guys on this team dumber than I am," he says, but you would find that hard to believe. Despite occasional mix-ups, such as attributing a feat of memory to a "photogenic" mind, he seems to have absorbed as much of the curriculum of Pittsburgh's Central Catholic High School as could be reasonably expected of a three-letter man. "I'd be a steelworker like my father if I weren't in baseball," Sam insists. "I'd never have finished college. But I'm talking about the baseball smarts. Everybody out there knows more about the game than I do."
This is, of course, untrue. Of all the young players in baseball today, probably none studies the game more closely or applies his knowledge better. McDowell's theories have theories, and most of them have a sound basis. "He has a good idea how to pitch," Tebbetts says, "and he's going to be a real pitcher, one of the truly great ones. He runs three times as much as some pitchers, and he concentrates. He's going to get very tired in the next few years from all those pitches he throws, but he can stand that because he's young and strong, because he has a perfect build for a pitcher and because he doesn't have a sore-arm delivery. He's smooth.
"But he's going to get more tired mentally, because he has to think about every situation. People who compare him to Koufax now have no imagination. What was Koufax doing when he was 22? [Winning 11, losing 11, striking out 131 in 159 innings, walking 105, accumulating a 4.47 ERA.] McDowell walked 132 last year, so they say he has a control problem. But he struck out two and a half times as many, and the ratio for a good pitcher is supposed to be 2 to 1."
"I'm sick of this garbage about what I'm going to do," McDowell said in another context. "I've heard that for five years. Why don't they take a look at what I've already done?" (There is an escape clause in Sam's 20-game eligibility rule for pitchers: "If a guy wins 16 or 18 with a low ERA, and his team isn't a winner....")
"He's all you could expect of an American boy at this stage of development," Tebbetts concludes, "and he's still learning. How long has Koufax been in the league—11 years? Pitching comes naturally to him now; he doesn't have to think."
Sam does. When he scrunches down from his 6-foot-5 height to count his catcher's fingers, his glove covers the No. 48 on his chest. If the glove wiggles, Sudden Sam is thinking. The fastest gunsmith in the East (185 pieces in his collection) is choosing a weapon (four pitches in his arsenal, with variations).
The glove wiggles often, which is the thing about McDowell that bugs baseball people which is one of the several things about baseball people that bug Sam. It is not that he thinks left-handed but that he thinks at all that gets them. Cerebration by a 23-year-old rifleman with McDowell's muzzle velocity seems pointless to many and, to some who have to hit against him, unfair. Hitting his fast ball, they feel, is ordeal enough.
It would be irreverent to suggest that Walter Johnson was no more sudden than Sam, but that is probably so. Feller, on the other hand, was at least as rapid as McDowell, and the young Koufax possibly was quicker. The mature Koufax, however, seems slower, although nobody actually has timed both men's deliveries. But it has never been necessary to throw a baseball faster than McDowell does. "Sam," New York Yankee Catcher Elston Howard sums up, "can bring it." it is that simple, and many stunned batters wonder on their walk back to the dugout why McDowell doesn't relax and enjoy it. They think McDowell would be even money if he simply turned on the Batbeam and—zap!—his hummer would get past the letters every time. But Sam would not do that, even if he thought he could get away with it. If that were pitching, McDowell says, baseball would be very uninteresting, and McDowell does not find the game very interesting at best.
And there you are, wondering where you are, after Sam has propounded his abstruse theories for an hour. "Are you thoroughly confused now?" Sam asked, as he withdrew to hunt a summer home for his wife and two small children. "They jack the rents if they know you're a player. I tell them I work at the Chevrolet place."
The glove began wiggling one night last month in Municipal Stadium. Given a 3-0 lead over the Yankees, McDowell had thrown 20 pitches in the fifth inning, and he was nowhere. He missed with two sliders to rookie Roy White (who had lined a single off his fast ball in the third), and he was behind 3-1 with two on and one out. Catcher Del Crandall, who was finding baseball interesting before Sam was born, went to the mound. "Holy fork ball, Sam," Crandall said in effect, "remember the old Batbeam—I mean hummer." It was only White's seventh look at McDowell and his 52nd at bat in the big leagues, but the brevity of the conference, Crandall's encouraging pat on McDowell's rump and Sam's impatient "awright, awright" gesture told him what was coming. Zap! The ball blurred on the way to the plate. Even with foreknowledge White could get only minimal wood on the ball, but it popped into center for a bases-loading single.
It was Batbeam time. Sam's overhand curve drops like the six ball in the side pocket at the Jack & Jill Cue & Cushion in Pittsburgh. (Only regular customers and friends of the family know the billiard parlor is a McDowell enterprise, "because I refuse to capitalize on my name.") But he was not getting the curve over that night. "You think maybe Maris will see the fast ball?" one tactician in the press box asked rhetorically. "Got to be," another replied unnecessarily.
So the first pitch to Roger Maris was a slider on the hands for a swinging strike, and McDowell had what pitching coaches like to call command. Mel Parnell, who lived to be a broadcaster because he used the slider to survive in Fenway Park, says he has not seen a better slider than McDowell's.
There are highly divergent opinions on the merits of the slider. It is the best of pitches, it is the worst of pitches. Ted Williams has said that its currency from 1946 on materially changed the game because it gave pitchers a functional alternative to the cripple fast ball in the 3-1 situation. The slider also diminished the advantage hitters used to enjoy over opposite-handed pitchers. It presents itself as a nice, pullable, inside fast ball until it slides in—very little, but too late to do much about.
A slider is thrown with a firm wrist and a turn-of-the-screw rotation, as distinct from the snap of the wrist and flip of the first two fingers that impart top spin to the curve. Curves can be thrown at almost any speed and can break two feet. Except for the sliders thrown by the Fords and the Maglies, who can make anything work, there is no such thing as a slow slider, and the best of them seldom break more than a few inches.
"McDowell's breaks at least eight inches," Parnell says, "and coming off his fast ball that's a wicked pitch." The compliment did not disturb Sam's pattern of unconvincing self-deprecation. "That's nice," he said, "but I guess Parnell never saw me on a day when my slider got racked."
After the slider McDowell used three fast balls to strike Maris out. But Crandall's advice had not totally withered Sam's infinite quest for variety. Two of the fast balls were delivered with a three-quarter motion, a recent refinement that McDowell says makes them sinkers. "I'll take his word for it," Maris said the next morning. "He only got me once. That ain't too bad."
McDowell used nothing but fast balls to reach a 3-2 count on Tom Tresh, then wiggled his glove for a slider that struck Tresh out to end the inning. He resolved his final crisis in the eighth by bringing it to Howard, low and away. Too low and too far away, Howard suggested to the umpire, but the books will show only that he was Yankee strikeout No. 11 for the night.
To win a seven-hit, 3-1 victory, McDowell had used 163 pitches, "about par for me," he said. He was asked how many times he had thrown his change of pace, the slow pitch off the fast motion. "About 20," he said. "Would you believe 10?" About six was closer to the truth, and the elders of the Tribe believed even that was too many.
The Indians signed the unemployed Crandall last December because a good 36-year-old catcher nowadays is hard to find. And because last year, pitching to Joe Azcue and Camilo Carreon, McDowell persisted in calling his own game and his options did not always coincide with Tebbetts' theories on pitching. Crandall's did, generally. He had handled Spahn and Burdette at their best, worked briefly with Juan Marichal and had his hands warmed last year by the Pirates' very fast Bob Veale. But he found at Tucson this spring that McDowell's equipment, like almost everything else about Sam, is something else.
"Sam is a fine boy," Crandall said after their third collaboration of the season, "and he has a real good idea out there." So there is no area of disagreement? "Well, there is," Crandall said. "He has such a good changeup that he wants to use it—too much, in my opinion. I do not believe he is as impressed with his fast ball as the hitters have indicated that they are."
Herb Score, now a television announcer in Cleveland, had tools like McDowell's in 1957, when he was Sam's age. He had been a 20-game winner, and there is no telling what he might have done with his left arm if he had not stopped a line drive with his right eye on May 7 of that year. When it comes to soft pitches by hard throwers, he is a very skeptical man.
"A change can be an effective pitch," Score says, "but only to a good hitter, to get his timing off. A bad hitter can't hit a good fast ball. Throw him a change and you do him a favor."
Score still remembers a favor he did a batter in an exhibition game in one of his early years, when Al Lopez managed Cleveland. "Al ran out to the mound," Herb recalls. "He said the next time I threw a change he'd be out there before the ball reached the plate. 'When you can get the fast ball and the curve over the plate every time,' he said, 'I'll let you fool around with a change.'
"We never got around to it," Score said with a shrug. "I pitched 10 years, and I never got that good."
"You don't see me throw the change to many .200 hitters," McDowell says. "But it depends on the hitter. Some guys just can't hit a change." As usual, Sam has a point. Dusty Rhodes, wherever he is tending bar, would agree. "If I went to play in a league at the North Pole," Dusty once said, "some Eskimo would throw me the change and he would get me out."
McDowell declared his independence in April 1964, when the Indians gave him his third straight ticket to the minors. He was 21, the father of a child, and did not see what they could preach in Portland, Ore. that he could not practice in Cleveland. Tebbetts thinks McDowell may have been overcoached in his first three years; Sam thinks that is an understatement. "They told me when to sneeze," he says. "They said all I had to do was get the ball over the plate, anywhere. That's not pitching. You better believe I was teed off when they sent me out again, and I decided I'd pitch my way.
"Johnny Lipon was managing Portland, and he just gave me the ball. 'I don't care what anybody says,' he told me. 'You don't have a control problem.' After a game he'd discuss the pitches with me and tell me where he thought I was wrong, but he never told me what to throw."
Those postgame discussions were brief. In nine games McDowell's ERA was 1.18. He struck out 102 batters and walked only 24 in 76 innings. He won all eight decisions, one a no-hitter. "I don't see why everybody gets so excited about no-hitters," says Sam, who pitched a one-hitter last year and has had two this year, one after the other. "I never saw one that wasn't lucky."
In mid-1964 Sam came back to Cleveland to stay. He went 11-6, with 177 strikeouts in 173 innings and a 2.71 ERA. "He was a pitcher when he came back," Tebbetts says, "and I don't see why everybody was so concerned about him. He was sent out three times, which is normal procedure. If he weren't so big, and if he hadn't got the bonus, who would have noticed?"
Nobody, because without the $62,000 bonus ("a house for my parents, a car for me and that was it") Sam would not have been there. His father, Tom, was a Pitt football player of some renown who had begun dental school but never finished, because World War II and a few other responsibilities interfered. The urge to "make something of yourself" was something his father brought home from the steel mill every day, so it did not occur to Sam to play hooky from school. But by the time he was 15 he was playing hooky from baseball.
Sam liked football best, "but can you imagine a 6-foot-5, 160-pound quarterback who got creamed on every play!" Meanwhile he pitched, struck people out and had some no-hitters, and after his junior year the scouts dropped in on his father, who had been a semipro player. "The guy from Detroit guaranteed him I could make the big league," Sam says. "That summer my father had me playing in four leagues, which I did not especially like. I used to leave the house in my baseball uniform and go hang around someplace."
Sam already is planning his retreat from baseball. Besides the billiard parlor, there is the guitar distributorship ("You're only allowed to import 1,000 of them from Japan"). These are only sidelines now, but "if I could make a comfortable living for my family, if the businesses could make $19,000.... It would be $23,000 if I could be there myself." And Sam would go home and work on his gun collection.
Mel Parnell, for one, is not convinced McDowell is headed for an early retirement. A very good pitcher who missed the very big money, he does not even believe that McDowell strikes batters out without consciously trying. (Sam isn't sure he believes it: "I don't think about it, because the idea is to win. But did you hear the crowd chant the other day when I had five in a row? 'Get him, he's another, get him, he's another.' You hear that. And a few times, when I already had 15 or 16 strikeouts, I tried. I have to admit I tried.")
"Sure he tried," says Parnell, who had the middle ripped out of his career by arm trouble. "He's got to try until he gets to the big money. By then he won't be able to throw that hard, but by then he'll be a pitcher. And by then he'll have the money."
Few others think Sam McDowell will not pitch—and win—for at least a decade. Certainly not Tebbetts or Gabe Paul. Their measure of his dedication is the way he learned to hit. "He was a terrible hitter," says Tebbetts, "but he kept trying. For a while he dragged bunts 80% of the time—anything to get on. Now he's a pretty fair hitter."
Sam can explain that: he was afraid. "Feel this dent," he says, pointing to the right side of his head. The drag bunts were simply an evasive tactic by which a timid man could hit the ball and run away from it at the same time.
"But then I realized," Sam says, "that I was the pitcher. I think any pitcher who throws at a man is a coward. He's giving in to him, admitting he can't get him out without intimidating him. I've refused to throw at hitters, but I've never hesitated to protect my own players when they were thrown at, and the pitcher gets it first. So if the guy knocked me down...." So Sam became a hitter, or at least not an out.
Above all, Sam is still a thinker, and an independent thinker. He knew why Crandall was catching him this year, and for two games he let Crandall call the pitches. "One more time," he said, "and then I'm going back to calling my own game."
After the third start, the first victory over the Yankees, McDowell was asked whether Crandall would now become a silent partner. "No," Sam said. "He called a pretty good game. He called 95% of the pitches, because 95% of what he called for was what I wanted to throw."
That's a 95 on his report card for Delmar Wesley Crandall, whose major league experience up to this year was limited to slightly more than 1,500 games. Three months with Sam McDowell and he's smarter already.
Or maybe Del Crandall is just thoroughly confused.