SI Vault
Jack Mann
May 23, 1966
So say the batters who have to face Sam McDowell's hummer. Oddly, the Cleveland southpaw would prefer to get them out with a changeup, but few things about Sudden Sam are predictable
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May 23, 1966

Sam, You Make The Ball Too Small

So say the batters who have to face Sam McDowell's hummer. Oddly, the Cleveland southpaw would prefer to get them out with a changeup, but few things about Sudden Sam are predictable

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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.

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