McDowell: ‘I Was Biggest, Most Hopeless. . .Drunk’ in Baseball
In the mid 1960s and early ‘70s, he was coming in overhand with the American League’s most recognized strikeout pitch, and he was in many ways a valid counterpart to the National League’s pride, Sandy Koufax.
The watchword among American League hitters was “stay loose” against this rack-slim left-hander with definite tendencies on the wild side. He was using all of the leverage of his uncommon 6 feet 5 inches to generate the hard stuff that whooshed and whistled out of his pitching fist.
If, in the batter’s view, the man was not quite a sinister presence out there, taking that big stretch a mere 60 feet 6 inches away, neither was he inspiring any happy thoughts for a batsman.
Sam McDowell was the name, and Sudden Sam was what they called him. His strikeout totals led the league five times while pitching for Cleveland, as did his bases on balls. He’s in the record books, too, for his pair of one-hitters back-to-back, also as the youngest pitcher to strike out 300 or more in a single season, and there are other honors.
Sam McDowell now is 42, his still-handsome face betraying no trace that, in his own words, “I was the biggest, most hopeless and most violent drunk in baseball during my 15 years in the majors. That is a fair statement, I think, until some other lush comes out of the closet with his own story to tell.”
His story is being told now because he has a new, proud career. This reformed drunk, who will recite how he demolished bar rooms, battled police, lied to his managers and cheated at every turn to maintain his drinking schedule, has re-emerged--in the unlikeliest of callings.
Now, he’s the highly certified professional counselor-consultant on the roster full time with the Texas Rangers, watching over players who are victims of or threatened with alcohol or drug addiction. Or those bugged by financial or emotional problems. He’s looked up to, this ex-wreck of an alcoholic. He’s their confessor.
He’s been Sober Sam since 1979 when, still a problem drinker, he was working, ironically, with problem kids in Pittsburgh and shepherding them to the Gateway Rehabilitation Clinic for treatment. In a sudden resolve, he joined his own little proteges in seeking help.
“I knew I had this habit,” he said, “but I didn’t know it was an illness. I didn’t know I had been lying to myself all those years and that I had one of the worst diseases known to mankind. All I knew was that I was sick and tired of being tired and sick.”
McDowell talks easily about leaving baseball. “I didn’t leave the game. I was kicked out finally, after bouncing around from the Cleveland Indians, to the San Francisco Giants, to the Yankees, and finally, to the Pirates.
“Everywhere I pitched, it was a con game I was playing--my drinking against their innocence of how really big a boozer I was. I was in a continual alcoholic state, semicontrolled, by a little ritual I had.
“Two days before I was to pitch, I stopped drinking. I could control it for that long. I ran the outfield and sweated out and only my close buddies were the wiser. After taking my pitching turn, I was into the booze day and night for the next two, three days.”
For his defeats, he said, he blamed everything but his drinking. “I believed my own excuses. This, I later learned, is ‘psychic numbing,’ or ‘psychic blockage.’
“That’s what I teach problem players now--that alcohol creates a distortion in your thinking, and lets you rationalize anything as you like it.”
The Rangers permit McDowell to take other clients. In recent years, he said, eight teams have called him. He has ministered to more than 20 players from other baseball clubs, four from National Football League teams and one hockey player.
“I am aware that, as an old ballplayer, I have a plus in dealing with the athletes,” he said, “particularly among baseball players. Whether they admit it or not, ballplayers operate in the most closed society. Any stranger who walks into their clubhouse stays a stranger and suspect. But they will put a trust in an old ballplayer who knows what it was like to be one of them.”
He treats his clients both in seminars and the individual sessions that he prefers. “The one-on-one things are all private. No manager, no coach knows which players are coming to me voluntarily. Any visitors to my room are told to call before coming in for an appointment. I don’t want any client walking into another player’s privacy.
“You have to be careful about the approach to baseball players. It has to come from them. You go in there and try to preach to ballplayers and they’ll laugh your ass right out of the clubhouse. It’s got to be confidential, one on one, and then it can work.”
He puts his client-ballplayers at ease by reciting the long list of problems he had with drinking in his many years in the game.
“A half-dozen times, I was arrested for drunken driving, or for disorderly conduct or as a public nuisance, but when the police learned I was a ballplayer, and a pretty good one, they gave me coffee and chauffeured me home. My name wasn’t getting into the papers.”
His name did not get into the papers even on that night when a record of his actions would have made a fascinating story about a confirmed drunk of a ballplayer heading toward a Cleveland bar, willy-nilly.
“I’m heading for this bar that I know well, when I notice policemen standing all around in front of it, and then I look down and see the body of a man lying on the street outside the place.
“Drunks can be very purposeful, you know, so I simply stepped over the body and into the saloon for a little sustenance.”
He wonders, too, if there ever was a more determined drunk than Sam McDowell. That night in a Detroit bar, when the proprietor finally demanded he clear out.
McDowell was obstinate about that. “Then, this bar owner pulls a gun on me and sticks it in my belly and says, ‘Now, get outta here.’ I just sweep that gun out of his hand and knock it rattling on the floor and tell him, ‘Now we’re gonna drink.’ ”
Barkeeps, he said, used to call him up the next day and advise of damage he had done with a wild display at some annoyance, fancied or real. “One fellow hit me for $2,000 for repairs. I don’t remember what happened but I paid to keep my name out of the papers.”
In baseball, McDowell’s denouement came in Pittsburgh after the Pirates gambled he could control his drinking, which they knew about. “This was 1975,” he said, “and they told me I’d get a contract if I did well in spring training. I led the staff down there.”
The trouble later was, he said, that the Pirates made a relief pitcher out of him, which was alien to his history and was bad news, because pitching four or five days a week interfered with his on-and-off drinking schedule that allowed him to cover up his habit with two to three days of sobriety.
“It got bad for me one day in Los Angeles. After drinking one night, I called Manager Danny Murtaugh and said I had the flu, wouldn’t be at the park that day. Then I went out and bought some more booze.
“Two days later, I relieved Bruce Kison against the Giants with the bases loaded and nobody out in the first inning. And I shut the Giants out for the full nine innings, winning a big one. Then I celebrated all night. Next day I’m in the bullpen and coach Don Leppert sees me still crazy drunk and takes me into the clubhouse.
“There, General Manager Joe Brown sits me down for 30 seconds and tells me, ‘Sam, you know what this is all about. We’ve had enough. You’re off the team. We’ll tell the papers we need a right-hander.’ They did come up with a right-hander, Kent Tekulve.”
One hour later, McDowell said, the Kansas City Royals called and said they needed a left-hander and offered him a contract. Did he jump at it?
“No,” he said. “I didn’t want to join another team. I was afraid they would try to stop my drinking.”
Friends took him into the insurance business. He was a successful $40,000-a-year man for the next four years and still a hard drinker. But he quit that in favor of his newest interest-- helping kids who were in trouble.
“Here I was, now making $7,000 a year, later $9,000, and working with kids who had problems. It was a comedown from the $75,000 man I was with Cleveland, and it was hard putting food on the table, especially paying child support, but I liked my work. . . . “
“Let me tell you about this alcohol-drug thing we’re trying to fight,” he said, getting revved up as he goes into his story of the two demons he’s wrestling in the good cause.
“Alcohol can be more dangerous to the body than drugs sometimes. You can go into alcohol shock, and that’s it . . . you die. But cocaine is the most destructive drug known to man, more so than heroin.
“Cocaine, we try to tell them, affects the pleasure center of the brain. It’s a terrible problem, especially for kids in school who think it is an aphrodisiac and makes you the greatest sexual partner on earth.
“Cocaine can bring an entire society to its knees. The studies show that other drugs have an 80% recovery chance but coke allows only 40%. And the real pusher is not that sleazy little guy in the raincoat on the corner, but the fellow sitting next to you in school.
“Where do you think we get our ballplayers from? High school and college, and the drug culture of the ‘60s. That tells you about the problems we have.
“The recent Michigan State and Stanford Research Study tells us now that 93% of high school kids, 96% of those in college, have some involvement with alcohol or drugs. It is terrifying.”
In speaking of his clients, McDowell names no names. That’s part of his pact with them. But for those he has helped, those who thank him, and have won his admiration for the manner in which they have conquered their problems, he has a special name.
“My winner’s circle,” he says, and then he beams.