Sam McDowell has always made the most of his opportunities. One of baseball’s most electric arms throughout the 1960s, McDowell soared to stardom with the Cleveland Indians and became one of the game’s top pitchers for the better part of a decade. When his struggle with alcoholism took away all he had worked for, the Pittsburgh native seized a second chance to return to the game — helping others find their way back into good graces, too. And helping others is what has led the 78-year-old McDowell to The Villages in the here and now, as the former MLB standout has joined forces with a local regenerative medicine group while also enjoying his retirement in the Village of Hadley.
“I’m really thrilled to be here and where I’m at in my life,” McDowell said. “I look back at what I’ve done and the career I’ve had, how I’ve had some good times and some not-so-good times, and then just being able to help people like I have.”
McDowell first picked up a mitt at the age of 7, with his raw arm strength impressing early enough to join a team of 12-year-olds. With his father catching him in their backyard, McDowell threw and honed his mechanics almost daily throughout his amateur career. McDowell went on to sign a professional contract with the Cleveland Indians in 1960, collecting a $70,000 signing bonus on the night of his high school graduation at the age of 17.
After taking a couple of seasons to find his footing at the big-league level, the 6-foot-5-inch southpaw had a breakout campaign in 1965. He won 17 games and boasted a league-best 2.17 ERA, eventually striking out 325 batters en route to his first All-Star selection. McDowell eclipsed the 200-strikeout mark another five times in his career, made another five All-Star appearances and finished third in Cy Young Award voting in 1970.
McDowell was eventually given the nickname “Sudden Sam.” An article by Pat Jordan in the Aug. 17, 1970, issue of Sports Illustrated credited the nickname to a variety of opponents: “He was given the name by opposing batters who, when asked to describe how his fastball approached the plate, invariably replied, ‘All of a sudden, man, all of a sudden!’”
Despite all of his individual success, McDowell regrettably never pitched in the postseason throughout his 15-year career.
“Tragically, I was never on a championship team,” McDowell said. “That’s something that’s always stood out to me when looking back. I was always on a team that was rebuilding or one that was just getting rid of good players to save money.”
Though a World Series trophy eluded McDowell, one of the biggest personal sources of pride from his stellar career is the praise received from heralded skipper Alvin Dark. McDowell’s manager from 1968-71 in Cleveland and an eventual World Series winner himself with Oakland in 1974, Dark once told reporters there’s nobody he’d want on the mound in a winner-take-all game more than “Sudden.”
“He told the press that if he ever had a game that was on the line and he had to win it, he would pick Sam McDowell to pitch it,” McDowell recalled. “I was very proud of that. It’s little things like that — that’s what stands out to me now. I might not have been on a winning team, but I took a lot of pride in what I did every time I pitched.”
Portions of that personal pride were zapped toward the end of McDowell’s career, after his battle with alcoholism made seasons with the San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates fruitless. He struggles led him to be without a contract and he was out of baseball completely in 1975.
“Because of my own alcoholism, I got thrown out of baseball when I felt like I was still at the peak of my career,” McDowell said. “That was a tough pill for me to have to swallow.”
McDowell bounced back by putting himself through a rigorous rehabilitation program, before eventually going to college and earning degrees in the fields of both sports psychology and addiction.
“I decided I wanted to go back to school to find out why I became an alcoholic,” McDowell said. “I had to figure out what was wrong with me, so I could figure out how to help others.”
The once-troubled ballplayer went on to open his own counseling practice in the early 1980s, helping teenagers and young adults clear their own addiction hurdles. That was until a call from Mike Stone, then-team president of the Texas Rangers, opened a door for McDowell to return to baseball by helping other players battling the same issues he faced.
“When I went through my own recovery, I didn’t feel as though I could ever go back to baseball and help anybody else,” McDowell said. “I thought I had burned too many bridges and too many people had tried to help me, and I didn’t take it.
“But thankfully, I was given another opportunity to help others hopefully avoid doing what I did.”
McDowell helped initiate the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.) in 1986, a nonprofit organization aligned with Major League Baseball, to confidentially help current and former players in need of personal assistance. His mentorship also earned him a piece of championship memorabilia for the first time in his career in 1993, receiving a World Series ring as a player consultant for the Toronto Blue Jays.
That lifelong desire to help others has continued well into his retirement in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown, where he serves as an affiliated advocate for Central Florida Nonsurgical Solutions.
McDowell found his way into the field of regenerative medicine because of his own ailments. The former pitcher suffered a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder and torn ligaments in his knee later in life, before finding alleviation via alternative methods.
“I’m not a medical doctor and I don’t pretend to be one, but I’m happy to share my story and how it’s helped me,” said McDowell. “It’s made a big difference in my life and opened my eyes to medical possibilities I didn’t think existed. If I can help others see them, too, then I want to do that.”
McDowell happily moved to The Villages seven years ago, settling in among the community’s plethora of amenities and entertainment options.
“The reason I’m living here is I’ve always just been so taken back by it,” McDowell said of the community. “It always hits me how clean and exquisite The Villages is. Then you see all the medical facilities and all there is to do — and with me being 78 years old — it’s really a great place for me to be.”
And with a name and career that’s well-known to the community’s large swath of passionate baseball fans, McDowell said The Villages has become a place endeared to the former major leaguer.
“I can’t go to a supermarket or restaurant, and not have people walk up to me and start talking baseball,” McDowell said. “The baseball fans here in The Villages, they know more about baseball than I do. They’re good people and great to talk with, and I’m just really happy to be here at this point in my life.”
Staff Writer Cody Hills can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5286, or firstname.lastname@example.org.