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Dave McNally, Sam McDowell, Jim Bouton–pitchers to always remember

The content below, which involves three pitchers of the 1960s and 1970s, Dave McNally, Sam McDowell, and Jim Bouton, may or not make it into Never Give an Inch, my upcoming biography of McNally. But it keeps me in the writing flow, so here goes.

First, how many of you were fans of the Cleveland Indians, now the Cleveland Guardians, in the 1960s? As a boy growing up in Eastern Montana then, I can’t say I was. I was aware of the Indians, but my teams were, first, the Minnesota Twins because we could get their games on TV from a nearby station in Dickinson, North Dakota. Then my allegiance switched to the St. Louis Cardinals when, led by the pitching of Bob Gibson, they knocked off the New York Yankees in the 1964 World Series.

Then I boarded the bandwagon containing what seemed to be the entire state of Montana in 1966. We cheered on the Baltimore Orioles during their sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Billings product McNally, of course, capped that triumph with his Game 4 shutout victory over Don Drysdale.

Finally, 1967 or 1968 saw me become a fan of America’s “Lovable Losers,” the Chicago Cubs, long before everybody and his brother or sister seemed to have made a pilgrimage to Wrigleyville.

The Cleveland Indians? Well, I guess I knew they had a flame throwing pitcher with the colorful nickname of “Sudden Sam,” or using his given name, Sam McDowell. And, lo and behold, on a recent visit to the Billings Public Library, I discovered McDowell’s 2022 biography, The Saga of Sudden Sam: the Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Sam McDowell.

I found the book an enjoyable read and worthy to add to my list of “comparable titles,” authorspeak for the half-dozen or so recent books that one includes in a book proposal. As part of your pitch to an agent who, if interested, sends on your material to a publisher, you need to make the case that there is a market, i.e. readership, for books on your subject. And you also need to differentiate your project from what other authors have already gotten into print.

Here’s the Amazon description of McDowell’s book:

"A candid biography of all-star pitcher Sam McDowell, whose alcohol-fueled life quickly and and famously spiraled out of control, and his ultimate redemption as a counselor for other athletes suffering from addiction.

“Sam McDowell seemed to have it all. Considered by many to be the next Sandy Koufax when he signed with the Cleveland Indians, Sam boasted one of the fastest arms in major league baseball. But on the inside, he was playing in an alcoholic fog, beset by addiction, depression, narcissism, and thoughts of suicide.”

Interestingly, McNally and McDowell (fellow Irish descent?) were almost the same age. McDowell was born on September 21, 1942, making him about a month older than McNally, who was born on October 31, 1942.

McDowell grew up in Pittsburgh, and McNally was a Magic City guy. Both were highly-regarded prospects in 1960, considered among the top junior pitchers in the country.

McDowell picked the Indians from among the 16 teams bidding for his services. He said he got a $75,000 bonus, but he and his parents didn’t read the fine print of the contract. Thus, they missed the wording that said his salary for the next five years or until he reached The Show would offset part of his bonus.

Dave, at about the same time, picked the Orioles over the Dodgers. He received a reported bonus of $85,000, although there have been claims over the years that his actual check was for $100,000. If his salary for his first few years as a pro would be deducted from the bonus is something I’ve never heard mentioned during my extensive research for my book.

Here’s a major difference between McDowell’s outlook on being a hot prospect and Dave’s. In his book, Sudden Sam says, “What was mind-boggling was my lack of appreciation for how their (teams’) thirst for my services was about to affect my future.”

He continues:

"The perpetual fog I lived in that remained with me as I began my professional career included not recognizing where I was; not understanding my position; being desensitized to my environment; immaturity; depression; lack of a true sense of reality; and taking everything for granted.

“My career outlook was limited to having a little fun and getting paid for it.”

With all of those strikes against him, McDowell became an alcoholic, and that illness cost him his marriage and prematurely ended his career.

The contrast with McNally’s background could hardly be sharper. The youngest of four children raised by a single mother who lost her husband in the waning days of World War II, Dave grew up influenced by strong mentors in Billings. Two foremost ones were local businessman Cece Musburger, who founded Montana’s first Little League program, and Ed Bayne, the legendary coach of Billings’ powerhouse American Legion team. By the time Dave made the roster of the Legion Post 4 squad, Bayne had already guided several pitchers to college rosters and helped them win big-league contracts.

Billings had one of the top American Legion programs in the country, and McNally benefited from that environment.

McNally and McDowell faced off a few times during their pitching careers. Dave compiled a 3–0 record against McDowell in the six games they appeared in together from 1963 through 1973. Two of Dave’s wins, in 1970 and 1971 were when McDowell still wore an Indians’ uniform; the other McNally win against Sudden Sam was in 1973 when he played for the Yankees.

Neither pitcher got a decision in the two 1966 games where they squared off, and McDowell took a loss in their first meeting on May 24, 1963. Dave got a save that day.

McDowell made his big-league debut on September 15, shortly before he turned 19. He faced the Minnesota Twins and gave up three hits, struck out five, walked five and yielded no runs in 6–1/3 innings. It was a no-decision outing.

Just about a year later, Dave showed up in the big leagues. In late September 1962, he shut out the Kansas City A’s on two hits in an outing that wowed the Birds’ brass.

McDowell did have the edge in All-Star appearances, six to McNally’s three.

McNally ended his career with 184 games, 181 with the Orioles and three with the Montreal Expos, against 119 losses. He pitched 2,730 innings and struck out 1,512 batters.

McDowell ended with a 141–134 win-loss record with a 3.17 earned-run average. He pitched 2,492 innings, striking out 2,453.

And then while reading McDowell’s book, he reminded me of a book I’ve meant to read for years but am finally consuming. That’s Ball Four, the classic tell-all book that Jim Bouton wrote about his 1969 season with the expansion Seattle Pilots (who were the parent club that year for the Billings Mustangs).

Bouton, slightly older than McDowell and McNally, was born on March 18, 1939; he died at age 80 in 2019.

Bouton won a modest 62 games and lost 63; he pitched 1,238 innings during his 10 years in the majors, from 1962 through 1970, plus an attempt at a comeback at age 39 with Atlanta in 1978.

Far more important than his statistics, Bouton’s book shined a spotlight on the many abuses major-league teams got away with in their dealings with players. His book caused a kerfuffle with not just team owners, but with other players and with the media.

Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who Bouton dubbed “The Ayatollah,” asked Bouton to sign a statement saying Ball Four was not true. Bouton refused.

I don’t know whether Bouton and McNally crossed paths. Still, it seems logical to think that Bouton, along with Cardinals’ outfielder Curt Flood, who took his battle against baseball’s reserve clause to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost, provided a template for other players to take a stand.

That’s what McNally and Andy Messersmith used in 1975 when they joined an arbitration case that resulted in overturning the reserve clause. That represented a major victory in the battle for workplace fairness for baseball players and for all professional athletes.

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Jamie Larson