There’s little question that 1970 was Sam McDowell’s finest year in the majors. That year, the Cleveland southpaw reached the 20-win plateau for the first and only time in his major-league career, posting a 20-12 record with an ERA of 2.92, earning him the coveted American League Pitcher of the Year honors by The Sporting News.
“Sudden Sam,” who not only possessed a ferocious fastball but also a pretty effective changeup, also led the American League in strikeouts that season with 304 — 21 shy of his career record in 1965 — while tossing a career-high nineteen complete games.
The Pittsburgh native, who threw so hard he once reportedly broke two ribs letting go of a fastball, long wondered why he was never credited with twenty complete games that season.
It’s a good question and an even more interesting story, involving a little-remembered game between the Indians and the Washington Senators, coached by the legendary Ted Williams, before a crowd of 11,850 at Cleveland’s aging Municipal Stadium in early July.
The hard-throwing McDowell was having a typical night, scattering 11 hits through 7 2/3 innings while striking out a dozen. Moreover, the struggling Indians were up by two runs.
When 6-8, 275-pound Frank Howard, one of the most intimidating and feared sluggers in the league, stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth and runners on second and third, Cleveland manager Alvin Dark suddenly came running out to the mound.
Howard, who hit 48 homeruns the previous season and was well on his way to hitting 44 round-trippers in 1970, had hammered McDowell in their previous meeting, blasting two home runs and hitting two other rockets that nearly found their way out of the ballpark.
“He’s the only batter in the league I concede to,” McDowell later said of the Gentle Giant.
“I think Frank hit about .800 off me,” he added jokingly. “I probably kept him in the big leagues for five or ten extra years.”
Dark, who was one of only seven managers in the history of major-league baseball to win pennants in both leagues, was always thinking outside the box.
Reaching the mound, the Cleveland manager told his star southpaw to play second base — a move that caught McDowell somewhat, but not completely, by surprise. Since they had briefly discussed the unusual strategy before the game, McDowell was fully expecting the unorthodox move by his manager, but assumed that Dark would be putting him in right field or possibly first base — definitely not second base.
McDowell, after all, had been originally signed by the Tribe in 1961 as an outfielder and a pitcher. Moreover, a lefty playing second base in the majors — even if for only a third of an inning — was almost as rare as a Bigfoot sighting.
With McDowell moving to second — a contrived move that no doubt confused the official scorekeeper — “The Swamp Fox,” as Dark was dubbed, then switched second baseman Eddie Leon to third (replacing Graig Nettles, who left the game), and brought in right-hand reliever Dean Chance to intentionally walk Howard, thereby loading the bases.
Bewildered Washington manager Ted Williams scratched his head, wondering where he had seen that strategic ploy before.
As it turned out, Williams himself had been victimized by that same maneuver nearly twenty years earlier when Chicago White Sox manager Paul Richards, another unconventional manager who liked to play the percentages, temporarily moved pitcher Harry “Fritz” Dorish to third base and brought in left-hand reliever Billy Pierce to pitch to Williams, considered by many to be the greatest left-handed hitter in the history of the game.
Pierce, a slightly-built, seven-time All-Star who twice led the American League in pitching, disposed of Williams and Dorish — an obscure right-hander remembered mostly by baseball buffs as the last American League pitcher to steal home plate — promptly returned to the mound to finish the game.
For Williams, it was a strange case of déjà vu.
As Howard received a free pass, jamming the bases, cleanup hitter Rick Reichardt — another powerful right-handed hitter — waited patiently on deck. If the Senators brought in a left-handed pinch-hitter for Reichardt, Dark, whose mind was always spinning furiously, was ready to counter that move by immediately putting McDowell back on the mound.
The Cleveland skipper’s gamble paid off perfectly as Chance — the youngest pitcher up ’til then to win the Cy Young Award — got Reichart to slap a sharp grounder to Leon at third, who instinctively fired the ball to McDowell for the force out at second. The throw was a little low, but the lanky lefthander dropped to his knees and made the play, beating a charging Howard to the bag and securing the third out.
The 6’5” McDowell, who struck out 15 that night with his scorching fast ball, returned to the mound in the ninth inning and fanned the side as the Indians prevailed 6-4.
It was McDowell’s 12th victory of the season against only four losses. It was also the eighth time that season that Sudden Sam had struck out ten or more batters in a game.
The Indians, who lost 99 games the previous year, were mired in last place at the time with a 34-44 record, only 1 ½ games behind the fifth-place Senators. McDowell was about the only reason to attend an Indians game that year.
Not only did the 27-year-old McDowell not get credit for a complete game that night, but he also didn’t get credit for a save in preserving his own victory.
It was an oddity that seemed to bother the tall left-hander for years thereafter.
“What’s really interesting to me is that the rules state that a pitcher gets credit for a complete game if he’s responsible for all 27 outs,” said McDowell a few years later. “Well, I made the out at second base, which means I was responsible for all 27, but I didn’t get credit for a complete game, and I still want to know why not.”
Curiously, in an attempt to help his hard-throwing lefty notch his 20th victory later that season, Alvin Dark tried to employ the same strategy against Ted Williams’ club again in early September, but this time the Senators foiled Dark’s strategy when the physically imposing Howard miraculously beat out an infield dribbler, leading to a couple of runs and a 4-1 Cleveland loss.