Using your own life experiences to help others is an admirable goal. It’s what Sam McDowell states is his goal in writing an autobiography, and over the course of The Saga of Sudden Sam it’s what he sets out to do. However, in recounting his life, the job McDowell does is a distant second to the actual work he has done in his life.
Content warning: The Saga of Sudden Sam discusses alcohol abuse and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse problems, please visit https://findtreatment.gov/ to find help near you; Likewise, if you or someone you know has considered suicide, please visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-8255 to get help. Your life is worth living and there is help out there for you.
Most Cleveland baseball fans that know any of the team’s history know the name Sam McDowell. “Sudden” Sam got his nickname from an easy throwing motion that unleashed one of the fastest fastballs ever; Despite his tantalizing skills, however, he never reached the heights of other Cleveland pitchers before or after him, such as Bob Feller or Dennis Eckersley. Perhaps fans also know that it was alcohol that got the best of McDowell, that kept him from reaching the pinnacle for which he seemed destined. They most certainly don’t know half of it, though.
McDowell begins his book with a harrowing tale of his suicide attempt, an attempt that obviously (and thankfully) failed, but a serious attempt nonetheless. This intro sets the tone for the book and its path into McDowell’s darkest days. The author spends about half the book detailing his playing days and hard drinking and how the two conspired to hold him back from his physical potential. It’s the second half, however, where the book hits its mark.
Similar to CC Sabathia’s memoir, and his story of recovery from alcohol addiction, it’s the decision to get help and the choices made to stay clean that are compelling within The Saga of Sudden Sam. But unlike Sabathia, McDowell has decades of life after playing to write about, and what he has done with those years is truly great.
As he details, McDowell was interested in sports psychology even as a player in the 1960s and ’70s, and through his personal process of recovery, he grew more invested in mental health. What is remarkable is that he then used his interest to help others. But McDowell didn’t just help some folks, he has helped hundreds, maybe thousands of individuals through his counseling. And that’s where The Saga of Sudden Sam differs from most player memoirs: it is still the story of someone finding their passion and making it their life’s work, but Sam McDowell found his passion after his baseball playing career.
Another way this book differs from most player memoirs, Sabathia’s as a great recent example, is that most memoirs are written at a fairly simple reading level. But where the average memoir might be around an eighth-grade level, The Saga of Sudden Sam has some college. McDowell himself was not a college man, but his autobiography is a reflection of his own intellectual curiosity. But although that curiosity led him to do great things in helping others, it actually makes his book kind of a drag.
The passages about his playing days take up half the book, but they don’t have much energy or excitement to them. This is likely how they felt to McDowell, because he repeats multiple times how he was not able to enjoy his accomplishments because he was a narcissist with an alcoholic personality that precluded him from feeling joy, and because he was prone to depression he was never fully invested in the joy of baseball. These are important things, but the author’s lack of enthusiasm definitely takes a toll on the prose.
His enthusiasm for mental health and helping people with addiction is evident, and makes the back half of the book much more enjoyable. Unfortunately, any momentum is killed in the 19th chapter (of 21) when McDowell goes out of his way to address “a whole new ballgame.” In this section, you can practically imagine McDowell sitting on his front porch telling his grandchildren “back in my day…” He complains about how the game is all about money (though he doesn’t blame players for getting paid), about sabermetrics and analysts (though admits the analysts have some utility), and even modern amenities such as video scoreboards. He’s not completely wrong in this section–and I’d be happy to agree with him about the length of games and why spraying hits to all fields is something of a lost art (mostly because it’s easier said than done, but I digress)— but any good points he has are drowned in wild claims without basis.
Most outrageously, McDowell goes out of his way to defend deliberately hitting batters (despite a different section praising stem cell research for helping him and other former players with long-term injuries). Most confusingly, he states that modern analytics would preclude Greg Maddux getting a shot in today’s game because his spin rate and velocity aren’t good enough (despite players like Kyle Hendricks having a successful career), or hold back a player like Tony Gwynn from being a star because his hit tool wasn’t heavy on power (despite a player like Michael Brantley enjoying a remarkable career based on a hit tool that is not dependent on power). He also praises managers who could win with dynamic hitting and pitching (rather than sabermetrically boosted lineups, I guess) and cites…Joe Maddon as an example.
This effectively took me out of the book entirely. I greatly respect the work McDowell has done in his post-playing career; the way he has turned his personal struggles and failures into a positive for the world is inspiring and was enjoyable to read. However, between the joyless description of his playing days and the unnecessary tirade against modern baseball, my enjoyment dropped significantly.
The Saga of Sudden Sam is out now via Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. You can find a copy at your local bookstore.