I am alternately amused and irritated when I read stories on the internet that tell how “Sudden Sam” McDowell got his nickname. They usually say that he received the sobriquet from other ballplayers, who said something like, “His fastball arrives at the plate all of a sudden…” Sports Illustrated, for one, has that fable in its history file, called The Vault.
This is nonsense. Ballplayers don’t talk that way. If they admire a pitcher’s speed, they say things like, “He’s got a lot of smoke,” or “He packs heat,” or “He’s a flamethrower.”
I know exactly how Sam got his nickname. I gave it to him.
I christened him in spring training in 1961, in Tucson, Arizona. As the rookie baseball writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer at the time, I deliberately set out to give him a nickname. I was trying to impress my editors and my colleagues. McDowell, then 18, was drawing a lot of attention because he had received an estimated $75,000 bonus to sign.
When McDowell pitched in his first exhibition game on March 13, 1961, I went into a trance and the words “Sudden Sam” appeared on my copy paper. You can look it up in the Plain Dealer microfilm of March 14, 1961. I did not get the idea from another ballplayer, another writer, a coach or anybody else. I made it up myself.
I was always trying to be creative in those days. Frankly, I was pretty proud of the nickname, but I didn’t make a big deal of it. I casually introduced it in the fifth paragraph of the story. This was before the media explosion. We underplayed everything.
Looking back fifty years, I don’t remember if any of the writers complimented me on the nickname. The only other sportswriters covering that spring training were my sports editor, Gordon Cobbledick, who had given me the job, columnist Frank Gibbons and baseball writer Regis McAuley of the Cleveland Press, and columnist Jim Shlemmer of the Akron Beacon Journal. They all knew I created the nickname, but they are all dead now.
I remember hoping the other writers would start using the nickname. That would mean they thought it was good. When I saw Gibbons use it in the rival Cleveland Press, I felt a surge of satisfaction. As time went on, I saw it in papers throughout the country.
The Cleveland writers and broadcasters knew I had created the nickname, but nobody made a big deal of it. It was just a good nickname.
I don’t recall McDowell or any other ballplayer complimenting me on it, but I had a friendly relationship with the pitcher and felt part of it was due to the nickname. (For more on my relationship with McDowell, check out my book, “The Sportswriter Who Punched Sam McDowell: And Other Sports Stories,” published by Kent State University Press, and available on Amazon.com.)
I was a columnist and feature writer for 45 years at The Plain Dealer. I won writing awards in five consecutive decades at the PD and was inducted into The Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame by the Press Club of Cleveland. I have written four books. I have been retired for four years and am now 78 years old.
Believe me, I was not obsessed with the McDowell nickname, but about 25 years ago I began hearing strange tales about who christened him. Most of them came from a colleague who was not in the newspaper business in 1961. I laughed them off.
Then people started writing about great baseball nicknames. Bill James said “Sudden Sam” was one of his favorite nicknames. SI also had it listed among the best nicknames. Neither mentioned that I had invented it.
This did not bother me. Anonymity is the fate of the writer of sports nicknames Does anybody know who came up with “The Sultan of Swat” or “The Grey Eagle?”
But when SI said it was created by ballplayers, I was annoyed. If credit is going to be given, it should be given accurately. I know I produced “Sudden Sam.” I wrote that a couple of times in The Plain Dealer. I will take a lie test on that. Until March 13, 1961, I defy anyone to find it under any byline but mine.