How “Sudden Sam” McDowell got his nickname

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.

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15 Comments on "How “Sudden Sam” McDowell got his nickname"

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Dave Adkins
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Dave Adkins

You can look it up, it is true. Life long Cleveland while doing research for a paper years ago on the Indians, I saw his article on micro film that he mentions.

InnocentBystander
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InnocentBystander
I’m not normally a complainer of content (outside of a Tuck cartoon or 2), but wow…this is the most peculiar posting ever on THT. Just bizarre that we were given a grumpy writer shouting “look at me!”. I’m actually disappointed THT’s editors let this get through because it really seems out of place. It is not interesting. I kind of get the sense that Dolgan knows that it is not. He appropriately asks, “does anybody know who came up with ‘The Sultan of Swat’ or ‘The Grey Eagle?’” No we don’t…nor do we care. A good nickname can be good… Read more »
Dave Studeman
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Dave Studeman

Sorry you feel that way, Bystander.  I thought it was interesting to get the background on how a famous nickname came about, and I particularly liked getting it from the source himself, regardless of how “grumpy” he was.

Evan Brunell
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Evan Brunell

Real interesting story, thanks for sharing it.  Always nice to hear a small part of baseball history that slips through the cracks.

Grandpa Boog
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Grandpa Boog

InnocentByStander is the grump, not the author of this article.

—Stay tuned.

Hecubot
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Hecubot

Oh, I liked getting the story right from the source. Fascinating historical side note.

However, I did snort like a 12 y.o. at “Gordon Cobbledick” – a highly Dickensian name.

paulbip
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paulbip

Sam lived up the street from me. Could have been one of the greatest pitchers ever if he ever took care of himself and got a good nights sleep before game time.  Let’s just say that he was no stranger to beer.

Davan S. Mani
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Davan S. Mani

Legacy is overrated. Who remembers Andrea Stinson? She took care of herself.

phil Yan
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phil Yan

we know you named him and we miss seeing you and cecila at the polka events around town!
Nazdrove’

Speed Reader
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Speed Reader

I agree with Innocent Bystander. This blog post is pathetic. “I’m modest, I’m not bragging, but I won awards and I came up with the nickname Sudden Sam look at me look at me look at me.” As for “interesting,” WTH is so interesting about “I closed my eyes and made it up”?

Chris Jay Becker
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This article reminds me of the current case of Seattle Mariners Ace Felix Hernandez, who has been called “King Felix” since 2003 when he was a 17 year old minor leaguer pitching for the Everett Aqua Sox. The great thing about it is that it was a writer for the USS Mariner blog, probably Dave Cameron, who wrote the post proclaiming, “All Hail, King Felix…” thus becoming possibly the first widely-used MLB player nickname coined NOT buy an official baseball writer, but by a New Media blogger. Remember, in 2003 blogs were not looked upon as any sort of news… Read more »
steve
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steve

it is always very easy to criticize, however, scoreboard wins…i always wondered how sudden sam got his moniker. dolgan 1, bystander 0.

Go Tribe
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Go Tribe

Great story, thank you for this.

Do you remember the time when Sam was hitting so well as a pitcher that the coach at the time brought him in as a pinch hitter?

I saw that at the old municipal stadium.

Fake Yeezys
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Sneaker culture has long been intertwined with basketball. Since Michael Jordan signed with Nike in 1985 and unleashed his first signature shoe, the Jordan I, the space has been dominated by established brands

Wonk
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Sneaker culture? Crissakes, you win, hands down, the irrelevant-comment award, if’n there is one. Wow.

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