Baseball on Cheers, 25 Years Later

It’s no surprise that Cheers had a lot of baseball references, seeing as Sam Malone, the owner, was a former ballplayer. (via Fred Hsu)

On May 20, 1993, Cheers ended its 11-season run. The series still holds the record for the most Emmy nominations for a comedy series with 117. It won a total of 28 awards. It received nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of its 11 seasons; it won the award four times. It launched the careers of Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson and Kelsey Grammer, among others. The series influenced countless shows that came after it, as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place creator Michael Schur attests. The final episode of Cheers, entitled “One for the Road,” was the second-most watched series finale ever (behind only the M*A*S*H finale), making it one of the most-viewed non-Super Bowl events in television history. There is little doubt it is one of the most successful and influential sitcoms of all time.

The May 24, 1993 edition of Sports Illustrated featured the Steve Rushin piece “Everybody Knows His Name,” a reference to the Cheers theme song. It’s an extensive, entertaining profile of the protagonist of Cheers, Sam “Mayday” Malone, portrayed by the incomparable Danson.

Sam Malone is one of the great leads in sitcom history, an essential connector between members of a beloved ensemble. He’s by no means a perfectly drawn character; he is, in some ways, a product of his times — his womanizing, played for laughs, often comes across as rather dated to the modern viewer.

Yet despite his more ribald traits, Sam manages to be a nuanced, sympathetic figure. Some of this is the series’ writing, though perhaps even more of it is Danson’s performance. He manages to imbue Sam with a depth and humanity a lesser actor could not, revealing the troubled soul that lurks beneath the barkeep’s meatheaded, playboy exterior.

More relevant for our purposes, though, is Malone’s life before the events of the series. He is a retired Red Sox reliever, one whose career was shortened by struggles with alcoholism. In an ironic twist, when he retired and sobered up, he became the owner of the eponymous Cheers. In the aforementioned Sports Illustrated article, Rushin managed to create an extremely thorough picture of Sam’s time in baseball. Since it is the 25th anniversary of both the end of Cheers and the Sports Illustrated profile, now seems a fitting time to revisit both.

There’s a lot we know about Sam’s major league career from Cheers. Sam, his employees, and his patrons regularly trade stories about some of his more memorable moments on the mound. Rushin seamlessly incorporates stories about Sam’s career into the profile, as if they were real anecdotes about a real person:

You wanna talk about excitement,” his pitching coach in Boston, the late Ernie (Coach) Pantusso once said. “Sam, tell ’em about Opening Day in New York. You come outta the bullpen in the seventh, the bases are loaded with pinstripes, Bobby Murcer’s at the plate….”

Sam: “He hit a 400-foot home run off me, Coach.”

Coach: “My God, it was the most exciting thing I ever saw!”

But what truly makes the profile fun for Cheers fans is how it fills in many of the blanks from Sam’s time in the majors. From it, we learn his major league career lasted seven seasons with the Red Sox, spanning from 1972 to 1978. He would have debuted at the age of 24, after being drafted at the age of 18 (without finishing high school) and spending six years in the minors.

This, then, gives us the opportunity to extrapolate Sam’s career by putting it in the context of actual baseball history.

The ‘70s, as a whole, were a wild time for baseball. It was the era during which Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s long-standing career home run record, the designated hitter was introduced, and Andy Messersmith became the first free agent.

Labor disputes loomed over the decade, particularly in its early years. The start of Sam’s 1972 rookie season was delayed by MLB’s first-ever strike, led by Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Marvin Miller. The strike lasted only two weeks as Miller negotiated with team owners over the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the season got underway once a compromise was struck.

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However, the games missed due to the strike were not made up, and as a result, not every team played the same number of games. This included that year’s AL East champions and runners-up, the Tigers and the Red Sox. The Tigers played one more game than the Red Sox, who finished a game and a half out of first place. Sam would have been there during the two teams’ pivotal final series, which decided the race on the next-to-last day of the season — surely an agonizing experience for a rookie.

Sam would have had his share of better times, too, as he would have played for some great Red Sox squads, including the 1975 pennant-winning team. Among his teammates would have been Hall of Famers Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Rice; Carlton Fisk would have been his catcher.

And Sam would have faced some legendary teams as well. His heart, no doubt, would have been regularly broken by the Yankees, who won two World Series during the span of Sam’s career and beat the Red Sox out for the division three times.

The most famous of those occasions would have come in Sam’s final season, 1978, in which the Yankees overcame what was, at its largest, a 14-game deficit to force a one-game playoff with the Sox. That game was famously decided by Bucky Dent’s surprising three-run home run. By that point, Sam was already retired, with his final career game — and only career start — coming in April of that year. Perhaps if Sam hadn’t started (and lost) that game, the Sox wouldn’t have ended the season tied with the Yanks, and they would have been the AL East Champs. Nice going, Sam.

The Yankees weren’t the only team Sam would have dreaded facing, though. The Orioles likely gave Sam a hard time, as they took the AL East in both 1973 and ‘74. In an episode that makes it into Rushin’s profile, Sam recounts a triumphant moment from his rookie season when he pitched in both games of a doubleheader against Baltimore, getting Boog Powell out to end the second game.

Sam also would have had a front-row seat for Pete Rose and the Big Red Machine in the 1975 World Series. Cheers never suggests Sam got into those games, but the Sports Illustrated profile conveniently explains that Sam missed that postseason due to a “mysterious domestic groin injury.” Classic Sammy.

Sam would have seen, on some occasions, the powerhouse Oakland Athletics teams of the ‘70s, which won the World Series in each of the first three years of Sam’s career. Those teams featured future Hall of Famers in Reggie Jackson and pitchers Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers.

Fingers, doubtlessly, was someone Sam would’ve kept an eye on, as he was one of the premier relievers of his day and a key figure in defining the role of closer, later becoming just the second reliever inducted into the Hall. The save statistic, invented by sportswriter and historian Jerome Holtzman, was officially adopted by MLB in 1969 and helped make Fingers a star in the ‘70s, as he led the league three times. His 341 career saves were, for a while, the major league record; Sam’s 12 career saves pale in comparison.

We know Sam’s career save total thanks to a set of statistics provided by the Sports Illustrated profile. Throughout the series, we get some mixed messages about Sam’s legacy. Some of his more ardent supporters insist he was great, and certain casual acquaintances remember him being pretty good, but almost every story we hear about Sam’s career centers on him blowing it for the Sox, which of course is funnier than hearing about his triumphs.

The stats provided by Sports Illustrated side with the stories rather than the generous barflies: Sam Malone was a bad pitcher. In fact, he wouldn’t have just been bad; he would have been one of the worst relievers of all time. His career 1.15 strikeouts per nine innings and his 0.37 strikeout-to-walk ratio would have been the worst such marks for any relief pitcher with a minimum of 300 innings pitched. Congrats, Bert Cole, you’re no longer the worst in those categories! If Sam were a real player and those were his real stats, we’d be absolutely baffled as to how he managed to last for more than a cup of coffee in the majors. His inscrutable numbers likely would have inspired some tremendous FanGraphs posts.

It’s hard to imagine the sort of pitcher who could put up that kind of profile. From the Sports Illustrated article, we know Sam’s pitch mix included a fastball, a slider and a curveball — funnily enough, the same pitch mix as Clayton Kershaw, albeit with very un-Kershaw-like results. All of these pitches became less effective as Sam fell deeper into his toxic lifestyle, with the fastball lacking movement, the slider being referred to — by his own teammates, unfortunately — as the “slider of death,” and the curveball always left hanging. It makes sense that such an arsenal, especially when paired with Sam’s legendary wildness, would produce low strikeouts and high walk rates, but it’s difficult to imagine how a 1.15 K/9 could possibly happen.

Interestingly, 1975 — a year Sam claims to not remember much of anything about — was, at least by the measures provided by Sports Illustrated, his best. He posted his lowest ERA (3.68), his best WHIP (1.213) and his most innings pitched (78 1/3). Those are respectable numbers, though it’s still hard to see how he might have done that with a K/BB of 14/20.

One fun tidbit in Sam’s stats is that he had one career at-bat, which came in his rookie season. This is a bit surprising, as relief pitchers getting at-bats is unusual, though most always entertaining.

The result of that solitary at-bat is something of a mystery, as the stat sheet lists only at-bats, hits, home runs and batting average. We know he didn’t get a hit or a walk, nor was he hit by a pitch. We can assume he struck out, but perhaps ol’ Mayday had the dignity of at least making contact. In any event, the AL adopted the designated hitter rule the following year, and Sam never got the chance to swing the lumber in a game again.

“Everybody Knows His Name” takes a well-established character and delightfully fleshes his backstory. One thing we don’t learn from the profile, however, is what happens to Sam after Cheers’ run ended. Did he ever return to working in baseball in any capacity?

If he did, it likely would not have been in broadcasting. In the season six episode “‘I’ on Sports,” Sam had a short-lived stint as a sports anchor on a local Boston news program. It did not go well for him. His commentary was either boring or inane, and, horrifyingly, there was rapping involved, though the sight of Woody Boyd — played by Harrelson — unironically grooving along to Sam’s less-than-sick rhymes gets me every time.

Fortunately, the Cheers spinoff Frasier provides at least a couple of clues about Sam’s fate. In a second season episode aptly titled “The Show Where Sam Shows Up,” Danson reprises his Cheers character to share a reunion with Grammer’s. At first, it looks like Sam may be returning to baseball: He tells Frasier he’s in Seattle to interview for an opening as the Mariners’ pitching coach. That turns out to be a lie; Sam is actually in Seattle because he needed somewhere to run to after skipping out on his own wedding.

“Believe me, no ballplayer is in Seattle because of the Mariners,” Sam says. The episode aired on February 21, 1995. We’re left wondering if Edgar Martinez’s famous double against the Yankees in the ALDS might have changed Sam’s view of a team that spent the better part of the 1990s underperforming.

Several seasons later, we get another update on Sam’s life and career. In a season nine Frasier episode titled “Cheerful Goodbyes,” Frasier returns to Boston and unexpectedly reunites with several of his friends from his former favorite haunt, though Sam is not among them. Cliff Clavin, the chatty, incorrigible mailman portrayed by John Ratzenberger, is having a retirement party, but not at Cheers — as he informs Frasier, Sam has the bar booked for a Red Sox reunion that night.

We’re left to conclude that Sam still owns the bar. He doesn’t seem to have pursued further work in baseball — at least, not successfully. But it also tells us that he’s stayed in touch with his friends from the old days. I bet they laughed at his baseball stories, too.

Sam Malone would be 70 now. Perhaps, in 2018, he’d still be running things behind the bar. But maybe by now he’d have saved up enough money to retire. It’s fun to imagine him getting the chance to go out to Fenway from time to time. One wonders if fans would still recognize him. If Sam aged anything like his real life counterpart Danson did, he’d be pretty distinctive looking. It would be rather hard to miss that wiry frame and that white hair poking out from beneath a worn, navy cap.

It’s easy to think of him sitting there, marveling at Craig Kimbrel and showering the Yankees with insults. Much like the show’s fans when they flick through the cable channels and stumble on an old episode, he might sink into one of those too-tight chairs and feel comfortable, easy. A barman no more. Sometimes you want to go where once long ago, everyone knew your name.

References and Resources


Sarah Wexler is a contributor to Dodgers Digest. She recently earned her master's degree in Sports Management from Cal State Long Beach. She graduated from New York University in 2014 with a bachelor's in History and a minor in American Studies. Follow her on Twitter @SarahWexler32.
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williamnyy
Member
The only thing on TV better than Cheers is baseball itself. I can’t believe I had never come across that article before, but I do have to point out one discrepancy. According to the episode in season 3 when Nick is trying to get custody of Carla’s son, Sam’s highest batting average was .149, implying he had many more than 1 at bat. The topic comes up when one of the guys at the bar mentioned Jesse Orosco hit a HR, prompting Sam to exaggerate his own hitting ability. That results in a bet with, I believe, Cliff bringing in… Read more »
Dave Jordan
Member

IIRC, the great punchline from that episode by Norm laughing at Cliffy, “You bought a $20 book to win a $10 bet.”

Browns0286
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Member
Browns0286

By my count, the lowest number of hits/at-bats that could yield a batting average that rounds to .149 is 10 hits in 67 at-bats.

chuckb
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Member
chuckb

As a Cheers fan since I was a kid, I thoroughly enjoyed this article. What fun to go through Sam’s less than stellar baseball career and put it in some kind of historical perspective.

Dave Jordan
Member

I’ve often thought that w MLB mockumentary of Sam Malone would be a fun idea. For deep Red Sox fans, you just know that, allowing for the spirit of the character in a real-life setting, he would of totally been a part of “The Loyal Order of Buffaloheads.” Sam would have definitely palled around with Spaceman and Bernie Carbo, and most certainly would’ve been banished like Jim Willoughby, Fergie Jenkins & Rick Wise between 1977 off-season & mid-summer ’78.

joedodger
Member
joedodger

All together now: “Sammy’s got the bar, back. Sammy’s got the bar, back. Sammy’s got the bar, back. Sammy’s……

Dave Jordan
Member

This made me laugh. I was truly moved by the bittersweet Season 1-2 Cheers, but part of me adores the early Rebecca Howe/Sammy’s a total goofball years. It’s almost spiritually a different series.

DrRico
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DrRico
“Sam Malone was… one of the worst relievers of all time…. If Sam were a real player and those were his real stats, we’d be absolutely baffled as to how he managed to last for more than a cup of coffee in the majors.” There is no chance that a team as good as the 72-77 Red Sox would have kept around a player with the stats in the SI article. Those teams finished 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 3rd, and 2nd. To estimate the absolute floor for Malone, I compiled a profile using the Red Sox pitcher with the actual… Read more »
PC1970
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PC1970

No mention of his famous nemesis- Dutch Kincaid. Still love that line after Kincaid hits another HR off Malone. “I did it for the drama”

Marc Schneider
Member
Marc Schneider
It’s hard to see how the Red Sox would have had a pitching coach like “Coach.” He had clearly taken too many balls off his noggin. I mean, the guy is completely out of it. I can’t imagine he would have been much help to the pitching staff. He might have gone out to the mound to talk to the other team’s pitcher. On the other hand, if you listen to Jim Bouton talk about how managers and coaches were mostly cronies in those days, maybe it’s possible. But probably not on a good team.