‘The Saga of Sudden Sam: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Sam McDowell’ by Sam McDowell with Martin Gitlin (2022)

It’s rare that sports stars, if famous enough to publish an autobiography, wait until their late 70’s to do so. Sam McDowell is a rare man in more ways than one so it’s no surprise that his book, published at aged 79, is a cut above the average autobiography.

McDowell was the most recruited high school baseball player in America in 1959 – a shoe-in for no.1 draft pick if the draft had existed yet! He became a 6 time All-Star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians and was widely regarded as one of the best in the game. McDowell’s rise is a fascinating story in itself – the struggles of the high school phenom to learn how to play against the very best, the need to learn the art of pitching when his fastball alone couldn’t guarantee a win, the challenge of overcoming lack of faith and trust from his coaches.

Sam however might have been an all-star pitcher but he was also an all-world drinker – an alcoholic who eventually could no longer behave appropriately in his professional or personal life. As his life derailed he went deeper into his alcoholism and came close to ending it all.

As the book’s title, and the fact he’s still here to tell his story, suggests, this is ultimately a story of redemption as McDowell sought help, stayed sober, rebuilt his life, reconnected with his kids and trained as an addiction counselor to help other baseball players in need of help.

What makes the book stand out is McDowell’s ability to use what he has learned as an addiction expert to reflect and explain who he was as a younger man. It can be a bit jarring to read just how honestly and clinically McDowell writes about his past failings and feelings (or lack thereof) – to a degree I haven’t seen outside of Andre Agassi’s book Open. Unlike Agassi who paints his father as the villain in his tale, McDowelll has forgiven his parents shortcomings despite their lack of affection and instead focused on the simple reality that alcoholism is a disease. Until his recovery however, he had no concept of what it meant to be happy, or how to be satisfied other than through a desperate need for attention.

The book is a fascinating insight into baseball during the 60s and 70s, the job of pitching in the major leagues, and the perils of alcoholism and addiction in a sporting environment. It can be a difficult read at times, but as title tells us, don’t worry it ends with redemption!

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