Known almost as well for his music exploits as he was for his split-fingered fastball, the goateed McDowell had a striking personality both on the field and off. Though his 1993 Cy Young Award was thought to be just the tip of his iceberg of talent, Black Jack became hampered by a plethora of injuries, and eventually saw his career fizzle as soon as it had caught fire, recording only about six seasons in which he was fully healthy.
1987 was a banner year for the 6’5″ McDowell. He led Stanford to the College World Series title, was the Chicago White Sox‘ top pick in June, helped Double-A Birmingham capture the Southern League crown, and joined the White Sox in September. He began his major league career with 13 scoreless innings before finishing the year at 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA. But in 1988 he missed several starts with a tired arm and only tallied a 5-10 record, far less than what White Sox management was expecting.
After languishing in the minor leagues through 1989, McDowell returned to the Sox with a vengeance in 1990, going 14-9 with 165 strikeouts. Over the next three years, Black Jack established himself as an intimidating power pitcher, using a split-fingered fastball and forkball to go 59-30 over the span. In 1993, he won the Cy Young Award, winning 22 games and notching a 3.37 ERA.
After a disappointing ’94 (by his terms) and outspoken comments about White Sox management, McDowell was traded to the Yankees for pitcher Keith Heberling and a player to be named later (outfielder Lyle Mouton). Thanks to one well-documented July 1995 outing at Yankee Stadium, in which he flipped the booing crowd his gangly middle finger after a particularly poor start, McDowell’s tenure in pinstripes was short-lived. He still went 15-10 with a 3.93 ERA despite the incident, and signed with the Cleveland Indians in December 1995.
Perhaps it was Black Jack’s musician mentality, the side of him that dressed nattily, had a fashionable goatee, and toured with a rock band that caused these sporadic outbursts. After all, McDowell’s group V.I.E.W. (later to become Stick Figure, appropriately named considering his 6’5″, 188-pound build) did receive respectable album reviews from Rolling Stone magazine. He also hung out with the right disenchanted stars; in a New Orleans tavern in 1993, the gangly pitcher got into a brawl defending Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. When the dust cleared, McDowell had been punched out by the bouncer.
But it was that fiery spirit that hurt McDowell’s career as much as helped it. His menacing look assisted him on the mound, intimidating batters who knew he would pitch inside — they respected or feared his cockiness and mental toughness, enabling him to get out of jams and last into late innings. However, it was this same stubborn attitude that got him suspended in August 1991 for an altercation with Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Mark Whiten, made him lose his temper in New York, and haunted his health with the Tribe.
Refusing to tell anybody when he strained a forearm muscle in his first season with Cleveland, McDowell pitched in pain before finally succumbing to the disabled list for the first time in his career. The additional stress he placed on his muscle worsened the initial injury, and Jack couldn’t throw at full effectiveness for the rest of the season. Still hampered by his arm problems, McDowell appeared in only eight games the following year before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery.
When he wasn’t tendered a contract by Cleveland at the end of 1997, McDowell signed on with the Anaheim Angels. He started 18 games with the Halos over the next two years, taking extended time off with elbow inflammations and a torn labrum, rehabilitation assignments in the minors, and one suspension for his part in a June 1998 brawl against the Kansas City Royals.
After three years of contemplating retirement because of his nagging arm troubles, Black Jack finally hung up his cleats after he was released by the Angels in August 1999.