As a youngster growing up in Johnson City, Tenn., in the early to middle 1960s, I gravitated to baseball for my heroes, as most boys did in those days. Sure, there were some football heroes as well—Steve Spurrier was a local boy who would win the Heisman Trophy in 1966 and later find fame as one of the best coaches in collegiate football history. But to me, wearing a baseball uniform was about the neatest thing a guy could grow up to do—especially a major league uniform.
I didn’t know too much about some of the area’s former major leaguers in those days. Most had retired by the time I became interested in baseball, in 1965. I knew, of course, of the minor leaguers who’d played for the Johnson City Appalachian League club—Bobby Wine, Dennis Bennett and Pat Corrales were three who’d played for the Johnson City Phillies, as they had been known in the late 1950s. I knew all of them because I had baseball cards with the statistical information on the back. And there it was: “Johnson City, APPAL.,” so I carried a certain pride about those players, and cherished their cards.
But there was also a hometown player who’d walked my sidewalks, played in my parks, bought groceries the same place we did. He was a hometown boy, and I was proud to be a fan of his.
There was only one problem: He wasn’t in the majors any more. In fact, when I got my first baseball card of Ernie Bowman, he was in the minor leagues, toiling for the Jacksonville team in the International League.
That was okay for me, though. My favorite team was the New York Mets, and Jacksonville was home to the Mets’ Triple-A club. Yes, the first card I obtained as a young card collector and fan of my hometown hero was a 1966 card featuring Ernie Bowman as a Met! There it was “Home: Johnson City, Tenn.” I was so proud to live here, where Ernie Bowman lived! The back of the card read, “The hustling veteran is given a good shot at making the 1966 starting team. Ernie is eager to resume his big league career.”
I loved that card, and followed Ernie that season, as best as I possibly could, through the International League Batting Leaders section of The Sporting News. Every week I got a copy of “the Bible of Baseball,” or stood at the newspaper rack at Hillcrest Drug, and followed the exploits of my hometown hero. The Johnson City Press-Chronicle covered the big leagues and the Appalachian League, but I learned that The Sporting News covered all the leagues, so I could see how he was hitting (usually not too well) and see an occasional note that included some play he’d made, or some hit he’d made, that stood out.
His 1966 season was his last as a regular, and he hit .205 while playing mainly second base (in a double play combo with Bud Harrelson) behind a mix of the past and future of the Mets in Jacksonville, Fla.—from Galen Cisco and Darrell Sutherland to Tug McGraw and Tom Seaver. In his autobiography, Seaver mentions Ernie: As the future Hall of Famer struggled, the then 30-year-old veteran told him, “throw the fastball.” Pithy, but it stuck with Seaver enough for him to mention it all those years later in his autobiography.
I followed Bowman this way for the rest of his career, which took him to Columbus in 1967, and then to Portland and Richmond and Indianapolis and Louisville, from the Mets to the Pirates, Braves, Indians, Reds and Red Sox organizations.
But Bowman had been in The Show, as the card referenced. He was a role player for the 1961-1963 San Francisco Giants, and appeared in the 1962 World Series for them, (two game appearances and scored once in the Giants’ 7-3 victory over the Yankees in Game Four). Of course, the Yankees took the series in seven games, but he still has a ring as a member of the National League champs.
A couple of weeks ago, the Giants honored those champions as part of their 2012 Opening Day festivities. Ernie Bowman was there, right beside Willie Mays and all the other Giants greats.
Without Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who lives a few miles away from Bowman in North Carolina and who was also in San Francisco being honored, Ernie might not have been at the celebration. See, Ernie has Stage IV prostate cancer, and he has been in pretty bad shape lately. Perry, according to a recent Associated Press story, intervened, obtaining financial help for Bowman through BAT—the Baseball Assistance Team—to cover Ernie’s medical costs.
Said Ernie, “Gaylord’s a good man. He saved my life… They took me on like I was a Hall of Famer. I was important to them.”
Gaylord told the interviewer that helping Ernie was the least he could do. “”He stopped so many line drives for me,” the pitcher said.
Ernie IS a Hall of Famer—a Johnson City Hall of Famer. He was inducted into my hometown’s Walk of Fame several years ago for his athletic prowess in basketball as well as baseball.
Today, it’s easy to look at marginal big leaguers like Ernie and make fun of them, or become frustrated when they don’t play to the level we expect of major league players. We point out that, “anyone could play like [fill in the blank].” Or that such and such team “is only playing [X] until they can find a big leaguer to fill the spot.” From the press box, or from in front of the TV screen, baseball looks easy. And the guys who hit .190 (Ernie’s career major league average) are fantasy league “killers.”
But somewhere there’s a kid who knows that a big leaguer (or minor leaguer) comes from his or her hometown, and today that kid follows his “hometown hero” in new ways. He (or she) scours websites, checks box scores, reads stories. Maybe in the offseason that local hero comes home and gives up time to the local kids, teaching them the fundamentals of the sport.
While some of those “hometown heroes” might be superstars, most are not. Even with expansion, there are few true superstars, and many more journeymen ballplayers on rosters across the country.
Ahh, but don’t tell those kids that that banjo-hitting second baseman who doesn’t hit his weight isn’t important. They won’t listen… and that’s a very good thing.