Card Corner: Topps’ top 60 and Billy Cowanby Bruce Markusen
December 10, 2010
If you’re a fan in your 30s or younger, it’s possible that you’ve never heard of Billy Cowan. Heck, even if you’re my age (somewhere in the mid-40s), his name might escape your memory. That’s because Billy Cowan was the consummate journeyman. He bounced around both leagues—not to mention several minor leagues—from 1963 to 1972, putting in time with the Cubs, Mets, Milwaukee Braves, Phillies, Yankees and California Angels.
Yet, none of that has stopped Cowan from becoming a cult figure in the baseball card business. He receives more autograph requests through the mail than most journeyman outfielders of similar vintage—if only because of his amusing 1972 Topps card.
Sometime during the 1971 season, the folks at Topps visited southern California to take photographs to be used for the psychedelic 1972 set. Opting to have some fun with Cowan, the Topps photographer lined his head up perfectly within the confines of the old halo at Anaheim Stadium, now known as Angel Stadium of Anaheim. At the time, the stadium featured a large halo at the top of a tower lwithin the perimeter of the ballpark.
I’ve always wondered this about the Cowan card: Was he aware of what the photographer was doing? It certainly looks like the photographer intentionally set up the photo so that Cowan’s head was right in the middle of the halo, but I'm not sure that Cowan realized that. Either way, Cowan has maintained his sense of humor about it—along with his willingness to sign the card when it is sent to him in the mail.
Other than his 1972 card, Cowan is perhaps best remembered for being one of the successful targets of Morganna Roberts, the onetime stripper known as the famed “Kissing Bandit.” Regarded as one of the better looking players in the major leagues, Cowan received an on-field kiss from Morganna during one of the Angels’ games. That put Cowan in good company. He joined contemporary stars like Clete Boyer, Frank Howard and Pete Rose, all far better known players who had been smooched by The Bandit.
There was at least one day during the 1971 season that Cowan clearly was not in a kissing mood. Legendary broadcaster Dick Enberg, at the time doing play-by-play for the Angels, ripped into the team for its awful performance in a game at Yankee Stadium. At one point, Enberg said the Angels were playing as if they were “half asleep.” Listening to the broadcast from southern California, Angels GM Dick Walsh called up manager Lefty Phillips, angrily asking him about the team’s disgraceful play. In response, Phillips conducted a Saturday night bed check, and ended up finding that half of his players had broken curfew. Phillips levied $200 fines against each of the offending players.
Word came down to the Angels players that the fines had come about, at least indirectly, as the result of Enberg’s harsh on-air criticism. As Enberg boarded the team bus on Sunday, an angry Cowan confronted him. “You cost me $200, you son of a bitch,” Cowan shouted at Enberg. “I ought to take $200 out of your voice.” With Cowan on the verge of taking a swing at the mild-mannered Enberg, Phillips and his coaches arrived at the scene. Not wanting to fight in front of his manager, Cowan backed down, sparing Enberg any further wrath.
Cowan would face bigger problems in 1972. He appeared in three games—all as a pinch-hitter—before drawing his release in mid-April. The Angels contended that Cowan was no longer a useful player; after all, he was 0-for-3 as a pinch-hitter and was coming off a season in which he had struck out 41 times against only seven walks.
Cowan felt differently. Once labeled by The Sporting News as the “Clarence Darrow of the clubhouse,” Cowan filed a grievance against the Angels through the Players’ Association, claiming that the release occurred for reasons other than baseball ability. The Angels’ top pinch-hitter in 1971, Cowan contended that California had cut him loose because of his active role as the Angels’ player representative, which was like being branded with a scarlet letter at the time of collective bargaining friction between the players and owners.
Like Cowan, three other player representatives for the Angels had been relocated against their wishes, with infielders Jim Fregosi and Bobby Knoop (our favorite from the 1970 Topps set) sent packing in trades and catcher Buck Rodgers demoted to the minor leagues. The Angels players, like the 23 other teams in existence at the time, had dared to strike at the tail end of spring training, delaying the start of the 1972 regular season—and perhaps influencing the eventual end of Cowan’s major league career.
Cowan could not find work with another major league team. As a result, there was no 1973 Topps card. And no chance to top one of the most creative baseball cards ever printed.
References and Resources
"My Oh My," by Dick Enberg
Billy Cowan's player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.