Cooperstown Confidential: Thinking of Al Cowensby Bruce Markusen
March 23, 2012
Ten years ago, I remember hearing the news that Al Cowens had died suddenly, the victim of a heart attack. The news seemed to come out of nowhere, but then again, I had not been aware of some of Cowens’ recent health problems.
It turns out that three years earlier, in 1999, he had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He would eventually spend time in the hospital with pneumonia. In the months leading up to his death, some of his friends noticed a downtrodden tone to his voice. Perhaps Cowens, who was just 50, knew that the end was coming.
At one time, Al Cowens was a pretty big deal. In the mid-1970s, he came up as one of the top prospects in the Royals’ farm system. With his wide Afro, thick sideburns and oversized wire-frame glasses, he didn’t look like a typical ballplayer, but looks can be deceiving. The man played smooth and fast. Given his speed, his slashing, into-the-gaps hitting style, and the ability to cover acres of ground defensively, Cowens fit perfectly into the run-and-stun style preferred by Royals manager Whitey Herzog. Playing on the pinball fast artificial turf of Royals Stadium, Cowens looked like a future star to the organization.
Cowens broke into the big leagues in 1974, becoming Vada Pinson’s platoon partner in right field. Playing mostly against left-handed pitching and serving as a late-inning defensive caddy, Cowens did not hit at all; he managed only home run in 296 plate appearances, batted .242, and put up an OPS of under .600. At 22 years old, he did not look ready to handle major league pitching.
Only his defensive play reached an acceptable level. With a robust blend of speed and arm, Cowens covered right field like a center fielder and gunned down runners like a new age Rocky Colavito, racking up 13 assists in only 102 games.
He started his sophomore season in the same part-time role, before becoming the regular center fielder. The Royals changed managers later that season, firing Jack McKeon in midsummer and turning the operation over to Herzog. “The White Rat,” a believer in Cowens’ talent, made him his everyday right fielder, replacing the aging Pinson. Cowens played better than in his rookie season, batting .277 with a respectable .340 on-base percentage, but his power continued to lag with a mere four home runs.
Cowens now had right field all to himself, but he flopped badly in 1976, regressing to his 1974 form even as he played in 152 games. His on-base percentage fell under .300, his slugging fell off to .341, and his doubters in Kansas City wondered if he would ever realize the hopes of stardom.
Another manager might have benched Cowens, but Herzog continued to back him fully. He played Cowens every day in 1977—and I mean every day, all 162 games—and saw his young outfielder blossom. Cowens put up unquestionably his finest season ever, and by a large margin. He hit a career-high 23 home runs, batted .312, and slugged .505. He played like the star the Royals had once predicted.
He played so well that he captured a Gold Glove, spearheaded the Royals to a second straight Western Division title, and placed second in the American League MVP sweepstakes. He might have won the award if not for Rod Carew and his .388 batting average. At the age of 25, Al Cowens had arrived.
Or so it seemed. What happened to Cowens over the next three seasons remains one of the game’s mysteries. At an age when Cowens should have been peaking, his play regressed, and then flatlined. In 1978, his batting average fell to .274 and his OPS to .707. He fared only a bit better in 1979, as he again failed to reach double figures in home runs and slugged only .345.
The 1979 season also brought Cowens the most nightmarish chapter of his career, and for reasons having nothing to do with his moribund play. In the fifth inning of a game on May 8, Cowens stepped in against Rangers right-hander Ed Farmer, who delivered an inside fastball. The high-and-tight pitch nailed Cowens directly in the face, breaking his jaw and several of his teeth. The beanball forced him to have his jaw wired shut after the game. Cowens missed the next 21 games.
Cowens harbored no doubts that Farmer had intended to hit him. “I have to say he was throwing at me, maybe not (trying to hit me) in the face, but it was intentional,” Cowens seethed during a postgame meeting with reporters. Cowens’ accusation may have been fueled by another incident earlier in the game. Facing the first batter of the game, Farmer broke Frank White’s wrist with an inside pitch.
Incident and injury aside, Cowens’ decline from his 1977 peak frustrated and mystified the Royals. After all, Cowens was 26 and 27 in those subsequent seasons, which should have fallen right into his prime. Deciding that Cowens had reached his breaking point in Kansas City, the Royals traded him and rookie shortstop Todd Cruz to the Angels for power-hitting Willie Aikens (who was known as Willie Mays Aikens at the time) and versatile infielder Rance Mulliniks.
The Angels banked on a change of scenery boosting Cowens’ fortunes. It didn’t. He played like a hot mess in Southern California. Cowens appeared in 34 games for the Angels, put up an OPS of .597, and basically played the worst ball of his career. Aghast at what they saw, the Angels decided to cut their losses quickly. In late May, they traded Cowens to the Tigers for power-hitting first baseman Jason Thompson, a far superior hitter to Cowens.
Cowens did not thrive with the Tigers, but he did play better. He batted .280, albeit with no power, over the balance of the season. But as in 1979, it was an incidence of baseball violence that overshadowed Cowens’ performance. On June 20, at Chicago’s grand old Comiskey Park, Cowens found himself facing Ed Farmer (now pitching in relief for the White Sox) for the first time since the 1979 beanball. Cowens hit a ground ball to Todd Cruz at shortstop. Farmer turned to look at his infielder, but Cowens did not run toward first. Still furious at Farmer for what he considered an intentional beanball the previous summer, he cut a direct swath toward Farmer. With Farmer’s back still turned away from him, Cowens tackled the veteran right-hander, wildly throwing punches.
Predictably, Cowens’ bull rush toward the mound resulted in benches clearing for both teams. By the time the incident had been settled, Cowens received a seven-game suspension from the American League. Far more significantly, Illinois authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. With Cowens now a wanted man in the Windy City, the Tigers opted not to play him for the remainder of the series in Chicago.
The bitter public feud festered between Cowens and Farmer. Predictably, Farmer had little sympathy for Cowens. He felt that Cowens should have received a suspension of at least 30 days. He also took a verbal swipe at Cowens. “He gave me his best shot and all he did was scratch my nose a little bit,” Farmer told The Sporting News. “I’ve been in worse fights with women.”
Hard feelings persisted until Farmer announced that he would drop the charges against Cowens in exchange for a handshake and an apology. Cowens agreed to the informal settlement. Their managers arranged for the two players to bring out the lineup cards before a game on Sept. 1. Meeting at home plate, the former combatants smiled and shook hands to officially end the feud.
Cowens was relieved. “Sure I am,” he told Detroit sportswriter Tom Gage. “So much has been made of this. Every time I turned around, there were headlines about it. The whole thing has been tough, but it’s a dead issue now.”
While Farmer forgave Cowens, many White Sox fans did not. They booed him repeatedly whenever the Tigers returned to Chicago. Some of the fans constructed a “Coward Cowens” banner, displaying it during his encore appearances at Comiskey Park. During a memorable on-field exchange with umpires, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson asked to have the banner removed from the ballpark.
With the controversy having faded by 1981, the Tigers hoped that Cowens would thrive in a new role, as a platoon player with young Kirk Gibson. Cowens chafed at the idea of platooning, and his level of play sank further. Hitting only one home run in 85 games, he fell into disfavor in Detroit. The following spring, the Tigers sold Cowens to the Mariners.
Just when it seemed that Cowens had hit the end of the line, his skills having deteriorated at the age of 30 and his psyche damaged by the Farmer free-for-all, Cowens resuscitated his career. Finding both the Seattle area and the hitter-friendly Kingdome to his liking, Cowens hit 20 home runs and reached the .800 OPS level for the first since his near MVP season of 1977. Playing with mostly young and inexperienced players, Cowens emerged not only as the club’s best all-around player, but also as a leader for the building Mariners.
Unfortunately, Cowens’ roller-coaster tendencies continued in 1983. Bothered by tendinitis in his right shoulder, Cowens struggled through an atrocious second season in Seattle. Changing his stance myriad times to accommodate the pain, Cowens slumped badly at the plate. To make matters worse, he couldn’t even make routine throws from the outfield. But then, with his shoulder improved, he bounced back with two solid campaigns in 1984 and ‘85.
The next spring, Cowens’ aging baseball body gave out for good, as he hit .183 in 28 games. With young outfielders Ivan Calderon and Danny Tartabull ready for playing time, Cowens became the odd man out. Three days before the June 15 trading deadline, the Mariners released Cowens. At the age of 34, he was done.
To call it an odd career would be an understatement. After putting up his career best OPS in 1977, he would never come within 80 points of that mark. The 23 home runs that he hit that year represented nearly a quarter of his 13-year career total. Without warning, his performance bottomed out and then peaked again. And then there was the stain of that bitter feud with Farmer, the incident for which Cowens became best known.
After his playing career, Cowens re-entered the public consciousness in a bizarre way. It was in the mid-1990s, as part of the O.J. Simpson murder case. The night that Simpson evaded authorities in a white Bronco, some fans believed that it was Cowens who was driving the accused murderer. They had heard the story wrong; it was Al Cowlings, a former NFL player, who was driving the Bronco. The similarity of their names created confusion, unfairly associating Cowens with the sordid episode. Cowens wasn’t there and had nothing to do with Simpson.
As part of his actual post-playing activities, Cowens had tried to stay in the game. He returned to the Royals’ organization to work as a scout, but his health forced him to resign. He then fell completely out of baseball. Just as he appeared on the verge of returning to the game, Cowens’ health worsened. Then came the fatal heart attack.
Sadly, Cowens has become one of baseball’s tragic figures. His attack on Farmer seemed out of character, a complete aberration. Teammates remembered Cowens, who was affectionately known as “A.C.,” for being soft spoken and easygoing, not for being a vindictive criminal. And then poor health prevented his return to the game, which is what friends say he really wanted.
I just wish that things had turned out better for Al Cowens.
References and Resources
The Sporting News
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.