Cooperstown Confidential: Why Bob Howsam isn’t in the Hall of Fameby Bruce Markusen
January 13, 2012
One of my favorite Christmas presents came to me courtesy of my wife, Sue. It’s Bill White’s book, Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play, which was published last spring and tells the story of the man who was a fine first baseman, a respected broadcaster, and the first African-American league president in major league history. I’m enjoying the book thoroughly; it is clearly written, thoughtful, and pulls no punches.
Both riveting and blunt, the book sheds particularly vivid light on the kinds of racism that black ballplayers such as White faced, first as a minor leaguer in the 1950s and then as a major leaguer in the 1960s. White doesn’t deal in vague generalities; he talks about specific incidents in which he was treated like a second-class citizen.
On one occasion during his minor league career, while the rest of his white teammates ate in a roadside dinner, White sat on the bus alone. As he looked into the restaurant, he buried his head in his hands and wept—the first and only time he had ever done so.
Then there was a game in Winston-Salem during which White was heckled by a number of fans, who shouted at him, calling him “nigger.” After hitting a home run, one of the fans said, “I guess I’ll have to start calling you ‘Mr. ######.’” Almost immediately, other fans began chanting, “Mr. ######, Mr. ######.”
White also discusses how he and the Cardinals played a role in ending spring training segregation in early-1960s Florida. The Cardinals trained in St. Petersburg, where the local Chamber of Commerce held a “Salute Baseball” dinner, but only invited the white players on the Cardinals. In 1961, seven years after Brown vs. The Board of Education and many years after Jackie Robinson’s arrival, St. Petersburg hotels continued to exclude black customers, forcing the Cardinals to split their squad in half.
Led by White’s protests, and with the front office eventually lending its support, the Cardinals’ organization insisted on one team hotel for all of the players staying in St. Petersburg. By 1962, the Cardinals united all of their players under one spring training roof.
In a completely different but still intriguing issue, White offers no-holds-barred commentary about Bob Howsam, who became the Cardinals’ general manager in the middle of the 1964 world championship season. Howsam replaced Bing Devine, who was blamed for St. Louis’ awful start in 1964.
In August, with the Cardinals in fifth place and nine games out, owner Gussie Busch fired Devine and hired Howsam. According to White, within hours of the end of Game Seven of the World Series, Howsam tried to take credit for the Cardinals‘ championship.
“But hardly any of us liked the guy [Howsam],” White writes. “As far as most of us on the Cardinals were concerned, it was Bing Devine, not Bob Howsam, who had made our World Series victory possible, not least of all by bringing in Lou Brock [via trade].
“So when Howsam stood up that night…and told the crowd, ‘I just want to point out that this turnaround didn’t happen until I took over the team,’ I went into a slow burn.” After Ken Boyer spoke, White took his turn at the podium, and redirected the credit to Devine.
White’s dislike for Howsam grew when it came time to negotiate his contract for the 1965 season.
Most of us had no respect for Bob Howsam. He just didn’t seem to know how to act in the big leagues. For example, in 1964 the Cardinals had paid me $47,000, second only to Ken Boyer…So in January, 1965, I asked for what I felt was a fair raise. I deserved it, but Howsam hemmed and hawed and then claimed he couldn’t give me a raise because he had to spend $30,000 to smooth out center field in Busch Stadium and there was no money left for player raises. It was nonsense.After the 1965 season, an awful year for the Cardinals, Howsam traded White and shortstop Dick Groat to the Phillies for outfielder Alex Johnson, catcher Pat Corrales and pitcher Art Mahaffey. It was a trade that would provide nothing of benefit for the Cardinals. When asked about his reasoning behind the trade, Howsam told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “Bill White is older than he says he is.” Howsam claimed White was 37, and not his stated age of 31, a difference of six years.
Justifiably, Howsam’s charge infuriated White. “I had a birth certificate, high school and college records, military records, any of which could have established my age if anyone wanted to check. Howsam hadn’t bothered. He just flat-out lied, presumably to get back at me for supporting Bing Devine.”
Prior to reading White’s book, I had long wondered why Howsam never won election to the Hall of Fame; in fact, he has never really come close. His candidacy, at least on the surface, seems so strong. While it’s true that Howsam was relatively negligible in his nearly three-year stint as the general manager of the Cardinals, he completely reversed the course of his career in Cincinnati.
Howsam joined the front office of the Reds in 1967 at a time when the franchise was mired in the mediocrity of non-contention. In fact, Cincinnati had not won anything of consequence since 1961, when the Vada Pinson/Frank Robinson Reds captured the National League pennant. Furthermore, the Reds had not won a world championship since 1940.
Howsam resuscitated the Reds’ franchise by using a two-tiered approach. He simultaneously rebuilt Cincinnati’s farm system through shrewd drafting while also executing a series of terrific trades, some of the blockbuster variety and some that failed to create a ripple at the time.
The restocking of the farm system laid the foundation for Reds success in the 1970s; the trades, most of which were clear wins by Howsam over his counterparts, provided finishing touches to what would become a near-dynasty.
Under Howsam’s leadership, the Reds drafted and developed young, hard-throwing pitchers like Don Gullett and Wayne Simpson, who became major contributors to the 1970 National League championship team. (Both ended up breaking down physically, but that’s more a matter of overwork and bad luck than anything Howsam did.)
Howsam then oversaw the signing of Dave Concepcion and the draft selection of Ken Griffey, Sr., who became important supplements to the “Big Red Machine” of the mid-seventies. Concepcion emerged as the Reds’ first quality shortstop since Leo Cardenas, while Griffey stabilized right field, which had become a revolving door.
With Concepcion, Griffey and Gullett all playing vital, high-profile roles, the Reds advanced to the World Series in 1972, 1975 and 1976, winning championships the latter two seasons.
Yet, it was at the trading table where Howsam truly excelled, showing his aptitude for major league player evaluation. In 1971, he pulled off two historic deals that sealed Cincinnati’s fortunes as a future world champion.
The first trade came in May; it produced few headlines with its announcement but would become a headlining transaction. Knowing that the athletic Concepcion could fill the shortstop role for years to come, Howsam peddled another shortstop prospect, Frank Duffy, and a minor league pitcher named Vern Geishert to the Giants for spare outfielder George Foster.
Facing a logjam of outfielders in San Francisco (where the Giants already had Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds, Jim Ray Hart, Ken Henderson and Garry Maddox), Foster had no where to go in Candlestick Park. He would eventually become the Reds’ everyday left fielder, one of the league’s top right-handed power sources, and the 1977 National League MVP when he clouted a league-leading 52 home runs.
Next came Howsam’s master stroke. It happened during the 1971 winter meetings, profiled in this space several weeks ago. With his lineup leaning too heavily to the right and the Reds’ defense shaky in spots, Howsam dealt first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and an infielder/outfielder named Jimmy Stewart (no relation to the actor) to the Houston Astros for infielders Joe Morgan and Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and right-handed pitcher Jack Billingham.
In one massive changeover swoop, Howsam improved the Reds defensively at three infield positions. The new configuration moved Tony Perez from third base to first base, where he was far more comfortable, improving the defense at third with the sure-handed Menke.
Most critically, Howsam obtained one of the greatest players of the seventies in Morgan, who would win two MVP awards in a Reds uniform while adding on-base percentage, a potent left-handed bat, foot speed and range to the Cincinnati lineup. That trade, engineered by Howsam, remains one of the most significant in major league history.
Howsam also knew something about managers. He fired Dave Bristol, who was relatively popular. In his place, he hired Sparky Anderson, at the time a relatively unknown coach with the Padres. That move worked out flawlessly.
By the time Howsam stepped down as the Reds’ chief executive and team president in 1978, the team had won six division titles, four pennants and two world championships within the span of a dozen seasons. As the primary architect of the “Big Red Machine,” Howsam made the Reds relevant for the better part of the 1970s.
So how do we reconcile the brilliant wisdom of Howsam’s tenure in Cincinnati with the egotistical and miserly buffoon whom Cardinals players despised in St. Louis? I suppose it’s possible that Howsam learned from his mistakes in St. Louis and became a better and smarter GM with the Reds. Or perhaps Howsam would have done similarly fine work with the Cardinals if he had stayed there longer.
Maybe there is another possibility. I think it’s quite likely that Howsam, while being a smart baseball man, remained an egotistical ogre who continued to be disliked by his players in Cincinnati, even when they were winning pennants and championships.
The Reds’ organization of the sixties became notorious for being cheap with its players, restricting their freedoms when it came to facial hair and personal grooming and demanding they wear their pants and socks in a very specific fashion. Those who didn’t conform to the rules, some of which might have been called draconian, would be punished by being traded away.
Howsam, who was a hardliner against the Players’ Association, was the centerpiece to maintaining such an atmosphere of regimentation and discipline, to the point where his players resented him for it.
Some of Howsam’s former players with the Cardinals and Reds, including Bill White himself, have become members of the Veterans’ Committee, responsible for electing executives to the Hall of Fame. Some of those players have also become Hall of Famers, also entrusted with Veterans’ Committee voting privileges over the last 10 to 20 years. Maybe those players, remembering the way Howsam treated them, have decided to exact some justice by voting against him time and time again.
Does Howsam deserve election to the Hall of Fame? Based on his body of work in Cincinnati, yes, he does. But in reading about White’s memories, Howsam falls well short of the Hall of Fame’s standard of “integrity, sportsmanship and character.”
Howsam died in 2008 at the age of 89. Very few people outside of Cincinnati paid much attention to his passing. Perhaps that says more than anything else that’s been written.
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.