Today’s Random Player From The Baseball Project That May Or May Not Amount To Anything is Dick Howser. Howser was signed by the Kansas City Athletics in 1958 out of Florida State University. He made his debut on Opening Day in 1961 and would go on to hit .280/.377/.360, made the All-Star team, and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
That was about the best as it would get for Howser, though. The next year his average dropped to .238, though would maintain a good walk rate throughout his career. After eight years and three teams, he hung up the spikes in 1968 with the Yankees. The following season he took over as the team’s third base coach. He held that job for a decade before going back to FSU, this time as the head baseball coach.
After one season in college he came back to the Yankees, this time as manager of the club (he did manage one game for them in 1978). The Yankees won the AL East that season, but were swept by the Royals in the ALCS. A key moment in the series came in the eighth inning of Game 2. With the Royals leading 3-2, Willie Randolph hit a one out single. Then Dennis Leonard struck out Bobby Murcer for the second out. Bob Watson then lined a 1-2 pitch to the left wall for a clear double. With two out Randolph was off and running. Royals left fielder Willie Wilson played the bounce off of the wall perfectly and looped a throw to George Brett. The Yankees third base coach had sent Randolph home with the chance to tie the game. Brett’s relay throw beat Randolph by 10 feet. Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner – a rational man by all accounts – was livid at his coach’s decision and demanded that Howser fire him on the spot. Howser wasn’t one to put up with Steinbrenner’s B.S., and refused to do so. After the series was over Steinbrenner fired Howser.*
*-This was nothing new for George. From 1973 through 1995 his list of managers goes like this: Ralph Houk-Bill Virdon-Billy Martin-Dick Howser-Bob Lemon-Billy Martin-Dick Howser-Gene Michael-Bob Lemon-Gene Michael-Clyde King-Billy Martin-Yogi Berra-Billy Martin-Lou Piniella-Billy Martin-Lou Piniella-Dallas Green-Bucky Dent-Stump Merrill-Buck Showalter. Billy Martin was actually in line to manage the Yankees a sixth time in 1990 before getting drunk and dying in a single car accident. His next to last hiring led to one of the greatest cartoons in the history of the Plain Dealer. It was a newspaper headline reading “Martin to Manage Yankees Again: Cold Day in Hell”.
Howser wasn’t unemployed for too long. Late in the 1981 season the defending American League champs were struggling. They were just 10-10 in the second half of the split season and management had decided a change was in order. So they fired Jim Frey and replaced him with Howser. The Royals went 20-13 the rest of the way to win the second half title only to be swept by Oakland in the Division Series (they remain the only team in Major League history to make the playoffs with a losing record).
The next year the Royals won 90 games but finished second to the Angels. After a losing record in 1983 the Royals got back to the postseason in 1984, taking the AL West with a modest 84-78 record. They were expectedly swept in the ALCS by the Tigers in three games. The next year the Royals were so-so for most of the year and were five games out on the morning of August 6. They went 36-23 the rest of the way to win the division by one game.
I’ve pointed out how Howser managed the 1985 ALCS in a previous post, but this time his team got completely over the hump. After trailing the World Series three games to one against the heavily favored Cardinals, the Royals won Game 5, caught a break and watched the Cardinals melt down at the end of Game 6, and then watched the melt down finish throughout Game 7 as the Royals won their first World Series in franchise history.
The following year the Royals stumbled throughout the first half of the season and at the All-Star break were 40-48. Howser managed the All-Star Game as the reigning AL Champion manager, and it was noticed that he didn’t look right. It turned out he had a cancerous tumor in his brain. He took the rest of the year off and despite the efforts at a comeback the following spring, the 1986 All-Star Game was the last game he managed, as his deteriorating health wouldn’t allow him to continue to manage.
In June of 1987, Dick Howser died; he was only 51 years old. His lifetime record as a manager was 507-425, with four playoff appearances and that 1985 World Series championship. In July of 1987 Howser’s number 10 was the first Royals’ number retired. Florida State named their stadium in his honor. And the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce created the Dick Howser Trophy to reward the top college baseball player in the country.
This season Rockies manager Bud Black is wearing number 10 to honor his former manager.
In 2013 Bill James created a method to compare managerial records, with 100 points being the ideal dividing line between Hall of Fame worthy and short of that. Howser only managed five full seasons (parts of three others), but his accomplishments had already accumulated 42 points. It’s tough to say what would have happened, but one can’t help but wonder about a life cut tragically short.
It seemed to be the start of a downhill ride for the franchise. A few years later Ewing Kauffman died. Then in 1994 the Royals had a 64-51 at the time of the strike. It took another 20 years for the Royals to return to glory.