Larry Bowa: Pride of Philadelphia and Sacramento

NOTE: This is a guest post from Marshall Garvey

It’s become something of a cliche to praise a modern player who shows any semblance of hustle as a “throwback”. Should one employ the term, though, Larry Bowa is the ideal litmus. In a year that’s seeing home runs fly at a historic rate (juiced ball or no), Bowa would be out of step, hitting a scant 15 in his entire career. His forte was instead pure defense, coupled with reliable contact hitting. He didn’t even look like a star ballplayer, with a small, skinny frame and a mug graced by a bulbous nose. Even more vintage than his playing style is his story, one of tenacity forged by doubts about his ability and later turning MLB’s lousiest franchise into a winner.

The Early Years

That story began in an unlikely place: Sacramento, California. While the River City might not come to mind as an eminent baseball city for most, it’s been the hometown and launching pad for players spanning from Stan Hack to Derrek Lee. Bowa was practically destined to join this group from birth; his father Paul played in the minor leagues (including the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League), and mother Mary excelled in softball. Larry first honed his skills under his father’s tutelage with a Land Park Little League team. Always the smallest kid on the squad, he learned not only the fundamentals of the game, but a fervent sense of determination to overcome any adversity he faced.

Larry Bowa
Bowa (colored sleeves) as a youth in Sacramento

This resilience was tested right away in his teens at C.K. McClatchy High School. The school coach derided Bowa for his size, telling him he was simply too short to excel in baseball. Bowa was cut from the team, only adding to his drive. His family, disheartened when he broke the news, avoided summer vacations from thereon to accommodate his playing in the Summer League. That dedication paid off when Sacramento City College coach Del Bandy spotted Bowa and asked him to join the school’s team, the Panthers. It was there his talent flourished, earning league MVP and the attention of Eddie Bockman, a major league scout from the Philadelphia Phillies.

However, that scout didn’t get to see the young prospect in action right away. In a moment that would become common in his later coaching days, Bowa managed to get ejected from both games of the doubleheader that served as his audition. Bockman would eventually see Bowa’s natural talent, signing him to a minor league deal. In 1970, the kid who was told he couldn’t succeed at McClatchy High School debuted as Philadelphia’s shortstop at Connie Mack Stadium.

To Philadelphia

It was perfect timing. The fiery, chip-on-the-shoulder mentality Bowa fomented in his youth suited him for 1970’s Philadelphia. It was a decade that saw the city face substantial adversity, as deindustrialization hollowed out its economy and “white flight” to the suburbs turned once vibrant neighborhoods into slums. Unbecoming of its nickname, the City of Brotherly Love was further torn apart by intense racial discord, exacerbated by police chief-turned-mayor Frank Rizzo’s clashes with black liberation groups.

Nothing embodied the gritty tribulation of the city during this time more than the Phillies, a franchise with much to prove. Despite almost an entire century of existence, the Phils were the embodiment of baseball futility. Of the original 16 teams in Major League Baseball, they were the only one without a World Series title, with just two intermittent pennants (1915 and 1950) to punctuate decades of grueling irrelevance. The Phold of 1964 still left a searing pain for fans, when the club squandered a 6½ game lead with only 12 left to play and missed out on what seemed a surefire NL pennant.

The first half of the 70’s were more of the same old, bottom-feeding Phillies. But the scrawny Sacramentan quickly distinguished himself as a premiere shortstop during that span. By 1972 he was already a Gold Glove winner, racking up assists, putouts and double plays with ease. Two years after that, he earned his first All Star selection. The team even came around and posted a winning record in 1975, augmented by Bowa’s career-best .305 average. When asked about his success, Bowa didn’t credit his trademark heart and hustle but rather…transcendental meditation.

Playoff Runs

1976, all too fittingly, was the year the Fightin’ Phils completed their renaissance. Philadelphia was thrust into the national spotlight anew by the U.S. Bicentennial celebration, and an unlikely smash hit at the movie theaters that became the city’s pop culture insignia. On Thanksgiving week, Americans packed into cinemas to watch a rudimentary but charming film about an Italian-American boxer named Rocky Balboa. With Philly’s blue collar neighborhoods as his training ground, Balboa went from an aimless club fighter to going the distance with champion Apollo Creed. Rocky conquered the box office, then improbably won the Academy Award for Best Picture against much-favored competition. Amidst the slog of stagflation, poverty and racial strife, the city could beam with pride at the success of a local underdog sports hero, albeit a fictional one.

Before Rocky conquered the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Phillies weaved their own rags-to-riches tale in ‘76. They won 101 games, giving the franchise its first postseason berth since the “Whiz Kids” of 1950. Bowa’s pristine fielding earned him his third straight All-Star selection, ranking in the NL top five in fielding percentage at shortstop. Alongside him was an ever-improving battery of stars: third baseman Mike Schmidt, equal parts slugger and defensive maestro; Greg Luzinski, a stocky outfielder with a penchant for monstrous homers; Steve Carlton, a crafty southpaw against whom hitting was like “drinking coffee with a fork” (in the words of Willie Stargell); and reliever Tug McGraw, who rallied the rival New York Mets to an impossible pennant in 1973 with the hokey yet galvanic phrase, “Ya gotta believe!”

Any hopes of ending the franchise’s title drought were quickly (and perhaps predictably) snuffed out in the NLCS by the Cincinnati Reds. “The Big Red Machine” were the defending World Series champions, in the midst of a two-year run that merited consideration for greatest team of all-time. Cincinnati swept Philadelphia in three games, but the nucleus for the most successful stretch in franchise history had been formed. For the first time since 1964, Philadelphia could reasonably envision a World Series on the horizon.

Being the Phillies, that World Series wouldn’t come without enduring some more macabre heartbreak. The 1977 squad won 101 games again to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS. Philadelphia looked poised to take the series at home late in game three, holding a 5-3 lead with two outs in the top of the ninth. It was then that Bowa would be front and center for the devastation of “Black Friday”, the moment that led to more tears in the Delaware Valley than any other in Phillies history. (At least until Joe Carter, anyway.)

The Dodgers scored a run on two hits and an error to make it 5-4 with a runner on third. Davey Lopes then chopped a grounder that bounced off Schmidt’s knee, which Bowa swiftly grabbed and propelled to first. Lopes was called safe in what appeared to be a virtual tie, allowing the tying run to score. The Phillies argued, but to no avail. Los Angeles rallied to win the game, and easily beat the deflated Phils the next day to take the series. The teams met again in ‘78 with the same result, this time ending on a walk-off hit at Dodger Stadium.

1980

At the end of a step-back season in 1979, the front office selected Dallas Green as manager, hoping he could refine an already talented club into a championship one. Green implemented a no-nonsense clubhouse ethic, feeling the players had been too loose in recent years. Long-time stars were no longer guaranteed play time if a younger player was doing better, a “We, Not I” sign graced the clubhouse wall, and the door to Green’s office was frequently left open for verbal reamings.

This leadership style butted heads with many veterans, especially Bowa. The shortstop and new skipper frequently clashed in heated exchanges. One time, Bowa did manage to get in a rare last word. After a particularly dismal loss, Green left the door open again as he spoke to reporters, loudly questioning the team’s desire to win. Bowa instructed one writer to ask Green how many games he won in his career as a major league pitcher (the answer: 20). Green’s booming response from the office: “Touche, Bo. Touche.”

Green’s style wasn’t what the players wanted, but it was certainly what they needed. Unlike their dominant seasons in the 70’s, the Phils were locked in a multi-team race all throughout 1980, and it would take everything they had to win the NL East. Green’s patience was exhausted by an August slump that put them six games behind Montreal, leading to a clubhouse lecture so thunderous that reporters could hear it in the hallways outside. It did the trick, as the Phillies rattled off a bevy of one-run wins down the stretch and eked out a division title.

It was just the warm-up they needed for the NLCS against Houston, a white-knuckle battle that might still be the greatest series in NL history. Four of the five games went into extra innings, each one marked by miraculous comebacks and near-misses. In the deciding fifth game in Houston, the Phillies found themselves staring at yet another devastating postseason defeat as they trailed 5-2 in the eighth inning. Worse, the Astros had none other than Nolan Ryan patrolling the pitcher’s mound, making a rally seem all the more unlikely.

Once again, Bowa would be center stage for an indelible NLCS moment. Much unlike “Black Friday”, it was a triumphant one. He led off the eighth with a single against Ryan, keying a five-run rally that set up an 8-7, 10-inning win. The Phillies were finally back in the World Series, thanks in no small part to Bowa’s .315 average throughout the LCS. But their title drought wasn’t officially over unless they got through George Brett and the Kansas City Royals. In the first game, the unyielding shortstop came through yet again. The Royals staked a 4-0 lead early on when Bowa, just like a few nights before in Houston, started a five-run rally with a base hit, ending in a 7-6 victory.

The series saw Philly engaged in more one-run battles, but wouldn’t go the distance. It ended in game six, with Tug McGraw striking out Willie Wilson for the final out. As McGraw rotated his pitching hand into a celebratory fist pump, the team swarmed the mound as the franchise’s historic drought was finally laid to rest. For the veterans of the squad, it was a complete effort: Carlton won two games including the clincher, Schmidt took home World Series MVP honors, and the image of an exultant McGraw became the defining image of the series. Yet Bowa was hardly lost in the shuffle. He hit a muscular .375 (with a hit in every game), turned a WS-record seven double plays, and scored one of Philadelphia’s four runs in the clinching game.

Bowa’s heroics for 1980 were an apropos bookend to his full decade in a Phillies uniform. As he evolved into one of the game’s finest shortstops during that span, the Phils transformed from a perennial loser in 1970 to World Series champions in ‘80. They were also his veritable swan song: after a first round playoff exit in 1981, an aging Bowa was traded alongside budding infielder Ryne Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs. He hung up the cleats for good with the Mets in 1985, holding defensive records like career games at shortstop in the NL (2,222), career fielding percentage (.980) and fielding percentage for a single season (.991 in 1979).

Still a Phan Phavorite

Today, Bowa remains a source of pride for the oft-derided cities that shaped him, both of which honored him accordingly. He was enshrined in the Philadelphia Baseball Wall of Fame in 1991, and the Sacramento Sports Hall of Fame in 2016. Even with those accolades, he hasn’t put baseball behind him just yet, currently serving his fourth stint in Philadelphia (this time as bench coach). The Phillies, like so many times before, languish in dead last, grinding out a much-needed rebuilding cycle. Whether Bowa sticks around for its payoff remains to be seen. Thanks to his direct contributions to their first title, and his help setting the stage for the second, it’s a wait he and Philly fans can afford to sit through a little more easily than before.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A graduate of UC Davis with a B.A. in history, Marshall Garvey serves on the board of directors for the Sacramento County Historical Society. He’s currently working on the forthcoming book The Hidden History of Sacramento Baseball, in which Bowa and many other local players are profiled. In 2010, he fused his love of history and the national pastime to create the Presidents Baseball card franchise, which imagines all of America’s Presidents as a baseball team. He’s also the lead editor of the popular Sacramento-based video game blog Last Token Gaming. An avid baseball fan since 2000, he roots for several teams and stresses out about the Dodgers way too much.

 

 

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