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.

 

 

Wild One at the Vet

Sometimes mistakes can work in your favor. That was certainly the case for Tommy Lasorda and the L.A. Dodgers when they took on the Phillies at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on May 4th, 1980.

Prior to the game, Dodgers pitcher Don Sutton took the lineup care to home plate and handed it to umpire Paul Pryor. There was just one problem.  Bench coach Monty Basgall had two different versions of the lineup. He handed one to Sutton, but posted the other on the wall of the Dodgers dugout. Then the fun began.

Eventful 1st Inning

Davey Lopes led off with a single off Phillies starter Randy Lerch and Rudy Law reached on an error by 2nd baseman Luis Aguayo. Two batters later, Steve Garvey was up when Pete Rose noticed something was amiss. The lineup posted in the Dodgers dugout had Dusty Baker up after Garvey, while the one given to the umpires (and the Phillies) had Ron Cey as the next batter.

Rose noticed the Dodgers were out of order

“I’m out there on first and I see Baker on deck,” said Rose. “I said to (first base umpire John) McSherry, ‘They’re batting out of order. What do I do?’ He said, ‘Wait ’til he makes an out or something.”

So that’s what Pete did. Garvey singled to score Lopes and give the Dodgers a 1-0 lead and when Baker strode to the plate, he hit a ground ball to Aguayo for what looked to be an inning-ending double play. But the Phillies couldn’t turn it and Baker was safe on a fielder’s choice while Rudy Law scored the Dodgers’ second run.

“When I got to first, Pete Rose said, ‘You hit out of order,'” Baker told the media after the game. “I said, ‘Man, you’re crazy'”

But it turned out Pete was right. at least according to one of the lineup cards. Rose immediately told the Phillies dugout what had happened and the umpires were summoned. But then there was another problem. The rule book stated what happened when the batter got a hit or made an out but there was no specific mention of what happened if the batter hit into a fielder’s choice. A lengthy umpire conference ensued and the final decision was that Cey, who should have been hitting, was declared out, Law was returned to 3rd, Garvey returned to 1st and Baker was the batter. Phillies manager Dallas Green was furious.

“I didn’t make the mistake, yet I’m the one suffering the consequences,” he said. “The batter should be out because he did what he did. And the runner at second was out so he should be out. If the batter makes an out, I don’t say anything. If we turn a double play, I just let it go.”

But that’s not what happened and it was about to get even worse for Green and the Phillies. Baker stepped up to the plate to face Lerch for the second time in a row. But instead of grounding out, he hit a three-run homer.

“It was a weird game,” said Baker. “Weirdest I’ve ever been in.”

More Twists

It only got worse for the Phillies from there. The Dodgers tacked on one run in the 3rd and four more in the 6th. When the Phillies came to bat in the bottom of the 6th, they trailed 9-0. But that’s when their bats came to life.

Bull got the Phillies on the board

Dodgers starter Dave Goltz was riding a scoreless streak of more than 20 innings when Del Unser singled and Mike Schmidt doubled to put runners on 2nd and 3rd. Greg Luzinski followed with a three-run homer, Bob Boone homered after that and suddenly it was 9-4. Philadelphia added three more in the 7th and two in the 8th. What was a 9-0 game was suddenly a 9-9 tie.

“I’m sitting there relaxed,” said Lasorda. “I’m feeling good. I’m winning 9-0. I’ve got a guy out there going for his 3rd straight shutout. All of a sudden I look up and I’ve used everybody on my (pitching) staff.”

Eventful 9th Inning

Green went with Dickie Noles, his 5th pitcher of the afternoon, for the 9th inning and things immediately went downhill. A Derrel Thomas single was followed by back-to-back broken-bat singles by Gary Thomasson and Garvey and a passed ball by substitute catcher Keith Moreland.  Mickey Hatcher then doubled to score Thomasson and Garvey and the Dodgers were up 12-9.

Lasorda called on Jerry Reuss, who would later throw the season’s only no-hitter, to close the game for the Dodgers. Two singles and another passed ball made it 12-10, but Reuss struck out Moreland to finally end the game.

It was a game that featured 36 players, 28 hits, 22 runs, 11 pitchers, four errors, three passed balls and two wild pitches. Just another day at the yard.

 

On Dallas Green

Dallas Green… was tall, blunt, and had a voice like a foghorn.”

-Bill Giles

Midway through the 1979 season, it became clear that Danny Ozark had lost control of the Philadelphia Phillies and a change was needed. At one point during the season, Ozark confided in Phillies team president Bill Giles, “I can’t control these guys. They’re making 10 times more money than me.”

On August 31st, 1979, the popular Ozark was fired and replaced by Farm Director Dallas Green. He took over with 30 games left in the season and used it to evaluate what he had, and what he needed. One of the biggest changes he felt needed to be made was the team’s attitude.

“We’re in trouble,” Green told reporters when he took the job on an interim basis. “We owe the Philly fans a lot more than we’ve been giving them for their money. We’ll make some over the winter and find out who wants to play here and who doesn’t.”

The Phillies had officially been put on notice. Green got right to the point and a lot of the Phillies, specifically the veterans, didn’t care for his style. When players groused about his ways he told them it was their fault that he was the manager because their poor play had gotten Ozark fired.

We, Not I!

When spring training began in 1980, Green had signs placed around the Phillies facility that said, “We, Not I.” The message was sent, but it wasn’t well received. Many felt it was too rah-rah for a major league team, but Green didn’t care. In fact, that was a big key to his success.

Dallas Green was the rare major-league manager who didn’t especially want the job, didn’t care who he pissed off, and had the full support of the front office. In short, he was a comfortable player’s worst nightmare.

“It’s not going to be a country club; you can count on that,” he said of his first spring training. “If you get away from the basics and get away from the idea that you can play yourself into shape and forget that conditioning and fundamentals are how the game is won, then you’re in trouble.”

A Dream Season

Green led the Phillies to an N.L. East title in 1980, but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t without incident. In early August, the Phillies went to Pittsburgh for a crucial four-game series against the defending World Series Champion Pirates. The Phillies were in 3rd place. A good series could vault them over the Pirates and have them nipping at the heels of the first-place Montreal Expos.  Instead, they got swept.

Green let his team have it. “Get off your asses and beat somebody,” he railed. “If you don’t want to play, come into my office and tell me, ‘I don’t want to play.’

“You’ve got to stop being so cool, and if you don’t get that through your minds you’re going to be so far behind it won’t be funny.”

The sweep left the Phillies six games out in the N.L. East, but it also lit a fire under them. They won the division on the last weekend of the season, then went on to beat Houston in the NLCS and Kansas City in the World Series.

Legacy

Phillies phans owe Dallas Green a debt of gratitude. The franchise began playing baseball in 1883 but until 1980 they had never won a World Series. Dallas Green took them there in his first full season. R.I.P., Dallas. You’ll be missed.

 

The Mysterious Case of Dallas Green

All young baseball fans dream of hitting a walkoff home run to win the World Series like Bill Mazeroski or Joe Carter. It’s a great way to ensure your spot in history. If you played in the major leagues from 1960 through 1967 there was another thing you could do to give yourself a shot at future fame. It wasn’t a guarantee like a dramatic post-season home run, but there was also a lot less pressure. All you needed to do was hit a home run off Dallas Green.

Green is best known for managing the Philadelphia Phillies to the 1980 World Series championship, the first one in franchise history. What many people don’t know is that Green was also a major league pitcher. In a career that spanned eight seasons and 562 innings, Green won 20 games and gave up 46 home runs to just 33 different players. Quite a select fraternity and membership has its privileges. How so?

Dallas Green & Larry Bowa
Dallas Green & Larry Bowa

If you were a National League hitter in the 60’s and homered off Green, you had nearly a 50/50 shot of either being a Hall of Famer or managing a major league team. Of the 33 players who took Green deep, 16 of them either made the Hall of Fame or managed in the big-leagues.

Green signed as a free-agent in 1955 out of the University of Delaware and made his big-league debut on June 18th, 1960 against the San Francisco Giants. In his second outing, five days later, he faced the Chicago Cubs at Connie Mack Stadium and gave up longballs to Don Zimmer and Ernie Banks.

An Impressive List

Before he retired after the 1967 season, Green had given up home runs to the following Hall of Famers: Banks, Ron Santo, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Clemente, Willie McCovey, Duke Snider and Henry Aaron. Future skippers included Zimmer, Bob Skinner, Billy Martin, Joe Adcock, Joey Amalfitano, Felipe Alou, Bill Virdon and Pete Rose.

The final two are perhaps the most interesting. Virdon hit his 81st career home run off of Green and later managed against Green in the 1980 NLCS. Rose hit the only Grand Slam of his career off of Green and then played for Green on the 1980 Phillies.

The Rose and Virdon stories are just two ties to the 1980 season. Willie McCovey played his last game in July of 1980, Snider was elected to the Hall of Fame in January of 1980, Virdon, Zimmer, Martin and Amalfitano were all managers in 1980 and on September 21st, 1962, Green gave up a home run to a Houston rookie outfielder named Rusty Staub, who was still active in 1980.

But Green’s remarkable home run history doesn’t end there. In the first game of a doubleheader on June 23rd, 1963, Jimmy Piersall hit the 100th home run of his career. To celebrate, he famously ran the bases while facing backward. That home run came off none other than Dallas Green.