SABR

Marty Karow

This article was written by David Nemec.

In the Roaring Twenties a new breed of coed sprouted on college campuses across the nation. She smoked, drank, and danced the night away at fraternity parties. She cut her hair, wore make-up, and was a gleeful participant in panty raids. She was giddy, was often called a flapper, and could be persuaded to engage in pranks the likes of which have never been seen in the college ranks before or since. One such outrageous prank occurred in 1926 on the campus of Ohio State University, a vaunted member of the Big Ten Conference. Prior to the Buckeyes’ Homecoming Game on November 13, Rosalind Morrison’s sorority sisters conspired for her to be selected the queen, only to have to blushingly watch her surrender her crown when egregious ballot stuffing was uncovered; although the school had just 9,300 students, more than 13,000 votes were cast, most of them for Morrison.

The crown went instead to Maudine Ormsby, a mysterious female sponsored by the College of Agriculture. When the moment came to present Maudine with her award, it developed that she was a purebred Holstein cow! Already badly embarrassed, the university had little choice but to submit to the hijinks and allow Maudine to take part in the Homecoming parade, although she was prudently relegated to the barn during the postgame dance. Under normal circumstances, the game itself would have been anticlimactic after a week of unparalleled shenanigans –Maudine will almost certainly forever hold the honor of being the only cow ever to reign as a college homecoming queen and Morrison would joke for the rest of her life that her epitaph should read, “But for Maudine, here lies a queen.” But the circumstances surrounding this particular game were far from normal. The contest pitted the undefeated Buckeyes against arch-nemesis Michigan with the Big Ten title at stake and drew a then record crowd at a football game when 90,411 fans packed like sardines into Ohio State’s four-year-old stadium, which had a seating capacity of 66,210 at the time and was still years away from being known as “The Shoe.” It more than lived up to its advance billing when Michigan narrowly escaped a taut seesaw thriller with a 17-16 victory after a dropkicked extra-point attempt by Ohio State sailed a mere few inches under the crossbar, spoiling the Buckeyes’ dreams for both an undefeated season and the Big Ten championship.

Prior to the 42-41 classic at Ann Arbor in 2013, that game remained the only one between Ohio State and Michigan, two of the most storied rivals in college football, to be decided by a single point. Captaining each team that day was a future Hall of Famer. Michigan’s leader was quarterback Benny Friedman, who had carried Cleveland Glenville to the 1922 mythical high school national championship over Chicago Oak Park and is now enshrined in the pro football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Calling the coin toss for Ohio State was fellow Clevelander Marty Karow, one of the finest all-around athletes in Buckeye history and a future member of several sports halls of fame but unhappily never a victor in five attempts against Friedman-led gridiron squads, twice in high school and three times in college.

Martin Gregory Karow and his fraternal twin brother, Joseph, were born in Braddock, Pennsylvania, on July 18, 1904, the youngest of six children of German immigrants Pauline Swatzke Karowsky, known as Lena, and Paul Karowsky, a structural iron worker, for the most part on bridges. Both left Germany for New York in 1888 as teenagers, but it is not known whether they were married at the time. They gave birth to their first child, a son, John, in Elmira, New York, in 1893; a second child, a daughter, Frances, followed four years later. What induced the Karowskys to settle first in Elmira in the 1890s and then in Braddock around the turn of the century was probably Paul’s work on bridges spanning the Chemung and the Monongahela Rivers, respectively. It is unclear how long after the birth of their twin sons the Karowskys left Pennsylvania for Cleveland, but the likelihood is that the move was prompted by an opportunity for Paul to work on the Detroit-Superior Bridge, which was begun in 1914. (The first fixed high level bridge in Cleveland crosses the Cuyahoga River and links Detroit Avenue and Superior Avenue.) Six years later the family was prosperous enough to own their own home at 1295 West 80th Street in Cleveland, and Lena and Paul had become naturalized citizens and shortened their name to Karow. It was as Marty and Joe Karow that the twins played on the Cleveland West Tech High varsity teams. When they graduated in 1922, Marty was the school’s leading light not only on the gridiron but also on the baseball field and the basketball court, while Joe, the better student, already had designs on making dentistry his career.

Soon after Marty Karow matriculated at Ohio State in the fall of 1922 he was elected captain of the incoming freshman football team and was also a key asset on both the freshman basketball and baseball squads. Eligible for varsity play in his sophomore year, the scrappy, hard-nosed 172-pound Karow won the starting fullback slot and played as a linebacker on defense. That winter he was a substitute forward on the varsity basketball team and in the spring he anchored the Buckeyes’ infield and immediately established himself as a future All-Conference shortstop.

By the time Karow graduated from Ohio State in 1927 he had collected seven varsity letters –three in football and baseball and one in basketball – earned the Big Ten’s coveted Potter Run-Maker’s baseball cup in the spring of his junior year and was being avidly pursued by teams in two major pro leagues, one in his hometown and the other in Boston. But while fellow Cleveland high-school whiz Benny Friedman signed with the Cleveland Bulldogs of the unproven National Football League, Karow shunned the Bulldogs for a potentially more secure career in major-league baseball. In June 1927 both Karow and a Buckeye teammate, outfielder Arlie Tarbert, accepted contract offers from a baseball owner with deep roots in Columbus, the home of Ohio State, J.A. Robert Quinn, the lead man for a Columbus syndicate that had bought the Boston Red Sox from Harry Frazee on August 1, 1923. Joining Karow and Tarbert on the Red Sox squad that June was Holy Cross star John Freeman. The trio, rather than being farmed out as would typically be expected with inexperienced collegians, were placed on the Red Sox roster, no doubt to the chagrin of manager Bill Carrigan. Since the Red Sox were perennial tailenders during that period, the decision had little impact on the team’s fortunes but a decisive one on the major-league futures of the three newcomers. Freeman, after sitting idle for long periods between four widely spaced games as a late-inning outfield replacement, was eventually shipped to Atlanta of the Southern Association and left pro ball after the 1927 season. Tarbert, probably the most promising of the new recruits, saw spot duty in the Red Sox outfield for all of 1927 and despite batting just .188 stayed with the parent club in 1928 long enough to hit .176 before being farmed to the Pacific Coast League, where he lasted just six games with Hollywood and abandoned pro ball after going hitless in 12 at-bats. Karow was more fortunate. After a week on the Red Sox bench, he debuted on June 21, 1927, in the first game of a twin bill at Fenway Park when he replaced regular shortstop Buddy Myer in the sixth inning with Boston trailing the first-place Murderers' Row New York Yankees, 7-0, and went 0-for-2 in an eventual 7-3 loss to Herb Pennock. Not about to dislodge future American League batting champ Myer at short, Karow was also tried in two games at third base, a trouble spot for Carrigan until Billy Rogell finally captured the job in midseason.

Some 30 years later the author spoke with Karow about the details of his brief six-game sojourn with the 1927 Red Sox before he was farmed in July to Class A Waterbury. Karow made no mention of an unconfirmed story that the Red Sox had jettisoned him after he started a wild on-field fracas in reaction to a spiking at second base, but while he contended that his glove was at least the equal of that of every other Red Sox infielder that year, he admitted that college – even Big Ten competition – had not prepared him for top-level pitching. His experience with Waterbury bore out his claim. Though his work at shortstop was solid, he hit just .187, 13 points below his average with the Red Sox, and was demoted to Lewiston of the Class B New England League after Waterbury manager Bobby Gill allowed him to sample Eastern League pitching for scarcely two weeks.

Released by the Red Sox late that November, Karow was not yet ready to surrender his baseball ambitions even though he had already embarked on the career that would sustain him for the better part of the next half-century: college coaching. Earlier that fall the University of Texas had hired him as its varsity backfield coach. Karow would hold that post and also serve as the Longhorns’ freshman baseball and basketball coach and later as their head basketball coach through the spring of 1936, when he left the Lone Star State temporarily to put in a two-year stint as the head baseball coach and an assistant basketball and football coach at the U.S. Naval Academy. In 1938 Karow returned to Texas, by now his adopted home (he married Texas native and Baylor graduate Ethel Lucille “Cille” Hodges in 1929, and both of his sons, William and Robert, were born in Texas in 1931 and 1935, respectively) and became the head baseball coach and an assistant football coach at Texas A&M, a role he continued until 1941. That year he also became the Aggies’ head basketball coach. A year later he entered the Navy and served as an athletic officer throughout World War II, putting in one season as the head football coach at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station.

Thus Karow had coached all three major college sports before his 40th birthday, but he never returned to major-league baseball. After the 1927 season he played three more years of minor-league ball, all at the Class A level. Ensconced in Texas in the offseason as a college coach, Karow spent 1928 with Waco of the Texas League, splitting the second-base job with player-manager Del Pratt. He switched to Des Moines of the Western League in 1929, later joined Pueblo of the same league and ended his playing career there in 1930 with his best season in Organized Baseball. Previously handicapped by a conspicuous lack of power, Karow hiked his slugging average to .446 with the fifth-place Pueblo Braves but nonetheless realistically foresaw little future for himself in pro ball when his .299 batting average was good for only 40th place in the offensive-minded Western League.

His baseball career voluntarily ended at the age of 26, Karow turned his full attention to what had always been his favorite sport – football – and to his overriding goal of landing a job as a gridiron coach at his alma mater. No matter at what other school he was coaching he always had one eye on the situation at Ohio State and several times made his aspirations known to the Buckeyes’ athletic director, Lynn St. John. But Karow was not the most diplomatic of men and became increasingly contentious when St. John repeatedly passed him over to hire coaches and assistants who Karow felt were his inferiors. His biographer, former Ohio State pitcher Sonny Fulks (1970-74), said that “Marty apparently burned a lot of bridges over the years when he wanted to come back to Columbus to coach football and was not given the opportunity.” Consequently, after World War II Karow returned to Texas A&M and continued to coach there until after St. John had retired and Dick Larkin succeeded him as athletic director. Aware of the disputatious relations between Karow and his predecessor, St. John, Larkin too was chary about hiring Karow until the fall of 1950 when he named him head baseball coach and an assistant football coach under Wes Fesler. We can reasonably speculate that Karow’s hopes to mentor the Buckeye eleven rose again when Fesler left a year later to coach Minnesota, but the top job went instead to a younger man from Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes. Indeed Fulks confirmed that during the search for Fesler’s replacement Karow was told he was in the running for the position and that Hayes, enamored of his competitor’s lengthy coaching experience and Buckeye ties, asked Larkin to retain Karow as an assistant, only to fire Karow himself after he was late to fall practice in 1951 because he had been with a traveling college all-star baseball team that summer. Karow’s abrupt dismissal sparked a lasting enmity between the two, and not until 1955 would Hayes allow one of his football players with eligibility remaining, pitcher Galen Cisco, to play baseball for OSU.

After Hayes’s hiring Karow seems to have finally capitulated and accepted the inevitable that his contribution as a coach at his alma mater would have to come in baseball. In 1951, his first season in the Bucks’ dugout, Ohio State finished 10-2 in the Big Ten to win the first of five conference championships in his 25 years at its helm and made its first trip to the College World Series, only to be eliminated in the first round after one-run losses to Oklahoma and, ironically, Texas A&M, Karow’s previous port of call. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten again in 1955 with a club that featured Heisman Trophy winner Howard “Hopalong” Cassidy and Cisco but were eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the NCAA tournament and then suffered a ten-year drought despite having a host of future big leaguers wear scarlet and gray threads. Among them were Frank Howard, Johnny Edwards, and Ron Nischwitz, but all signed professional contracts while they were still undergraduates. Howard inked a gigantic $108,000 bonus deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers after his junior year in 1957, star catcher Edwards spent only his sophomore year in Buckeye garb in 1958 before taking a generous offer from Cincinnati and Nischwitz was just emerging as Karow’s hill ace when Detroit snared him for a sizeable bonus prior to the 1958 season.

Saddled with a cast of decent college players at best to serve as his regulars and backups like the author (1958-59), who provided barely adequate bench strength, Karow brought the Buckeyes home second in the Big Ten in 1956 but then usually languished in the bottom half of the conference until the early 1960s. After a third-place finish in 1964, Ohio State began a three-year reign as the Big Ten titlist, highlighted by the last NCAA baseball championship (as of 2012) won by a team east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line when Karow’s 1966 squad parlayed a bizarre regular-season crown, which featured five fewer conference wins than second-place Minnesota but an undefeated 6-0 mark, attributable to a plethora of rained-out contests, into an 8-2 victory over Oklahoma State in the title match. (The previous year Ohio State had been the NCAA runner-up when right-hander Steve Arlin lost a 2-1 decision to Bobby Winkles’s top-ranked Arizona State powerhouse in the series finale.)

After receiving the MVP award for his effort in helping pitch Ohio State to the 1966 college championship, Arlin passed up his senior season to sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, who selected him in the first round of the amateur draft. Despite the loss of Arlin, Karow built a strong-enough club around senior Bo Rein – perhaps the most prominent Buckeye since Karow’s own heyday to star on both the gridiron and the ballfield – to repeat as the Big Ten champion in 1967 but lost in the preliminary round of the College World Series after Rein, a shortstop and outfielder, was declared ineligible on the eve of postseason play.

Named college Coach of the Year after winning the 1966 NCAA title, Karow was honored again in 1967 when he coached the US team in the Pan American Games. The remaining years of his tenure as the Bucks’ pilot were filled for the most part with disappointments on the diamond and personal losses. On May 24, 1973, his wife, Cille, some four years his senior, died at 72. But after Karow was remarried to Martha “Jane” Brockman shortly before his retirement two years later, he went out on a high note. Despite a lackluster 17-22 overall record in 1975 and only his fourth losing campaign in his 25-year stay at his alma mater, Karow’s spirits rose when his charges topped Indiana in the season finale after he had earlier had been presented by the Bucks with a victory over Michigan in his last home game.

Before the introduction of aluminum bats in 1974, Karow coached in an era when pitching and sound fundamentals dominated the college game. His teams were always especially strong in the latter, and in fact he wrote numerous books in conjunction with ex-minor leaguer, college coach, and Frostburg University athletic director Loyal K. Park that were directed at helping fledgling coaches teach their pupils the proper techniques in playing each position. As a sophomore at Ohio State in 1958, the author learned up close and personal from Karow what skills he sought above all others when Karow pulled him aside one February afternoon after a preseason indoor practice and informed him in his customary gruff, straight-from-the-hip fashion that even though he was a good hitter, his glove work at first base was mediocre, his arm was not strong enough to play the outfield, and despite having adequate speed and a keen knowledge of the game, he had insufficient smarts on the bases and consequently could expect to spend most of his days at Ohio State on the junior varsity unless there was a dramatic improvement, particularly in his baserunning. Regrettably from the author’s viewpoint, that caliber of improvement never occurred, and while his playing experience at Ohio State was negligible as a result, he received a first-class education in coaching. Karow’s clubs were renowned for executing the hit-and-run, always seeking to take an extra base, forcing an opponent to make an extra throw and, above all, the element of surprise. As an example of the latter, he trained all his players including power hitters like Frank Howard to bunt with their bats held about eight inches up the handle and both hands merged, contrary to the traditional method of bunting, in which the batter’s hands are spread widely apart. Rather than square around as the pitch was delivered Buckeye hitters would maintain their regular stance and extend the bat as if a bunt was in the offing. Depending on the signal from the third-base coach, either a bunt attempt would be executed or the bat would be yanked back at the last instant and the batter would mandatorily take a full swing if a hit-and-run play was on or, at his discretion, slash away if the pitch was in the strike zone. Trainers of teams that had not previously faced Karow-coached squads frequently had to attend to an infielder when he was flattened by a hot shot after creeping toward the plate anticipating a bunt. This ploy, once seen early in the game, often gave opponents enough pause that Buckeye hitters were freed to lay a pitch down much more easily if a bunt was needed at a later juncture.

Four years after his retirement Karow was part of the third class to be inducted into the Ohio State Sports Hall of Fame. Three years earlier he and his old rival Benny Friedman had been among the first group of athletes to be selected for the newly created Greater Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame. In 1970, five years before his retirement, Karow was enshrined in the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. His most recent honor came in 2008 when his jersey number 13 was retired exactly 33 years after his last home game as the Buckeyes’ head baseball coach.

Karow died of a heart attack in College Station, Texas, on April 27, 1986, at the age of 81. Three years later his twin brother, Joe, his last surviving sibling, died. Since his two sons, William and Robert, both died young, his closest living heirs are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of his siblings.

 

Sources

The author’s journals (1956-60)

Mary Mathewson, professional genealogist

Blaine Bierley, Ohio State sports historian

Bill Nowlin, the reigning authority on the 1927 Boston Red Sox

The Sporting News

Ohio State Alumni Magazine, selected issues from 1924 through 1986

The Ohio State Lantern, the OSU campus newspaper

The Ohio State Bureau of Public Relations

Columbus Dispatch

Columbus Citizen-Journal

Boston Globe

Sonny Fulks, former Ohio State pitcher, currently working on a full-length biography of Karow

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