It was a career seemingly launched from a Norman Rockwell illustration: a young right-handed hurler departing his parents’ home to walk – or more often run – the half-mile course to the ball field to launch his professional career. In 1953 Billy Joe Bowman left the house on Fairview Avenue, crossing Brush Creek and the paralleling railroad tracks until he reached his destination on Bert Street: Keystone Field, home of the Johnson City (Tennessee) Cardinals.
Six years earlier the hard-throwing high school sophomore had led his team to a state championship title. In 1951 Bowman’s prowess, both at the plate and on the mound, propelled the University of Tennessee to the finals in the College World Series. He was aggressively sought by the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds, among a host of suitors. When Bowman signed with the Cardinals in 1953, it appeared to be the beginning of a storybook career.
But storybook pursuits can often depart from the appointed path. A promising start, sandwiched around a stint in the military, gave way to challenges, some aggravated by personal trials off the field. In December 1959, after his purchase by the Indianapolis Indians in the American Association, Bowman retired as a player. But for the next five-plus decades he maintained a close relationship with his beloved game.
William Joseph Bowman was born on June 12, 1930, the first of five children born to John Frank and Dorothy Elizabeth (Randolph) Bowman in Johnson City. The Bowman family had put down roots as farmers in eastern Tennessee at the turn of the 19th century. John “Frank” met his future wife, a North Carolina native, when the pair was walking along the railroad tracks from their jobs at the hosiery mills. Raising a young family in the teeth of the Depression, Frank found employment in a variety of occupations in order to make ends meet. An accomplished semi-pro pitcher and enormous baseball fan, he took his son along to the games where Billy often served as the batboy.
Bowman developed his father’s passion for baseball (as did his younger brother Ernie who played three years in the majors and many more in the minor leagues). Lacking the money to purchase admission to the Class D Johnson City games, Billy would carve a knothole in the stadium’s wooden fence to catch a glimpse of the ballplayers. A thin, wiry stature did not prevent Bowman from building his own impressive résumé of athletic accomplishments at Johnson City’s Science Hill High School. He ran track and played basketball but, as the 1947 state championship indicates, Bowman performed best on the diamond. The next year he led Science Hill to runner-up state champions.1 Courted by professional scouts, Bowman preferred to consider baseball scholarships offered by Mississippi State University and the University of Tennessee. He chose Tennessee for the simple reason that it was closer to home. When Tennessee’s athletic director Robert Neyland and baseball coach Cy Anderson visited, Bowman later recalled, “They said, ‘We’ll give you a full scholarship, books, and we’ll give you a $25 a month stipend.’ And I signed the papers.”2
A former minor league player, Cy Anderson required his charges “to sign a pledge not to marry while they held a scholarship.”3 In 1951 this singular focus on baseball helped the Volunteers march to a Southeastern Conference record 16-1 season.4 The “Cinderella team”5 eliminated Princeton in the second round of the College World Series tournament on Bowman’s six-hit, complete game pitching. In the early stages of the fourth round the Vols faced elimination, trailing the University of Southern California by a 6-2 score. On one day’s rest Bowman was brought back in relief. The sophomore held the Trojans to two additional runs over 7⅔ innings as the Volunteers mounted a comeback. Bowman delivered a home run and two RBIs to defeat the Trojans 9-8 and advance to the final. The next day his teammates urged Anderson to put him in the championship game against the University of Oklahoma. “I said, ‘I feel okay, coach.’ But he wouldn’t do it,” Bowman later recalled. “He was just looking out for me. He was a fine baseball man. I learned as much from him, probably, as I did, you know, a lot of the pro coaches.”6 The Cinderella team fell to the Sooners 3-2.
Bowman earned his B.A. in secondary education while compiling a 16-3 career record at Tennessee. Since high school, he had also played alongside his father and brother in the regional semi-pro Burley Belt League. His combined success in both arenas brought continued attention from scouts; as noted, the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds were among the primary suitors. But the hometown appeal, combined with the urging of Carl Jones, the owner of the local newspaper as well as owner-president of the Johnson City Cardinals, won out when Bowman signed with his hometown club.
Among the oldest players on the Class D team—he was all of 23—Bowman’s experience clearly showed as he made his professional debut.7 He won his first seven decisions, including a 1-0, five-hit shutout over the Welch Miners on May 27, 1953. Seemingly poised to shatter the single-season pitching records in the history of the Appalachian League (then 26 years), Bowman’s season was cut short by a call from Uncle Sam. In 16 appearances (14 starts), he placed among the Cardinal leaders with 11–3 record. Bowman led the league with a 0.992 WHIP and 2.10 ERA in an offensively charged circuit. On June 26, four days before his departure, the Cardinals honored the righty with a “Billy Bowman Night.” The club showered him with gifts: a wrist watch, an electric razor, luggage, and a billfold containing $65.
On June 30, 1953 Bowman entered the US Army as a second lieutenant (via ROTC training at the University of Tennessee). He spent the bulk of his service in Korea, hating the cold and snow of the East Asian peninsula. He and his fellow professional players found some respite in the warmer months playing ball in military intra-mural leagues. Upon Bowman’s honorable discharge in early 1955, the Cardinals advanced him to their Columbus, Georgia, affiliate in the South Atlantic League.
Inexplicably Bowman’s time with the Class A club was short: only eight appearances. Despite a promising 3-1 record for the inept Columbus Cardinals (58-81), he was assigned to the Peoria Chiefs in the Three-I League. Bowman quickly proved he was more than capable in Class B ball. On May 29, 1955, he pitched the Chiefs’ first shutout of the season, a 1-0 six-hitter against the Terre Haute Tigers. A deceptive 4.21 ERA reflected another hard-hitting circuit; Bowman placed among the league leaders in wins (16) and winning percentage (.762).8 He was the only one of four Three-I League hurlers with 16 or more wins who did not make it to the majors. But big-league bids appeared likely the following spring when St. Louis selected Bowman among seven promising prospects to report to early training camp for advanced instruction.
The Cardinals’ new manager, Fred Hutchinson, took an instant liking to Bowman.9 The Cardinals sorely needed pitching. In 1955 the club fell to a seventh-place finish, a depth not reached since 1919. A league-worst 4.56 ERA contributed greatly to their demise. A former All-Star hurler, Hutchinson worked closely with Bowman throughout camp and fought unsuccessfully to keep the hurler on the parent club. The organization did Bowman no favors when they assigned him to the Houston Buffaloes in the Texas League.
Unlike the parent club the Class AA affiliate was stocked with capable pitching. The trio of Bob Mabe, Ted Wieand, and Bill Greason, holdovers from the 1955 season, led the Buffaloes to a pennant the following year. For the first time in his career Bowman was relegated to a reliever-spot starter role (37 appearances, 13 starts). Lacking the ability to warm up sufficiently in a short amount of time (a requirement for a reliever), Bowman struggled: 7-8, 4.57 with a career-high 4.9 walks per nine innings.10 Despite these difficulties he won a promotion to AAA ball: Rochester in the International League.
His 1957 season opened on an encouraging note when Bowman tossed a four-hit shutout against the Havana Sugar Kings on April 29. Red Wings’ manager Cot Deal cited Bowman’s “smart pitching.”11 Scribes took note as well: “[T]he Rochester pitching has been sound, with [Bowman] … doing [his] part.”12 Suddenly, in a surprise move the Red Wings sent him to the Nashville Volunteers, a Cincinnati Reds Class AA affiliate, in what Bowman recalled years later as a multi-player exchange. The swap appears to have been precipitated by the appeals of Ed Bailey, the Reds’ All Star catcher and Bowman’s former roommate at the University of Tennessee. Bowman made his first appearance with Nashville on June 8: a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to the Little Rock Travelers.
Bowman’s off-field problems would cause ever further erosion in his performance. In October 1956, Bowman married Houston native Wanda Lee Hurley, a former beauty pageant contestant whom he’d met during a Buffaloes’ pre-game parade of the local belles. The whirlwind romance led to newlywed difficulties the next year. And although the marriage produced one son – Joel Wayne – it did not survive three years. In 1957, the crushing concerns at home weighed heavily on Bowman’s on-field performance. The problems were only exacerbated when he was relegated to the bullpen. Cincinnati returned Bowman to St. Louis after he finished his woeful Nashville stint of 2-6, 6.51 in 27 appearances, all but five from the pen.
Reassigned to the Houston Buffaloes in 1958, Bowman briefly recaptured his former success. On June 10, he “stole the show”13 with a two-hit win over the Victoria Rosebuds, an 8-1 victory in which Bowman did not surrender a hit over the final seven frames. He led the Buffaloes in nearly every pitching category that season and placed among the Texas League leaders with four shutouts. Bowman finished 12-7, 3.67 with career highs in starts (23), innings pitched (189), and strikeouts (118).
In 1959, as he approached his 29th birthday, Bowman realized his chances of advancing onto the major league stage were diminishing. Determined to build upon his 1958 success, he reported to the Buffs (now Class AAA affiliate) “impressive in early drills . . . Bowman had to be ‘slowed down’ by the Buff skipper in early stages.”14 He started the season impressively. On May 14 Bowman tossed a five-hit shutout over the Omaha Cardinals in the same stadium where eight years earlier he distinguished himself in the College World Series. But four days later Bowman got pounded in a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Rangers, surrendering six runs on eight hits in six innings. Transferred to the bullpen, the career-long problems Bowman encountered in relief resurfaced. On June 18, in an 11-10 slugfest against the Denver Bears, he yielded three runs in four innings. Three days later Bowman gave up four hits and two runs to St. Paul in 1⅔ innings. He continued to struggle after a brief return to the starting rotation. The Buffs moved Bowman to Chattanooga in the Southern Association (a Washington Senators affiliate) where little improvement took place. Reacquired by Houston at the end of the season, the Buffs sold him to Indianapolis in December. At this point Bowman realized that his hopes for a major league career had ended, and he retired from professional baseball.
After three stints in Houston and a failed marriage to a Houstonian, Bowman had made the city his home. He entered the trucking industry and proceeded to build a successful 40-plus year career. All the while Bowman continued to pursue his passion in baseball. In 1965, he was assisting Red Murff at a tryout camp in Colt Stadium when the scout discovered future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. When Harry Walker took over management of the Houston Astros in 1968, it opened another door for Bowman. Walker had served as the Buffaloes manager in the late 1950s and developed a close relationship with the righty. He had always assured Bowman a job in the St. Louis organization after his playing career. In Houston, Walker hired his former hurler to pitch batting practice for the Astros, a role Bowman retained long after Walker departed, traveling to spring training and on road trips when his work schedule allowed. The Houston Baseball Association took notice when they awarded Bowman the 1995 Houston Astros Distinguished Houstonian. The Houston Athletic Commission honored him in the same year with the Fred Hartman Award for long and meritorious service to baseball.
In 1986, while working spring training with the Astros, Bowman met Virginia native Deborah Hess. They married the same year. The union, which lasted much longer than the first, produced a second son: John Paul, whose godfather was legendary Hall of Famer Yogi Berra (Bowman and Berra grew close during the 1980s when both were affiliated with the Astros). Around 2005 Bowman returned to Johnson City. He was honored with the University of Tennessee Recognition Award for his 1951 exploits. In 2007 he followed his younger brother into the Science Hill High School Sports Hall of Fame. He remained an avid sports fan with a particular passion for baseball, the Tennessee Vols, the Astros, and the Cardinals, in particular.
Bowman concluded a six-year minor league career 56-36 in 199 appearances. So much more appeared possible when he led the University of Tennessee to the brink of a College World Series championship in 1951.
He died at the age of 90 on August 21, 2021.
The author wishes to thank Billy Bowman for the SABR Oral History Project interview conducted October 18, 2015. Further thanks are extended to Tom Schott for review and edit of the narrative.
W.C. Madden and Patrick J. Stewart, The College World Series: A Baseball History, 1947-2003. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishers, Inc., 2004.
1 A number of Bowman’s teammates went into the professional ranks including his battery mate John Mackley.
2 Trey Williams, “Billy Joe Bowman Recalls Science Hill State Title, Tennessee Runner-Up Finish in CWS,” accessed June 24, 2015, http://tricitiessports.com/billy-joe-bowman-recalls-science-hill-state-title-tennessee-runnerup-fini-p76197-255.htm.
3 W.C. Madden and Patrick J. Stewart, The College World Series: A baseball History, 1947-2003 (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N.C.: 2004), 22.
4 It was the University’s lone pennant until the 1990s.
5 Madden and Stewart, The College World Series, 22.
6 Williams, “Billy Joe Bowman Recalls Science Hill State Title, Tennessee Runner-Up Finish in CWS.”
8 Peoria struggled to a .448 winning percentage in all other contests.
9 Hutchinson’s managerial record is at http://www.baseball-reference.com/managers/hutchfr01.shtml.
10 Bowman had plenty of company. In 1951 Chicago Cubs righty Frank Hiller confessed, “I didn’t know how to pitch in relief. I couldn’t loosen up my arm quickly.” “Diamond Dossier: Frank Hiller,” The Sporting News, April 25, 1951, 7.
11 “Burgess’ Big Bat Boosts Red Wing Flag Prospects,” The Sporting News, May 1, 1957, 33.
12 “Cage Star Ricketts of Rochester Filling Basket With Victories,” ibid., June 5, 1957, 33.
13 “Texas League: Powis Back in Good Graces,” ibid., June 18, 1958, 36.
14 “Poholsky Adds Luster to Buff Pitching Staff,” ibid., March 25, 1959, 24.