This article was written by Mark Armour
Bob Howsam would consider himself one of the last of a breed. A protégé of Branch Rickey, who believed in scouting, player development, and the art of making a deal, Howsam built—just before the advent of free agency—one of history’s greatest teams, the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds, a ballclub that reflected that same Rickey-like approach. With the introduction of free agency, however, Howsam, who was greatly disturbed by it, believed future champions would be built mostly by having the most money, not through the traditional scouting, player development, and deal-making .
Robert Lee Howsam was born on February 28, 1918, in Denver, Colorado, to Lee and Mary Howsam. Lee had emigrated from Canada as a child, and Mary was a native of Colorado. Lee was a partner in a beekeeping business, harvesting and selling honey.
When Howsam was 8 years old his family moved to La Jara, a town 250 miles south of Denver in the San Luis Valley, just north of the New Mexico border. He attended high school in La Jara, where he starred for the basketball team. He also played first base for an American Legion baseball team, and often told the story of being struck out by Satchel Paige on one of the famed Negro League star’s barnstorming trips through the West.
After high school Howsam attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, intending to learn enough to help his father run the family business. In 1936 Howsam ran into Janet Johnson, whom he had met briefly on a double date in high school. The two began dating and a few years later were married, on September 15, 1939. Johnson was the daughter of Edwin “Big Ed” Johnson, who served Colorado as either governor or US senator for 25 years. Big Ed would become one of the most important people in Howsam’s life.
After a few years at Boulder, with World War II approaching, Howsam enrolled in a flight-training program in Alamosa, Colorado, and then moved to a more advanced one in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Eventually he became a flight instructor. In 1943 he joined the Navy and became a test pilot, checking out new planes before delivering them to naval air stations around the country. During this time Janet lived in La Jara with Howsam’s parents. She gave birth to two sons, Robert Jr. in 1942, and Edwin in 1944. After the war, Howsam returned to La Jara to help run the beekeeping business, which became highly profitable in the late 1940s.
Howsam didn’t stay with the family business long, though, for in late 1946 he left for Washington, DC, to be Senator Johnson’s administrative assistant. It was while working for Johnson that he got his start in Organized Baseball. It came about when the Western League, a Single-A circuit disbanded in 1937, was revived in 1947 in Denver, Pueblo, Sioux City, Des Moines, Omaha, and Lincoln, and Senator Johnson was asked to be the unpaid president of the league. He asked Howsam to move to Lincoln to be the league’s executive secretary. In this role, Howsam more or less ran the league—he wrote a constitution and bylaws, drafted a schedule, hired an umpiring crew, and worked with local operators in the six league cities. He spent most of the summer of 1947 driving his car throughout this vast area.
After one season the Denver owners wanted to sell out. Howsam approached his brother and father, who agreed to put up the money from their business, recently sold, to buy the Denver team for $75,000. With that, Howsam, at 30 years old, became the owner of the Denver Bears. As he still had to run the league, the rest of the family helped run the team. Lee Howsam, his father, was the president, Mary and Janet collected tickets, even boys Robert and Edwin helped out by raking the field. Howsam later claimed this experience was invaluable—it taught him how to run every aspect of a baseball franchise.
One of Howsam’s first moves was to buy an old dump site in the city and build a new stadium, naming it Bears Stadium when it opened in August 1948. It was later to become Mile High Stadium, and would be the principal outdoor facility for baseball and football in Denver for more than 50 years. The Bears led the league in attendance in 1948, and would for the rest of their tenure in the league. In 1949 the Bears drew nearly 500,000 fans, more than the St. Louis Browns of the American League and one of the highest attendance totals in Single-A history. In 1951 Howsam was named The Sporting News Single-A Executive of the Year. The next year the Bears won their first league championship, and they copped a second in 1954.
After the 1954 season Howsam bought the Kansas City Blues of the American Association and moved them to Denver, where they became the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate and replaced the Single-A Bears. The move had been precipitated by the Blues themselves being displaced in Kansas City by the Philadelphia Athletics’ move there for the 1955 season. Howsam’s great success continued, as the new Bears led the American Association in attendance during their first three years in the league. Howsam won the The Sporting News Triple-A Executive of the Year award in 1956, then watched his Bears win the league title and the Little World Series in 1957.
Howsam often credited two men in particular for his baseball success. One was Branch Rickey, whom Howsam got to know when Denver was a Pirates affiliate in the early 1950s. Howsam watched Rickey run tryout camps and team drills in the spring, and thought him baseball’s greatest talent evaluator. He also considered Rickey a great speaker and motivator. Some of Rickey’s lessons—about the importance of speed, and the importance of youth—show up in Howsam’s own major-league teams later.
Howsam’s other main influence was former Yankees president George Weiss, whom Howsam worked closely with when the Bears became the Yankees’ top minor-league team. Weiss’s roots were like Howsam’s—he spent years running hugely successful minor-league teams before joining the Yankees in the 1930s as farm director. Weiss was not a baseball man in the sense that Rickey was (Rickey had both played and managed in the major leagues), but Weiss knew how to run an organization. He surrounded himself with baseball people he could trust, and he listened to their advice.
By the late 1950s Howsam had reason to feel that he had conquered minor-league baseball, with a celebrated ballpark, three championships in 11 years and two prestigious executive awards. To that end, he spent a couple of years on two unrelated efforts—bringing professional football and major league baseball teams to Denver. Howsam was one of the leaders behind the Continental League, a proposed rival to the American and National Leagues that planned to open in 1961 with teams in Denver, New York, Minneapolis, Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Toronto, Atlanta, and Buffalo. The league wanted to be part of the established order, and attempted to work within the existing major leagues for approval. After the league was announced in 1959, the effort fell apart in August 1960 when the two major leagues countered, announcing plans to expand.
Howsam got involved in football at the behest of Dallas oil magnate Lamar Hunt. Hunt wanted to own a football team, and thought his best option was to start his own league. The National Football League tried to lure away some of the owners with expansion franchises, but Hunt ultimately got the league off the ground in 1960. Howsam’s family-owned business, Rocky Mountain Empire Sports, owned the Denver team, called the Broncos, who played in Bears Stadium and began play in September 1960. The club finished just 4-9-1 in its debut, and reportedly lost $1 million for Howsam and his family. At the end of the season Howsam sold his business, which meant he lost not only the Broncos, but the Bears and the stadium. He saved his family’s financial situation, but he was now out of work. For the Howsam family it was a heartbreaking time. Howsam and a friend spent the next three years selling mutual funds.
In August 1964 baseball called again. The St. Louis Cardinals were in the midst of a disappointing season and had fired their general manager, Bing Devine. August “Gussie” Busch, the chairman of Anheuser-Busch, owned the club, and over the past couple of seasons had employed Branch Rickey as a senior adviser. Most observers felt that Rickey had undermined Devine, publicly questioning many of the trades he had made. With Devine dismissed, Rickey turned down the job himself and instead recommended Howsam. Busch agreed, and when Rickey called Howsam in Denver to offer him the job, Howsam took it.
Although the club had started the 1964 season poorly, by the time Devine was fired the team had been playing well for two months, thanks in no small part to his brilliant acquisition of Lou Brock in June. It took a while for the Cardinals to make up any ground on the first-place Philadelphia Phillies, who had opened up a big lead and maintained it late into the season. However, beginning on September 21 the Phillies lost 10 consecutive games, and the Cardinals stepped into the void ahead of the Reds, Phillies and Giants to win their first pennant since 1946. Howsam, who did not change the personnel at all during this time, always credited Devine for building the team. After the season Devine was in fact named the Executive of the Year by The Sporting News for the second consecutive season.
The change in general managers was not popular in St. Louis. Devine was popular with the fans, players, and media, all of whom blamed Rickey for his dismissal. Howsam’s style, meanwhile, differed greatly from Devine’s. Whereas Devine had been personal friends with many of the players and spent time on the field before games, Howsam mostly stayed away, other than occasionally sending word that someone was not wearing his uniform properly. Soon after firing Devine, however, Busch realized he had made a mistake, so he told Howsam to in turn fire Rickey. Howsam did so, but Rickey had to talk him out of resigning himself. Howsam stayed to run the defending champions, aware that his place might not be terribly secure.
Although Howsam greatly respected Devine as a player evaluator, and grew to admire Busch as an owner, many things about the Cardinals operation bothered him. He felt his Denver clubs, as well as his own business outside baseball, were better run, and he made changes accordingly. Surprised that the Cardinals had no promotions or season-ticket sales, for instance, he implemented a plan to organize those. Also, in 1965 he ordered the resodding of old Busch Stadium’s playing field, which was a mess, even though the club would move into a new facility in 1966. And as in Denver, Howsam demanded that his ballpark be clean, park employees be friendly, and the field be well cared for. There was natural resentment among front-office people and other club employees, many of whom resisted the changes. Given their resistance, and having discovered some had been leaking news to the press, while others had been grafting tickets, Howsam replaced many of those employees.
The Cardinals’ front office presented a further challenge for Howsam. While Busch spent most of his energies running his brewery, he employed Dick Meyer as his personal representative with the team. All important decisions, including trades, had to first be run past Meyer, who would talk to Busch. Devine, whose entire professional life was with the Cardinals, did not mind this setup—he figured Busch owned the team and had the right to have final say. In fact, Devine and Meyer became close friends, and Meyer had tried to intervene to save Devine’s job. Howsam, used to complete control, chafed under the arrangement and resented Meyer’s interference. In his memoirs, Howsam did not point to any particular decision that was ever overruled; he seemed to object to the relationship in principle.
Taking a page from George Weiss, Howsam identified two key assistants who would help him. Dick Wagner, who had operated the Lincoln club in the Western League when Howsam was in Denver, was hired as Howsam’s assistant. Wagner ran the business side, organizing the club’s promotions and setting up its season-ticket operation. Howsam also promoted Sheldon “Chief” Bender to farm director. Howsam wanted people who would be loyal to him and his vision. In return, he granted complete trust in his subordinates. These men would work with Howsam for 20 years.
Howsam spent two full years in St. Louis. He was faced with a major decision immediately when manager Johnny Keane resigned just days after winning the World Series (partly because of the firing of his friend Devine). Busch had wanted to hire Leo Durocher, and had talked with him even before the season had ended. Howsam did not approve of Durocher’s off-field lifestyle, and advised Busch that his best chance to get the fans back on his side (after the unpopular departures of Devine and Keane) was to hire longtime favorite Red Schoendienst to manage the club. Busch agreed, and Schoendienst took over.
After the team fell to seventh place in 1965, Howsam made several successful moves. In a style similar to that of his mentor Rickey, he traded his three aging regulars—Bill White, Dick Groat, and Ken Boyer. Although the moves were not popular, Howsam was correct that all three were near the end of the road. In May 1966 he traded pitcher Ray Sadecki to the San Francisco Giants for first baseman Orlando Cepeda, who would win the MVP award for the Cardinals in 1967. In December 1966 Howsam sent third baseman Charlie Smith to the Yankees for right fielder Roger Maris. These two acquisitions helped transform the team: Maris and Cepeda became the number three and four hitters for the club that would win the next two pennants and the 1967 World Series. But before any of that happened, Howsam had moved on.
In late 1966 the Cincinnati Reds were sold by Bill DeWitt to an 11-man group headed by Francis Dale, the publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer. DeWitt was a longtime baseball man, previously the general manager with the Browns, Reds, and Detroit Tigers, before buying a majority stake in the Reds in 1962. DeWitt had wanted to build a ballpark in the suburbs, and the group that bought him out did so primarily to save the team for the city. The men did not know baseball, and needed someone who did. They contacted Howsam, and offered him complete control over the ballclub, a substantial raise, and a three-year contract. Howsam was happy with the Cardinals and felt they were moving in the right direction, but he could not turn down either the money or the total freedom.
Once again Howsam found the organization and performance of the front office not to his liking. He again hired Dick Wagner to run the business side of the team, and brought Chief Bender from St. Louis to run the minor-league operation. The new owners had much more money than DeWitt had, and Howsam was able to hire many more scouts and expand the farm system. He also replaced much of the office staff, focusing more on advance ticket sales and upkeep of Crosley Field and its environs.
He inherited some talent in Cincinnati. After a surprising pennant in 1961, the Reds had nearly won in 1964, losing on the final day to the team Howsam had taken over in St. Louis. Though the Reds had fallen to 78-84 in 1966, their worst finish since 1960, the farm system had recently produced Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Lee May, and in 1967 would offer up Johnny Bench. Howsam did not make any big trades until the end of the season, when he dealt Deron Johnson to the Atlanta Braves for Mack Jones to open up first base for May. Then in February 1968, he traded starting catcher Johnny Edwards to the Cardinals, creating a spot for Bench.
Still in 1968 Howsam made two of his best deals. In June he traded pitcher Milt Pappas, who Howsam felt was a bad clubhouse influence, and two journeymen to the Braves for shortstop Woody Woodward and pitchers Clay Carroll and Tony Cloninger. All three would be key members of the team for a few years. After the season he dealt center fielder Vada Pinson to the Cardinals for outfielder Bobby Tolan and relief pitcher Wayne Granger. This last deal was classic Howsam. Pinson had been a star for many years, but Howsam saw him as fading and Tolan, seven years younger, as a rising star. He got the Cardinals to throw in Granger, who anchored the Reds’ bullpen for three years.
In Howsam’s first three years in charge, the Reds won 87, 83, and 89 games, respectively, finishing only four games out in 1969. After that season Howsam replaced manager Dave Bristol, whom he had inherited, with 35-year-old Sparky Anderson, who had five years of minor-league experience. The choice was met with derision, but Anderson proved to be one of history’s greatest skippers. In his first season the Reds finished 102-60, losing the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles. The Reds had acquired the nickname “The Big Red Machine,” and were led by offensive stars Bench, Rose, May, Perez, and Tolan.
One highlight of the 1970 season for Howsam was the opening on June 30 of Riverfront Stadium, which hosted the All-Star Game just two weeks later. The park was already being planned when Howsam got to Cincinnati, but he had typically insisted upon the spotless facility, friendly and clean employees, and efficiency everywhere. He also had artificial turf installed, part of the ongoing trend with new facilities. Howsam, like Rickey, believed in team speed—an element that helped on both offense and defense. This would be especially important, Howsam believed, on artificial turf.
In 1971 a number of Reds had off-years, and the team fell to 79-83 and a tie for fourth. Bobby Tolan, who had hit .316 with 57 steals in 1970, injured himself playing basketball in the winter and missed the entire season. In Howsam’s view, it was the loss of Tolan that hurt the team the most at bat and in the field, and he and Anderson determined that they needed more team speed to return to the top. In December 1971, Howsam pulled off his most famous deal, trading Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and utilityman Jimmie Stewart to the Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and pitcher Jack Billingham. Billingham and Geronimo were key members of the upcoming teams, while Morgan, an unappreciated star in Houston, became the best player in the game. Howsam also added outfielder George Foster and pitcher Tom Hall through trades in 1971.
The trades paid dividends, as the 1972 Reds won 95 games and returned to the World Series. Tolan’s return and Morgan’s arrival gave the team even more firepower, and it was a surprise when they lost the Series to the Oakland Athletics. In 1973 pitcher Fred Norman was added, further strengthening the team, but their season ended in even more of a surprise than did the 1972 team’s—the club won 99 games, the best record in baseball, but lost in the NLCS to a Mets team that won just 82. Still, Howsam’s achievements were recognized with The Sporting News Executive of the Year award in 1973.
After the 1973 season Howsam traded Bobby Tolan, one of his favorite players, to San Diego. Tolan had just suffered a disastrous season, hitting .206, and had sulked and feuded with Anderson and his teammates. The loss of Tolan, however, did not slow the Reds down. In 1974 they won 98 games; they were bettered only by the Dodgers, who kept them from winning their own division and making the playoffs. The Reds seemed destined to be a great team that could not quite take the final step.
During this time, in an era of increasing facial hair in the culture and in baseball, the Reds stood out for their short hair and lack of facial hair. Howsam had very conservative views about the image of the game and his players. He was insistent that they wear their uniform a certain way—not too baggy, socks visible up nearly to the knee, low stirrups, black shoes—and the uniforms were clean and pressed each day. While the Cardinals’ players had chafed at Howsam’s old-fashioned sensibilities, the Reds players, starting with the leaders like Rose and Bench, went along. One notable exception was Ross Grimsley, a young star pitcher, who was traded to the Orioles in 1973 for very little. To Howsam, looking and performing as a team was part of the formula for success.
Ultimate success finally came to the Reds in 1975 and 1976. They won World Series titles both years and are considered among the greatest baseball teams ever. The 1976 team swept the Yankees in the World Series, the crowning achievement of Howsam’s career. He later said that he felt some sadness knowing that no team would ever be put together the way his team had. Howsam was referring to the onset of free agency in baseball, which would take place in the upcoming offseason for the first time. Howsam was one of baseball’s most vocal hawks on labor matters, speaking out for holding the line during the 1972 strike and the 1976 lockout. Howsam had more power than most general managers, as both Francis Dale and later Louis Nippert (who bought controlling interest in 1973) let him represent the club at ownership meetings.
Howsam and the Reds did not adjust well to the changing landscape. They lost star pitcher Don Gullett to free agency that fall, and lost several other free agents in the coming years, foremost among them Rose and Morgan. After a slow start in 1977, Howsam acquired pitcher Tom Seaver from the Mets. Despite Seaver’s great second half, the Reds could not catch the Dodgers. After the season Howsam resigned, taking a position as vice chairman of the board, while appointing Dick Wagner as his successor. Wagner’s regime was contentious, as he became the scapegoat with the fans and the press for the loss of the well-known players and for the deteriorating performance of the team. The club contended for a few years before falling to last place in 1982.
Midway through the 1983 season Howsam returned as general manager, a position he held for two years. Howsam’s biggest move was to reacquire Rose in August 1984 and make him player-manager. Rose helped turn the team around—beginning in 1985, it finished second for four straight seasons. Howsam retired, as planned, effective July 1, 1985. His insistence on keeping to his retirement date was solidified by the sale of the team in late 1984 to Marge Schott, with whom Howsam did not get along. While Howsam had stayed busy with the team during his five years as vice chairman, this parting was a real retirement. Howsam’s baseball career had ended.
He and Janet split their retirement years between their homes in Glenwood City, Colorado, and Sun City, Arizona. The Howsams had been a devoted baseball couple—Howsam had it written into his contract that Janet could travel with him on any of his business trips, and she often had. The entire family remained very close. Howsam’s parents lived long enough to attend the World Series in 1970. His children, Edwin and Robert Jr., each had success in other pursuits before finding work with the Reds while their father ran the team—Edwin as a scout, Robert Jr. in marketing.
Howsam was named to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2004. He has been a perennial candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but as of 2012 had not yet attained that honor. He died of heart failure on February 19, 2008, in Sun City, just nine days shy of his 90th birthday. He was survived by Janet, his wife of 69 years, and their two sons.
A version of this biography is included in “The Great Eight: The 1975 Cincinnati Reds” (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), edited by Mark Armour. It originally appeared in “Drama and Pride in the Gateway City: The 1964 St. Louis Cardinals” (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), edited by John Harry Stahl and Bill Nowlin.
In writing this article the author primarily relied on Howsam’s memoir, My Life in Sports, written with Bob Jones (self-published, 1999), as well as Daryl Smith’s Making the Big Red Machine (McFarland, 2009). For the Cardinals’ phase of his career, Peter Golenbock’s The Spirit of St. Louis (Morrow, 2000) was the main reference. Howsam’s extensive clipping file from the Baseball Hall of Fame was also used.
Robert Lee Howsam
February 28, 1918 at Denver, CO (US)
February 19, 2008 at Sun City, AZ (US)
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