This article was written by Bob Bennett
Elmer Bowman’s legacy as a hitter was written in the minor leagues. Although his major-league career consisted of just two plate appearances in 1920, he batted over .300 in eight of his eleven seasons in the minors. After retiring from baseball, Bowman settled in Los Angeles and worked as an electrical technician in the movie industry.
Elmari Wilhelm Bowman was born on March 19, 1897, in Proctor, Vermont, five miles northwest of Rutland. A company town then and now, Proctor is home to the Vermont Marble Company, one of the largest marble concerns in the world. It was founded by United States Senator Redfield Proctor, for whose family the town was named. Senator Proctor used his influence in Washington to obtain many federal contracts; for instance, Vermont marble was used to build both the Jefferson Memorial and the United States Supreme Court building.
The company had already grown to employ thousands by the time Elmer’s father, Oscar Bowman, went to work in the quarries in the 1890s. Both Oscar and his wife, Rose, had emigrated from Finland to Proctor, which was a perfect example of an American melting pot. By the time of the 1910 census, foreign-born and first-generation residents made up 2,146 of the town’s total population of 2,756. Swedes were most common, but there were sizable populations of Finns, Hungarians, Italians and Poles as well. To this day the Proctor Free Library contains an unusual collection of turn-of-the-century children’s books in a variety of languages.
The Bowmans and their four children (Elmer had a brother and twin sisters) lived in a modest house at 18 North Street. By the time Oscar was 55 he had worked his way up to a position as crane operator in the machine shop. Although the Vermont Marble Company was progressive for its era (it was, for example, the first business in the country to hire a company nurse), Oscar’s job was plenty hard and dangerous. In a 1921 survey in which foremen rated employees as Grade A (“physically fit, efficient, and entirely satisfactory”), Grade B (“less efficient than ‘A’”) or Grade C (“not worthy of permanent retention”), Oscar Bowman received a grade of “BX” — the “X” indicating that he suffered from “physical hardship due to illness or accident.”
Elmer Bowman was one of 12 students who graduated from Proctor High School in 1916. Like many first-generation Americans, Elmer gained acceptance by excelling in football and baseball, and it was undoubtedly his athletic prowess that sent him to the University of Vermont (rather than into military service). During summer vacations, though, he returned to Proctor and played baseball locally. “I used to play semi-pro ball in Rutland with Harry Shedd, who used to manage the Rutland team,” Bowman said. “They called them town teams in those days, and we played teams from Barre, Burlington and other places.”
Shortly after Elmer Bowman returned to Burlington for his senior year at UVM, Rutland manager Harry Shedd made a thrilling announcement: his team had booked an exhibition game at the Rutland fairgrounds against the Boston Red Sox. The Boston team had been booked to play in Providence, Rhode Island, but Shedd lured them to Rutland by promising half of the gate receipts and a guarantee of $1,500, reportedly one of the largest ever paid a baseball team in New England.
The chief reason for all the expense and excitement was the coming of Babe Ruth, whom the Rutland Herald described as “probably the greatest baseball attraction ever brought into Vermont.” In the season just ended, the Sultan of Swat’s record-breaking 29 home runs included blasts in each American League ballpark. The speculation in Rutland was whether he could hit one at the fairgrounds. “It is possible that this feat can be done,” stated the Herald, “but many people who have been followers of the teams of Rutland for the past 25 years maintain that this feat has never been accomplished.”
The game took place on Sunday, October 5, 1919, while Bowman was returning to Burlington with the UVM football team after a drubbing at Syracuse University the day before. An estimated 3,000 fans traveled to Rutland from all parts of Vermont and New York state, and they were well-rewarded for their journey. In batting practice Ruth knocked balls over the fences in center and left-center, then led the Red Sox to a 6-2 victory over the locals in the exhibition by smashing a double and a home run. “The latter was one of the highest hit balls ever made in the city and the Rutland outfielder lost sight of it,” the Herald reported. “The ball landed about two feet from the right field fence, which is an almost incredible distance to hit the ball.”
That home run in Rutland was one of Ruth’s last ever in a Red Sox uniform. Two days before the Rutland exhibition, a newspaper reported that Ruth had “torn up” his three-year contract with the Red Sox. That move proved to be the final straw for Boston owner Harry Frazee, who sold his star slugger to the New York Yankees for $125,000 on January 5, 1920.
During his four years at the University of Vermont, Elmer Bowman played first base under the tutelage of two former big league first basemen, Doc Hazelton and Clyde Engle. The Bowman era was the most successful for UVM baseball since the days of Ray Collins and Larry Gardner. During his junior and senior years the team won 26 and lost only ten. A right-handed hitter and thrower, Elmer typically batted cleanup and captained the team during his senior year. More than a half-century later, he was remembered as one of the few UVM players who could hit a ball over the centerfield fence at Centennial Field.
Bowman’s accomplishments on the gridiron rivaled his baseball exploits. Nicknamed “Big Bow” because of his size (6’1″, 196 lbs.), Elmer started at fullback as a freshman and earned a reputation as one of the toughest runners in UVM history. He was also the third-leading punter in the nation one season.
But at the time professional football was in its infancy, so the 23-year-old Bowman chose baseball as his career. He signed with Clark Griffith’s Washington Senators in the spring of 1920, just a few weeks short of graduation. “I didn’t get anything from them,” Bowman recalled. “In those days they didn’t do much of that. If you wanted to play ball, they gave you a contract, but there wasn’t any of that big money that there is nowadays.”
Bowman was sent to Minneapolis to begin the season with the Millers of the American Association. Even though he batted a meager .186 in 38 games, Griffith called him up to the majors on July 26, just as the Senators set out on a western road trip. Bowman would have been a teammate of Walter Johnson’s, but the Big Train was in Rochester seeking treatment for an arm ailment that had bothered him for most of the 1920 season.
With Joe Judge a fixture at first base, Bowman had no chance of cracking Washington’s starting lineup. He sat quietly on the bench and observed as the Senators started the road trip with a series in Cleveland, whose third baseman was fellow Vermont alumnus Larry Gardner. During the next series in Detroit Bowman caught his first glimpse of Ty Cobb, who during the 1950s owned a fishing home on Lake Bomoseen not far from Bowman’s birthplace. “I was rather surprised about [Cobb’s] stance,” Elmer remembered. “He just punched at the ball more or less. I always thought that he was a swinger, but he just punched at the ball and met it.”
The Senators returned to Cleveland’s League Park for a second series with the Indians. It was two weeks before Cleveland’s popular shortstop, Ray Chapman, was killed by a pitched ball, and the Indians were on their way to their first AL pennant. On Tuesday, August 3, 1920, after traveling with the club for a week, Bowman finally made his major-league debut. With the Senators trailing 10-5 in the top of the ninth inning, Griffith called on Big Bow to pinch hit for pitcher Jose Acosta. Facing Cleveland ace Jim Bagby, who was pitching his fourth inning in relief of starter Ray Caldwell, Bowman lofted a fly ball to center field that was caught by Tris Speaker. Bagby retired the Senators in order to record one of his league-leading 31 wins for Cleveland that season.
Bowman did not play as Washington lost five straight games in St. Louis, and the Senators had dropped to sixth place by the time they arrived at Comiskey Park to take on Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the White Sox. This, of course, was the Black Sox team of Eight Men Out infamy, and Bowman was aware of the rumors that several Chicago players had thrown the previous year’s World Series. “When the Senators went to Chicago, I remember looking at all the players curiously, trying to figure out which ones did what,” Bowman recalled.
Soon he was staring at one of the culprits from a distance of 60 feet, six inches. In the second game of a doubleheader on Monday, August 9, Bowman made his second and final appearance in the major leagues, pinch hitting for pitcher Harry Courtney. Again it was the top of the ninth inning, but this time the Senators were losing by a single run, 5-4. The opposing pitcher was Lefty Williams, one of the eight Black Sox banned from baseball following the 1920 season. Bowman walked and was replaced by a pinch-runner, Fred Thomas, but the Senators again failed to score. (Most references credit Bowman with a run scored, but they appear to be in error.)
Before the Senators returned to Washington on August 14, Griffith sent Bowman and a large sum of cash to Reading in exchange for the International League’s leading hitter, Frank “Turkeyfoot” Brower. Known as “The Babe Ruth of the Bushes,” Brower batted .311 in 36 games for Washington but never produced Ruthian statistics in the majors (in 1923, his best year, he hit 16 homers for Cleveland). For his part, Bowman batted .296 in 35 games with Reading over the remainder of the season.
That Elmer Bowman never received a second chance in the majors is surprising in light of his minor-league accomplishments. With Norfolk in 1921, Bowman batted .356 and led the Virginia League in extra-base hits, slashing 42 doubles, 18 triples and nine homers. The following year, playing for New Haven, Elmer beat out the great Native American athlete Jim Thorpe for the batting title, setting an all-time Eastern League record with a .365 average. For that accomplishment, the Winchester Arms Company (coincidentally owned by Frank Olin, another former Vermont major leaguer) presented Bowman with a three-foot-high silver trophy, which he proudly displaced for the rest of his life.
Bowman’s Eastern League batting record stood for only one year, however, as he topped his previous mark by hitting .366 in 1923, only to finish second to Worcester’s Wade Lefler, who batted .369. Although he was primarily a line-drive hitter, Bowman also socked 19 home runs during his second year in New Haven. Moving up to the Pacific Coast League in 1924, he hit a solid .301 for Seattle using a bat he jokingly claimed was made of “iron.” The bat was given to him by the PCL’s leading hitter that year, Salt Lake City manager and former Boston Red Sox outfielder Duffy Lewis.
In 1925 Elmer was sent to Birmingham of the Southern League where his average slipped to .290. It was reported that “the tropical heat did not agree with him,” and that off-season he obtained his release from the Barons and re-joined New Haven. Bowman had his best season in 1926, smacking 15 homers and hitting .377 for the Profs to lead the Eastern League for a second time, again setting a new all-time league record (this time the record lasted for two seasons before it was broken). But his average for New Haven slipped to .282 in 1927, and by 1929 Bowman had retired from professional baseball.
In the mid-1920s Elmer Bowman spent his off-season with his wife’s family in Los Angeles. A friend from New Haven helped him obtain work as an electrician on the movie lots (his major had been electrical engineering at UVM), where he tended to the lighting of the sets used by famous silent screen stars like Bebe Daniels and Pola Negri. On Sundays he played winter baseball with the Pasadena team, which included Dick Cox, Fred Haney and other major leaguers.
During the winter of 1926-27 a New Haven newspaper reported that Elmer had signed for a “prominent role” in the silent screen version of “Casey at the Bat,” inspired by Ernest Thayer’s famous poem. Advertising a rare screening of the film 70 years after its release in 1927, a Southern California silent film society summarized its plot as follows:
Casey, the oversized junk dealer (Wallace Beery), and Putnam, the undersized barber (Sterling Holloway), compete for the charming hand of Camille (ZaSu Pitts). Shady baseball scout O’Dowd (Ford Sterling) turns romantic competition into a baseball free-for-all in this grand farce. Throw in Coney Island, the New York Giants and the Florodora Sextette and you have nine full innings of entertainment!
“I’ve arranged for a leave of absence from my electrical work for the duration of my work in the picture,” Bowman told the New Haven reporter, “and they have promised to take me back when it’s done.” When asked if he might consider future film roles, Bowman said, “If they find that I have a little ability before the screen and want me for something else when ‘Casey at the Bat’ is finished, then maybe I’ll quit fooling around with the electrical wires and switches and join the movie bunch.”
Apparently he showed little acting ability, as he failed to make the final cut of “Casey at the Bat.” “I did get into some movies as an extra,” Bowman told a reporter from the Rutland Herald in 1977. “In one movie MGM did, they needed over 1,000 extras for a prison yard scene. The union couldn’t get them, so some of us electricians had to serve as set extras. We just hung around. I’d get in a few mob scenes every now and then, but they didn’t amount to anything.”
Bowman worked for Warner Brothers Studios for 36 years before retiring in 1960. Over the years he returned to Vermont on many occasions to visit his brother, who operated Pullman’s garage in Proctor. The year he retired from Warner Brothers he was planning to return to UVM for his 40th reunion when heart trouble prevented him from traveling. After his recovery, he and his wife toured New England, Alaska and Canada. In a 1965 report to the UVM alumni magazine, Bowman wrote, “We sold our desert place, as it was just too hot half the year, and it was difficult to get someone to adequately water the palm trees. However, we often go to Palm Springs for visits, as it is less than two hours away without a stop light over the freeways.”
By the 1970s, more than 50 years had passed since Elmer Bowman had played baseball at the University of Vermont, but Burlington banker David Webster still remembered him:
When I was a kid, oh, 10 or 12 years old, we used to live on Fletcher Place, which was near Centennial Field, and we used to hang around the ballpark. And of course the UVM players were our heroes.
The field was much different then. It had a big wooden fence around it and a poke to center field was a home run in any league. Elmer Bowman was the only one who could ever hit the ball over the center-field fence. I never forgot about him.
Webster was a member of the University of Vermont Hall-of-Fame Committee. With the help of former UVM baseball player Ed Donnelly, he successfully pushed for Bowman’s induction. “I was really glad to get him in when he was still alive and could appreciate it,” Webster said.
Bowman was inducted on October 20, 1978. “It was something I never expected,” the 81-year-old Bowman said in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. By that time injuries sustained during his football days at UVM had slowed him down considerably. “When you go to school, you don’t think of what is going to happen to you in later years,” he said. “You just have fun while you’re at it. I broke my ankle twice, I later developed varicose veins, had a double hernia, water on both knees — and you know how that is to an athlete.”
Despite the injuries and illnesses, Bowman remained active. “I still struggle along and do my own gardening. The only thing I have trouble with is driving — I have trouble telling whether a light is red or green.” He also followed baseball, watching it on television because “[i]t’s quite a chore to get to the ballpark. I read the sports page first — I have glaucoma, which makes it hard for me to read, I have to use a magnifying glass — and if I still feel good, I read the main section.”
Eight years after his induction into the UVM Hall of Fame, Elmer Bowman died in Los Angeles on December 17, 1985.
A version of this biography originally appeared in Green Mountain Boys of Summer: Vermonters in the Major Leagues 1882-1993, edited by Tom Simon (New England Press, 2000).
In researching this article, the author made use of the subject’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, the Tom Shea Collection, the archives at the University of Vermont, and several local newspapers.