This article was written by David E. Skelton
In the waning weeks of the 1962 season a player with a career .190-1-10 batting line played a crucial role in the National League pennant race. On August 23, San Francisco Giants’ infielder Ernie Bowman launched his only major league home run in New York’s Polo Grounds. Five innings later he delivered the game-winning single in extra innings to lead the Giants to a 2-1 victory over the expansion New York Mets. The win proved pivotal in allowing the Giants to eventually tie and then overtake the Dodgers in a post-season playoff and advance to the World Series.
While toiling in the Mets’ minor league system four years later Bowman’s succinct advice to Tom Seaver would have a memorable effect on the hurler’s Hall of Fame career. Seaver fondly recalled that advice in his 1994 book The Art of Pitching.
But decades later it was another Hall of Fame hurler who came to Bowman’s aide. Diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer in 2011, Bowman was advised he had just two months to live. His friend and former teammate Gaylord Perry mustered the resources of the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), a charity founded by former players. Their financial assistance helped cover the daunting costs of chemotherapy and radiation and extended Bowman’s life from months to years.
Born into the depth of the Depression on July 28, 1935, Ernest Ferrell Bowman was the third of five children (second son) born to John Frank and Dorothy Elizabeth (Randolph) Bowman west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Johnson City, Tennessee. Ernie’s father, a native Tennessean who went by his middle name, found employment in a variety of occupations during the tough economic times: a packer in a flour mill; a knitter in a hosiery factory; and a part-time truck driver. An enormous baseball fan, Frank gave his second son a middle name to honor the memory and exploits of the professional playing Ferrell brothers (Rick, Wes, and George).
Ernie (who went by “Ferrell” into his early 20s) discovered an early propensity for athletics. An accomplished Little Leaguer,1 he found continued success following in his brother Billy’s2 shoes at Science Hill High School. Ernie was a local celebrity on the hardwood courts (for three years he was an All-Conference player, leading the school to an undefeated regular season in 1953-54), the track (where in 1954 he won state titles in the broad jump and the 100-yard dash) and the diamond (where he helped the team to three state tournaments). Both brothers secured baseball scholarships to the University of Tennessee. But when the athletic director insisted Ernie add football to his repertoire, the youngster transferred to Johnson City-based East Tennessee State College (later University) under a basketball scholarship. Fearing injury to his star pupil on the diamond, the basketball coach zealously curtailed Ernie’s baseball career. Ernie found refuge 50 miles to the northeast playing semipro ball in Abingdon, Virginia, in the Burley Belt League. He began attracting attention from major league scouts, including aggressive pursuits by the Pittsburgh Pirates and both New York National League teams.
In 1956 Bowman bolted East Tennessee State3 and signed with New York Giants’ scout and fellow Tennessean Dale Alexander. The 20-year-old trekked 1,000 miles from Johnson City to St. Cloud, Minnesota, to play with the Rox in the Class C Northern League. The hard-hitting team finished the season with a middling 61-64 record due in part to a unique 11-game losing streak in which Bowman played an inadvertent part. On June 20 the rookie was placed on the disabled list with appendicitis and was unable to return for ten days. While the Rox were going 8-2 over this stretch, opposing teams noticed Bowman had not been replaced on the active roster. League rules required teams to carry a minimum of two rookies at all times. Bowman represented half of that equation for the Rox. The teams filed a protest to the league president, who upheld the protest. On the weekend of July 28-29, while the Rox were in the midst of a three-game losing streak, an additional eight losses were added from the string of victories accumulated during Bowman’s absence.
Bowman was reassigned to St. Cloud the following year. A generally fast starter, he placed among the league leaders in hitting through much of the 1957 campaign. On June 16 he was shelved due to a broken wrist suffered from a thrown ball. The injury affected his hitting as Bowman managed a meager .218 pace in his final 110 at-bats. Despite this setback, the speedy infielder placed among the Rox leaders in runs scored (56), hits (112), doubles (18), triples (8) and RBIs (52) while pacing the league with 30 stolen bases. Significantly he was the only 1957 Rox player to advance to the major leagues.
Promoted to Springfield, Massachusetts, in the Class A Eastern League, Bowman’s 1958 contributions led the Giants to a first-place finish in the North Division. A deceptively low .247 rested comfortably amongst the competition in the lackluster circuit (league average: .254). Bowman placed among the club leaders with 131 hits, 19 doubles and 5 triples while making the league’s All-Star squad. Despite these triumphs, not all went swimmingly for the budding infielder. On June 6 he and teammate Frank Reveira engaged in profanity-laced exchanges with fans in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The heated bartering cost both players an unspecified amount in fines and a brief suspension.
In 1959 Bowman again exhibited his fast-start tendencies. Advanced to the Corpus Christi Giants (AA), he placed among the Texas League leaders with a .336-0-15 line as the season neared the one-quarter mark. Never considered a power hitter, the second baseman surprised fans and teammates alike by a brief home run burst in July, taking part in the Giants’ four-homer explosion July 13 against the Victoria Rosebuds by smacking a solo shot in an 8-1 romp, and five days later hitting a grand slam versus the Amarillo Gold Sox in a 12-6 slugfest. He placed among the Giants’ leaders in nearly every offensive category, and among the league leaders with nine triples. Significantly, at this time he also developed a close friendship with 20-year-old teammate Gaylord Perry.
Rated “the best young infielder in the Giants’ organization,”4 by The Sporting News in 1960, Bowman’s continued advance was soon curtailed by injury. Promoted to AAA Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League, in the final week of spring training Bowman sustained a severe injury to his left knee and sat the first three weeks of the season. Returning May 3, three days later he tore the ligaments in his knee and underwent surgery May 10. The 24-year-old managed a mere 40 appearances (25 as a pinch hitter) during the injury-marred campaign. Despite his limited exposure at Class AAA, Bowman’s chances of making the San Francisco roster in 1961 remained very strong.
Under the guidance of new manager Alvin Dark, the Giants were anxious to shore up their infield. This was particularly so after second baseman Don Blasingame performed poorly in 1960. On the eve of the 1961 campaign the starters at second, third and shortstop remained fluid among six competitors. Bowman was retained by the parent club and made his initial major-league appearance on April 12 as a pinchrunner, scoring the game-winning tally. He also received time as a late inning defensive replacement at second base. On May 3 Bowman got his first plate appearance in Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Leading off the 9th inning he saw a steady diet of sliders from Cubs reliever Don Elston and struck out.
Shortly thereafter Bowman was demoted to Tacoma. On May 18 he knocked in the game-winning run in an extra-inning game against the Vancouver Mounties. Bowman continued at a robust pace – including scoring the 9th inning game-winning tally against the Mounties on June 15 – while San Francisco’s rookie second baseman Chuck Hiller struggled. On July 5 Hiller was optioned to Tacoma and replaced by Bowman. The move still resulted in limited play for the 25-year-old infielder as the Giants turned increasingly to Joey Amalfitano at second. At home against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 9, Bowman got his first starting assignment as a leadoff hitter. In the 7th inning he collected his first major-league hit, a single off righty reliever Craig Anderson. Bowman promptly stole second but was stranded there. In a match against the Pirates four days later he pinchhit for Willie McCovey in the 7th inning after the future Hall of Famer was ejected following a disputed call. Bowman’s leadoff single against Pirates’ ace Bob Friend initiated a comeback win.
During the 1961 season the Giants’ players were given an opportunity to expand their mostly meager pay during the filming of the Hollywood movie Experiment in Terror. The closing scenes were shot in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in a game against the Dodgers. $1,000 was awarded any player whose image made it past Hollywood’s cutting room floor. Bowman was briefly glimpsed executing a double play. The movie, released in 1962, proved both the beginning and the end of his acting career.
Used primarily as a defensive replacement at second, third and shortstop, Bowman’s first extra-base hit on September 1 led the Giants to a 14-inning win over the Cubs. He took particular pride that the triple came off the same hurler who foiled his first major-league at-bat: “Elston was the pitcher the first time I went to bat in the majors. He threw me sliders right over the plate and I tried to pull them to left field, but they were fouls. He finally struck me out. I decided today that if he was going to pitch me sliders over the plate again, I would go to right field. The first pitch was a slider right over the plate and I swung.”5 Eight days later he drove in the winning run against the rival Dodgers with his last career triple. These September exploits came while Bowman struggled with a bothersome thigh injury.
Despite a .211-0-2 batting line in limited play, scribes predicted that Bowman was a likely candidate for selection in the National League post-season expansion draft. Particular interest was supposed to come from the Mets. But in a surprise eleventh-hour move, San Francisco replaced pitcher Billy O’Dell with Amalfitano in the selection pool. Amalfitano was chosen by the Houston Colt .45s, creating a second base vacancy for the Giants in 1962. Bowman’s versatility at varied positions, a valuable asset in an expanded 162-game schedule, seemingly opened the door to more play for the Tennessee native.
But the reemergence of Hiller brought a quick end to the second base question. Relegated to the too-familiar role of pinch runner and late inning defensive replacement, Bowman started just six games throughout the 1962 season. One such start was the above-referenced August 23 outing in the Polo Grounds. Bowman’s 5th inning homer – his first since Corpus Christi three years earlier – was described as an accidental homer: “When I went up to hit, I figured I’d try to beat out a bunt. I wanted the … third baseman to be playing deep, so I decided to take a big swing at the first pitch, then bunt. I swung hard, but instead of missing the ball, I hit it. And it was the best ball I ever hit.”6 Bowman was disappointed when he was returned to the bench the next day. A teammate cracked, “That was the shortest salary drive on record.”7 The two hits in New York represented one-quarter of Bowman’s offense through the year. He finished the regular season with a paltry .190-1-4 line in just 42 at-bats.
On October 3, in the decisive final game of a three-game playoff series against the Dodgers, Bowman scored the second of four ninth-inning runs that ensured a Giants comeback victory and a National League pennant. Bowman went on to make two appearances in the nail-biting Fall Classic against the New York Yankees. In the 7th inning of Game Four he was on first base when Hiller struck the first Series grand slam by a National Leaguer. Two innings later Bowman made a brilliant diving stop of a Hector Lopez grounder to short and threw out the runner, stemming a potential Yankees comeback. During an impromptu workout in Modesto, California, before Game Six, Bowman collided with infielder Jose Pagan. Bowman had three teeth jarred loose in the encounter while Pagan appeared unscathed. But the toll may have proved greater. Pagan entered Game Six among the Giants’ bright stars hitting 7-for-14. He did not collect a hit thereafter.
Bowman appeared nearly unstoppable in training camp the following spring with 12 hits in his first 14 at-bats. Asked to explain the surge, Bowman pointed to the confidence acquired following a lark visit to a hypnotist. “He also told me that somebody was going to help me with my hitting right away,”8 Bowman said. As fate would have it, coach Hank Sauer began working with Bowman’s stance the very next day. But following San Francisco’s reacquisition of Amalfitano over the winter, the Giants appeared incapable of viewing Bowman as anything more than a sixth infielder. When Pagan was sidelined by injury in August, Bowman garnered 13 consecutive starting assignments (representing nearly 40% of his season’s at-bats). When he walked off the field on the last day of the 1963 campaign, Bowman had no way of knowing it was his final appearance as a major-league player. He was 27 days shy of eligibility for the players’ pension.
In October Bowman was optioned to Tacoma to clear roster space for budding prospect Gil Garrido. By this time Bowman had already made arrangements to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic alongside Gaylord Perry and many other Giant teammates. In mid-November Bowman’s 15-for-26 clip raised his average to a lofty .404. He allowed himself to dream of riding this fortune to a starting role in the majors in 1964. But this success was quickly curtailed when Bowman was forced home due to illness. On January 8, 1964, he was traded to Milwaukee to complete an earlier six-player swap. In the spring Bowman was assigned to the Braves’ PCL affiliate. This same year he married Johnson City native Betty Miles. The short-lived union produced a daughter, Elizabeth.
Over the next six years Bowman mentored such youngsters as Bud Harrelson and Hal McRae as he bounced among a number of organizations. In typical fashion Bowman began his 1965 Atlanta Crackers campaign with a .301-0-12 burst that placed among the league leaders. Despite this tear he saw little promise of advancement with the Braves and began contemplating retirement. Bowman was dissuaded from such thoughts when teammates and friends convinced him his steady play would attract interest from other teams. In a July poll of league managers, and as the top hitter among International League shortstops, Bowman was selected to the circuit’s All-Star squad but was unable to play. On July 16 he reinjured his left knee in a sliding mishap and missed at least three weeks. It appears he returned to action too soon when he slumped to .226 in his final 261 at-bats.
During the offseason Bowman received a life-threatening scare. He sustained second degree burns to his head, face and neck and was blinded for weeks when a partially filled paint bucket exploded near a coal furnace in his Johnson City apartment. The pain was undoubtedly softened by his prospects of returning to the majors following his September 25 trade to the Mets – a prospect further encouraged by Mets’ manager Wes Westrum’s enthusiasm over the acquisition. But Westrum appears to have been overruled the following spring when Bowman was assigned to the club’s Jacksonville, Florida, affiliate.
“You may not get a hit all year,”9 exclaimed former Atlanta teammate Tommie Aaron when he heard of Bowman’s assignment to the Jacksonville Suns. Aaron’s needling was based on Bowman’s difficulties in the Suns’ home environs (1-for-30 in 1965). But the needling proved prescient when Bowman went hitless in 30 consecutive at-bats ending May 20, 1966. Nonetheless Bowman’s superb glove work ensured steady play in the lineup. On June 8 he played a role in the first triple play in Jacksonville’s five-year history. It was during this time that Bowman approached 21-year-old Seaver with cogent advice that the future Hall of Famer never forgot: “Kid, you got a good fastball, but to keep it, you gotta throw it. Don’t save it for Christmas.”10 Despite a lowly .205-4-30 line Bowman’s 128 appearances were surpassed by only one Suns’ teammate.
Traded to Cleveland on October 12, Bowman reported to the Indians’ 1967 spring training camp as a non-roster invitee. Assigned to the Portland Beavers in the PCL, Bowman was eventually moved to the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. On September 15 Bowman’s eighth- inning single in the elimination game of the Governor’s Cup playoff series spoiled a no-hit bid by Toledo righty Jim Rooker. Seeing continually declining play over his final three years, Bowman was unable to top a .177 average. After the 1969 season he retired, returning to his Johnson City home.
During the off seasons Bowman worked as a basketball referee and part time employee of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Upon his permanent return he went to work as the assistant golf pro at the municipal Pine Oak Golf Course and later transferred to the city’s parks and recreation department (a combined 30-year employment with Johnson City). On March 16, 1993, Bowman was admitted into the Northeast Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. He was among the first class to be inducted into the Science Hill High School Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. A year later his brother Billy joined him in the Science Hill Hall.
In 1973 Bowman met Magdalene Norris, an Oconee County, South Carolina, native who was visiting her sister in Johnson City. A friendship immediately blossomed into romance and they married on May 8, 1976. The union produced one child: John Ferrell Bowman. Between John and his half-sister, Elizabeth, they produced four grandchildren for Magdalene and Ernie. The grandparents doted over the children while Bowman spent leisure hours hunting and fishing.
In 2011 Bowman was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer. Inexplicably he went blind for a two-month span when – just as inexplicably – his sight was restored. Started on a schedule of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Bowman found it difficult to afford the treatment costs. He turned to his longtime friend Gaylord Perry for help. Perry connected Bowman to the Baseball Assistance Team, a charitable organization formed in 1986 to help the large contingent of players’ alumni. Through financial support B.A.T. was able to extend Bowman’s longevity and quality of life. Without it, Bowman might never have been able to accompany Perry, Willie Mays and other friends and former teammates during the 2012 opening day festivities at San Francisco’s AT&T Park that commemorated the 1962 Giants National League championship.
In 2013 Bowman was inducted into the Johnson City Parks and Recreation’s Wall of Fame. During the ceremony the Parks Department board member who introduced the former athlete aptly captured Bowman’s contributions to the city when he said Bowman “spent a lot of time … with the kids … [He] worked for the Parks and Recreation for many years and (has) just been an outstanding citizen.”11
“Defense is my specialty,”12 admitted the chatty, likeable infielder with tremendous range and an atomic arm. Bowman concluded his three-year major-league stint garnering only 165 appearances (205 at-bats). But on August 23, 1962, amongst a lineup that included future Hall of Fame sluggers Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda, it had been Bowman’s two at-bats that made the difference in the Giants’ pennant pursuit.
Last revised: July 23, 2015
The author wishes to thank Ernie Bowman for review and edit of the narrative.
Ernie Bowman, telephone interview, June 7, 2015
The Sporting News
1 In 1962 Bowman was inducted into the Little League Hall of Fame.
2 Billy Bowman carved a six-year minor league pitching career and became a scout for the Houston Astros.
3 Bowman later secured a degree from the college in elementary education.
4 “Giants Corral Flashy Kids to Push Regulars for Jobs,” The Sporting News, January 11, 1961, 11.
5 “Gains Revenge With Big Blow,” The Sporting News, September 13, 1961, 27.
6 “Bowman, Intending to Bunt, ‘Accidentally’ Hits Home Run,” The Sporting News, September 8, 1962, 21.
7 “Giants Sniff Flag Aroma as Bowman’s Bat Blooms,” The Sporting News, August 24, 1963, 9.
8 “Assist for Hypnotist in Bowman Explosion,” The Sporting News, April 13, 1963, 18.
9 “International League,” The Sporting News, April 23, 1966, 29.
11 Jennifer Sprouse, “Wall of Fame: 2013 inductees announced at luncheon,” Johnson City Press (November 5, 2013).
12 “Giants Sniff Flag Aroma as Bowman’s Bat Blooms,” The Sporting News, August 24, 1963, 9.