This article was written by David E. Skelton
In 1935, The Sporting News captured in a few sentences the early (possibly entire) playing career of Joe Bowman: “[He] was something of a humpty-dumpty, with more ups and downs than [heavyweight boxer] Max Baer, when he started out to follow baseball as a profession. Indeed, at one time, the right-hander didn’t know from one season to another whether he was an outfielder, a hurler or just a flop. … After he was duly accepted as a pitcher — and a promising one — a major league pilot switched him from sidearm to overhand throwing. He went back to the minors throwing overhand and was told to go back to sidearm. … This was the beginning of Joe’s zig-zag career. … A less courageous and determined lad might have thrown up his hands and said: ‘To heck with this thing. I’m going to find something else to do.’”1
Bowman never did throw up his hands (though he came close). He was so athletically gifted that scouts, coaches and managers couldn’t help themselves — they had to continually tinker while at the same time dissuading the hurler from using one of the strongest pitches in his arsenal: the knuckleball. The constant meddling only served to stymie a once-promising career. Over the course of an 11-year major-league career Bowman would fall short of the high expectations. But he made his mark in the game’s history books: In 1935 he made the first start, surrendered the first run and suffered the first loss in major-league baseball’s first night game. A year later Bowman and Philadelphia Phillies teammate Bucky Walters each lost 20 games — a dual mark matched just four times in the National League from 1918 through 2014.
Joseph Emil Bowman was born on June 17, 1910, the second of eight children of Joseph F. and Amelia (Yentz2) Bowman, in Argentine, Kansas, a community annexed by Kansas City, Kansas, the year of Joseph’s birth. His father, a native Kansan, was a linotype operator. Each of his five sons developed a strong interest in baseball, with some evidence indicating that two of Joe’s brothers, Charles and Theodore “Bud” Bowman, played professionally in the minors. Joe’s development was fostered at St. Michael’s Parochial School by baseball enthusiast Father Michael White. It was White who moved Bowman from third base, his original pursuit since grammar school, to pitcher. Joe’s success from the mound stemmed from a close-body, side-armed delivery that turned fastballs into screwballs. Besting such older clubs as the minor-league Kansas City Blues and teams sponsored by the National Council of Catholic Men, Bowman captured the attention of another priest. Father F.J. O’Brien played minor-league ball as a catcher before entering the priesthood. In 1929 he contacted an old associate, Spencer Abbott, the manager of the Pueblo (Colorado) Steelworkers in the Western League, and the 19-year-old Bowman signed with the Class A club for a $2,500 bonus and a $275-a-month salary. As Bowman’s career blossomed, Abbott played a pivotal role. He was also the first to start tinkering.
Perhaps Abbott saw something of himself in the righty. Originally a pitcher who was shifted to the field, Abbott was quick to move Bowman when the youngster struggled from the mound. Bowman “hit the ball hard for Pueblo”3 and in July he was promoted to Portland, where less success ensued. In 1930 he bounced among various leagues — including another stint with Abbott in Omaha — and migrated back to the mound when one of the Omaha pitchers was injured.4 Tapped in 1931 to accompany Abbott in Double-A Portland, Bowman developed a sinker to accompany his side-arm approach. The new delivery helped place Bowman among the Pacific Coast League leaders with 18 wins. By August he was tabbed along with PCL stars Frankie Crosetti and Dolph Camilli as a can’t-miss major leaguer. Portland was inundated with offers for Bowman, including an aggressive pursuit by the Boston Braves.
In November 1931 the Philadelphia Athletics sent six players to Portland5 for Bowman and outfielder Ed Coleman.6 Bowman’s acquisition appears to have been insurance against Philadelphia’s anticipated difficulties signing ace Lefty Grove for the 1932 season. When Grove signed in late February, Bowman was projected to help from the bullpen. In Grapefruit League exhibitions Bowman impressed with two three-inning stints against the St. Louis Cardinals, all while the Athletics worked to convert him (unsuccessfully) to an overhand delivery.
On April 18, 1932, Bowman made his major-league debut, against the Washington Senators. He was brought into a seventh-inning tie and absorbed the loss after surrendering three runs. Bowman received little play as he struggled with the new overhand delivery. On June 2, after his seventh appearance (an 8.18 ERA over 11 innings), the 22-year-old requested a return to Portland and his mentor Abbott. The move proved prescient when Bowman’s 10 wins in 23 appearances aided in the Beavers’ first pennant7 in 18 years. Bowman’s success was aided by the discovery that the continued overhand delivery substantially enhanced his curve.
But this same overhand success did not carry into the next season. After losing his first four decisions, Bowman secured Abbott’s approval to return to a side-arm delivery. The yield was immediate when Bowman won five consecutive decisions, 23 of his next 30. He finished among the league leaders in most pitching categories. This success continued over the winter as Bowman accompanied a PCL all-star squad in exhibitions throughout the Southwest and into Mexico.8
On December 1, 1933 — with Bowman south of the Rio Grande — the reigning world champion New York Giants secured the righty from Portland in a trade for infielder Gil English and an estimated $25,000. Projected as a relief pitcher, Bowman was inserted into the rotation after righty Roy Parmelee was moved temporarily to the retired list. On May 1, 1934, he defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in his first major-league start. A fine hitter, Bowman helped his own cause with a triple and three RBIs. Twenty days later Bowman owned a record of 2-0, 1.52 after winning his first complete game, 5-2 over the Cardinals. He finished the campaign 5-4, 3.61 in 30 appearances (10 starts) and appeared to have found a home in New York. But in June Bowman had attracted the attention of Philadelphia Phillies manager Jimmie Wilson after two strong performances against the Phillies. When the Giants attempted to reacquire outfielder Kiddo Davis from Philadelphia that winter, Wilson insisted on Bowman (despite New York skipper Bill Terry’s repeated attempts to interest him in someone else).9
Like those before him, Wilson could not resist meddling with Bowman’s delivery — with considerable success. Displaying a three-quarter delivery that improved his control, Bowman posted a strong Grapefruit League campaign. Following a rough start to the regular season, he settled into a 7-10, 4.25 mark (team ERA: 4.76) for the second-division club. In Cincinnati on May 24, 1935, he made history as a starter in the major leagues’ first night game. “At the time, I didn’t think anything of it,” Bowman said years later. “[B]ut now you look back and it was something. President [Franklin] Roosevelt turned on the lights from Washington. They had a big crowd, which they never had in Cincinnati.”10 Two months later he got his first shutout, initiating a streak of five consecutive wins. The Phillies’ lackluster offense contributed to heartbreaking losses as well. On August 19 Bowman carried a no-hitter against the Chicago Cubs into the eighth inning only to lose the game on two unearned runs. Still, his overall effectiveness drew favorable comparisons to Al Demaree, whose 1915 contributions after coming from New York had led the Phillies to their first National League pennant.
But heartbreaking losses continued into 1936 as Philadelphia plummeted to a 100-loss season. Bowman suffered six losses and one no-decision in seven starts (54 innings) despite a 2.66 ERA (league ERA: 4.02). Far more success came in a July 12 outing against the Reds when Bowman surrendered a leadoff triple before retiring 20 batters in a row in a 4-0 win (he missed a shutout when the temperatures in Cincinnati forced his removal in the ninth). But the losses also continued in bunches including nine straight beginning July 26. A relief appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 14 resulted in an extra-inning loss, Bowman’s 20th of the season. Coming on the heels of Bucky Walters’ 20th loss four days earlier, it marked the last time teammates reached this dubious threshold until the hapless expansion New York Mets in 1962.
Days before the start of the 1937 season, Philadelphia was without a first baseman because Camilli had not reported due to a contract dispute. On April 16 the Phillies acquired Earl Browne from the Pittsburgh Pirates11 at what Wilson considered a very high cost: Joe Bowman. One month later, before the then-largest single-game crowd in Forbes Field history, Bowman twirled a 2-1 complete-game victory over the Cardinals to lower his ERA to a minuscule 1.42. It was his fifth straight win and pushed the Pirates 3½ games ahead in the league standings. On July 9 he was within reach of a lopsided 13-0 shutout before surrendering a ninth-inning Cubs tally. But as Pittsburgh’s fortunes waned, Bowman followed suit. On July 17, inserted as a pinch-runner, he suffered a back injury on the basepaths. Combined with time lost due to tonsil illness, Bowman slipped to a record of 0-2, 7.92 over his final 12 appearances as the Pirates finished a distant third in the standings.
Arm problems stemming from the back injury limited Bowman to just 17 appearances in 1938. Despite a promising beginning — five innings of one-hit pitching to secure a win in his first outing — Bowman managed just one-third of an inning in June. He earned midseason success when, except for a poor performance against the Cubs on August 13, he strung together two wins over six relief appearances with a 0.96 ERA. Other outings proved less successful as Bowman finished the campaign with a record of 3-4, 4.65. In the offseason his name surfaced in two multiplayer swaps for future Hall of Famer Al Lopez and Fred Hutchinson.
Bowman’s healthy report to spring training offered hope for a profitable comeback. A strong exhibition campaign translated into a superb start to the season — 0.60 in his first 15 innings (four appearances, one start). A fine hitter (.403 in 1939 when not called upon to pinch-hit), Bowman helped his own cause on May 16 with a double, triple, and four RBIs in a complete-game victory against the Phillies. Three months later he collected his second career shutout with a 6-0 win over the Dodgers. But he got just one victory in his final 10 decisions. Bowman’s 10-14, 4.48 placed among the fading team’s pitching leaders and earned him a generous offseason raise.
On March 28, 1940, Bowman delivered a strong spring-training performance for the Pirates against the Athletics in a Hollywood, California, exhibition and appeared poised for a successful campaign. On June 4, for the second time in his career, he inaugurated night baseball — on this occasion in Pittsburgh in a 14-2 blowout against the Dodgers. Over eight starts a lack of run support contributed to six losses and two no-decisions despite Bowman’s 3.46 ERA (team ERA: 4.36). The hard-luck losses produced another middling season: 9-10, 4.46.
The difficulties Bowman faced at the start of the 1941 season were seemingly previewed by his rough treatment by the Cubs in a March 20 exhibition in Los Angeles. When the season opened, Bowman did not survive the third inning in two of his first three starts. In May, catcher Al Lopez (acquired by the Pirates on June 14, 1940) encouraged Bowman to return to a side-arm delivery. Improvement was instantaneous when, over a six-week stretch beginning May 16, Bowman was nearly unhittable: 3-0, 1.14 in nine appearances (five starts, including a three-hit shutout June 21 against the Phillies). But arm problems soon resurfaced. It is unclear whether the once-familiar side-arm delivery (which he’d not used in six years) was the cause. Bowman considered leaving the team to seek treatment in Kansas City but he did not want to quit the shorthanded Pirates (hurler Bob Klinger was nursing an infection after a cut on his right hand). But Pittsburgh had no such sentiments. On August 8, in a surprise move, Bowman was traded to the St. Paul Saints of the American Association. Stunned by the abrupt development, Bowman appealed to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for relief but none came. Within a week of the trade St. Paul learned of Bowman’s arm problems and demanded that he seek immediate treatment. The Saints placed him on the suspended list.
Bowman evidenced a successful recovery when he made his St. Paul debut on May 8, 1942, with a two-hit shutout over the Columbus Red Birds. But early hopes proved false when he earned just two additional wins against 12 losses. In June 1943 Bowman got into an argument with Saints manager Salty Parker and refused to pitch further. He was sold to Chattanooga (Southern Association) but declined to report. He returned to Kansas City prepared to forsake baseball. A week later, Bowman was traded to the Louisville Colonels for outfielder Art Rebel. Far greater success ensued with the Boston Red Sox affiliate when Bowman won five of his first seven decisions. On September 1 he helped the Colonels with his bat when his ninth-inning pinch hit led a comeback win over the Red Birds. Five days later he suffered another of his signature heartbreaking games — a 3-1 loss to Indianapolis with all three opposing runs unearned. In March 1944, with the Red Sox seeking to fill a war-depleted roster, Bowman was reinstated to the major leagues.12
Red Sox manager Joe Cronin allowed a long leash to the 34-year-old righty, resulting in a single-season career-high 12 wins for Bowman. He turned increasingly to the knuckleball, a pitch he loved to throw but had used sparingly. “[W]hen I first got to the big leagues, a couple of managers, who didn’t know any more about pitching than I know about raising bees, and a couple of catchers who used their heads only as hat-racks, said, ‘Don’t throw that knuckler — it will hurt your arm.’ Of course, I didn’t have to listen, but if a young fellow doesn’t listen, they mark him down as a hard-head and he doesn’t get any place, anyway.”13
On April 29 Bowman got his fourth career shutout, a four-hit gem over the Athletics. He missed a second shutout against the A’s on June 13 when he surrendered two ninth-inning runs. Further success against Philadelphia came on August 27 when Bowman halted a Red Sox five-game losing streak (four of his 12 wins came against his former team). Well known for his ability to hit, Bowman also served as the team’s principal pinch-hitter. He led the Red Sox in games started (24) and placed among the team leaders with 12 wins and 10 complete games. This success resulted in a hefty raise for the next season.
But Bowman’s stay in Boston proved short-lived when the Red Sox placed him on waivers after only three difficult starts in 1945. On May 28 Cincinnati paid the $7,500 waiver fee to secure the righty. Boston offered no explanation for the abrupt move but Bowman was greatly dismayed: “I won 12 games … last season and I believe I deserved a better shake. … I think Joe Cronin thought I was too old.”14 The 35-year-old joined a staff that included his former 20-loss teammate Bucky Walters and other aging hurlers. When 38-year-old righty Vern Kennedy was added to the Reds in June, the Reds had one of the oldest pitching staffs in major-league history.
On June 3 Bowman made his Reds’ debut with a complete-game victory over the Dodgers, once again helping his own cause with a run-scoring triple in his first at-bat (surprisingly, he would go hitless in his next 44 at-bats). Bowman took special pride in his next start, another complete-game win over the Frankie Frisch-led Pirates. (Frisch had labeled Bowman a washed-up, sore-armed pitcher when the hurler was dumped four years earlier.) Beginning June 13 Bowman began a string of 28 consecutive innings without giving up an earned run, including a 13-inning shutout of the Cardinals. Remarkably Bowman earned the Reds’ only wins (4) over a 15 game stretch. For the second straight year he placed among his team’s leaders in wins (11), games started (24), complete games (15), and innings pitched (185?).
Despite this success, with war veterans returning to major-league rosters Cincinnati management “didn’t believe it feasible to keep Bowman for 1946.”15 They dangled him on the trade circuit but no interest was shown. Bowman was released on March 29. He signed with the Minneapolis Millers on April 18 but after three unsuccessful outings was released in May. He finished the year with the San Diego Padres in the PCL.
For the next five years Bowman was a player-manager for a variety of Class C and B clubs. As manager of the Charlotte Hornets in 1948, he followed in the footsteps of Spencer Abbott, who managed portions of Charlotte’s 1946-1947 seasons. Bowman moved into scouting at some point in 1952-1953 and was added to the Athletics’ payroll when the team moved to Kansas City in 1955.
In September 1961 Bowman and five other Kansas City scouts resigned en masse as the front office was riven in turmoil. Less than two months later, after a brief stint on the Reds’ payroll, Bowman was rehired by the Athletics as supervisor of scouting.16 In the winter of 1963-1964, when the team was embroiled in a dispute with Kansas City over an extended lease of city-owned Municipal Stadium, Bowman’s garage became the business office from which he and farm director Hank Peters sent 1964 contracts to their players. When the Athletics moved to Oakland in 1968, Bowman took the same supervisory role for the Atlanta Braves.17 In the 1970s he was hired by the Baltimore Orioles as Midwest supervisor of scouting. (In each of these positions Bowman worked from his home in Leawood, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City.) Over the years he signed, or oversaw the signing of, many of the players who contributed to the championship campaigns of the early 1970s Athletics and the 1983 Orioles. Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Clete Boyer, Tony LaRussa, Earl Williams, and Mike Boddicker were but a few of the prominent names.
On January 1, 1988, Bowman retired to his Leawood home and his wife of then-52 years. The lives of Joseph Bowman and Mary Josephine Phelan were intertwined since childhood. She was the sister of his best friend in childhood, the playmate of his younger sister. Mary viewed baseball strictly as a pastime, not a means of living. In 1933 she spurned Joe’s initial marriage proposals. It took a lot of convincing — including Joe pulling out his contract and showing his salary — before she succumbed. Their October 25, 1933, marriage was presided over by Father Michael White, the priest who had moved Joe to the mound years earlier, in St. Michael’s Church. The newlyweds honeymooned in the winter throughout Mexico during the PCL exhibition circuit. Sometime in 1943-1944 Mary was instrumental in extending her husband’s playing career. She talked Bowman out of retirement when he contemplated walking away from the game (a remarkable about-face for the woman who had once hesitated to marry a baseball player). The union produced one child — daughter Mary Jo — and lasted until Joe’s passing on November 22, 1990 (Thanksgiving Day). His wife followed him in death 10 years later. They are buried side by side in the Catholic Resurrection Cemetery in Lenexa, Kansas.
An engaging (likely apocryphal) story surrounds Bowman’s daughter in Pittsburgh on June 3, 1940, when Mary Jo was just 3 years old. Bowman delivered a ninth-inning two-out pinch-hit drive to right-center against the Giants that had game-tying inside-the-park home run written all over it. But Bowman tripped rounding third and was tagged out. When he arrived home, Bowman discovered his clothes scattered around his room. His daughter had been listening to the game on the radio. When Bowman pulled his blunder around third Mary Jo went to the bedroom, opened the dresser drawer and threw her father’s clothes all over the floor.
Bowman baseball career as a player, manager and scout spanned nearly 60 years. A pedestrian major-league mark of 77-96, 4.40 was, in large part, a reflection of some of the very poor teams he played for. Bowman was also a threat at the plate. One is left to wonder how this richly talented athlete might have developed if he hadn’t been meddled with on so many occasions. Bowman went on to a long and productive career as a scout. He was also noted for his work in youth baseball in the Kansas City region. His very frank assessment of managers and catchers in 1934 indicates that Bowman was a quick student of proper player development. He used that learning to usher the careers of many who followed.
The author wishes to thank Mary Jo Bowman and Joseph Field, Bowman’s daughter and great-nephew, respectively, for their input to the narrative. Further thanks are extended to Rod Nelson, chair of the SABR Scouts Committee, for assistance with Bowman’s scouting career, and Len Levin for editorial and fact-checking assistance.
1 “Pitcher Joe Bowman, Phillies’ ‘Gift Horse,’ Promises to Become a Real Thoroughbred,” The Sporting News, December 12, 1935: 5.
2 Possibly Jentz.
3 ”Pitcher Joe Bowman, Phillies’ ‘Gift Horse.’
4 In another account the other hurlers were too inebriated to pitch.
5 Though Portland was an unaffiliated club it 1931, it appears to have had close connections to the Athletics. A year later it became a Philadelphia affiliate.
6 Another source indicates Bowman was traded separately for two players and $50,000.
7 The Beavers were the youngest club (average age 27 years) to secure a pennant in PCL history.
8 In the offseasons Bowman played on varied barnstorming teams including engaging in a 1935 duel in Kansas City against a Satchel Paige-led Negro League All Star squad. On the occasions when he wasn’t playing, Bowman sold household goods for Duff and Repp Furniture or automobiles for Moody Motors Company Ford in Kansas City, Missouri.
9 Two separate accounts state Bowman was part of the large package sent to Philadelphia for Dick Bartell on November 1, 1934. In either instance the Phillies insisted upon Bowman’s inclusion.
10 Jack Etkin, Innings Ago: Recollections by Kansas City Ballplayers of Their Days in the Game, (Kansas City, Missouri: Normandy Square Publications, 1986): 124.
11 Throughout his career Bowman was noted for his quiet nature. Among his Pirates teammates he earned the nickname “The Sphinx.”
12 Bowman was 4-F in the draft, ineligible for medical or physical reasons.
13 “Bowman, Two Months With Reds, Calls Frick Loop ‘Much Stronger’ Than A.L.,” The Sporting News, August 16, 1945: 8.
15 “Reds Hit Northward Trail Still Hunting for Hitters,” The Sporting News, April 4, 1946: 11.
16 In the appendix of Character Is Not a Statistic: The Legacy and Wisdom of Baseball’s Godfather Scout Bill Lajoie, author Anup Sinha identified Bowman as the best scouting director in the draft era.
17 There are differing reports as to when Bowman departed from the Athletics. Some indicate he left before the Oakland move, while another indicates he worked for them from Kansas City for a year after the move.