He was a hardnosed player whose blue-collar work ethic maximized his talent and inspired his teammates. His red hair and true grit made him the most recognizable Blue Jay as their starting third baseman for nearly four years. Josh Donaldson? No, Roy Howell, whose career included stops with the Texas Rangers and the Milwaukee Brewers in addition to Toronto. In fact, Howell hung up his spikes even before the Bringer of Rain was born.
“I go out there to play the game hard,” he told Tom Flaherty of the Milwaukee Journal. “I play the game aggressively. That’s all I know how to do. I’ll go out there, I’ll give you my best shot, I’ll swing the bat, and I’ll get dirty for you.”1
Roy Lee Howell was born on December 18, 1953, in Lompoc, California, 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles. He had an upbringing that left him with insurmountable physical and mental toughness:
“I grew up farming and ranching and digging ditches,” Howell told Jim Seip of the York (Pennsylvania) Daily Record.2 Physical conditioning gave young Roy a 200-pound frame by the time he attended Lompoc High School, where he starred in baseball and football. In 1972, Howell’s senior year, he attracted the attention of scouts from several organizations, including the San Diego Padres and the Texas Rangers. Milwaukee Brewers scout Harry Smith even described him as “a 25-year-old playing with a bunch of kids.”3 The Padres had the first draft choice; if they signed Howell, they intended to promote him directly to San Diego. Howell was nonplussed by their intention:
“I’m 18 years old. I love playing the game. But you would be doing me a big disservice to take me out of high school and … take me right to the major leagues.”4 Instead, he signed with the Rangers for $40,000 and was assigned to Double-A Pittsfield. Howell batted .250 in 116 official at-bats with 2 home runs and 9 RBIs. A gruesome incident that offseason left him lucky to be alive.
On the final day of deer-hunting season, Howell and a friend waited by the side of a mountain road for friends to pick them up, their guns unloaded. A pickup truck stopped 50 yards away before the driver extinguished his headlights. Then he turned on the brights, blinding Howell and his friend. That was when he started to shoot indiscriminately. Roy was hit in the left arm, the limb exploding on contact. Somehow both young men, covered in blood, managed to hitch a ride with a woman who soon became as terrified as they were. Ultimately, the California Highway Patrol drove Howell to a hospital in Santa Ynez, where he was admitted. Howell said of the ordeal:
“[The doctor] took a look at my arm and he said, ‘I’m going to put it back together.’ With no anesthesia … he threw about four hundred stitches into it … When he took all the strings and pulled it straight up, everything in my arm came back together.”5 Howell was discharged the next day and the cast came off three weeks later. The experience left him with the nickname “Target” that stuck for the rest of his career.
“About two weeks after,” Howell remembered, “I went duck hunting … and some guy shot me in the back. But that’s another story.”6 Then he went to spring training.
Howell’s bat improved during his second season in Pittsfield as he hit 15 home runs with 47 RBIs. Off the field, he married the former Karla Gilman in Santa Barbara on January 26, 1974. Promoted to Spokane, Howell ripped through Pacific Coast League pitching as he hit .338 in his first 19 games. His performance did not go unnoticed by Rangers manager Billy Martin.
“The kid doesn’t swing at bad pitches and he knows the strike zone. And that’s rare in someone so young,” Martin said.7 Howell’s understanding of fundamentals as a 20-year-old earned Martin’s respect, a manager rarely impressed by rookies. He also earned high praise from Del Wilber, his own manager in Spokane, who compared the third baseman to fellow Santa Barbaran Eddie Mathews. Howell credited his father, Bob, for his success in the game thus far. Bob Howell taught him to play every position and to bat left-handed. “He figured I’d have a better chance from that side because there are more right-handed pitchers.”8
By the end of the season, Howell’s batting average had cooled to .281, albeit with 22 home runs and 80 RBIs as the Spokane Indians won the Pacific Coast League championship. While celebrating on the road in Albuquerque, Howell received instructions from Billy Martin to “meet us in Texas.”9
It was a baptism by fire. Howell flew to Arlington to await his teammates’ return from a California road trip. In his motel, the phone rang. It was Martin. “We want you in Anaheim tonight.” Howell chartered another plane and upon arrival received word that “Billy wants to see you in his office.” Martin showed him the lineup card, exclaiming “We’re playing a doubleheader, and you’re playing in both of them!” Howell had not slept in two days at this point. Unfazed, he replied “All right, let’s go!” Later, he recalled that that was “Billy instilling confidence in me. He wanted to see what I was made of.”10
Howell notched his first major-league hit off Chuck Dobson in the opener while touching Ed Figueroa for a home run in the second game of the doubleheader, September 9, 1974. He appeared in 11 more games for the Rangers, winners of 84 games after finishing in last place in both 1972 and 1973. Howell looked forward to a long career playing for Billy Martin:
“He would test you tremendously,” Howell remembered. “There would be no explanation for what he did. … Billy always wanted to know about a player ‘Will you stand and fight or turn and run?”11 Expectations were high for Billy Martin’s “Turn-Around Gang” in 1975 with Howell installed as the regular at the hot corner. After a slow start, Billy was fired, replaced by Frank Lucchesi. Initially, relations between Howell and Lucchesi were cordial.
“When I see a swing like [Howell’s] with that kind of power,” Lucchesi told Randy Galloway of the Dallas Morning News, “when I see all that potential, I don’t think Roy should have to prove he can play. He’s got to prove he can’t play.”12 There had been discussions to move Howell to first base or the outfield in order to make room for Mike Cubbage, but Lucchesi assured him that he “was going to play a lot of third” in 1975 as well as 1976 and “to go out there and be relaxed.”13
For the season, he batted .251 with 10 home runs and 51 RBIs. On August 7, 1976, Howell broke up a no-hitter by the Twins’ Steve Luebber with two outs in the ninth inning:
“I was getting my breaking stuff over … then we throw kind of a waste pitch,” Luebber recalled. “And then we throw the pitch we thought was strike three, and it didn’t get called.” For five pitches, Luebber was sitting on strike two, one pitch away from a no-hitter. “Then he got the single up the middle.”14
Howell’s offense in 1976 was nearly a carbon copy of 1975 as he hit .253 with 8 home runs and 53 RBIs. By now, Lucchesi had soured on Howell, deeming his output “a disappointment,” compounded by his league-leading 28 errors at third base.”15 The Rangers sent him to the Florida Winter Instructional League to master a new position.
“The reason I went to Florida was because both Eddie Robinson and Frank told me they wanted me to learn about left field so I could play it next season,” Howell told Randy Galloway.16 It was a reasonable request, considering that when the Rangers signed free-agent shortstop Bert Campaneris, Toby Harrah was forced to move to third base. Imagine Howell’s surprise when upon arriving at spring training 1977, he was told that Tom Grieve had won the left-field position.
“Frank came up to Lenny Randle and me, and he said, ‘I don’t care if you guys hit a thousand in spring training and make every play. You’re not gonna play.’”17 All the Rangers could offer Howell was the opportunity to platoon as a designated hitter. Howell was outraged: “Let me put it this way — I will not DH. If they aren’t going to play me at a position, then I want to go someplace else and play.”18 Howell was without a contract, which exposed the risk that he could walk away from the Rangers as a free agent at the end of the season. When the Rangers offered Howell three-year deal, he replied that he would sign only if the team traded him.
Meanwhile, any contract squabbles between Howell and the Rangers were dwarfed on April 3 when a tragedy took place during an exhibition game at Driller Park in Tulsa. During a second-inning rain delay, the Rangers and the Houston Astros witnessed a grandstand walkway collapse. The cataclysm became known as “Black Sunday” in Tulsa. According to Barry Lewis of the Tulsa World, fans fell more than 20 feet to the pavement, and 18 were sent to the hospital.19 Astros reliever Joe Sambito was in the clubhouse on the side of the collapse when it occurred.
“I heard a big crash and a lot of screams,” he said.20 Howell and Sambito were two of the players who rose to the occasion, treating victims and providing whatever help they could. No matter. Howell was still in Texas when the season opened. Coming off the bench, he went hitless in 17 at-bats.21
“I won’t sit here. I’m history. I’ve got to play.”22 On May 10, 1977, Howell got his wish. He was traded, along with an undisclosed amount of cash, to the Toronto Blue Jays for pitcher Steve Hargan and infielder Jim Mason. According to Blue Jays manager Roy Hartsfield, “I don’t care what the price tag is, because Howell is worth every buck.”23
A change of scenery brought an immediate improvement in results. Howell drove in a run in his first Toronto appearance against Seattle in what stated a 15-game hitting streak. By May 23, his batting average had improved to .302. The Blue Jays soon visited Arlington, where Howell went 7-for-12, including a game-winning home run against future Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven. Blue Jays general manager Peter Bavasi said, “We are very pleased with the deal. He’s a proven major leaguer at the age of 23 and now that he has a lock on a position, he can concentrate on the other aspects of the game. He’s going to be with us for a long time.”24
On September 10, 1977, Howell enjoyed a career day at Yankee Stadium. He went 5-for-5 with a single, two doubles, and two home runs and drove in nine runs, a Stadium record, as the Blue Jays demolished the Yankees, 19-3. (Howell’s mentor in Texas, Billy Martin, was now managing the Yankees.)
“I enjoy playing in this ballpark,” Howell told Neil MacCarl of the Toronto Star.
For the season, Howell batted .302 with 10 home runs and 44 RBIs despite missing 41 games to hand and ankle injuries. As he was now under contract through the 1979 season, Howell could focus expressly on his game:
“Now that I’ve hit .300, I hope to do it again. I think I improved my fielding last year after making the adjustment from grass to artificial turf. I know I have a long way to go and I’ll never stop working hard at that.”25
Howell fell short of his goal in 1978, as he batted .270 with 8 home runs and 61 RBIs. Still, his numbers were solid enough to merit an invitation to represent the Blue Jays at the All-Star Game in San Diego. Called upon to pinch-hit, he grounded out against Montreal’s Steve Rogers to end the fourth inning. Howell’s bat, glove, and presence were so highly valued by the Blue Jays that Peter Bavasi offered to extend his contract, complete with a pay increase. The third baseman was grateful but unimpressed.
“Thank you, I appreciate it, but I’ll live up to my contract,” Howell told Bavasi. “I’ll wait until after the third year, and then we can renegotiate the option.”26 It was the beginning of the undoing of any relationship between Howell and the Blue Jays management. When Bavasi stated audaciously in 1978 that “I wouldn’t want my daughter dating a Blue Jay,” the situation with Howell only became more tenuous.27
Any budding acrimony between Howell and the front office was not evident to watch the third baseman’s performance on the field in 1979. On May 26 he touched Boston’s Bill Campbell for a three-run home run in a mesmerizing come-from-behind 7-6 victory.28 Meanwhile, his fielding continued to improve. An acrobatic dive to rob Butch Hobson of a base hit while making two great plays against Jim Rice drew rave comparisons to Graig Nettles for his defensive excellence. Manager Roy Hartsfield offered the following report:
“He is probably playing as well right now as he has ever played. He is scorching the ball.”29 For the season, Howell batted .247 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs, earning him the Blue Jays’ Player of the Year Award. However, when he inquired about his trophy, it was sent to him in the mail. The derision only intensified from there. The Blue Jays did not offer Howell a contract for 1980. He took the team to arbitration and won before hitting 10 home runs while driving in 57 and batting .269. With third-base prospect Danny Ainge waiting in the wings, the Blue Jays were content to allow Howell to file for free agency.
Having played his entire career with losing teams, Howell instructed agent George Kalifatis that he was resolved to sign only with a contender. Although five teams drafted him, the only winner among them was the Milwaukee Brewers. When general manager Harry Dalton and manager Buck Rodgers promised Howell the opportunity to play every day, he signed a five-year, $1.825 million contract with the Brewers on December 20, 1980.30
After languishing in the second division since their inception in 1970, the Brewers won 93 games in 1978, challenging the Yankees and the Red Sox in the American League East. Winners of 95 in 1979 and 86 in 1980, the Brewers appeared poised to capture their first division title. Harry Dalton was busy that winter, adding Ted Simmons, Rollie Fingers, and Pete Vuckovich to a roster that already included Cecil Cooper, Gorman Thomas, Mike Caldwell, and future Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount. Randy Lerch, who joined the Brewers the same year, retained fond memories of playing in Milwaukee:
“Milwaukee wasn’t a media center. It was just a lot of blue-collar people who would have their tailgate parties. It was a super town to play in, real low key. … We put on a uniform and played hardball.”31
It might not have occurred to Howell that he was joining a team already stocked with two third basemen of All-Star caliber. Team captain Sal Bando, 36, was understood to be retiring while Don Money, 33, plagued by a collection of injuries, did not seem far off. According to rotisserie baseball pioneer Daniel Okrent, “Roy Howell at third base was an adventure [Rodgers and his coaches] didn’t particularly enjoy.”32 His fielding had regressed to an “atrocious” level to the point that Bando held off retirement for another year. Even with Money out of commission for most of the second half of the strike-shortened 1981 season, Howell played in only 53 games at third base. By the end of the season, “the spectre of ground balls clanging off Howell’s chest horrified Rodgers and Dalton” enough to make them award his position to Molitor for 1982.33 Once again Howell demanded a trade.
“No words are going to change it,” Howell protested to the Milwaukee Journal. “What am I going to do, tell [Rodgers] I can play? I guess I have as much respect for him as a manager as he has for me as a player.”34 Howell appeared visibly upset during spring training to the point that Dalton was compelled to inform him that the less interested he was in playing for Milwaukee, the less attractive he would become to general managers as trade material. Any attempt to trade Howell fell on deaf ears and when the regular season began, he remained in Milwaukee, riding the lonesome pine.
The Brewers won their first playoff berth in 1981, only to lose the American League Division Series to the Yankees in five games. In 1982 they won the American League pennant and fell to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the World Series. Although Howell was limited to part-time duties during those seasons, he did display flashes of brilliance.
On August 10, 1981, the Brewers’ first game back from the strike, they were deadlocked with the Indians through 13 innings of a rain-delayed game. With Marshall Edwards on first base, Howell attempted a sacrifice bunt. When Cleveland catcher Bo Diaz attempted to nail Edwards at second base, the slippery ball landed in center field. Once Howell realized he had reached first base safely, he kept on running.
“I was going to make [Rick] Manning make the play,” he reported. “Even if he gets me, Marshall’s on third with one out.”35 What Howell did not expect was for Manning to execute a perfect throw to shortstop Jerry Dybzinski. He knew he was out if he did not improvise, so he “tried to do something to surprise them.”36 Howell went into a slide, jumped up, and somersaulted over Dybzinski to reach base. His sleight of hand led to a three-run inning, which proved to be the winning margin for Milwaukee. The next night, Howell hit a home run and a double as part of a doubleheader sweep.
Howell batted .400 in the 1981 postseason, going 2-for-5 against the Yankees. He was hitless in 14 at-bats in the ALCS and the World Series in 1982. Howell continued to see diminished playing time, batting .278 in 1983 and only .232 in 1984. With one year left on his contract, the Brewers released him on October 1, 1984. Howell signed a minor-league contract with the San Francisco Giants in 1985. Failing to make the team, he signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, reaching Triple-A Portland. When Howell was cut by the Pittsburgh Pirates in spring training 1986, he decided to call it a career. Philosophical, he said, “You have to be able to walk away; if you take it, they’ve got you.”37
In 1989 Howell attempted a comeback with the St. Petersburg Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball Association. The league had a 72-game winter schedule and many players hoped, no doubt, to use the league as an entrée back to the major leagues. Howell was installed as the Pelicans’ regular third baseman, despite battling ankle and leg injuries throughout the season. The Pelicans went wire-to-wire, finishing the regular season 42-30 before defeating the West Palm Beach Tropics for the league championship.38 On November 26, 1989, Howell became a father for the third time; Troy and Lindsay Howell welcomed baby brother Daniel to the family.
While playing in the Senior League, Howell and Joe Sambito, now teammates on the Pelicans, expressed their philosophy on autographs to author Peter Golenbock. At the time, two well-known former Mets refused to participate in a team sponsored autograph signing for the fans.
“‘You know, there are players who haven’t even made it to the big show who won’t sign autographs,’ said Sambito. ‘I heard [Robin] Ventura won’t sign autographs because he didn’t want to lessen the value.’
“Howell laughed, ‘He didn’t want to flood the market?’
“Sambito said, ‘The value of his autograph has only one determination: performance.’
‘You got that right,’ Howell replied.”39
Howell spent the final decade of the twentieth century out of professional baseball, working in insurance.40 In 2000 he returned to the game when former teammate Ted Simmons offered him a coaching position in the Padres’ farm system. He began at Mobile and was promoted in 2001 to Portland. From 2003 to 2005, Howell managed the Padres’ affiliate in Eugene. After a year out of baseball, he managed San Luis Potosi of the California Collegiate League from 2007 to 2010. In 2011 he managed the Pennsylvania Road Warriers, a travel team in the independent Atlantic League. The following year Howell joined the Seattle Mariners’ organization. After two years as the hitting coach at High Desert, he was promoted in 2014 to manage Tacoma. Howell began the 2015 season as a coach for Jackson and was promoted to manager in midseason. As of 2018, he was the hitting coach for the Arkansas Travelers.
Roy Howell brought the work ethic of a California farmer to the baseball diamond. When given the chance to play, he excelled both in the field and at the plate. Ultimately he wanted to win, and fell within two games of baseball’s most coveted prize as a member of the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. True to his word, he swung the bat, he got dirty, and he gave baseball his best shot.
Besides the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the following:
MacCarl, Neil. “Jays’ Roy-and-Ron Show Rates Fine N.Y. Notices,” The Sporting News: October 1, 1977: 16.
Prime, Jim. Tales from the Blue Jays Dugout (New York: Sports Publishing Inc.), 2014.
Marty Appel, Peter Bavasi, Bill Carle, Louis Cauz, Pat Gillick, Peter Golenbock, Lee Kluck, Dave McKay, Joey McLaughlin, Bill Nowlin, Jim Prime, Harvey Sahker, Howard Starkman, Elliott Wahle, Eric Zweig
1 Tom Flaherty, “Brewers: Hustlin’ Howell,” The Sporting News, August 29, 1981: 37.
2 Jim Seip, “Howell Prepared to Lead Road Warriors,” York (Pennsylvania) Daily Record, April 2, 2011, ydr.com; accessed December 28, 2017.
3 Daniel Okrent, Nine Innings (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1985), 86.
4 Peter Golenbock, The Forever Boys (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1991), 188.
5 Golenbock, 187.
7 Chuck Stewart, “Spokane’s Hitting Howell Proves Father Knew Best,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1974: 33.
9 Golenbock, 190.
10 Golenbock, 190-191
11 Golenbock, 191-192
12 Randy Galloway, “Howell Fires Homer Barrage to Grab Rainier 3rd Base Job,” The Sporting News, August 30, 1975: 16.
14 Brad Myers, “Luebber’s Long Ride: 29 Years in Minor League Ball,” Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal, July 13, 2015. delawareonline.com, accessed December 28, 2017.
15 Randy Galloway, “Roy Howell Howls Over Ranger Job,” The Sporting News, March 5, 1977: 28.
17 Golenbock, 194.
18 Galloway, “Roy Howell Howls”
19 Barry Lewis, “Pro Baseball: ‘Black Sunday’ Preceded Drillers’ First Season” Tulsa World, April 2, 2017, tulsaworld.com; accessed December 28, 2017.
20 Lewis. 3
21 Neil MacCarl, “Swap to Blue Jays Sets Off Big Bat Barrage by Howell,” The Sporting News, June 11, 1977: 14.
22 Golenbock, 195.
23 MacCarl, “Swap to Blue Jays.
25 Neil MacCarl, “Happy Howell a Rare Bird in Blue Jays’ Nest,” The Sporting News, February 4, 1978: 57.
26 Golenbock, 198.
27 Bob Elliott, Blue Jays Trivia Quiz Book (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Inc., 1993), 36.
28 Neil MacCarl, “Meek Jays Boast a Big Bat: Howell’s,” The Sporting News, June 16, 1979: 20.
30 Okrent, 218.
31 Golenbock, 122-123.
34 Okrent, 87.
37 Golenbock, 132.
38 William Schneider, “One Last Season in the Sun: The Saga of the Senior Professional Baseball Assocation,” in Cecilia Tan, ed., The National Pastime: Baseball in the Sunshine State (Phoenix: SABR, 2016), 75-77.
39 Golenbock, 90-91.
40 Charles Faber, Major League Careers Cut Short: Leading Players Gone by 30 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2011), 130.