TBOH continues our Philadelphia Phillies biography series with longtime franchise iconic player/manager/coach Larry Bowa.
From his very first moment in front of Phillies scouts as a teenage ballplayer in California right through the current day, Bowa has been a fiery, emotional, heart-on-his sleeve, hard-working, straight-talking, blue-collar player and coach, the type that Philly fans have always embraced.
His father, Paul Bowa, had been a minor leaguer in the Saint Louis Cardinals system during the 1940’s, and a player-manager in that Cards’ system in both 1946 and 1947. Much as his future son, and in contrast to a grandson who would also reach the big leagues, Nick Johnson, Paul was a speedy, slick-fielding infielder.
In the off-season prior to his father’s debut as a manager, on December 6th, 1945 in Sacramento, California, Larry was born. By the early 1960’s, the scrawny Bowa was trying out for the team at McClatchy High School in Sacramento. He would never make the team in the entirety of his high school days.
“It was very disappointing. The reason they gave me was not because I wasn’t good enough but because I was too small,” Bowa told saccityexpress.com early this month. “I used to watch little guys play in the big leagues, and I figured it doesn’t matter how small you are. As long as you play the game right, you have a big heart, and you’re willing to sacrifice, I think anything is possible.”
At Sacramento City College, Bowa finally broke through, becoming the starter at shortstop. With a slick glove, soft hands, and a strong arm, Bowa was the prototypical great fielding, light hitting middle infielder. He was expected to be selected in the 1965 MLB Amateur Draft process, but was passed over.
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The Philadelphia Phillies had been the one team to show any real interest. The club sent one of their top scouts, Eddie Bockman, to watch Bowa play in a doubleheader.
Bockman got the first taste of what all of Philadelphia would learn in the coming years when Bowa was thrown out of the first game for arguing with the umpire, and then again tossed out before the 2nd game could even begin.
Still, Bockman had seen and heard enough. He convinced the 19-year old to play for a fall league team in the area. Bowa impressed, and was signed by the Phillies as a free agent on October 12th, 1965.
In his first professional season in 1966, Bowa was fantastic with the Phillies’ A-level team at Spartanburg. He hit .312 with 70 runs scored and 24 steals in 453 plate appearances over 97 games, earning a late-season promotion all the way to AAA San Diego.
Too young for a full shot in AAA, Bowa was sent back in the Phillies system the following year. Over the next three seasons, Bowa rose incrementally back through the minors, again reaching AAA in 1969, this time at Eugene. He hit .287 with 80 runs scored and 48 steals across 608 plate appearances. He also continued the tremendous defense at shortstop that was becoming his hallmark.
It was obvious that Bowa was ready defensively for the big leagues by the late 1960’s. With his offensive game advancing, it was time to promote him to Philadelphia.
The Phillies already had a young shortstop named Don Money who had seen his own first full season of action in the big leagues in 1969. Club management made the decision to move Money and his more classic power bat over to 3rd base, opening up shortstop for the better fielder in Bowa.
In 1970, in the franchise’ final season at Connie Mack Stadium, Bowa opened the year as the Philadelphia Phillies starting shortstop. He would hold that job for a dozen seasons.
In his 2nd career game in the Majors, on April 9th at home against the Chicago Cubs, Bowa sliced a one-out single to left field off Ken Holtzman for his first career big league hit.
Then with the Phillies trailing later in that game by a 3-1 score, Bowa came to bat with a man on first base and nobody out in the bottom of the 7th, and delivered a double for his first extra-base hit. One out later, with the club still trailing 3-2, Deron Johnson cranked a 2-run homer, scoring Bowa with his first career run.
Bowa came in 3rd in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting following a 1970 season in which he hit .250 with 24 steals. He opened eyes with his defensive play and fiery temperament as well.
When the Phillies opened the brand new Veteran’s Memorial Stadium on April 10th, 1971 against the Montreal Expos, Bowa singled to right off Bill Stoneman for the first hit in the history of the ballpark.
Money would homer in the bottom of the 6th, the first home run in the history of The Vet. Then in the bottom of the 7th, Money’s sacrifice fly scored Bowa with an insurance run in a 4-1 victory behind future Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, the first-ever win for the team at Veteran’s Stadium.
In 1972, Bowa would win the first of two career Gold Glove Awards, a travesty since he was clearly a better defender during the 1970’s than Cincinnati’s Dave Concepcion, who won five Gold Gloves during the decade.
But the Reds shortstop was a far stronger offensive player, something that appeared to regularly be factored by voters in those days. Bowa would win his 2nd Gold Glove in 1978.
Meanwhile, things began to change around him. The Phillies had begun the decade, and Bowa’s big league career, as a big loser. They dropped 88 games in 1970, which would prove to be their best season of his first four.
But in 1972, the Phillies traded for a future Hall of Fame starting pitcher in Steve Carlton. Meanwhile, more of Bowa’s fellow homegrown prospects began to reach and make their mark in a Phillies uniform.
That group included slugging outfielder Greg Luzinski, catcher Bob Boone, and most especially a powerful 3rd baseman by the name of Mike Schmidt, who debuted in late 1972 and then took over as the starter at the Phillies ‘hot corner’ from Money in 1973.
With that core leading the way, the Phillies became contenders from 1975 onwards. Bowa became an NL All-Star for the first time in 1974 for an improving Phillies club that finished 80-82. His appearance in that Mid-Summer Classic would be the first in a run of five out of six All-Star seasons for Bowa.
In 1976, the Phillies won the first of three straight NL East crowns. The team would win a franchise-record 101 games in both 1977 and 1978. Bowa received National League Most Valuable Player votes every year from 1975-78, and finished 3rd in that NL MVP voting for a ’78 season in which he hit .294 with 31 doubles, 24 steals and won that 2nd Gold Glove.
However, Bowa and his teammates kept falling short in the postseason. Underdogs in 1976 to the Reds, the Phillies were stunned as favorites in both 1977 and 1978, losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series each October.
In 1979, despite the addition of living legend Pete Rose as a free agent, the Phillies finished a disappointing 4th in the NL East. At 33 years old, Bowa hit just .241 with 20 steals, the lowest total he had swiped in six years.
When 1980 began, the Phillies veterans were on notice from manager Dallas Green that they either had to produce something big, or the core of the team would be broken up and dealt away.
Produce something big they would, but it wouldn’t be easy. The club fought the tough defending World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates and a young, emerging Montreal Expos team into the final weeks. They shook off the Bucs in early September, but battled those Expos to the final weekend before finally capturing their 4th NL East crown in five years.
The 1980 National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros is considered by many to be the greatest NLCS in history. The Phils won the first game by 3-1 with a late rally, and the next four games all went to extra innings. The Phillies took the final two games in dramatic style on the road in Houston to bring home the franchise’ first National League Pennant in 3o years.
In those 1976-78 NLCS defeats, Bowa had hit just .209 with 5 runs scored in 11 games. But in the 1980 NLCS victory, Bowa finally rose to the occassion, hitting .316 with a .409 on-base percentage.
In the World Series against Kansas City, Bowa hit .375 with three runs scored. In the 6th and deciding game at The Vet, he doubled with two outs in the bottom of the 6th, then scored on a base hit by Boone to give the Phillies a 4-0 lead. They would hold on against a late Royals’ rally to win 4-1, clinching the first world championship in the 98-season history of the franchise.
Bowa would have a bounce-back year in 1981, hitting .283 as the Phillies won the first half NL East crown of what turned out to be a strike-shortened, split-season format.
But in the frustrating 3-2 loss to the Montreal Expos in a first-ever NLDS, Bowa hit just .176 with three hits in what would prove to be his final five games in a Phillies uniform as a player.
For the 1982 season, Bowa would be reaching 36 years of age. His bat was clearly slowing, and his defense, while still excellent, was a tad below its former Gold Glove status. Bowa was aging, and the Phillies looked to cash in before it was too late.
On January 27th, 1982 the Phillies sent Bowa and a 22-year old third baseman named Ryne Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for 29-year old shortstop Ivan DeJesus.
The 1982 Phillies, with DeJesus at short, fell just short. The club finished three games behind the Saint Louis Cardinals in the NL East race. Meanwhile, the Cubs with Bowa finished 19 games out in 5th place, with Bowa hitting for just a .246 average.
In 1983, the Phillies aging ‘Wheeze Kids’ got hot in September, and again won the NL East crown for a sixth time in eight seasons, counting their half of 1981. The Phils then gained a measure of revenge over the Dodgers for the 1977-78 NLCS defeats, taking down Los Angeles to reach the World Series.
They came up short in that Fall Classic, losing in five games to future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, and the Baltimore Orioles. However, the Cubs again finished in 5th, 19 games out again, with Bowa hitting for just a .267 average.
At that point, it appeared as if the Phillies had won the January 1982 trade. DeJesus had provided the Phillies with two solid seasons at shortstop heading into 1984, when he would still be just 31 years old. The club had continued to win, and was coming off a National League Pennant, while the Cubs lost big.
Meanwhile, Bowa would be turning 38 years of age for the 1984 season. However, something unexpected was also happening. The throw-in of that apparent 1982 shortstop swap, Sandberg, was emerging as a real player.
In 1982, Sandberg finished 6th in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. The Cubs then switched him from 3rd base to 2nd base, and he won a 1983 Gold Glove. It was only the beginning of what would become a Hall of Fame career.
In 1984, Bowa and the Cubs, with Sandberg leading the charge, won the NL East crown. Meanwhile, the Phillies faded to 4th place, 15 1/2 games out. Sandberg became an NL All-Star for the first time, won another Gold Glove, added a Silver Slugger Award, and capped it all by being named the National League Most Valuable Player. So much for winning the trade.
The Cubs would lose a tough NLCS in a full five games to the San Diego Padres and their own emerging future Hall of Famer, Tony Gwynn. In that series, Bowa hit just .200 with three hits and a single run scored.
As the 1985 season got underway, the 39-year old Bowa was pushed to backup status by 22-year old rookie Shawon Dunston. The Cubs finally released Bowa in mid-August after a little more than three years in the Windy City.
Bowa signed exactly one week later with the New York Mets, and would play in his final 14 big league games in a Mets uniform. Included in that stretch was an 0-3 performance on September 24th against the Phillies in what was his final game as a player in front of Philly fans at Veteran’s Stadium.
On October 6th, 1985, Bowa played the entire game at shortstop for the Mets in what would be his final big league game, a 2-1 loss to the Expos. In the bottom of the 3rd inning, Bowa singled to leadoff against Expos pitcher Dan Schatzeder for what would be his final career hit.
Also appearing in that same game for New York, going 0-4 as the leadoff man, was Bowa’s teammate, a 22-year old rookie center fielder by the name of Lenny Dykstra.
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A free agent following the season, Bowa elected to retire. He finished his Major League Baseball career with 2,191 career hits across 16 big league seasons, with a .260 career average, 987 runs scored, and 318 stolen bases.
At the time of his retirement, Bowa’s defensive excellence was reflected in the all-time Major League Baseball record books. His .980 career fielding percentage was the all-time MLB record until broken decades later by Omar Vizquel. His National League fielding percentage and games played records at shortstop would finally be broken by Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.
On the Phillies all-time franchise leaders lists, Bowa is currently 4th in Games (1,739), 4th in At-Bats (6,815), 6th in Hits (1,798), 14th in Runs (816), 7th in Triples (81), and 6th in Steals (288).
Bowa was always considered a smart baseball man and a leader, and with those traits and his experience, he did not remain unemployed for very long. The San Diego Padres organization hired him as the manager of their AAA Las Vegas Stars affiliates for the 1986 season. He guided the club to an 80-62 record and the Pacific Coast League championship.
Impressed with his performance, and with a number of his young players coming up to the big leagues, the Padres made the move to hire Bowa as their manager of the big league club on October 28th, 1986.
Bowa would not find success in his first shot as a big league skipper in San Diego. The Padres went just 65-97 in his lone full season of 1987. When the club began 1988 began with a 16-30 record, Bowa was fired.
Again, he was not out of the game for long. In August of that same season, the Phillies hired Bowa to be their 3rd base coach, a role that he would hold for eight years through 1996.
In 1993, as the Phillies won the franchise’ 5th NL Pennant and advanced to the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays, Bowa and longtime friend and former Phillies teammate John Vukovich became the first two men to reach the Fall Classic with the organization as both players and coaches.
After the 1996 season, Jim Fregosi was let go as the Phillies manager, and Bowa interviewed for the position. Though a fan favorite for the job, the team instead chose to go with one of the game’s leading young minor league managers, Terry Francona.
Bowa left for the Anaheim Angels, taking their 3rd base coach position, which he held for three years. He then moved north to coach 3rd base for the Seattle Mariners in the 2000 season.
With Francona fired following that 2000 season, the Phillies managerial position was again open. This time Bowa got the job, officially hired to manage the team on November 1st, 2000.
Bowa was taking on a huge challenge. The Phillies had won just 65 games in the 1999 season, finishing tied with the Cubs for the worst record in baseball. They had losing records in the previous seven seasons, and in 13 of the previous 14 years.
In Bowa’s first season of 2001, he guided the club to an 86-76 mark, finishing in 2nd place in an NL East battle with the Atlanta Braves by just two games. Bowa was particularly influential in helping introduce the team’s talented new shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, to the world of Major League Baseball.
The Phillies under Bowa appeared to be a rising team, but the 2002 club finished a frustrating 80-82 in what would be their last losing campaign for a decade. In 2003, the Phillies rebounded to win 86 games as the club said goodbye to Veteran’s Stadium, which Bowa had christened with his single 33 years earlier. Then in 2004, in the first season at Citizens Bank Park, the Phils won 85 games.
But despite being in the playoff hunt during three of his four seasons at the helm, the Phillies under Bowa just didn’t seem to be able to get over the hump and actually capture a division crown. He was fired with two games remaining in that 2004 season, finishing with a record of 337-308 as the Phillies skipper.
The following season, Bowa spent the full year out of uniform for the first time since he was five years old. He was not totally out of the game, however. He spent that 2005 season as an analyst on the “Baseball Tonight” TV program with the ESPN network.
“I consider myself a baseball lifer” ~ Bowa
Longtime friend Joe Torre then hired Bowa to be his 3rd base coach with the New York Yankees for the 2006 and 2007 seasons. When Torre left the Yanks to become skipper of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Bowa followed him as the 3rd base coach in LA, and was coaching 3rd for both of the Dodgers teams that were eliminated in the NLCS by the Phillies in 2008 and 2009.
When Torre retired after the 2010 season, it was back to the TV studios for Bowa. This time he worked with the new MLB Network, where Bowa would serve as an analyst for three seasons.
During those same seasons, Bowa also got reacquainted with the Phillies organization, working as a postgame analyst for some of the club’s local broadcasts with the WPHL station.
When Torre was named as the manager of Team USA for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Bowa again returned to uniform as his bench coach. That stint led directly to Bowa being named to that same bench coach role with the Phillies in 2014 alongside his former Cubs teammate Sandberg.
Feb 13, 2014; Clearwater, FL, USA;
Philadelphia Phillies manager Sandberg and coach Bowa watch the team workout as spring training opened this past season at Bright House Networks Field.
(Photo Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports)
Loyalty is one of the traits that has made Bowa most appreciated by men like Torre and Sandberg. When Sandberg came under fire early in the 2015 season for an apparent laid back personality, Bowa came to his defense in an interview with CSNPhilly.com insider Jim Salisbury:
“This guy competes. I was with him. I played next to him. When he made a good play, when he hit a home run, his personality was the same. He doesn’t get too up; he doesn’t get too down. He’s very patient and he better be patient with what we’re doing right now and he is. That’s all I’m saying.”
“If people think he has to throw a Gatorade to show he cares … trust me, he cares. He cares as much as any human being that’s putting on that uniform…There might be some guys who want to win as much as him, but nobody more than him.”
In the last couple of months, Bowa was a leading contender to become the manager of the Miami Marlins. Despite receiving two interviews, he was passed over for that job in favor of Don Mattingly, and is slated to once again be the bench coach for skipper Pete Mackanin in the 2016 season.
This past season was Bowa’s 50th season in professional baseball, and he has lost none of his passion for the game after that half-century. He turned 70 years of age just last week. Back in spring training in March of 2015, Bowa was interviewed by Philly.com’s Bob Brookover, and spoke about why he keeps on doing it.
“I still have a lot of fun doing it,” Bowa said. “You can talk trash. Spring training is probably the hardest time because I’m there at 5:30 in the morning . . . and then once the games start I probably don’t get home until 6:30 or 7 at night. I’m in bed by 9.” He later hinted at when he might actually walk away from the game: “I consider myself a baseball lifer,” Bowa said. “Just like Don Zimmer.“
Bowa has indeed been a baseball lifer, and the vast majority of that life has been in a Phillies uniform. His first season came in the team’s last at Connie Mack Stadium. He had the first hit in Veteran’s Stadium history. He was the shortstop for the first Phillies team to win a World Series. Manager of last team at The Vet, and then of the first team at Citizens Bank Park.
In 1991, almost a quarter of a century ago now, Bowa was selected to the Philadelphia Phillies Wall of Fame. Few men have deserved that honor more. Back in 1965 when a Phillies scout was watching that teenage Bowa get thrown out of both games of a doubleheader, no one – no one – could have ever seen any of it coming.