Al Cowens - 26th Greatest Royal - 1976 Topps
812 Games .282/.329/.404
45 HR 374 RBI 80 SB
The #26 Royals player in our countdown is outfielder Al Cowens. Al Cowens was one of a number of blazing fast, athletic outfielders the Royals produced in the 1970s that included Amos Otis and Willie Wilson. "A.C." was known as a tremendous defensive player with a strong enough arm to play all three outfield positions. Although he wasn't known for being a big base-stealer, he could fly around the bases. He was a quiet person, and that was sometimes misinterpreted for aloofness.
"Some people are concerned about my personality. I'm not loud and I'm not colorful with the press. I know I can do it on the field - and that's what counts."
Cowens was drafted out of Centennial High School in Compton, California by the Royals in the 75th round, the 1028th player chosen overall. He hit .294 as a seventeen year old in 1969, his first professional season, and followed it up by hitting .283 in his second season in Rookie ball. By 1973, he was in AA Jacksonville hitting .289 in 1973 with 16 home runs, earning him Southern League Player of the Year honors.
Some in the front office wanted Cowens to get more minor league seasoning in 1974, but Manager Jack McKeon wanted to see Cowens develop at the Major League level. Cowens broke north with the club, spending much of the season as a pinch runner/defensive replacement. In 110 games, the twenty-two year old rookie managed 296 plate appearances and hit .242/.303/.286. He was known for his sensational defense however, making thirteen assists from the outfield and providing two spectacular catches to preserve Steve Busby's no-hitter against Milwaukee on June 20.
While he was considered a rising star in the organization, the team had a bit of a glut in the outfield with Cowens competing with veterans like Hal McRae, Amos Otis, Jim Wohlford, and Vada Pinson for playing time. The Royals came to an agreement with the Minnesota Twins in the winter after the 1974 season to swap Cowens for aging slugger Tony Oliva. But when the Royals asked for some minor leaguers in addition to the first baseman, the deal fell apart. Cowens instead played 120 games for the Royals in 1975, making 368 plate appearances and hitting .277./340/.402.
He finally earned a starting job in 1976, appearing in 152 games, but his offensive numbers slumped to .265/.298/.341. He would hit just .190 in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, although he did score the first post-season run in franchise history after his triple in Game One.
The twenty-five year old Cowens would enjoy the best season of his career in 1977. Sixteen times he collected three hits or more in a game, including a pair of five-hit games. In early May, he slammed home runs in back-to-back games - as many home runs in a week as he had hit in all of 1976.
"I was at home when I read in The Sporting News that I should be hitting more home runs. I really hadn't thought too much about it last year, although I felt I should have had more than three home runs. I got off to a lousy start, and I had trouble relaxing up there. I thought it would be a good thing to try to hit the ball up the middle and to right field.....Before I went home last fall, John Mayberry told me to go home and swing a leaded bat. So I spent a lot of time swinging one, even one-handed. During spring training, John and I swung a leaded bat in the batting cage. I decided to be more aggressive from the start."
He appeared in every single game that year and hit .312/.361/.525 with 16 steals and a career high 23 home runs and 112 runs batted in. His power surge also led to 32 doubles and a team-high 14 triples.
Cowens would collect three hits, including a home run, as the cleanup hitter for the Royals in Game One of the ALCS against the Yankees. However he would have just two more hits the rest of the series as KC once again fell to the Bronx Bombers. Still, he had enjoyed a career best season, For his efforts, he finished second in MVP balloting (even though his own teammate George Brett out WAR'ed him 7.6 to 5.1) to Angels first baseman Rod Carew, and won his first Gold Glove.
"He's just outstanding in all phases. He runs the bases, he hits, plays defense and plays every day. He doesn't complain, just goes out there and gives his best - and his best is awfully damn good."
-Royals Manager Whitey Herzog
The power Cowens enjoyed would be short-lived as his home run total would fall back to single digits in 1978 with just five round-trippers. He missed nearly a month due to injury and his OPS would fall 180 points from the previous season.
Cowens would rebound in 1979, and by early May he was hitting .308/.385/.490 with four home runs. On May 8, the Royals faced Rangers pitcher Ed Farmer. Farmer would drill Royals second baseman Frank White with the second pitch of the game, fracturing his hand. Cowens had a reputation for not being intimidated by pitchers that threw inside. Farmer would drill him as well, fracturing his jaw. Cowens would have to miss three weeks.
"When I got to him, it looked like he had a great big chew in his cheek. I asked if he had one in there. I was afraid he would swallow it. Then the blood started. It was the scariest thing I've ever seen."
"I don't think he was trying to hit me in the head, but he was trying to come close and maybe hit me in the side or in the arm. It's part of baseball, brushing somebody back. But nobody is that wild."
"In due time, he'll get his."
Cowens would return in June - eight pounds lighter due to a liquid diet after his jaw was wired shut. He picked up where he left off, having one of his better seasons with a .295/.345/.409 line and 73 RBI.
The Royals wanted to get phenom Clint Hurdle back into right-field and wished to add a big bat at first base, so they dangled Cowens as trade bait. The team nearly dealt him to Toronto in a deal that would have allowed them to re-acquire John Mayberry, but the deal fell apart. The Padres also coveted Cowens, but in the end the Royals shipped him along with infielder Todd Cruz to the Angels for young slugging first baseman Willie Aikens and infielder Rance Mulliniks.
The Angels acquired Cowens to serve mostly for insurance in case a pair of injured outfielders - Joe Rudi and Dan Ford - were not able to recover. Once they did, Cowens was expendable and was shipped off to Detroit in May of 1980 for slugger Jason Thompson. On June 20, Cowens once again faced pitcher Ed Farmer, now with the White Sox. Al hit a dribbler up the middle, then as Farmer turned his back to watch the play, Cowens charged the mound and attacked the pitcher. A.C. would be suspended for seven games for the incident, and a criminal warrant was issued for his arrest for the next time he visited Chicago. The charges were later dropped at Farmer's request, and the two would shake hands and exchange lineup cards at home plate when the Tigers returned in September.
Cowens' career began to slide until he was sold to the Seattle Mariners in 1982 and enjoyed a rebound season, hitting .270/.325/.475 with 20 home runs and 78 RBI. The M's inked to a lucrative three-year $1.2 million deal, only to have A.C. barely hit above the Mendoza Line that year. He would rebound a bit the next two seasons, but was finally released in May of 1986, effectively ending his Major League career.
In 2002, Al Cowens died of a heart attack. He was 50 years old.
For some reason Al Cowens epitomizes this comforting aspect of my childhood. He was always there, a good player with no discernible weakness on a team loaded with good players with no discernible weaknesses. He could play good defense and fly around the bases and smack sizzling bases-clearing doubles. The entire Royal roster seemed to be like this. They came at teams like a powder blue electrical storm. I didn’t like them when they were beating my team, the Red Sox, but other than that I admired them and didn’t at all begrudge their stranglehold on the AL West.