Where do we even start with Dick Howser? His life reads like a fairy tale. He was a small child, somewhat scrawny, and even though he was an excellent high school baseball player, coaches thought he was too small to play college ball. Undeterred, he walked on at Florida State. During his tryout, he gobbled up every ball hit his way and at the plate, swung the bat with authority, spanking hits to every field. After the tryout, FSU coach Danny Litwhiler said, “I got myself a shortstop!”
Howser hit .422 as a sophomore, garnering All-American honors. He repeated as an All-American in his junior campaign. One of Howser’s high school buddies also attended Florida State, a young football player named Burt Reynolds. Reynolds’ roommate was future football coach and announcer, Lee Corso. Do you ever wonder how these high-achieving, high profile people find each other? Corso nicknamed Reynold’s “Bait”, and told the bawdy story that Reynolds was so good looking, he could walk across campus, meet two women, one pretty, the other a little less and bring them back to the room. He said Reynolds would take the pretty one, while he took the other, who was better looking than any woman he could have pulled.
Howser though was all business. He hit .375 in his career for the Seminoles and after his senior season at FSU, signed an amateur contract with the Kansas City Athletics and scout Clyde Klutz for a reported $22,000. The Athletics had previously signed his younger brother Tommy, who spent two seasons in the A’s minor league system. Dick Howser was sent to Class B Winona, where in 88 games he hit .288 with an OBP of .412. In 1959 the organization bumped him up to Sioux City, where he continued to hit, slashing .278/.461/.378. He split the 1960 season between Sioux City and Shreveport, slashing a combined .342/.486/.500.
That was enough for the big club. The Athletics, always short on talent, installed the 25-year-old Howser as their opening day shortstop for the 1961 season. Howser responded in a big way, slashing .280/.377/.362 with 171 hits, 108 runs scored, 29 doubles, 6 triples, 37 stolen bases, and 92 walks. He only struck out 38 times in 719 plate appearances. That production was good enough for Howser to be named to the American League All-Star team and propel him to a second place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. Unfortunately for Howser and the Athletics, his remaining time with the team would be hampered by various injuries and his 1961 totals ended up being career highs for him. On May 25th, 1963, the Athletics traded Howser to Cleveland along with catcher Joe Azcue for catcher Doc Edwards and $100,000.
Howser’s arrival sparked the Indians to a 18-9 run before injuries sidelined him once more. Over the winter, Howser worked hard to stay in shape and avoid the injury bug. It worked. He played a career-high 162 games, slashing a respectable .256/.335/.319 while posting a career-high in RBI with 52. Howser could never shake the injury bug though, injuring his ankle and losing his starting spot. In December 1966, the Indians traded Howser to the Yankees. Over the next two seasons, Howser played the role of super-utility man, appearing in 148 games. His best year with New York came in 1967, when he hit .268.
He called it a career after the 1968 season ended and immediately went into the coach’s box, serving as the Yankees third base coach from 1969 to 1978. He left the Yankees for the head coaching job at Florida State for the 1979 season, guiding his alma mater to a 43-15 record.
As it was with the Yankees in those days, managerial changes were commonplace. Billy Martin self-destructed, getting into a fight with a marshmallow salesman, prompting one of his many dismissals. George Steinbrenner called on Howser, asking him to take over the reins. Howser’s easy-going style was perfect for the star-laden Yankees. He guided them through the tough American League East, posting a 103-59 record. Waiting for them in the Championship Series was George Brett and the Royals. Brett had been otherworldly in 1980, hitting .390, and his three-run upper deck bomb off Goose Gossage propelled the Royals to a three-game sweep of the hated Yanks. Howser, never one to take any gruff off Steinbrenner, resigned on November 21. Many speculated that Howser had been fired for not canning his third base coach, Mike Ferraro, for what Steinbrenner considered an error in sending Willie Randolph home in Game Two. Brett’s relay cut Randolph down at the plate, prompting the Boss to spew a stream of invective on national television.
Either way, the Yankees' misfortune was the Royals’ good fortune. When the 1981 Royals got off to a 10-10 start, Ewing Kauffman made his move, firing Jim Frey and bringing Howser home to Kansas City. One amazing thing about Howser is that in all his managerial years, his teams never finished lower than second place. He did a bang-up job of managing the rebuild-on-the-fly Royals.
The 1980 World Series team had basically been dismantled, either from age or drug use. Howser managed to scrap 90 wins out of the 1982 team and 84 wins from a bunch of youngsters in 1984. It all came together in 1985, as Kansas City held off the California Angels to take the American League West crown. They overcame three-games-to-one deficit against the Toronto Blue Jays in the Championship Series to advance to their second World Series. That series, as you well know, didn’t come easy either. Favored St. Louis jumped out to a three-games-to-one advantage, before the Royals battled back to win their first World Championship. One of the touching moments of that series was after Game Four, when the Royals were on the verge of elimination, Reynolds and most of what Howser called his “Tallahassee Gang” unexpectedly showed up at the Royals hotel. They had flown into St. Louis, from different parts of the country, to give their friend emotional support. Of course, you know the rest of that story, how the Cardinals imploded in game six, unraveled after a bad call. They never recovered, coming completely unglued the next evening as Bret Saberhagen pitched the Royals to the title. Dick Howser was on top of the baseball world at the age of 49.
The Royals had a bit of a hangover in the 1986 season, opening at a 40-48 mark. Howser had managed the American League to a victory in the All-Star game but had been hampered by severe headaches and memory loss. A CAT scan showed a brain tumor, malignant, in the left frontal lobe of Howser’s brain. On July 22, he underwent surgery at St. Luke’s in Kansas City. Howser had a second surgery in December in Los Angeles. Always a battler, he tried to come back, arriving at spring training on February 21. Anyone who has had major surgery knows how much it takes out of you. Just the fact that Howser attempted a comeback is amazing. After two days, he came to the realization that he did not have the strength or energy to lead the club and stepped down.
He had an experimental surgery in Pasadena, California on March 20. Cancer, especially of the brain, is a relentless foe. On June 17, 1987, it claimed Dick Howser at the age of 51. Howser’s death was a stunning loss for Royal Nation. He was survived by his wife Nancy and daughters Jana and Jill. Sadly, two pitchers from Howser’s 1981 team were also lost to brain cancer, Dan Quisenberry in 1998 and Ken Brett in 2003. A third pitcher from that team, Paul Splittorff, was lost to melanoma in 2011.
On July 3, 1987, Howser’s #10 was the first number ever retired by the Royals. He was also inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame that year, along with Cookie Rojas and Splittorff. Later in 1987, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce established the Dick Howser Trophy, which became college baseball’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Past and future Royals Alex Gordon, Andrew Benintendi, and Brady Singer have been winners of the Howser Trophy.
Florida State University renamed its ballpark “Dick Howser Stadium” and Howser was named to the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.
When the Royals renovated Kauffman Stadium in 2009, they unveiled a statue of Howser. The statue shows Howser in a position many Royal fans remember, arms crossed with his right leg on the top step of the dugout, watching the action. Howser compiled a 404-365 record as the Royals manager, good for a .562-win percentage, which puts him third all-time in Royal history behind Whitey Herzog and Jim Frey.
All of us have lost someone close to cancer, parents, children, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, or dear friends. It’s a horrible disease and even though the medical community has made great strides in detection and treatment, when it claims someone like Howser, you know we still have a long way to go. After his first surgery, Howser’s mother Marjorie said, “I look at this as just another ballgame. He’s the batter. He’s the runner and he’s got to score. He’s going to win this game. I talked with him on the phone the other day and he didn’t even sound like he’d been through anything. He sounded like he was back to normal.”
Sometimes we win the fight. Sometimes the cancer wins. Howser’s story touches me very deeply. Both of my parents are cancer survivors and I’m thankful for every day they have. My mom, who just celebrated her birthday a couple days ago is now a ten-year survivor. Happy birthday mom.
I love this quote from Jim Beaver: “Today we fight. Tomorrow we fight. The day after, we fight. And if this disease plans on whipping us, it better bring a lunch, ‘cause it’s going to have a long day doing it.”
Cancer claims over 600,000 Americans each year. We can all do our part to fight this often-deadly disease. Donate to the American Cancer Society or to another organization involved with fighting cancer. And thank you for doing so.