Part 4 of 4
The Dynasty Builder
Bob Howsam 5 NL West Titles, 4 NL Titles, 2 World Championships W L PCT 1122 813 .580
“Your Ballpark is a stage. People sit there for three hours watching a show. The players are the actors in uniform. The producers are the coaches and managers throughout the system. It is up to them to make the actors perform well.”
Bob Howsam “Cincinnati and the Big Red Machine”
Not only did Bill DeWitt vacate the owners’ office, but also his departure left the team without a GM. The 617 Inc. Company knew very little about the business of baseball, and like good businessmen they embarked on a search to find the right man for the job. Initially, the group had two targets. Ironically both had history of working with Branch Rickey.
Out west they eyed Dodger employee Buzzie Bavasi. Though flattered, Buzzie rebuffed the groups’ advances, hoping instead to one day be named President of the Dodgers. The Reds other choice was current Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam, who had reached the major leagues, ranks a few years earlier and helped the Cardinals win the famous 1964 pennant race. Howsam’s contributions in St Louis included opening their new stadium and leaving them a great roster of players, which was evident by their back-to-back pennants in 1967 and 1968, after Howsam left for the Reds job. Howsam had shallow roots in St Louis, and found the challenge in Cincinnati to be intriguing. This time the new owners were successful, luring Howsam away from the Cardinals, on January 22nd, 1966. Bob Howsam joined the Reds front office, becoming the 5th Branch Rickey disciple since 1934 into the leadership role of the Cincinnati Reds.
Howsam’s family owned the Denver Bears in the early 50’s, and it was there that Howsam learned to market a baseball team to a community. He did such fine job in 1951 that he was named The Sporting News Minor League Executive of the year. Before expansion and an organized draft a well-run minor league organization could count on being courted by a Major League team in search of a new talent pipeline. It wasn’t until 1953 that Howsam’s real education in baseball would begin. At the conclusion of the 1953 season, the Denver team severed their working agreement with the Braves and began courting relationships with other franchises. At the time Rickey was with the cellar dwelling Pirates, and was working diligently to expand the team’s meager talent base. Rickey, always on the lookout for bright young men, struck an agreement with the Bears. Thus, Branch Rickey began his relationship with Bob Howsam.
“I would watch him work with the pitchers, listen to him lecture the players, and I was like a puppy dog. He allowed me to be right at his elbow,”
Bob Howsam. “Big Red Dynasty”
Howsam leaned towards the Rickey style of play throughout his career as a GM, citing speed as a key asset, looking for power first foremost, and eschewing smaller pitchers if a larger man was available. Later on that decade, Howsam worked with Rickey on the plans for the Continental League, and also helped with the forming of the American Football League, becoming the first owner of the Denver Broncos. In the early 60’s, Howsam thought that his career in sports had come to an end, until once again a Branch Rickey recommendation was solicited. This time it was the Cardinals doing the asking. In 1964 Rickey was an advisor to owner Augie Busch, who happened to be displeased with current Cardinals GM Bing Devine. Just as he had endorsed Larry MacPhail at that National League meeting 30 years prior, Rickey recommended Bob Howsam as the man capable of being the right kind of leader to guide the franchise in the increasingly modern times. Like a good Rickey pupil, Howsam expanded the scouting staff and traded the aging veterans after their initial success. However, after too many office power struggles in St. Louis, Howsam was more than happy to listen to any other offers.
The Reds situation wasn’t without its problems. DeWitt’s ownership was marked with a distinct lack of cash, evidenced by the small staff and sub standard equipment they had been using. The infrastructure of the Reds operation was not up to Howsam’s standards. His immediate reaction to the situation recalled MacPhail’s vigor in remaking the franchise during the darkest days of the Depression. Shortly after arriving, Howsam had lobbied for more cash, and poured this money into a larger, more experienced staff and facilities. A first class organization consisted of capable people from top to bottom, and the best equipment to get the job done. Howsam wasted no time, adding a new minor league team to the club’s holdings, and expanding the scouting network far beyond the prior administrations. This increased the sheer number player the Reds had under contract, allowing them to have more prospects to pick and choose from than ever before. Howsam’s skills reached beyond the office. He made astute trades for players like George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, Joe Morgan, Fred Norman and Clay Carroll over the years. His ability to see the impact of the game on turf, early, enabled him to capitalize on this knowledge when the Reds moved out of Crosley and into Riverfront. Howsam created the Reds Speaker Bureau and expanded the Reds off-season marketing push in the outer areas of Reds country, soliciting the longtime listeners of Reds announcing legend Waite Hoyt. The next ten years of Reds baseball produced five NL West titles and four World Series appearances. After handing off the GM job to his long-time assistant Dick Wagner, Howsam returned to the Reds in the mid 80’s, restoring the team to a contender almost as fast as Wagner had destroyed it. Bob Howsam brought the knowledge of modern day sports marketing to the Reds and tethered it to the game philosophy espoused by Rickey. His guidance was the major component in building a legendary team that the city embraced with never-matched passion.
No Owner or general manager is perfect, each one of these men had qualities that has negatively affected the Reds franchise as well as enriched it. Even Bob Howsam had shortcomings. His failure to embrace free agency helped hasten the Reds demise from super team to also-rans. Thirty years after the famous 1975 World Series, “The Big Red Machine” still casts a very long shadow in the Ohio Valley. Every Reds team has been measured against them.
In many ways the culture of the Reds franchise is still stuck in the 1970’s, clinging to the memory of the best team in the city’s history, letting the anniversaries of the past events take the place of the real celebration of a winning and competitive franchise. The recent legacy created by the Schott and Lindner ownerships hasn’t delivered many memories to be celebrated at the ballpark recently much alone in thirty years, leaving the fan base in a bitter mood buying fewer and fewer tickets and spending more and more time cursing the Reds rather than praising them.
But beneath all this is a small glimmer of hope, down at the local ballpark the office awaits another Cardinal trained employee to come in and fix what ails the Reds, all it will take is some innovation, organization and vision and a sense of immediacy.
As the new ownership group takes the helm today, (nearly thirty years to the day after Bob Howsam came to the Reds) it would do them well to remember his words on coming into a new organization.
“I always said if I was ever to go run another organization, I would fire everyone no matter what, and then hire everybody back that I wanted. So they understand that they are there because of me. Otherwise your loyalties are not very good. Fellows, thinking, ”Well he didn’t bring me in.”
Bob Howsam “Big Red Dynasty”
The fans are getting restless and are ready for a change, now’s a good time to start.
Brian first met the greatest game in Detroit in 1968, that team played in a league called the “American League”…. but I digress.
Later after a family move he started a dalliance with the Cincinnati Reds, who perchance were in the midst of their greatest era. It was a romance that was greater than many could hope to be.
After barely stomaching the strike of 1981 Brian headed West but never forgot the Reds, and even despite being surrounded by Giants and A’s fans who tried to entice him with things both Green and Orange he found himself wondering what was up with Kal Daniels and was that kid from Moeller ever going to make us forget Davey.
A long time member of SABR and a baseball history junkie he currently lives in Portland and can be followed at @baseballminutia