A few years ago, I had former Expos and Yankees manager Rudy May as a guest on my podcast. I asked him about what managers he loved playing for.
One answer I expected. He pitched for the Orioles for many years and he praised Earl Weaver. The other caught me off guard. He said Dick Howser.
Howser managed Rudy May in 1980, the year he led the league in ERA. He talked about how Howser would trust him no matter what his role was. He would start, relieve, do long relief, close, it didn’t matter. Howser had his back and he excelled.
The late Dick Howser had his life cut short in a startling fast way right after his greatest triumph. Had he lived, he might have been a great all time manager.
In fact in that one season he managed the Yankees in 1980, he showed how he might have become a New York legend.
Howser was an infielder for the Kansas City A’s in the early 1960’s. He finished second in the Rookie of the Year vote in 1961 to Red Sox pitcher Don Schwall. He batted .280, stole 37 bases and was named to the All Star team.
He played between 1961 and 1968, bouncing between the A’s, Indians and Yankees. Howser played all 162 games of the 1964 season in Cleveland but most seasons, he missed time due to injuries.
Howser finished his playing career with the 1968 Yankees and was named to the 1969 coaching staff in the Bronx. He stayed there through the Steinbrenner purchase of the team, the temporary move to Shea, the rebuilding of the Stadium and the arrival of Billy Martin.
A loyal lieutenant to Martin, he would not take the offer to go behind his back and take the managerial reins in 1977. He was on the coaching staff when the Yankees won the 1976 pennant and 1977 World Series under Billy Martin.
When Martin was fired in 1978, Howser managed a single game while they waited for new skipper Bob Lemon to arrive. After the 1978 World Championship, Howser left the Yankees to coach at his alma mater, Florida State.
But in 1980, after Lemon and Billy Martin were let go again, Howser got the call from the Yankees. He was getting the chance to manage the Yankees.
Howser inherited a star studded team. Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Rich Gossage, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph and Bucky Dent were all still there.
Thurman Munson was not, as he died in a plane crash the previous summer. Some new stars like Bob Watson and Tommy John were in New York. And some old Yankees returned home, like Oscar Gamble and Bobby Murcer.
The team was coming off an emotional 1979 that saw the death of Munson, turmoil in the managerial office and falling short to Baltimore.
After losing 6 of their first 9 games, the Yankees went 16-6 and pushed themselves into first. A 9 game winning streak in June gave New York a 7 1/2 game lead. A slump in August pulled the Orioles to within 1/2 a game of first on August 22. But New York won 30 of their last 41 games to pull away. The Yankees were 103 game winners and back on top.
And Howser showed his mettle. He would not be pushed around by Steinbrenner, hanging up on him when he called his office. Howser would not be distracted by the Bronx Zoo, ignoring calls for Reggie Jackson to shave his face and directives from The Boss.
He also refused to fire third base coach Mike Ferraro after he waved home Willie Randolph in the 1980 ALCS only to be thrown out. The Yankees were swept by Kansas City and Howser was fired, starting a Merry Go Round of managers between 1981 and 1986.
Gene Michael, Bob Lemon, Gene Michael again and Clyde King would manage 1981 and 1982 before Billy Martin returned for 1983 and Yogi Berra for 1984. Billy Martin would do it again in 1985 and Lou Piniella in 1986.
Meanwhile Dick Howser found himself managing his rival in the 1980 ALCS and stepped into the Royals manager’s office. He managed the Royals in the 1981 Western Division Series during the strike shortened season. But he got swept in the best of 5 series by his old mentor, Billy Martin and the A’s.
The Royals went through some rebuilding in 1982 and 1983 as the team dealt with age and drug scandals. But in 1984, they were back in the post season only to be swept by the mighty Tigers.
Heading into 1985, Howser had high hopes for Kansas City. They won the West thanks to a Cy Young performance by Bret Saberhagen. But they seemed overmatched in the post season. Dick Howser was looking to win his first post season GAME after sweeps in 1980, 1981 and 1984.
Toronto won the first two games of the now Best of 7 ALCS and it looked like more of the same. The Blue Jays were up 5-2 in Game 3 and were ready to take the hammer to them. But Kansas City rallied to win and finally Howser had won a post season game.
The celebration was short lived as Toronto won game 4. Just the year before that would have been enough to win the pennant. But with the ALCS a 7 game affair, Kansas City had a pulse. A 2-0 Royals win in Game 5 thanks to a complete game shutout by Danny Jackson saved the Royals season.
Back to Toronto for Game 6. Mark Gubicza and Bud Black pitched well but the Blue Jays rallied and put the pennant winning run at the plate. But Dan Quisenberry bailed them out. The Royals would go on to win Game 7 as well and Howser finally had his pennant.
The World Series saw yet another 3-1 hole for the Royals. Danny Jackson came to the rescue again in Game 5 and forced the wild Game 6. Denkinger blew the call, the Royals rallied and Cardinal fans are pissed to this day.
The Royals blew out St. Louis in the finale. Dick Howser, 5 years removed from being fired by the Yankees, was a World Series champ.
The 50 year old manager with a World Series title and 3 other post season trips on his resume had the chance to built up a long career with lots of success.
But the next year, he did not seem well during the All Star Game. He revealed he had a brain tumor and had to leave for the rest of the season.
In 1987, he attempted to come back but was too weak. He died later that year with a full career ahead of him.
George Steinbrenner claimed that firing him was the biggest mistake he ever made as owner of the Yankees. Who knows? Maybe the young and aggressive manager would have been the perfect balance to the Boss. Sure Billy Martin argued with George, but in the end Steinbrenner had all the power in that relationship. Howser would not give and ultimately won on his own terms.
Who knows what his career would have been had it lasted, either in New York or in Kansas City?