Larry Gowell was only with the Yankees for a brief time during the 1972 season, but that was enough for him to achieve a sort of immortality in the baseball history books. It was October 4, 1972 and we were at Yankee Stadium playing the Brewers. Larry was the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the third and smacked a double off Jim Lonborg that went past John Briggs in left. Larry was left stranded on second as the next three Yankees failed to drive him home. But the hit was historic because it was the last game of the season, and as it turned out, he was the last American League pitcher to get a hit before the Designated Hitter rule went into effect the following April. So Larry’s bat now has a place at Cooperstown.
Thanks to the leadership of CBS (sarcasm intended here), the Yankees got the #1 draft pick in 1967, the third year Amateur Draft. Larry was their first pick in the fourth round – Ron Blomberg was the #1 pick in the first round. The first time I saw Larry pitch was the first exhibition game of the 1970 season. He had a natural slider and his fast ball was as fast as any other Yankee in spring training. We were Pompano Beach playing the Washington Senators and Larry came in to pitch in the ninth inning. We were ahead, 6-5. I think he was a little nervous. His first batter was Del Unser and he hit him with the pitch. His second batter was a teenager named Jeff Burroughs, who hit a massive Home Run.
Larry spent the 1972 season with the West Haven Yankees, the Eastern League AA club that was being managed by the Bobby Cox, now a Hall of Fame manager. He was on fire and the Yankee pitchers were following him closely. In 26 games, he was 14-6 with a 2.54 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 181 innings.
Larry was a September call-up at a time when the Yankees were in a four-way race for First Place in the AL East. He made his major league debut in the bottom of the sixth inning on September 21, at County Stadium. With the Brewers ahead 4-0, Ralph Houk had removed Freddy Beene the previous inning for a pinch hitter, Rusty Torres. Larry retired the first three major league batters he faced: John Briggs, Ollie Brown and Mike Ferraro. Then in the seventh, he did the same thing against Rick Auerbach, Jerry Bell (the pitcher), and Ron Theobald. With two outs, The Major took him out in the eighth so Felipe Alou could hit. Felipe singled, the beginning of a Yankee rally. He moved to second on Horace Clarke’s hit, and scored on Roy White’s hit. The Bobby Murcer hit an RBI single, reducing Milwaukee’s lead to one run. Unfortunately, Bloomie flied out to end the inning, leaving Roy and Bobby on base. The Brewers wound up beating us, 6-4, and we wasted a rare ninth inning homer by Bernie Allen.
October 4 was the last game of the season and we had lost four in a row, dropping us to 4th place, 6 ½ games behind the Detroit Tigers. Since we were out of contention, The Major decided to give Larry the start. He pitched really, really well. He gave up his first major league hit in the second to Joe Lahoud, and Briggs hit a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Dave May, who had doubled. With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning, no outs and Jerry Kenney on first, The Major pulled Larry for a pinch hitter, Frank Tepedino. Larry had given up three hits, and had struck out six. It was an amazing demonstration of pitching for a rookie. We lost 1-0, as the Yankee bats were not coming through.
Larry was in contention for a major league roster spot in 1973. He was cut at the end of spring training, losing out to Casey Cox and Doc Medich. He didn’t make the team again in 1974; the new manager, Bill Virdon, seemed to judge him based on one bad tenth inning in an exhibition game against the Texas Rangers. A lot of the hype that spring was about Mike Pazik, a cocky southpaw from Holy Cross who wound up getting traded to the Twins for Dick Woodson. But Larry Gowell’s time as a MLB pitcher was indeed memorable and historic. I am glad to have known him.
Monument Monday is a weekly tribute to the Pitchers I knew during my baseball career. Click here to read my previous entries.
I enjoy how easy it is to go off on a tangent when talking about Yankee history. In referencing Bill Robinson’s win of the 1967 James P. Dawson Award for the outstanding Yankee rookie in spring training, I thought about my own rookie year. The 1966 award went to Roy White, who deserved it. Just like I recollect games and the pitches I throw, I remember the number of votes I got. I’m going to keep the number to myself, but I will let you know there were 9 reporters who voted, Heeba got 7 votes and Bobby Murcer got two.
I was proud of Heeba and Weaser on getting the award, which continues to be considered quite prestigious in the Yankee world. I felt especially good when Mike Ferraro won it in 1968 because I knew how hard Stump took being cut from the team the year before. Jerry Kenney, my teammate at the AA Shelby Yankees, shared the award in 1969, and Johnny Ellis (not Thurman Munson) got it in 1970. The reporters sort of validated my Horace Clark Era theory in 1971 when they declined to give the award to anyone. Rusty Torres won in 1972, Otto Velez in 1973, and Tom Buskey in 1974 – a few weeks before he was traded to the Indians along with Steve Kline, Freddy Beene and me. Bluto died way too young in a car accident; he was 51.
Nobody I played with is celebrating a birthday today, but I wanted to remember my Yankee teammate Bill Robinson, who passed away too young in 2007 after battling diabetes. Weaser would have been 72 today. I saw him for the first time in 1965 in a Florida Instructional League game when he was a Braves prospect and we played each other in West Palm Beach. I wrote in my book that I had never seen a player who looked as good as Bill did on the field. We became friends after the Yankees traded a legend, Clete Boyer, to Atlanta for Bill and a pitcher named Chi-Chi Olivo, who had played a couple of years in the majors, but was assigned to Syracuse. I never played against Weaser, because the Yankees were the only American League team he had ever played for. He won the James P. Dawson Memorial Award for the outstanding Yankee rookie in spring training. The reporters who covered the Yankee beat would vote every year. In 1967, Weaser got the votes of all but one reporter, who preferred Thad Tillotson. He got a gold watch. He was a good hitter and an exceptional man, and I miss him.
After writing about the Clete Boyer-for-Bill Robinson trade I started thinking about Chi-Chi Olivo, the other player in that deal. I knew Chi-Chi pitched for the Braves in the early 1960’s and his brother, Diomedes, was a pitcher for the Pirates because I followed pitchers closely in those days. Soon after the 1966 season ended, Chi-Chi was in an automobile accident and received a serious head injury. The trade happened about a month later. I met Chi-Chi at spring training, but never got to know him well. I remember the day he got cut, along with Joe Verbanic and Mike Ferraro. He was assigned to Syracuse and never made it back to the majors. Sadly, Chi-Chi passed away of liver disease in 1977 at age 48; Diomedes died of a heart attack a few months later.
The first time I met Bobby Murcer was at Winter Ball ’64 — the Florida East Coast Instructional League. He had played the previous summer for the Yankees in the Appalachian League – the Harlan (Kentucky) farm team I played for the previous season had moved to Johnson City, Tennessee. He was about 18, right out of high school, and it was clear from the very beginning that he possessed extraordinary talent as a player and as a person. I remember him talking about a girl named Kay a lot and it was great to finally meet her and continue to be her friend for the last 50 years. I went 7-2, with a 1.68 ERA in Florida, and had a great time playing with Bobby and other future Yankee teammates: Jake Gibbs, Mike Ferraro, Steve Whitaker, Gil Blanco, Cecil Perkins, Archie Moore, Ross Moschitto, John Miller, and Frank Fernandez (with whom I share that immortal TOPPS rookie card).
Writing about Don Mincher got me thinking about the Seattle Pilots, the expansion team that lasted just one year at Sick’s Stadium before going bankrupt moving and becoming the Milwaukee Brewers. A bunch of my teammates and friends wound up on the Pilots: Mike Hegan, Steve Whitaker, Mike Ferraro, John Kennedy, Steve Barber, Dooley Womack and Jim Bouton, whose time with the Pilots became the focus of his controversial best seller (and one of my favorite books), Ball Four. Two future teammates, Jack Aker and Fred Stanley came to the Yankees from the Pilots.
Steve Whitaker innocently played a role in the Yankees comeback: just two weeks before opening day, the Pilots made a trade with the Royals that sent a promising outfielder named Lou Piniella to Kansas City for Steve. Lou was the 1969 AL Rookie of the Year and Steve had to wear the weird Pilots cap and settle for just being a good guy. With closer Lindy McDaniel expendable because the Yankees got Sparky Lyle for Danny Cater, the Whitaker trade sort of set up the Piniella for McDaniel deal that made Lou my Yankee teammate for the start of the 1974 season. And my trade to Cleveland for Chris Chambliss and Dick Tidrow helped create the winning George Steinbrenner Era. As I keep saying, the Yankees gave up a lot of talent for Chris and Dick, but they clearly got the best of that deal.