Bob Howsam

Bob Howsam

Bob Howsam

Robert Lee Howsam (February 28, 1918 — February 19, 2008) was an executive in American professional sport who, in 1959, played a key role in establishing two leagues — the American Football League, which succeeded and merged with the National Football League, and baseball's Continental League, which never played a game but forced expansion of Major League Baseball from 16 to 20 teams in 1961-62. Howsam later became well-known as the highly successful general manager and club president of the Cincinnati Reds during the "Big Red Machine" dynasty of the 1970s.

Born in Denver, Colorado, Howsam served as a U.S. Navy pilot during World War II. In 1959, he founded the Denver Broncos – one of the eight charter members of the AFL – along with his brother, Earl Howsam, and father, Lee. (The Howsams and the seven other original owners called themselves the "Foolish Club" for daring to take on the established NFL.) The Howsams also built Bears Stadium, a minor league baseball park which, after renovation and expanded capacity, became famous as the Broncos' noisy, raucous and perpetually sold-out home from 1960-2001, Mile High Stadium.

The Broncos played in the AFL from 1960-69 and then joined the NFL with completion of the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. Apart from a 7-7 season in 1962, the team suffered from poor results on the field, and the Howsam family sold the Broncos in 1964 to Gerald and Alan Phipps. But it was developing a loyal fan base, and since its first Super Bowl appearance in 1977, the Broncos have become one of the most successful operations in the NFL.

Efforts to bring Major League Baseball to Denver

The Broncos may have struggled in the early 1960s, but Bob Howsam would prove himself to be a highly successful baseball executive. He led the family-owned Denver Bears of the Class A Western League and Class AAA American Association from 1947-62. For building one of the most successful minor league franchises of the 1950s, Howsam was twice (1951 and 1956) named Minor League Executive of the Year by The Sporting News.

In an attempt to bring Major League Baseball to Denver, Howsam was one of the founders of the Continental League, which in 1959 planned to become the "third Major League" following the epidemic of franchise shifts during the 1950s. MLB magnates, nervous about the possible rescinding of baseball's antitrust exemption by the U.S. Congress after the National League abandoned New York, agreed to study (and perhaps support) the formation of the new loop. Denver was one of the CL's eight founding cities, with Howsam in line to become owner and operator of his hometown franchise.

As events unfolded, the Continental League never got off the drawing board; it was doomed once three of its key cities gained Major League franchises in 1961-62 (New York and Houston got expansion National League franchises, while the American League Washington Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul). However, the CL president, Branch Rickey, the venerable, pioneering executive who had revolutionized baseball in his earlier career with the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers, took notice of Howsam for the second time. (Howsam and Rickey had first worked together when Rickey's Pittsburgh Pirates had a working agreement with the Bears during the early 1950s.)
[edit] Reversal of fortune in St. Louis

In 1964, Rickey (then 82) was semi-retired but still in baseball as a top advisor to St. Louis owner August "Gussie" Busch. In mid-August 1964, with the Cardinals seemingly about to finish well behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies, Busch fired general manager Bing Devine and replaced him with Howsam — reputedly at Rickey's urging. But the team Howsam inherited ended up winning the NL pennant and the 1964 World Series when the Phils collapsed in late September.

Howsam's two full years as Cardinals' general manager (1965-66) were not successful. The team fell back to .500 and many St. Louisans felt that Devine, a well-liked hometown figure, had been wrongly fired. Howsam installed popular Red Schoendienst as manager and he rebuilt the Redbird infield, trading away veterans Ken Boyer, Bill White and Dick Groat in a bid for more pitching help. In 1966, he acquired future Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando Cepeda from the San Francisco Giants in midseason and right fielder Roger Maris from the New York Yankees during the winter interleague trading period. The Cardinals were poised to win back-to-back pennants in 1967-68, but when the opportunity arose to start fresh with the Cincinnati Reds as their general manager in January 1967, Howsam departed.
[edit] Engineering the 'Big Red Machine'

In Cincinnati, Howsam flourished. During his 11 years (1967-77) as general manager, he was one of the key figures (along with his predecessor, Bill DeWitt, and his manager, Sparky Anderson) behind "The Big Red Machine," which captured NL titles in 1970 and 1972 and world championships in 1975 and 1976.

Although many key parts of the dynasty — such as Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Lee May and Tommy Helms — were already in place or in the organization in 1966, Howsam boldly promoted young pitchers such as Gary Nolan, Don Gullett and Wayne Simpson to the major leagues. He replaced a popular incumbent manager, Dave Bristol, with a then-unproven but a future Hall-of-Fame skipper in Anderson. He ensured that the fruitful Cincinnati farm system continued to churn out young position players, such as Dave Concepción, Ken Griffey, Ray Knight, César Gerónimo and Bernie Carbo. He also acquired two talented young outfielders, Bobby Tolan and Alex Johnson, from the Cardinals — ultimately swapping Johnson for pitcher Jim McGlothlin, who would win 14 games for the 1970 Reds.

Then, in two masterful 1971 trades, he acquired second baseman Joe Morgan (in a deal that included May and Helms) from the Houston Astros and outfielder George Foster from the Giants (for utility infielder Frank Duffy). In Cincinnati, Morgan would win the NL Most Valuable Player award in 1975-76 and earn credentials as a member of the Hall of Fame. Foster would hit 52 home runs for the Reds in 1977 — the only player to crack the half-century HR mark in the 1970s or 1980s.

The '76 Cincinnati club, which won 102 regular season games, then swept both the Phillies in the 1976 National League Championship Series and the Yankees in the 1976 World Series, is considered one of the strongest in baseball history. The Sporting News named Howsam Major League Executive of the Year for 1973 — ironically, a season in which the powerhouse Reds dropped the NLCS to the underdog New York Mets.

Howsam had considerably more authority than most general managers of the time. The team's owners during his tenure (first Francis Dale, then Louis Nippert) largely left the team's day-to-day operations in his hands, and he added the title of club president of the Reds in 1973. He even represented the Reds at owners' meetings. Although the Reds' uniform-wearing guidelines and no-facial-hair policies were more visible, Howsam was especially known for his conservatism regarding labor relations; under him, the Reds were among the hardliners during the 1972 strike.

After the dynasty

Approaching his 60th birthday at the close of the 1977 season, Howsam turned over his general manager responsibilities to a longtime assistant, Dick Wagner. But the Reds' success ended when Howsam stepped aside. With the free agent era dawning, and with the Reds' stubborn refusal to play the big-money game, "The Big Red Machine" began to lose key players. Howsam had already traded Perez to the Montreal Expos in the months following the 1976 title. Gullett, Rose and Morgan were allowed to leave via free agency. Nolan developed arm problems. Wagner fired Anderson after Sparky refused to scapegoat his coaching staff when the Reds finished second in the NL West in both 1977 and 1978.

Howsam resigned as president in 1978, and Wagner was blamed by many for the team's decline, although Howsam, one of the most conservative voices in the game at that point, helped set fiscal policy for the club. Howsam returned to the club presidency in 1983 after Wagner's firing, with the team in last place. He hired Rose as player-manager, and helped restore the Reds to respectability. Howsam was elected to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2004.

In retirement, Howsam served on the Colorado Baseball Commission, which succeeded in bringing the Colorado Rockies to Denver as an MLB expansion team in 1993. He had been elected to his home state's Sports Hall of Fame in 1971. He died from a heart ailment at age 89 on February 19, 2008, in his Sun City, Arizona, home.

By The Baseball Page

Bob Howsam


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