A skilled administrator unafraid to make bold trades involving prominent players, Cardinals general manager Bob Howsam also was unpopular with many on the club and was second-guessed by bosses who restricted his authority and threatened his job security.
Jumping at an offer for a higher salary, a multi-year contract and the opportunity to be fully in charge of baseball operations, Howsam left the Cardinals 50 years ago on Jan. 22, 1967, and joined the Reds as executive vice president and general manager.
The club Howsam left behind won the 1967 National League pennant and World Series title. Two players acquired by Howsam, first baseman Orlando Cepeda and right fielder Roger Maris, were important contributors to that Cardinals championship squad.
With Cincinnati, Howsam enjoyed his greatest success, building the Big Red Machine teams that won four pennants (1970, 1972, 1975 and 1976) and two World Series crowns (1975 and 1976).
A minor-league executive in Denver, Howsam replaced ousted Cardinals general manager Bing Devine in August 1964. At the time, the Cardinals were nine games behind the front-running Phillies.
Branch Rickey, a Cardinals consultant and former general manager, had recommended Howsam to club owner Gussie Busch.
Devine, who had acquired for the Cardinals key players such as outfielders Lou Brock and Curt Flood and infielders Bill White, Julian Javier and Dick Groat, was well-liked by club employees and media.
After Devine departed, the Cardinals won 31 of 45 regular-season games, clinched the pennant and defeated the Yankees in the World Series.
Cardinals manager Johnny Keane and most players were upset that Howsam, not Devine, was the general manager celebrating the championship. Howsam contributed only “three cheers” to the title run and his relationship with Keane was so sour that their conversations consisted of two kinds: “little and none,” wrote sports editor Bob Broeg of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Howsam angered many when he attempted to take some credit for the 1964 success. According to the Post-Dispatch, Howsam said, “My personal feeling is that Devine’s firing led us to the pennant and world championship. It fired up everybody _ the manager, the players and the entire Cardinals staff. They got to thinking about contracts for the next season and they simply produced.”
St. Louis shakeup
In 1965, Howsam’s first full season as general manager, the Cardinals finished in seventh place at 80-81. After the season, Howsam created an uproar when he traded three-fourths of the Cardinals’ popular infield: White, Groat and Ken Boyer. Most of the players St. Louis received in return were busts.
“He had nerve, if not judgment,” Broeg wrote of Howsam’s decision to unload the infielders.
Howsam worsened matters when he tried to defend the trade of White by claiming the first baseman was several years older than he was. In my 2011 interview with White, he said Howsam’s remarks upset him and that he challenged the general manager.
The Post-Dispatch reported that White “denounced Howsam and said he no longer could have any respect for him.”
Stan Musial, a Cardinals vice president, had been “brought late into trade talks,” and “said he felt badly about the Bill White deal because he felt that he and others had been misled by Howsam’s approach to the deal,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
Howsam also created ill will with players who “resented efforts to trim salaries in times of plenty,” Broeg reported, and who were upset to receive notes from Howsam “telling them how to dress on the field, for instance, and how to sit in the bullpen.”
Howsam was successful in helping the Cardinals open a new stadium in 1966 and with developing promotions to attract women and children to games.
However, when the Cardinals floundered early in the 1966 season _ they lost 14 of their first 22 games _ Howsam was “close to being fired,” Broeg reported.
What saved him was the trade he made on May 8, 1966, when the Cardinals got Cepeda from the Giants for pitcher Ray Sadecki. With Cepeda providing run production, the Cardinals improved, finishing with a winning record (83-79), though in sixth place.
Ties that bind
Busch and the Cardinals’ hierarchy, including executive vice president Dick Meyer, had lost confidence in Howsam and they blocked two major trades he attempted to make.
Before trading for Cepeda, Howsam tried to deal pitchers Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles, right fielder Mike Shannon and utility infielder Phil Gagliano to the Reds for shortstop Leo Cardenas, first baseman Gordy Coleman and pitcher Joey Jay, but the Cardinals’ “high command” vetoed the trade, The Sporting News reported.
After the 1966 season, Howsam wanted to trade Carlton, Briles and outfielders Bobby Tolan and Alex Johnson to the Cubs for outfielder Billy Williams, but again he was stopped. “The price in promising young talent was too high, ownership concluded,” Broeg wrote.
The consolation prize was Maris, whom Howsam acquired from the Yankees for third baseman Charlie Smith.
Reds to rescue
In its Jan. 1, 1967, edition, the Post-Dispatch reported it had asked Howsam to respond to a story that listed him as the top candidate to become Reds general manager. “It’s news to me,” Howsam replied, adding he’d had no contact with the Reds.
Bill DeWitt Sr., a St. Louisan and father of Bill DeWitt Jr. (2017 owner of the Cardinals), had been owner of the Reds until selling the club to a syndicate led by Cincinnati Enquirer publisher Francis Dale in December 1966. DeWitt Sr. also had served as club president and general manager.
DeWitt Sr. suggested the new owners pursue Howsam, calling him “one of the 10 best baseball men around.”
The Reds contacted Busch, who granted permission for them to approach Howsam. On Jan. 11, 1967, Howsam was interviewed by a Reds committee in St. Louis.
Soon after, the Reds offered Howsam a three-year contract at $50,000 per year. Howsam, working without a contract and receiving a $35,000 Cardinals salary, gave Busch a chance to match the offer, but he was uninterested.
“I wish him the best of luck except when his team plays ours,” Busch said.
A day after Howsam was hired by the Reds, Busch named Musial general manager of the Cardinals.
Previously: Why Gussie Busch fired Bing Devine