Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Uncle Joe I Didn't Know...

That's my great uncle Joe Bowman in the photo to the left.

He was a Major League pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and several other teams, from 1932-1945. He continued to play for another couple of years after his major league career, doing a stint with the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League (he also played for the Portland PCL team in the early '30s). He went on to a second career as a successful baseball scout, most notably for Charlie Finley and Uncle Joe's hometown Kansas City A's. Joe's scouting career lasted into the Oakland era of the A's, and into the 1980s when he worked for the Baltimore Orioles. Joe signed Tony LaRussa to his first pro contract--and he also signed 20-game winner Mike Boddicker for the Orioles, among many other players.

I found out about the LaRussa signing when Tony came to shop at Flying Colors in late '98. As he shopped, I started a conversation with him about the '98 season and Mark McGwire's 70 home run season. I then worked in a mention of my great uncle---and it really surrpised Tony. He said something like "Who'd ever think that I'd stop in here to get my daughter a few comic books and wind up meeting a guy related to the man who signed me to my first pro contract?"

I've spent a little spare time here and there researching Joe Bowman's career. He wasn't a tremendously successful pitcher---he's even mentioned in a book called "The Worst Major League Pitchers of All Time" because he did lose 20 games one season. But to have a pre-expansion major league career that lasted nearly a dozen years of active service, he had to be quite a talented player. One thing I do know--- he was a very good hitting pitcher. He was used as a part-time outfielder and pinch-hitter for a few years. One year he even hit .344.

Among great Uncle Joe's "claims to fame" is that he was the starting and losing pitcher in the first night game in Major League history, a 2-1 game his Philadelphia Phillies lost to the host Cincinnati Reds. He knocked in his team's only run, he had a hit and a stolen base, he gave up only four hits in seven innings---and he still was hung with the loss.

When my father's father succumbed to tuberculosis in 1933, my dad was only 10 years old. His uncle Joe, having made it to the big leagues, became my father's idol. One season, probably 1937, Uncle Joe left an autograph book in the dugouts of opposing teams as he traveled around the National League. It was signed by close to 40 future Hall-of-Famers. As late as 1988, I was occasionally adding more autographs to the book, teaching my nephew Matt how and where to score the best autographs at the Oakland Colisseum. That is probably the only autograph book with sweet-swingin' Billy Williams autograph next to pre-integration Cubs' players like Gabby Hartnett. In the '60s, I had SF Giant great Orlando Cepeda sign the book on the same page as Bill Terry and Frankie Frisch, two Hall-of-Fame NY Giants' mainstays of the '30s.

I didn't know much about the relationship between my Dad and his uncle when I was a kid. I know that my father's father died from tuberculosis when my dad wasn't quite ten years old in 1933, so after his father's passing, his Uncle Joe Bowman became his idol. Also, for many years, my younger brother and I would get some nice baseball gifts from the Bowmans (his wife Mary was my grandmother's sister). When we played catch with my Dad, my brother and I usually played with real American League baseballs.

I believe I only met Uncle Joe in person once when I was probably four years old. And I can't recall that meeting, if it even did happen. As the years grew on, my family and his would exchange Christmas cards, but that was about it.

In the early '80s, I got the idea to write a baseball book about the era Joe Bowman played in--- from the perspective of an average major league player. We'll always get stories from the superstars, but when do we ever hear from just a "Regular Joe"? Of course, I wanted to include things about my father's family, my Dad's relationship with his ball-playin' uncle and how the tradition of baseball is so strong and important to the fabric of life in America.

So I wrote Uncle Joe a letter, asking if he'd be up for the task. I got a very short letter back from him in Kansas City on Baltimore Orioles' stationery, telling me he had no interest in such a project.

Not too long after that, my Dad suffered the first of his heart attacks, leading to ten years of trips in and out of the hospital. Joe Bowman died on Thanksgiving Day in 1990 at the age of 80. Joe Field, my father, passed away the day before Thanksgiving in 1998 a month before his 75th birthday.

At this point, I have yet to meet anyone on that side of the family to give me more perspective on Joe Bowman's career or my dad's relationship with his. There are precious few former major leaguers still alive from the era Bowman played. What I do know is that Joe Bowman was one who instilled a love of baseball in my Dad, who then instilled it in me and my brother....and probably in many others, too. And we're there to keep it going with our families.

Nine weeks left 'til pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training '06.

For more info about Joe Bowman's career, go HERE!

Peace, y'all!


(Updates on this story can be found in the Flying Colors 20th Anniversary Special comic book (2008), available for sale at Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff.)
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