Paying Tribute to Dick Howser
By Jim Joanos
It was the fall of 1955. As a senior in Air Force ROTC at Florida State University, I was automatically a cadet officer and given a command. My command was Flight B of Squadron Two. The unit had several sophomores and juniors serving as sergeants, but mostly we had a bunch of freshmen. The goal was to make sure that the freshmen shaved, wore their uniforms correctly, and most importantly learned how to march and participate in parades.
In the mid ’50s at FSU, participation in ROTC, either Air Force or Army, during the first two years of college was compulsory for male students. As a result, not all of the freshmen were particularly desirous of learning how to march. Some had never shaved before. Others had trouble keeping their shoes shined and their ties on straight. Some seemed to have two left feet.
The most mischievous of all in my unit was "Cadet Howser." In addition, he was the youngest looking kid in the whole squadron. This feisty looking guy did not look old enough to be in college. He was about 5-foot-7 and weighed less than 130 pounds. He had so much energy, he was hard to handle. Cadet Howser presented quite a challenge.
If someone had predicted at the time that Cadet Howser was to become one of FSU’s most heralded sports figures of all time and that the baseball field adjacent to where we were drilling would be named after him, I would have rolled over with laughter. That kid would not even keep his shoes shined. But Howser did those things and much more. Memories of Dick Howser top my list of sports memories. He did so much for FSU, for his friends, and for the world.
An outstanding high school athlete
Burt Reynolds likes to tell stories about "Peanut", which was Dick's nickname in high school. He describes Dick as an outstanding high school athlete who befriended Reynolds when he transferred to Howser's high school. It was not until Howser accepted him, that Reynolds was accepted by the other athletes at the school. Before that, he had been an outsider. He attributes his friendship with Howser as one of the high spots in his life. Howser was an excellent high school athlete. He excelled in football, basketball track, and baseball. Despite his excellent high school sports career, he had no scholarship offers from any college. Apparently the recruiters thought him to be too small for college athletics. He chose to come to Florida State and try out for the baseball team as a walk on.
Shortstop for FSU
He arrived at FSU in the fall of 1955. In addition to compulsory ROTC he got involved in campus life right away as a Sigma Nu pledge. When time came for preseason baseball, he went out for the team. Tony Avitable, a pitcher on the team, remembers Howser showing up for practice in jeans and an old sweatshirt. Most of the players had practice uniforms. Almost immediately, Howser caught the attention of head coach Danny Litwhiler. Howser was from the beginning an excellent batsmen at FSU. In one of the early practices that year, Avitable overheard Litwhiler tell team trainer Don Fauls, who had professional baseball experience, in reference to Howser, that "we have to get a uniform for that kid...they just cannot get him out". Shortly thereafter Howser was in uniform. Soon not only did Howser's batting impress but also his defensive skills. By the first game of the season, Howser had worked himself into the starting lineup although he was just a freshman. In the first game against Furman, he played centerfield. Eventually he would move to shortstop, the position at which he would star for the remainder of his college career and into professional baseball.
In that first season, 1956, at FSU, Howser batted .422, setting a school record, and led the team into their first ever NCAA postseason appearance. A year later, after leading FSU to an NCAA regional championship and a berth in its first ever College World Series, Howser was chosen first team All American by the American Baseball Coaches Association. He was the first one ever at Florida State to attain that honor. After the season, he was named as the Florida Amateur Athlete of the Year. In his third and last year at FSU, 1958, with Howser as team captain, the team again participated in postseason NCAA play and Dick repeated as a first team All American.
An All Star Player
After three years at FSU, Howser chose to play professional baseball. He was signed by the Kansas City Athletics for a bonus of $21,000. He played minor league ball for only three seasons. On April 11, 1961, he made his major league debut with the Kansas City Athletics. His first year was sensational. He hit .280, stole 37 bases, scored 108 runs, was named an All Star and at the end of the year, The Sporting News named him the American League Rookie of the Year. He appeared destined to become a great. But because of injuries, despite being a major league player for eight more years, he would enjoy only one more full year, 1964, as a regular. For the 1964 season he was traded to the Cleveland Indians. In that 1964 season, he tied an American League record by playing all 162 games of the season at shortstop. In 1967 he was traded to the New York Yankees. He ended his playing career at New York at the end of the 1968 season.
Coach for the Yankees
Because of his baseball savvy, Howser was retained by the Yankees in 1968 as a coach. He would serve in that capacity for ten years. The Yankees had some very good years and were on television a lot. Howser became a familiar sight as the third base coach. During those years, Howser continued his close affiliation with the FSU sports program. In the off season he lived in Tallahassee and was on call as a substitute teacher for Tallahassee schools. At the time supporters could participate in recruiting of athletes and Howser was quite helpful. He was a major FSU football fan. Nick Nixon, his close Tallahassee friend recalls that Dick, no matter where he was, on each Saturday night, actually in the wee hours of Sunday, following each FSU football game would call Nick and want a full report on what happened during the game as Dick had been occupied coaching the Yankees. Nixon took to taking notes during each game so he would have full particulars for Howser. Howser wanted to know everything about the game.
The years as a coach for the Yankees were good times for Dick. Nixon remembers being with him in the wee hours of the morning following a victory by the Yankees in New York during the 1977 World Series. Dick was so excited he just wanted to drive around and savor the moment knowing that he was too pumped up to go home and sleep. They stopped for breakfast. Nixon remembers vividly Dick proclaiming that "it was the greatest moment" of his life.
On April 5, 1978, thanks to Howser's assistance, the New York Yankees came to Tallahassee to play an exhibition game against the Seminoles. It was a grand day in the history of FSU baseball. The game was preceded by a brunch at the Governor's Mansion provided by Governor Reubin Askew, an FSU alum. Present were the Yankee coaches, owner George Steinbrenner, and a few lucky local people. Having lunch with Yogi Berra in Tallahassee is undoubtedly one of my finest baseball memories. Later in the day, the game began with the Seminoles holding their own against the great Yankees including Craig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Mickey Rivers, Bucky Dent, Cliff Johnson, and on and on. But in the end the Yankees won. There are lots of other good memories. Roger Maris was there and watched the game from the bleachers with the rest of us. Another favorite memory was seeing one of the kids from our neighborhood, FSU baseball pitcher Kevin Brooks, pitching and getting the great Reggie Jackson to pop up.
In July of 1978, Billy Martin, the Yankees' manager resigned. Howser temporarily filled in as manager. Howser, who was quite loyal to Martin did not seek the job permanently. Soon Martin was back as Manager and Howser continued on as coach.
Baseball Coach for FSU
Shortly thereafter, Woody Woodward decided to leave as FSU's baseball coach. Howser heard about it and applied for the job. I was a member of the search committee appointed by President Bernie Sliger. Howser's application made our job a no brainer. Soon, we submitted a short list to the president with Howser's name at the top. A day or so later we got word from an unofficial source that it "was a good thing that we had decided on Howser as Bernie was going to appoint him regardless of what we did". Howser was hired and came on board as FSU's seventh head baseball coach. It was a good time. The team did pretty well under Howser's leadership during the 1979 season. They won 43 games and lost 17, made it to the NCAA regional, held in Tallahassee, but did not advance beyond that. Howser did some good recruiting and FSU was doing fine.
Manager for the Yankees
Fall came and Howser began to look forward to the coming season. But then in October, there was a bar room fight in New York City that changed FSU's baseball future. Bar room fights in New York do not usually affect anything at FSU, but this one did because it had a celebrity participant, Billy Martin, the manager of the New York Yankees. On October 28, 1979, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner announced the firing of Martin and the hiring of Howser as the new Yankee manager. Dick was off to the Big Apple as the head man on the most famous of all baseball teams. If some other college baseball coach has gone directly from that job to managing a major league baseball team, I have never heard of it.
Howser did well as the Yankees manager in 1980. His team won 103 of 162 games, making him only the fourth manager in baseball history to win more than a hundred games in his first major league season. It was the best team record in the major leagues that year. The team won the American League East championship but had a bad playoff series and did not make it to the world series. As a result, Steinbrenner, who made a habit of firing managers, fired Dick. Loyalty again being a strong trait of Howser, he never publicly criticized Steinbrenner for firing him. Dick quietly stayed in baseball in an administrative position. That lasted for only one season.
Manager for the Royals
On August 31, 1981, the Kansas City Royals hired Howser to be their manager. Dick was back in the city where he had started his major league career as a player. It turned out to be a great fit from the beginning. Howser finished out the 1981 season winning the American League West title. His team did not make it to the World Series, but this time he did not get fired. Howser and Royals general manager John Schuerholz joined together to build a better program at Kansas City. In 1984 the Royals won the division title again but again did not go further. In 1985, Howser took a team that was not regarded as a contender when the season started and won the division title. This time they went further. In a dramatic seven game series they won the right to go to the world series by defeating the Toronto Blue Jays. And then in a more than equally dramatic seven game series they beat the St. Louis Cardinals. In both situations, the Royals came from being down three games to one and won the final three games.
Dick Howser was at the top of the baseball world. He and wife, Nancy, spent the off season in Tallahassee as they had always done. He was so happy. He went to FSU sporting events and generously made appearances for numerous charities. He continued to be active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I recall one night watching a portion of a taped account of the final World Series game with him. He had not seen it before. He was as excited as any kid could have been. It was hard to believe that this super nice guy, a friend of everybody's, rich or poor, important or not, was one of the leading figures in all of baseball.
The next season started with spring practice and then the regular schedule. All of the other teams played their best against the world champions. The season did not begin overly well but okay. The Royals struggled at times but did well at other times. They were going to be fine. Sometime in the early part of the season, Nancy and those around Dick started to notice that he was showing signs of extreme tiredness. At first it was attributed to the busy off season which called for an extremely tedious schedule of travel to attend all the banquets and other public appearances expected of the national champions. In previous years Howser had been able to relax a lot during the off season.
Nick Nixon, Dick's longtime Tallahassee friend, spent a few days with him just before the mid season All-Star break. He noticed how extremely tired Dick seemed. He recalls leaving the stadium one night. Dick could hardly make it up the ramp from the locker room and closed his eyes as he moved. But just before they made it to the car, they came across a family who had not left the stadium yet although the game had ended an hour or so before. They were Royals fans and had come a distance to see they game. Despite his condition, Dick posed for pictures with them, went and got baseballs for the two kids, and treated the total strangers as if they were long time friends. Nixon describes the incident as "most inspirational" and indicative of what kind of a person Dick was.
An appointment was made for Dick to see a physician after the All Star game. He coached the American League All Stars in the mid season game and they won it. It was the last game that he would manage. During the game, he had some difficulty in his speech and in recognition of some of the players. A day or so later he saw the doctor. The diagnosis was a brain tumor that was after further procedures determined to be malignant. The Royals announced that Howser would miss the rest of the season to under go treatment. Howser had surgery and other extensive treatment. He seemed to rally. In October, the Royals announced that Howser would return to manage the team again for the 1987 season. Dick continued the good works that were normal for him. He appeared as a speaker at the Billy Graham Crusade in Tallahassee and made numerous other appearances for charities. He and wife Nancy continued their generous participation in numerous good causes.
Tough to the end
On February 20, 1987, Howser arrived at training camp to begin preparations for the season. Despite a big heart and great effort, he was just physically unable to continue, and three days later he gave up on the attempt to return as manager. On June 17, 1987, Dick died at a hospital in St. Louis. His funeral was held in Tallahassee at the Fellowship Baptist Church where a huge crowd of friends and baseball dignitaries from all over the country attended. John Schuerholz, the Royals' general manager, Fred White, the Royals Broadcaster, Bobby Richardson, a former teammate, and Joe Burke, president of the Royals all paid oral tribute. His pallbearers and honorary pallbearers included a mixture of baseball people like Bobby Cox, Suerholz and White, and longtime FSU friends like Nixon, Ray Bazzell, Mike Fields, Bobby Guest, Billy Joe Norris, Gary Sprague, Fred Kenney, Bernie Sliger, and Bobby Bowden. The makeup was quite symbolic of the man that was buried that day who during his lifetime reached the top in baseball but never forgot who he was, where he came from, and who his friends were. On July 3rd, the Royals retired Dick's uniform number, 10.
On March 3, 1988, Dick's beloved Royals came to Tallahassee to play an exhibition game against his beloved Seminoles. They did not get to play much baseball as just after they began, heavy rains came and the rest had to be cancelled. But before the game there was an elaborate and wonderful ceremony. It was a special occasion as "Seminole Field" had been renovated into a state of the art college baseball stadium and on that occasion was dedicated as "Dick Howser Stadium". George Brett and the other Royals took part in the ceremony as did Dick's Wife, Nancy. Dick's family and the Tallahassee community celebrated as the stadium took on the name of FSU's most famous baseball player.
Howser Stadium is again being renovated and soon will again become state of the art. It has been and will continue to be a grand place to watch and play baseball. Much of its grandness is due to the rich heritage that Richard Dalton Howser brought to the place.
Cadet Howser, I suspect that you are looking down at us. I remember teaching you how to salute. You got pretty good at it. But now, it is my turn to salute you for all that you have done and for all that you mean to Florida State. I hope that you are enjoying the season.