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Remembering Dick Howser’s season with the Yankees

Dick Howser lived a memorable life, and turned in a unique season as manager of the Yankees.

Dick Howser Yankees Spring Training Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

As I was putting the finishing touches on the series of all-time complementary greats, I toyed with the idea of selecting a manager for the squad. With how difficult it is to pin down exactly what makes a great “complementary” manager, I opted against choosing a skipper. Nonetheless, one name that stood out to me when initially considering a manager was Dick Howser. Ultimately, I felt compelled to write about Howser because he had a remarkable baseball and life story.

Dick Howser was born on May 14, 1936 in Miami, Florida. Always undersized, Howser didn’t begin to play baseball in high school until he grew six inches his junior year, but he made the most of it with those two seasons and even won a Class-AA State Championship.

Howser chose to go to Florida State thinking of pursuing a teaching career, but once again he overcame his size to become am athletic legend there, as he was the first two-time All-American athlete from the state of Florida. They eventually named a new stadium after him in 1988.

Standing in at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, Howser managed to play for nine seasons in the big leagues bouncing around between Cleveland and Kansas City before retiring at the end of 1968 season following a two-year stint with the Yankees. The highlight of his career was making the All-Star Game as a rookie and finishing second in the rookie of the year voting*.

*He lost out to Don Schwall of the Boston Red Sox by a single first place vote, seven to six.

The Florida native remained with the Yankees organization as the third base coach all the way until 1978, even filling in as manager during the one game between Billy Martin’s firing and Bob Lemon’s hiring. At season’s end though, he left for a brief period to become the manager of his alma mater, Florida State. Howser made it clear that becoming the full-time skipper of the Yankees was a goal of his, and it wouldn’t take long for him to get that chance.

They say that history tends to repeat itself, and it was ever the case right here. Martin replaced Lemon in the middle of the ‘79 season and his tumultuous tenure wouldn’t last long after an offseason brawl with a marshmallow salesman (yes, really). The Yankees needed a manager following the end of that season. George Steinbrenner looked to Howser to be that man, and Howser took the job.

The calm and collected Howser brought stability to the clubhouse and the team thrived. Propelled by the best season by Reggie Jackson in a Yankees uniform (a league-best 41 homers along with a 172 OPS+ and runner-up MVP finish), and with very strong contributions from Tommy John, Rudy May, Rich Gossage, Oscar Gamble and Willie Randolph among others, the Yankees finished with a 103-59 behind their newly-appointed skipper.

For the most part, it was smooth sailing during the regular season for Howser, which was far from common for any Yankees manager at the time. They seized the AL East lead in mid-May and never gave it up the rest of the way. Earl Weaver’s defending champion Orioles made it close and got within a half-game of first place in late August, but Howser’s Yankees fought them off. In the end, Baltimore was the only team to come within 16 games of the front-running Bombers, and they finished three games back.

However, when the postseason came along, things got heated and quickly deteriorated to the point of no return. The Yankees had made an annual tradition of breaking hearts in Kansas City during the late ‘70s, as they trounced the Royals in three straight ALCS showdowns from 1976-78. This time, however, George Brett and company were out for vengeance and it didn’t even matter that the Yankees had six more wins than the Royals in the regular season.

The Yankees ultimately flamed out against Kansas City in the ALCS, getting swept 3-0, and while Brett had the big blow at Yankee Stadium in Game 3, Steinbrenner was reportedly furious about a specific earlier call. In Game 2, the Yankees trailed 3-2 in the eighth inning, and third base coach Mike Ferraro decided to send Willie Randolph to the plate following a double by Bob Watson. Randolph tried to score all the way from first, was thrown out, and the Yanks ultimately lost by that score.

Steinbrenner wanted Ferraro gone, but Howser held his ground and refused to give in. With that, Howser was fired after one extremely successful season (and one extremely awkward press conference at season’s end), albeit one that ended in controversy and disappointment.

Howser quickly joined those very same Kansas City Royals, and led the team to first or second place finishes in the division in each of his first four seasons, culminating in a World Series title in 1985. Unfortunately, only a year after securing the championship, he had to step down in the middle of the season because of a brain cancer diagnosis.

Howser died a year later on June 17, 1987. Long gone, but not soon forgotten.