By Glen Sparks
Cincinnati Reds G.M. Bob Howsam made quite a trade on Nov. 29, 1971. He dealt first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and utility man Jimmy Stewart to the Houston Astros.
He got back second baseman Joe Morgan, pitcher Jack Billingham, infielder Dennis Menke and outfielders Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo. The Cincinnati fans and media went nuts. How could Howsan do such a thing???!!!
The Reds were coming off a disappointing 79-83 campaign in 1971, but they had won a pennant in 1970. This is a panic move!!! We’re giving away our starting first baseman and our starting second baseman!!!
Bob Hertzel of the Cincinnati Inquirer wrote this: “If the United States had traded Dwight Eisenhower to the Germans in World War II, it wouldn’t have been much different than sending Mays and Helms to Houston.” Whew.
Reds Manager Sparky Anderson begged to differ. Sparky said this to Howsan: “You have just won the pennant for the Cincinnati Reds.”
Certainly, the trade put the Big Red Machine into motion. Over the next eight seasons, the Reds finished first five times and second three times. They won three pennants and the World Series in ’75 and ’76.
Howsam deserves a good chunk of credit for the Reds’ run of success. We’ll find out Dec. 8 if the former executive will be going into the Hall of Fame. He is one of 10 nominees on the Golden Era ballot. Howsam, who died in 2008, needs 75 percent of the vote to get to Cooperstown.
Who was Howsam?
Howsam was born Feb. 28, 1918, in Denver, and served as a Navy pilot in World War II. He began his sports career as an executive with the Denver Bears, a minor league baseball team. The Sporting News twice named Howsam its Minor League Executive of the Year.
Hoping to bring Major League Baseball to Denver, Howsam helped start the Continental League in 1959. Founders wanted to create a third Major League. The plan flopped when three of the proposed cities got Major League teams. (New York welcomed the Mets, Houston gained the Astros, and the Senators moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul from Washington, D.C.)
Howsam needed a job. No problem. He, along with his brother, Earl, and dad, Lee, got into pro football. The three founded the Denver Broncos of the American Football League. The Broncos, of course, have become one of the NFL’s marquee franchises. Financial difficulties plagued the early AFL, though.
The Howsams got out fast; Bob returned to baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals hired him as GM in August 1964 when it looked like the Philadelphia Phillies would run away with the pennant.
Philadelphia collapsed, and St. Louis rebounded. The Cardinals beat the Yankees to win the 1964 World Series. In 1965, the Cards struggled and finished in seventh place. The ’66 team finished sixth; Howsam left for the Reds.
Howsam inherited many of the key parts to the Big Red Machine. Players like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, were already on the team. Howsam gets credit for strengthening a farm system that turned out standouts like Davey Concepcion, Ken Griffey and Ray Knight. He also gets credit for taking an aggressive stance in calling up young pitchers Don Gullett, Gary Nolan and Wayne Simpson to the majors.
Also, Howsam brought Sparky Anderson to Cincinnati. He fired Dave Bristol as manager and hired Sparky on Oct. 8, 1969. Cincy newspapers cried “Sparky Who,” but Anderson became a legend in the Queen City.
Then, Howsam made his two big trades. He pulled off the Joe Morgan deal, and he traded utility infielder Frank Duffy and journeyman pitcher Vern Geishert for George Foster. Morgan won the National League MVP in the championship seasons of ’75 and ’76. He later went into the Hall of Fame. Foster won the MVP in ’77 when he hit 52 home runs, the only player in the 1970s or ‘80s to reach the half-century mark in dingers. (Foster finished second in the 1976 MVP voting and would finish sixth in 1978.)
Howsam left his job as GM in April 1978, but not before he had acquired Tom Seaver from the Mets during the 1977 season. He did one more stint as GM for a season and a half following a disastrous 1982 campaign (62-100) and a wretched start to 1983. Howsam, long a critic of free agency, continued to emphasize player development.
The biggest move Howsam made in his second stint was the reacquisition of Pete Rose in August 1984 to serve as player-manager. The Reds finished in second place each of the next four seasons. (Of course, that move did come with some notable baggage.) Howsam retired for a final time July 1, 1985.
Summing it up
Howsam’s teams finished 1,369-1,050, a .566 winning percentage, in 15 seasons with St. Louis and Cincinnati. To put this in perspective, GM George Weiss went 1,612-1,356, a .541 winning percentage, in 19 seasons with the Yankees and Mets. His teams won 11 pennants and eight World Series.
GM Pat Gillick went 2,276-1,993, a .533 winning percentage, in 27 seasons with the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners and Phillies. His teams won three pennants and took home the World Series each time. Gillick’s teams advanced to the playoffs 11 times.
Weiss was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1971. Gillick was elected in 2011. Will this be the year that Howsam goes in?