Memories of Dick Howser

Dick Howser visits the White House in 1985. (Wikipedia)

Dick Howser visits the White House in 1985. (Wikipedia)

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 13, 2014) — I don’t have incredibly vivid memories of the mid-1980s Kansas City Royals, but knowing that the late Dick Howser, their skipper at the time, had been a former New York Yankees player, coach and manager made him a pretty cool guy, I thought, even though I was a fiery supporter of the rival Yankees — following every game, whenever possible.

Now that the Royals are on a remarkable magic carpet ride of a playoff run, though, my mind flashes back to Howser’s battle with a brain tumor.

Having read in the newspaper and/or seen the news on TV that Howser was battling cancer, I remember writing a short letter to the ailing Royals manager, offering a few words of encouragement, and mailing it to Kansas City after looking up the address for the team’s ballpark.

I don’t recall exactly when I mailed the letter — but I believe it was sometime during the summer of 1986 (the year after K.C won the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team I was rooting for) — or received the reply.

But, to my surprise, one day I did receive a printed greeting card that said something to this effect:

Thank you for your warm support and encouragement. We have received hundreds of letters from around the country and your words of encouragement and your prayers sustain us at this difficult time. — Dick and Nancy Howser

It was a kind gesture and it demonstrated again that Dick Howser was a class act on and off the baseball diamond.

He lost his battle with cancer in June 1987 at age 51. And I’ve always wondered how the Royals under Howser would’ve done if he had remained healthy and in charge for years to come.

I placed that greeting card in a photo album as a keepsake. And though I’ve moved nearly a dozen times since then, I hope I still have that card somewhere.

Column flashback – A conversation with MLB announcer Ernie Harwell

After a one-on-one, 30-minute dugout chat with announcer Ernie Harwell, before a Diamondbacks-Tigers game, my column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 17, 2002.

Headline: Harwell, and a little history

None of those legendary announcers has matched the longevity of Mr. Harwell, who’s now in his 55th season of broadcasting Major League Baseball games. That’s right 55 years.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Harwell in the Detroit dugout before the Tigers-Diamondbacks game on Saturday evening at Bank One Ballpark to discuss his amazing career. Easygoing, polite, articulate and funny, Harwell instantly made me feel like we had been friends for years. By all accounts, that’s one of his signature traits — he is kind to everyone he meets. (A day later, he greeted me in the elevator and remembered my first name. Incredible, eh? How many thousands of names has he uttered in his career?)

Like countless boys, Harwell, 84, grew up yearning to be a professional baseball player. Athletically, he didn’t have the talent to make it. That didn’t stop him from finding another way to be around the game.

Confident, perhaps a bit daring, and motivated, Harwell first pitched his case to become a journalist to one of the prestigious sports magazines of his youth.

“In 1934, when I was in high school I wrote a letter to The Sporting News and told them I should be the Atlanta correspondent,” he said smiling.

“They didn’t know I was only 16 years old. They gave me the job.”

That job entailed covering the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. It led to a six-year stint at The Atlanta Constitution “doing stuff nobody else wanted to do while I was in high school and college,” he recalled.

After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Harwell was unable to find a job at a newspaper. So he went for an audition at radio station WSB in Atlanta. He’s been in radio ever since, except for four years during World War II when he served in the Marines and held the post of sports editor for Leatherneck Magazine.

“It was sort of accidental. I was a failed sportswriter,” he quipped.

Print journalism’s loss has been broadcast journalism’s gain. Since becoming a play-by-play voice for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, Harwell has worked for New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles. He has been with the Detroit Tigers since 1960.

Remarkably, Harwell has only missed two games in 55 years.

“I’ve been very lucky,” he said.

Neither of those absences was due to illness: He missed the first game to attend his brother’s funeral; he missed the second game to attend National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Salisbury, N.C.

Instead of hanging around too long, Harwell decided to retire after this season while he’s still a respected announcer.

“I felt the time was going to come sooner or later when I had to hang it up,” Harwell said, “and I decided this year would be my last one. … I felt like I could really go another four or five years, but I didn’t want to stay around long enough for people to say, ‘Why didn’t that old guy quit?’ I wanted to stop before everybody told me to.”

Harwell said his No. 1 thrill as an announcer was calling Bobby Thomson’s famous “Shot Heard Around The World” homer in the 1951 playoff that propelled the Giants into National League pennant winners.

Old-timers remember Russ Hodges’ unforgettable “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” call. Well, Hodges and Harwell alternated between TV and radio that year. Harwell was assigned to the TV telecast that day, Oct. 3, 1951.

“I just said, ‘It’s gone!’ and then the pictures took over,” Harwell said.

Fortunately, Harwell’s legacy will live on.

Column on Babe Ruth

This July 2007 column appeared in The Japan Times, and was then posted at thetruebaberuth.com

MLB, NPB should retire legendary Bambino’s uniform number

By ED ODEVEN
Should Major League Baseball retire Babe Ruth’s No. 3?

This question has become relevant in recent days. Why? The Hall of Fame slugger’s granddaughter, Linda Ruth Tosetti, has launched a petition and a Web site — http://www.retirebabesnumber.com/ — to make this wish a reality. This is not a necessary move to bolster the man’s legacy, or upgrade his spot to the upper echelon of baseball’s legends.

The Bambino is — and always will be — one of America’s greatest sporting heroes and performers, but, clearly, this would be a fitting tribute to the man who made the biggest impact on baseball in North America and Japan.

Without the Sultan of Swat, would yakyu enjoy its status as Japan’s No. 1 sport? Maybe not.

Consider: Before Babe Ruth visited Asia during a 1934 All-Star tour with fellow major league greats such as New York Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig and then-New York Giant Lefty O’Doul, Japanese baseball was popular at two levels, high school and college.

After Ruth’s home-run exploits thrilled a nation, Japanese business leaders decided to establish a pro league, which began two years later. The rest is history: the rousing success of the Giants, the great Yomiuri-Hanshin rivalry, and the extraordinary exploits of guys named Shigeo Nagashima (whose No. 3 is retired by Yomiuri), Katsuya Nomura, Minoru Murayama and Sadaharu Oh.

If Ruth hadn’t arrived here when he did and whacked all those home runs before awe-struck fans, pro ball’s establishment in Japan could’ve taken a few — or even many — decades to begin.

Ruth’s career, you’ve probably heard, was filled with legendary exploits. He was the first power-hitting superstar in baseball history.

When he hit a then-record 29 home runs in 1919, the No. 2 guy in the big leagues, Gavvy Cravath of the Philadelphia Phillies, hit only 12. Ruth had more homers than 10 teams that year!

What’s more, Ruth was also one of the game’s top left-handed pitchers before being converted to a full-time outfielder.

Ruth was so good, so exciting to watch, that pundits created an appropriate adjective (Ruthian) to describe an incredible performance. Decades later, a Jordanesque performance became an acceptable description for sportswriters to use in detailing a similar display of greatness.

* * * * *
Yankee Stadium opened on April 18, 1923. In the first game at the ballpark, Ruth smacked a three-run homer, leading the Yankees to a 4-1 win over the Boston Red Sox.

It’s still The House That Ruth Built.

When he retired in 1935, Ruth had 714 home runs, a figure that all MLB sluggers sought to match in the years to follow — that is until Hank Aaron hit No. 715 on April 8, 1974.

Prominent sociologists and everyday fans all understood that Ruth was a larger-than-life figure whose outgoing personality and willingness to sign autographs until the cow jumped over the moon helped baseball overcome the negativity caused by the aftermath of the Black Sox’s gambling scandal in the 1919 World Series.

On April 27, 1947, Babe Ruth Day was celebrated in pro ballparks in the U.S. and Japan.

That in itself is a reminder of the man’s lasting legacy on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. And what a fitting honor it was for him to be recognized in Japan in his dying days.

Just months before he passed away from throat cancer, Ruth attended the ceremonies that day in the Bronx.

The Yankees retired his No. 3, which signified his spot in the team’s batting order.

Yes, professional sports team owners and public relations/marketing types have at times appeared obsessed with retiring ex-players’ numbers to generate interest for the past. (It’s often nothing but a distraction for a bad team.).

As a result, it diminishes the value of having someone’s jersey number retired if too many of them hang from the rafters or are put on display at the arena.

But understand this: The great ones deserve great distinction.

Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997, the 50th anniversary of his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is the only number MLB has ever retired.

In essence, Robinson paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, breaking baseball’s 20th century color barrier. He did it with dignity despite facing incredible hardships — and death threats.

Babe Ruth was a giant in his day and remains a man synonymous with greatness.

Major League Baseball should retire his jersey number. And it’s the notion here that Nippon Professional Baseball should consider doing the same thing.

 

Joe Torre the role model

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 18, 2004.

Headline: Meaning of family not lost on Torre

By Ed Odeven
PHOENIX — We all know Sunday is Father’s Day. And, naturally, it should be a special day for dads.

Every other day should be just as special for their families.

Joe Torre, the New York Yankees manager, grew up in a Brooklyn family ravaged by domestic abuse. His father’s violent abuse was directed at his mother.

“I’m not sure I learned all the things that dads should do early on, unfortunately,” Torre said before Wednesday’s Yankees-Diamondbacks game at Bank One Ballpark.

That doesn’t mean Torre hasn’t learned the importance of giving back to the community. As a popular figure in the Big Apple — guiding the Yankees to four World Series titles since 1996 will do that for you — people pay attention to what Torre has to say.

Two years ago, Torre and his wife, Ali, established the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation. Its mission, according to the charity’s official Web site, is “to develop educational programs that will end the cycle of domestic violence and save lives.”

Movie director Tim Robbins will direct public-service announcements in the coming months to help raise awareness for the organization.

“We’re not a care provider, but we feel we’ve got to educate,” Torre says, “and let men and boys know there’s a word respect out there that has to be applied to all of us.”

LIVE AND LEARN

Torre was one of the National League’s top players in the 1960s-70s. A nine-time All-Star, Torre earned the 1971 NL MVP award by leading the the Senior Circuit with a .363 batting average and 137 RBIs. In 1977, he became the first player-manager in the big leagues since 1959, taking over as the New York Mets’ field general. He also managed the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals before becoming the Yankee skipper in 1996.

In retrospect, Torre admits his personal success often came at the expense of his family life. Quite simply, he says, he was too into himself.

“I was very irresponsible, and I think it shows by my not really being as good a father as I could’ve been,” he says. “But you change. As long as you still have time on the clock, keep working toward those goals.

“Hey, you get older, and you become more sensitive to things and become more aware of things. You realize there’s somebody else in the world besides you.”

In 1999, Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancer and then underwent successful surgery. Since then, he has vowed to live life to the fullest, and with no regrets.

“Do it today, because you know you have it,” he says.

Torre’s mantra especially applies to his third wife, Ali, and the youngest of his four children, 8-year-old Andrea Rae. No matter what, family comes first now.

On May 1, Torre didn’t go to work. He didn’t sit in his customary spot in the dugout and didn’t watch his ballclub face the Kansas City Royals in the Bronx. He had something more important to do that day: attend Andrea Rae’s first holy communion.

Torre told the Yankees of his family commitment weeks in advance, and so pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and third base coach Willie Randolph handled the managerial duties that day. It was an admirable gesture by Torre, one that hasn’t been overlooked.

“It was great to be there, but knowing how much my daughter appreciated my being there was more important than my enjoyment,” he says.

Randolph commended Torre’s actions.

“To me, family should always come first anyway,” Randolph says. “We all have our responsibilities but you want to make sure that your kids remember special days and it was a special occasion what he did for her.

“That’s the way it should be. … He’s our leader, he sets the tone and a lot of guys follow his lead.”

And even though the Yankee players see Torre day in and day out at the work, they realize how important his family is to him away from the ballyard.

“Just by his demeanor, you could tell he cares about his family” was Yankee star Derek Jeter’s assessment.

EASYGOING JOE

By all accounts, Torre is one of the most approachable managers in the game, for fans and the press.

He might not be as highly regarded as Yankee legend Yogi Berra or Yogi’s lifelong pal Joe Garagiola Sr. for his storytelling skills, but Torre relishes the thought of passing time before games in the dugout, recollecting baseball lore from last week or many years ago.

On Wednesday, in front of a throng of more than three dozen reporters, Torre talked about the post-1996 World Series celebrations and riding with Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, in a car on a parade route around the city.

“They all cheered me,” Torre recalls, “and half of them cheered him. And I said to him, ‘Now I know why you brought me along.'”

The discussion then turned to a medical bandage he was wearing on one of his fingers, the result of a domestic accident: he was bitten by his golden cocker spaniel, Geena.

“She had a chicken bone and I tried to wrestle it away from her,” he says, smiling.

Clearly, Joe Torre is a man comfortable with his life — at work and at home.