I was a Dick Howser fan. The 1979 Yankee team had been a mess. Everybody expected them to compete for a third straight World Series ring and they ended up in fourth place in their division. George Steinbrenner’s indecision about who should manage, Billy Martin or Bob Lemon, kept the players and coaching staff on constant edge. Thurman Munson’s death in a tragic plane crash was the final straw to a season that Yankee fans wanted to forget. Enter Dick Howser.
The Miami, Florida native’s big league playing career had began with an AL Rookie of the Year performance as a shortstop for the 1961 Kansas City A’s. That playing career ended in pinstripes, as a utility middle infielder for the 1967 and ’68 Yankees. When he retired the following season, he joined the Yankee coaching staff for the next ten years. Then in 1979, Howser accepted the head baseball coach’s position at his alma mater, Florida State University.
When it became clear to Steinbrenner that neither Martin or Lemon was the right choice as Yankee skipper, the Boss surprised everyone by hiring Howser for the job. He proved to be up to the task immediately as the 1980 Yankees got off to a fast start and ended up winning 103 games and the AL East Pennant. The Yankee clubhouse under Howser was more harmonious and conflict free than it had been in years. Reggie Jackson loved playing for the guy and responded with his best-ever Yankee regular season. The only hiccup to a perfect year for the team was a slight slump in August and good old George turned it into a giant belch. He started criticizing Howser’s every move and telling the Big Apple sports press that his rookie manager lacked the baseball intelligence of veteran skippers like Baltimore’s Earl Weaver.
Howser somehow kept his composure as did his team and the Yankees ended up facing their old nemesis, Kansas City in the AL Playoffs for the fourth time in five years. But unlike the previous three times, the Yankees lost and as we all now know, George Steinbrenner was a very poor loser. He shocked me and I’m sure, thousands of other Yankee fans by dumping Howser. Of course George explained that Howser had decided on his own not to return as Yankee skipper in ’81 because he had been offered some sort of amazing opportunity in Florida real estate that he simply couldn’t pass up. When New York sportswriters questioned the departing Manager about the opportunity, however, the perplexed and angry Howser didn’t know what they were talking about.
He did end up returning to Florida where he began collecting the final two years of his three-year Yankee contract but he didn’t stay their long. The team that had just beat him in the playoffs decided to make their own managerial change during the strike-shortened 1981 season and the Royals hired Howser to replace Jim Frey. During his first five years at the helm, Kansas City finished second twice, won three AL West Division titles and a World Championship. It all ended tragically for Howser a year later, when he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He fought the disease valiantly, but lost his battle in June of 1987 at the age of 51.
Howser’s record as a Yankee player
|CLE (4 yrs)||385||1464||1246||191||307||45||7||7||72||48||170||105||.246||.336||.311||.646|
|KCA (3 yrs)||256||1105||938||165||247||37||9||9||80||56||137||49||.263||.359||.351||.710|
|NYY (2 yrs)||148||368||299||42||63||8||1||0||13||1||60||32||.211||.350||.244||.594|
Howser’s record as Yankee manager
|1||1978||42||New York Yankees||AL||2nd of 3||1||0||1||.000||1|
|2||1980||44||New York Yankees||AL||162||103||59||.636||1|
|New York Yankees||2 years||163||103||60||.632||1.0|
|Kansas City Royals||6 years||770||404||365||.525||1.7||1 Pennant and 1 World Series Title|
|8 years||933||507||425||.544||1.5||1 Pennant and 1 World Series Title|
They called him “Jumping Joe” but not because of any great leaping ability. According to Joe Dugan’s New York Times obituary, the third baseman had a propensity for jumping his team when he played for the Philadelphia A’s during the earliest years of his career. Whenever the boos from hometown fans struck a nerve, Dugan would simply leave the ballclub and A’s Manager Connie Mack would have to beg him to come back.
On January 10, 1922, Dugan became one of a select few Major League players to be part of three different big league teams in one day. He woke up that morning still an A and then got traded to the Senators, but before he went to bed, Washington had traded him to the Red Sox.
His stay in Beantown didn’t last long either and his departure from Boston caused a Major League rule change. By the 1922 season, Dugan had established himself as one of the better all-around third baseman in the big leagues. He was a defensive wizard and his hitting skills were improving every year. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was becoming famous for selling his players for the money he needed to produce his Broadway shows. Frazee also spent most of his time and his money in the Big Apple and over the years, he made so many bad trades with the Yankees that Boston fans began to wonder which team he was working for. The ’22 Yankees were locked in a fierce pennant race with the Browns. Miller Huggins needed a third baseman who could spell the aging Frank “Home Run” Baker at the hot corner during the dog days of August. Frazee swapped New York Dugan and an outfielder named Elmer Smith for two of the Yankee’s utility infielders, a spare outfielder, a seldom used pitcher and $50,000 cash.
Dugan proved to be just the spark the Yankees needed to beat out the Browns for the Pennant. His late season acquisition got the rest of the AL teams thinking about the fact that there was nothing stopping a rich team like the Yankees from buying their way to a pennant wenever they were in a close race so they voted to move up the league trading deadline to mid June.
Dugan loved being a Yankee and he became a key cog in the team’s evolution to greatness. He scored 111 runs for New York during the 1923 regular season and then helped lead the team to its first-ever World Series victory that year against the Giants. He had an even better year in 1924, averaging .302 from his second spot in the batting order and continuing to win accolades for his glove work at third. In addition to playing hard on the field, Jumping Joe played hard off it as well. He was one of Babe Ruth’s favorite partying companions with an appetite for booze, gambling and girls that was only surpassed by those of the Big Bam. In Hugh Montville’s biography of Ruth, a story is told of the time Dugan asked the Sultan of Swat for a loan outside the Yankees’ hotel one evening. The Babe reached in his pocket and handed Dugan a bill which the third baseman quickly put in his own pocket. When he went to pay for dinner later that evening, he pulled out the bill Ruth had given him and only then realized it was a $500 bill! Dugan would later become one of the Bambino’s pallbearers at Ruth’s Yankee Stadium funeral in August of 1948. It was a sweltering summer night and Dugan whispered to his old teammate, pitcher Wait Hoyt, that he would give anything for a cold beer. Hoyt responded, “So would the Babe.”
Dugan’s offensive numbers and playing time started declining in 1925 but that glove made him an integral component of the great 1927 Yankee team that many still consider to be the best ever assembled. He stayed with New York for seven seasons, batting .286 lifetime in pinstripes, appearing in five World series and winning three rings. The Yankee released him after the 1928 season and he signed on with the Braves. His last big league game was in 1931 and he passed away in 1982 at the age of 85.
|NYY (7 yrs)||785||3325||3043||426||871||147||27||22||317||12||156||183||.286||.326||.374||.700|
|PHA (5 yrs)||510||2038||1884||179||505||98||16||17||198||23||77||197||.268||.304||.364||.668|
|BSN (1 yr)||60||139||125||14||38||10||0||0||15||0||8||8||.304||.346||.384||.730|
|BOS (1 yr)||84||361||341||45||98||22||3||3||38||2||9||28||.287||.308||.396||.704|
|DET (1 yr)||8||17||17||1||4||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||.235||.235||.235||.471|