This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history. For an explanation, please see this post.
Bob Howsam considered himself the last of a breed. A protégé of Branch Rickey, who believed in scouting, player development, and the art of making a deal, Howsam built one of history’s greatest teams, the 1970s Cincinnati Reds, a ballclub that reflected that same Rickey-like approach. And he did so at a time when a general manager could not outspend his competition on amateur players around the country, or invest heavily in free agents. Between the advent of the amateur draft (1965) and free agency (1976) Howsam had to rely on the smarts and talent evaluation of his staff and himself. Howsam had all this plus confidence, and he loved working in the game played under these rules.
In 1948 Howsam cobbled together family money to purchase the Denver Bears, a team he ran for the next 13 years, winning a few league titles, setting attendance records, and winning two minor league Executive of the Year awards. In the early 1950s his Single-A team affiliated with the Pirates, allowing to work with and befriend Branch Rickey. In the late 1950s Denver was the Yankees Triple-A club, allowing him to work with George Weiss. Howsam credited both men for his later success — he learned talent evaluation (especially youth and speed) from Rickey, and business and organization from Weiss.
By the late 1950s Howsam had reason to feel that he had conquered minor-league baseball. To that end, he spent a couple of years on two unrelated efforts—bringing professional football and major league baseball teams to Denver. Howsam was one of the leaders behind the Continental League, a proposed rival to the American and National Leagues that planned to open in 1961 — Howsam would have run the Denver club. In football he owned the inaugural Denver Broncos of the AFL. The club finished just 4-9-1 in 1960, and reportedly lost $1 million for Howsam and his family. At the end of the season Howsam sold his business, which meant he lost not only the Broncos, but the Bears and his stadium. He and a friend spent the next three years selling mutual funds.
In August 1964 baseball called him back, somewhat unexpectedly. The St. Louis Cardinals were in the midst of a disappointing season and owner Gussie Busch surprisingly fired his general manager, Bing Devine. Busch had employed Branch Rickey as a senior adviser, and most observers felt that Rickey had undermined Devine, publicly questioning many of the trades he had made. In any event, Rickey now recommended Howsam, his protégé, who became the GM. As fate would have it, the Cardinals rallied (aided by the Phillies collapse) and won the World Series. This was awkward for Howsam, who obviously had nothing to do with the team’s success, but instead had to deal with resentment for the firing of Devine (who was named Executive of the Year a few months after getting axed). After the series victory, manager Johnny Keane resigned, and Busch let Rickey go.
Despite the circus he walked into, and the fact that his team was a champion, Howsam was confident enough in his abilities that he overhauled the front office considerably, keeping only people he trusted and believed in. After the 1965 club fell to seventh place, Howsam traded three aging regulars — Bill White, Dick Groat, and Ken Boyer — very popular players who Howsam correctly believed were near the end of the road. In early 1966 he acquired Orlando Cepeda from the Giants, and after the season picked up Roger Maris from the Yankees. Maris and Cepeda became the number three and four hitters for the club that won the next two pennants and the 1967 World Series. But by that time, Howsam had moved on to Cincinnati.
The Reds had been purchased by a group of local businessman who bought the club primarily to keep it in the city. They did not know anything about how to run a team, and hired Howsam and gave him a three-year contract, more money, and complete power. Unlike most GMs then or later, Howsam ran the entire operation in Cincinnati with very little interference from his bosses.
He inherited a fair bit of talent in Cincinnati. Though the Reds had fallen to 78-84 in 1966, their worst finish since 1960, the farm system had recently produced Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Lee May, and in 1967 would offer up Johnny Bench. Several of Howsam’s early deals were to trade veterans who were blocking his talented youngsters. Like Rickey, he did not want to have to pay veteran salaries to reserve players, who would likely resent having lost their job.
More than anything, Howsam was a master deal-maker. He had an organization of talent evaluators he believed in, and every fall he held multi-day meetings to go over every player in his organization, and in other team’s organizations. He asked his staff not only for frank assessments of his own team, but also for detailed information on how players on other teams might be valued by their management. When he called a GM to make a deal, he wanted to know before dialing the phone what players his counterpart undervalued. Like Rickey, he looked to trade his players when he sensed decline was coming. In late 1968 he traded star center fielder Vada Pinson to the Cardinals for a player he believed could be Pinson’s equal, only seven years younger, in Bobby Tolan. In the same deal he got Wayne Granger, who became the Reds primary relief pitcher. Howsam made lots of deals, and he almost always got the younger player.
In Howsam’s first three years in charge, the Reds won 87, 83, and 89 games, respectively, finishing only four games out in 1969. After that season Howsam replaced manager Dave Bristol, whom he had inherited, with 35-year-old Sparky Anderson, who had five years of minor-league experience. The choice was met with derision, but Anderson proved to be one of history’s greatest skippers. In his first season the Reds finished 102-60, losing the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles. The Reds had acquired the nickname “The Big Red Machine,” and were led by offensive stars Bench, Rose, May, Perez, and Tolan.
In 1971 a number of Reds had off-years, and the team fell to 79-83 and a tie for fourth. Howsam and Anderson determined that they needed more team speed to return to the top. In December 1971, Howsam pulled off his most famous deal, trading Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms, and utilityman Jimmie Stewart to the Astros for second baseman Joe Morgan, infielder Denis Menke, outfielders Cesar Geronimo and Ed Armbrister, and pitcher Jack Billingham. Billingham and Geronimo were key members of the upcoming teams, while Morgan, an unappreciated star in Houston, became the best player in baseball. Howsam also added outfielder George Foster and pitcher Tom Hall through trades in 1971.
It was the Morgan trade that turned the Reds from a good team to one of the best teams ever. Over the next five years (1972-76) the Reds won 502 games, four division titles and two World Series. They had the best record in baseball three times, and the year they did not make the post-season, 1974, their 98 wins were surpassed in the game only by the Dodgers, who were in their division. The team was upset in the 1972 World Series by the A’s, and in the 1973 NLCS by the Mets, before finally breaking through with back to back titles in 1975 and 1976. By this time the Reds featured several players drafted by Howsam’s scouts and developed in his system — Ken Griffey, Dave Concepcion, Don Gullett, Rawly Eastwick — and key Howsam trade acquistions — Morgan, Geronimo, Billingham, Foster, Fred Norman, Clay Carroll, Pedro Borbon.
During this time, an era of increasing facial hair in the culture and in baseball, the Reds stood out for their short hair and clean shaven faces. Howsam had very conservative views about the baseball and his players. He was insistent that they wear their uniform a certain way—not too baggy, socks visible up nearly to the knee, low stirrups, black shoes—and the uniforms were clean and pressed each day. While the Cardinals’ players had chafed at Howsam’s old-fashioned sensibilities, the Reds players, starting with the leaders like Rose and Bench, went along. One notable exception was Ross Grimsley, a young star pitcher, who was traded to the Orioles in 1973. To Howsam, looking and performing as a team was part of the formula for success.
The 1976 Reds swept the Yankees in the World Series, their second straight, the crowning achievement of Howsam’s career. He later said that he felt some sadness knowing that no team would ever be put together the way his team had been. Howsam was referring to the onset of free agency in baseball, which would take place in the upcoming offseason for the first time. Howsam was one of baseball’s most vocal hawks on labor matters, speaking out for holding the line during the 1972 strike and the 1976 lockout.
The Reds lost star pitcher Don Gullett to free agency that fall, and lost several other free agents in the coming years, foremost among them Rose and Morgan. After the 1977 season Howsam resigned, taking a position as vice chairman of the board. Despite the free agency losses, the club Howsam built contended for four more years.
Midway through the 1983 season Howsam returned as general manager, a position he held for two years. Howsam’s biggest move was to reacquire Rose in August 1984 and make him player-manager. Rose helped turn the Reds around—beginning in 1985, they finished second for four straight seasons. Howsam retired, as planned, effective July 1, 1985.
Although Howsam’s work in St. Louis is underappreciated (his on-the-fly rebuild is a big reason for the 1967 and 1968 pennants), his efforts to build the Big Red Machine, to take a good team and turn it into a legendary one, is what he is most famous for. But still, he is not appreciated enough. He is not in the Hall of Fame, for one thing. He built and presided over an incredible team, a team filled with some of baseball’s most iconic players, at one of the most competitive periods in baseball history and in its strongest league. With an amateur draft and no free agency, the GMs of the time had to rely on talent evaluation and their own genius. No one ever did it better than Robert Lee Howsam.
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