My first encounter with Art Fowler was his 1962 Topps baseball card pictured here. He was a member of the first Los Angeles Angels baseball team and according to Bill Rigney, the skipper of that ball club, when Fowler got hit in the head by a batting practice line drive and was lost for the rest of the infant team’s second season, it destroyed any chance the Angels had of shocking the world and winning the 1962 AL Pennant.
The more I learned about Fowler, the more he sort of grew on me. For example, he didn’t just have an older brother who had pitched in the big leagues, he had a much much older brother. His name was Jesse and he made his big league debut in 1924, when his younger sibling was just one year old. Art himself didn’t get to pitch in the big leagues until 30 years later, in 1954, when he was a 31-year-old rookie member of the Reds starting rotation. He went 12-10 that season and then won 11 games in each of the next two years with Cincinnati. But by 1957, he had been converted into a full-time reliever with the Reds and when his ERA climbed above six in that role he was traded to the Dodgers. He spent the ’58 season in the minors and then got into 36 games for the Los Angeles team that ended up winning the ’59 World Series. He then went back to the minors until May of 1961, when his contract was purchased by the newly formed Angels.
One of the things Fowler enjoyed more than pitching was drinking and when he joined the Halos, he was entering the big league heaven for booze. That Angel team featured an All Star line-up of imbibers that included Ryne Duren, Bo Belinski, Eli Grba, Dan Osinski, Ken Hunt and of course Fowler. With their better than expected pitching and a potent lineup that included Leon Wagner, Lee Thomas and Albie Piersall, the second-year Angels were in first place as late as August 12th, finally finishing in third place behind New York and the Minnesota Twins. Fowler spent the rest of his big league playing career pitching out of the LA bullpen until he was released in May of 1964.
Instead of quitting, he signed on to continue pitching for the Denver Bears, the Twins triple A franchise in the Pacific Coast League. Billy Martin was the manager of that club and he took enough of a liking to his new 42-year-old right-hander to make him the Bears player/pitching coach. It was rumored that Fowler got the job because he happened to be Martin’s best drinking buddy. Whatever the reason, it was the beginning of a partnership that would continue off and on for over the next two decades in five different big league cities.
It started when Martin was named manager of Minnesota in 1969 and continued in Detroit from 1971 through ’73 and then in Texas for two more seasons. When George Steinbrenner hired Martin to manage the Yankees late in the second half of the 1975 season however, his baseball people had told him that his new manager had a serious drinking problem that needed to be controlled and they warned the Boss that Fowler was Billy’s best drinking buddy. The Yankee owner thought hiring Martin but not Fowler would somehow reduce Billy’s taste for booze. When that didn’t turn out to be the case, Steinbrenner finally relented to Billy’s request and Fowler was hired as Yankee pitching coach in 1977.
The Yankee pitching staff got along fine with their new mentor. Ron Guidry still claims to this day that Fowler was the best pitching coach he ever had. The fact of the matter was that Fowler’s coaching philosophy was pretty simple, throw strikes and stay in the game. Fowler expected his starters to give him lots of innings and he expected his relievers to warm up and appear in games as often as necessary. One of the other reasons Martin loved Fowler was because he would do whatever the manager wanted. That included answering “yes” whenever Martin asked if so and so could pitch tonight.
Martin was famous for blaming his pitchers for Yankee losses. If one of the team’s hurlers was struggling on the mound, an irate Martin would tell Fowler to go out there and give the guy hell. Instead, when he got to the mound, the portly coach would often explain to whoever was on the mound how angry Martin was back in the dugout and then plead with the pitcher to please start getting the ball over the plate or Billy was going to get even madder.
Though Steinbrenner and many sportswriters considered Fowler something of a joke, he did obtaint some impressive results. During his tenure in the big leagues, he mentored 18 twenty-game winners, a record for pitching coaches.
Still, the relationship between the Boss and Martin was too rocky to enable smooth pinstriped sailing for Fowler. Every time the manager angered the owner, Steinbrenner would threaten to fire Fowler. Finally in 1983, during Martin’s fourth tour of duty as the team’s skipper, he carried through on that threat and dismissed Fowler in June over Billy’s strenuous objections. He tempered the harshness of his actions by giving Fowler his full salary plus a $20,000 bonus. When the press asked the terminated coach if he had been unfairly treated, Fowler told them he thought the Yankee owner was a great guy but that he didn’t know nothing about baseball. He publicly urged Steinbrenner to listen to what Billy Martin tells him to do and the Yankees would get back to the World Series. He then went home to South Carolina and waited for Billy to call.
The phone rang again in 1988, when Billy was hired for his last tour of duty in the Bronx. That job lasted just half a season and when they were again fired, Martin’s managing career was over which meant Fowler’s was as well. Billy didn’t last too long after that, getting killed in his pickup the following year. Fowler lived in his Spartanburg, SC home until 2007, when he died at the age of 84.
He shares his birthday with this Yankee GM.