It was a sad day in the Heartland on this date 24 years ago. A baseball manager beloved by Kansas City Royals players and fans and well respected throughout the league, left the world much too early.
On this day in 1987, Dick Howser died of a brain tumor at the age of 51.
While most people remember Howser’s managerial career, the West Palm Beach, Florida native was a two-time All-American shortstop at Florida State. As a rookie with the Kansas City Athletics in 1961, Howser batted .280 with 37 stolen bases and 108 runs scored. However, that would be his best season during his eight-year career with Kansas City, Cleveland and the New York Yankees.
The majority of former players who aspire to coach in the major leagues usually spend some time refining their skills in the minors. But Howser’s coaching career began immediately after his retirement. Once his playing career ended in 1968, Howser spent the next 10 seasons as the Yankees third base coach. He was a member of three American League pennant-winning teams and two world championships in 1977 and 1978.
After the Yankees won their second consecutive World Series title, Howser left the bright lights of Manhattan to return to his native Florida. He served as the head coach of his alma mater Florida State in 1979 before he was lured back to the major leagues.
Billy Martin was fired for the second time by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner after the 1979 season. Howser was hired to replace Martin, and during the 1980 season, he was known to stand up to Steinbrenner on numerous occasions. On the field, Howser led the Yankees to 103 wins and their fourth A.L. East title in five years.
However, the 1980 ALCS proved to be Howser’s downfall with the Yankees.
With New York trailing Kansas City, 3-2, in the top of the eighth inning of Game 2, Yankees third base coach Mike Ferraro waived Willie Randolph around third on a double. After he was thrown out at the plate, an irate Steinbrenner was caught on television. Howser refused Steinbrenner’s request to fire Ferraro after the Yankees loss. Unfortunately, after the Royals completed the three-game sweep of the Yankees, Steinbrenner had the final word and fired Howser.
With a 103-win season to his credit, most people figured it would not be long before Howser earned another managerial position. That opportunity came in 1981, when Kansas City hired Howser to manage the final 31 games of the strike-shortened season. After leading the Royals to a pair of second place finishes in 1982 and 1983, Kansas City won the A.L. West in 1984. Their season ended with a three-game sweep in the ALCS to the eventual world champion Detroit Tigers.
Howser’s greatest accomplishment was in 1985.
He led Kansas City to 91 wins and the Royals second consecutive A.L. West title. In the ALCS against Toronto, Kansas City fell behind, 3-games-to-1, but the Royals won three straight to win the franchise’s second A.L. pennant of the decade.
The Royals also enjoyed playing the come-from-behind spoilers in the World Series against St. Louis. Once again finding themselves down, 3-games-to-1, Howser remained confident and positive with his team, which included veterans George Brett and Frank White and young pitching ace Bret Saberhagen.
Granted, first base umpire Don Denkinger helped Kansas City with his blown call at first base in the ninth inning of Game 6. Still, Howser found himself on top of the baseball world after the Royals 11-0 thrashing of the Cardinals in Game 7.
Sadly, Howser’s managerial career would only last one more half-season. Admitting he felt sick before the 1986 All-Star Game in Houston, Howser nonetheless led the A.L. to a 3-2 win. It would be the last game he would manage. Shortly afterwards, Howser was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent surgery.
His comeback attempt during Kansas City’s spring training in 1987 ended quickly due to physical weakness. Later that spring, Howser died in Kansas City on June 17.
Less than a month later, the Royals retired Howser’s No. 10, the first number retired by the franchise. Also in 1987, the St. Petersburg, Florida Chamber of Commerce established the Dick Howser Trophy, which became college baseball’s version of the Heisman Trophy. Florida State would later rename their baseball stadium in honor of their former player and head coach.
Howser was a successful manager and a classy gentleman on and off the field. Beloved by Kansas City fans, he is not only the only Royals manager to win a World Series; he is also the last manager to take Kansas City to the playoffs.
Whether in Tallahassee, Florida, New York or Kansas City, Dick Howser left an enduring legacy that is still remembered today.