Funny thing about Bob Howsam. When you're winning, he grinds you. When you're losing, he's easy on you. The way I have it figured, he doesn't want you to get carried away with your success.
- Sparky Anderson
When Bob Howsam was hired as vice president and general manager of the Reds by new owner Frank Dale in January of 1967, it marked the arrival of the man who would bring about the most glorious decade in Reds history, constructing one of the finest clubs to ever play, the man who history would laud as "The Architect of the Big Red Machine."
Born in Denver in 1918, Howsam had crafted a lengthy resume in sports that had included management of the Denver Bears Minor League club, ownership of the Denver Broncos American Football League franchise and as a key player in Branch Rickey's Continental League venture that played a key role in forcing expansion in Major League Baseball in the early 1960s. Hired by Rickey as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in August of 1964, Howsam presided over that club's late-season run to the National League pennant and World Series victory over the New York Yankees. He faced withering criticism for dismantling the talented but aging Cardinal club. He was vindicated when the re-tooled Cardinals won back-to-back pennants in 1967 and 1968, including a second World Series victory in 1967, but by the time these successes unfolded, Howsam was in Cincinnati embarking on a re-working of a talented but underachieving Reds club.
Under owner/general manager Bill DeWitt, the Reds had surprised the baseball world with an unexpected pennant in 1961 and had remained largely competitive in each of the ensuing five seasons but had fallen short in their quest for a return to the postseason. A corps of strong young talent was in place, including Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Tommy Helms and a solid Reds farm system was on the verge of producing even more home-grown stars. It was at the farm system that Howsam directed his focus. He understood the vital role that a successful Minor League system played in the ongoing success of the parent club and he immediately began augmenting the Reds' system by hiring more scouts and support staff. Possessed with a keen eye for young talent, Howsam also encouraged an infusion of young players onto the Major League roster. In 1967, rookie Gary Nolan shined in the Reds' starting rotation and slugger Lee May was The Sporting News Rookie Player of the Year in his inaugural season as the Reds' first baseman. And August of that year saw the debut of a highly-touted prospect by the name of Johnny Bench who would win the National League Rookie of the Year award the next season, the first of a host of honors he would accumulate during his Hall of Fame career.
As had been the case in 1967, the 1968 and 1969 campaigns found the Reds to be a good but not great club, operating on the fringes of contention each season. Howsam believed that a change was needed and fired popular manager Dave Bristol, replacing him with 35-year-old Sparky Anderson. Anderson had an extensive history of success managing at the Minor League level but had never been a Major League pilot. The hiring came as a complete surprise to Reds fans, most of whom had never heard of Anderson and even prompted a Cincinnati newspaper to declare "Sparky Who?" in its headline the day after the move was announced. Of course Howsam knew Anderson well, having hired him as a Minor League manager with the Cardinals in 1965 and installing him as a Minor League manager in the Reds' organization in 1968. He saw something special in the fiery Anderson and believed that he was just the man to take the talented Reds to the next level.
After a 70-30 start to the 1970 season, no one was questioning Howsam about his decision and everyone knew the answer to the question of "Sparky Who?" The 1970 season is when the first incarnation of the Big Red Machine came into its own. The club's move to the new, state-of -the-art Riverfront Stadium in midseason and playing host to the city's first All-Star Game since 1953 were highlights overshadowed by the Reds' dominance of the National League. The club won 102 games (only the second time in franchise history the 100-victory mark had been reached) and claimed its first-ever division title by a 14.5 game margin. After sweeping the Pirates in the National League Championship Series, the Reds' run of success ended with a resounding defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
The disappointing end to the 1970 season served as a harbinger of even greater frustration in 1971 as the Reds slumped to a 79-83 record (the only sub-.500 record of the decade). The Reds had been built for success in the cozy confines of Crosley Field and, over the course of an entire season, were not well-positioned to take full advantage of the more spacious dimensions at Riverfront and a general lack of team speed compromised the club's ability to use Riverfront's Astro-Turf surface to full advantage. Howsam knew that changes were necessary, a knowledge that would lead him to orchestrate the most significant trade in franchise history.
On November 29, 1971, at the winter meetings in Phoenix, AZ, the Reds announced that they had consummated a trade. Moving from Cincinnati to the Houston Astros were first baseman Lee May, second baseman Tommy Helms and utility player Jimmy Stewart. In exchange, the Reds would receive second baseman Joe Morgan, pitcher Jack Billingham, outfielders Ed Armbrister and Cesar Geronimo and infielder Denis Menke. The assembled media were stunned. The Reds, one year removed from winning a pennant, had just traded the All-Star half of their starting infield for a second baseman who, despite possessing All-Star credentials of his own, also had a reputation for being a problem in the clubhouse. The rest of the players coming to Cincinnati were little known outside of baseball circles and inside these circles were seen as being of little note. Fan reaction was immediate and altogether negative, and the press did little to quell the fans' ire. Opined Bob Hertzel in The Cincinnati Enquirer, "If the United States had traded Dwight Eisenhower to the Germans in World War II, it wouldn't have been much different than sending May and Helms to Houston." Of course, as was so often the case, Howsam knew better as did his manager who declared to him after the trade was completed, "You have just won the pennant for the Cincinnati Reds."
As history would soon demonstrate, the trade for Joe Morgan was a singular triumph of the organization Howsam had methodically constructed since his arrival. Because of not just the quantity but the caliber of the Howsam scouting department, the Reds knew that the rumors of Morgan being a problem player were completely unfounded. They also knew that he was a player whose skill set was ideally suited to the lineup of players that would surround him in Cincinnati and that his talents had barely been tapped by a Houston management team that did not see in Morgan what was so obvious to the Reds. Finally, Howsam knew from the exhaustive reports compiled by his talent evaluators that the other players acquired in the deal were special as well, with Billingham immediately upgrading the Reds' starting rotation and Geronimo being ideally suited to patrol the centerfield turf at Riverfront Stadium.
The 1972 edition of the Reds repeated the successes of the 1970 club, as the team returned to the World Series on the strength of a 95-win regular season, the victory total representing the smallest number of wins the Reds would record over the ensuing four seasons. Postseason success eluded the Reds again in 1972 as the Reds lost the World Series in seven games to the Oakland A's. The Reds' championship aspirations were frustrated again in 1973 as the club was upset by the New York Mets in the League Championship Series. A slow start in 1974 doomed the Reds to a second-place finish behind the Dodgers in the division race despite compiling 98 victories on the year.
By 1975, an air of "now or never" had descended on the Reds. They were clearly one of the best teams in the game, but many began to wonder if they would ever be able to claim baseball's ultimate prize. Off to another scuffling start, manager Sparky Anderson made the bold move of shifting All-Star leftfielder Pete Rose to third base to create more playing time for George Foster. Howsam had not been consulted about the move and though skeptical of the wisdom behind it, opted to support Anderson's judgement. The decision proved to be an inspiration as it gave rise to the Big Red Machine's fabled "Great 8" starting lineup of catcher Johnny Bench, first baseman Tony Perez, second baseman Joe Morgan, third baseman Rose, shortstop Dave Concepcion (who had been signed by Howsam's scouting department as an amateur free agent in September of 1967), rightfielder Ken Griffey, Sr. (a 1969 Reds draft choice), centerfielder Geronimo and leftfielder George Foster (whom Howsam had acquired in a trade with the Giants in May of 1971).
With the Great 8 in place, postseason success quickly followed as the Reds won the 1975 World Series and defended their championship in 1976. The back-to-back World Championships cemented the Reds' position as not only the finest team in all of baseball but the finest organization as well. Even before the Reds' World Series victories, Howsam had succeeded in building an organization that was the envy of all of baseball. His reputation for honesty and fairness pervaded all facets of the organization and his attentiveness to the fan experience was unrivaled in the game. The Reds had broken the 2 million mark in home attendance for the first time in franchise history in 1973 and did not fall below that mark for the next seven years, finishing first or second in the league in attendance five times during that span.
The 1976 World Championship would be the high point of the Big Red Machine era. After that season, Howsam, identifying a need to bolster the Reds' pitching staff following the free agent defection of Don Gullett and believing that a ready (and younger) replacement was on-hand in the person of Dan Driessen, traded Tony Perez to the Montreal Expos for pitchers Woodie Fryman and Dave McNally. In later years, Howsam would not hesitate to identify the Perez trade as the biggest mistake of his career. In a rare instance of not fully appreciating his personnel, Howsam did not fully grasp Perez's importance to the club, a value that far surpassed mere statistics. The Reds not only failed to repeat in 1977 but failed to even qualify for postseason play. Even the acquisition of Tom Seaver from the Mets that June could not save the Reds' season.
For some time Howsam had grown ever-more disillusioned with the game's direction. Long a vocal opponent of free agency, Howsam steadfastly refused to acquire or retain players through it despite the long-term competitive implications the decision might have on his club. Howsam ardently believed that the way to build baseball teams was through player development and trades. This new world of players farming out their talents to the highest bidder was not one in which he wanted to operate. And so it was that Howsam resigned his position in April of 1978 and was replaced by his longtime assistant, Dick Wagner.
The Wagner Years were generally dark ones for the club, particularly when contrasted against the bright light of the Big Red Machine when it was firing on all cylinders. The nadir was the 1982 season during which the Reds lost 100 games in a season for the first time in franchise history. The club continued to struggle the next season, prompting Reds ownership to entice Howsam out of retirement in July of that year to try and right the ship. Over the next year and a half, Howsam followed his familiar blueprint of emphasizing player development and scouting while also working hard to reenergize a fan base that had been alienated by both the 1981 players' strike and the Reds' on-field struggles. The most significant move of his second tenure with the Reds was undoubtedly the re-acquisition of Pete Rose in August of 1984 to serve as the Reds' manager/player. The Reds would return to competitiveness under Rose, finishing in second place in their division each of the next four seasons. Howsam retired on July 1, 1985, having played a crucial role in putting the Reds back on the path of success.
The legacy of the Big Red Machine and the place that club holds in the pantheon of the great clubs in baseball history is a fitting testimony to Bob Howsam's genius as a baseball executive. Unfairly but inevitably, it is a legacy that has served as the standard against which every man who has occupied Howsam's seat since his departure has been and will continue to be measured.