Another link to the most successful team in University of Tennessee baseball history has been lost.
Pitcher-hitter Billy Joe Bowman, 91, died on August 22. A memorial service with military honors has been delayed until October 18, at the Mountain Home National Cemetery in his hometown, Johnson City.
Sorry Mark Twain and Norman Rockwell aren’t available to enhance this story.
Bowman grew up with baseball. His father, an accomplished semi-pro pitcher, often took his young son to games. Billy Joe served as a batboy. He developed his dad’s passion but had to solve a little problem to see Johnson City class D professional games.
He lacked the money for admission. He told of enlarging a knothole or two in the wooden fence to catch a better glimpse of the action.
The thin, wiry youth (5-11, 160) built an impressive athletic résumé at Science Hill High. He ran track and played basketball and was a sophomore pitcher on the 1947 state championship team. Two years later, pro scouts showed an interest but Bowman preferred the idea of a baseball scholarship. Mississippi State was first choice ahead of Tennessee until the legendary Robert R. Neyland and baseball coach Cy Anderson visited.
The way Bowman remembered that meeting, they offered a full scholarship, books and a $25 monthly stipend. That was the end of the Bulldogs.
In 1951, Bowman helped the Volunteers to a 16-1 season and the College World Series. He pitched a six-hit, complete game against Princeton and came back on one day’s rest to pitch seven and two-thirds innings and hit a home run in a comeback victory over Southern Cal.
Tennessee eventually lost to Oklahoma, 3-2, in the finals. The Vols’ Sid Hatfield was MVP of the Series. There were other recognizable names on the team – Bert Rechichar, Herky Payne, B.B. Hopkins, John Huffstetler, Dale Powell, Billy Joe O’Kain, Bill Asbury and Ace Adams.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Rechichar and Payne as football Vols.
Bowman earned his degree, had a 16-3 career record at Tennessee and received professional offers from the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds. Old-timers still believe Carl Jones, owner of the Johnson City newspaper and the Johnson City baseball Cardinals of the Appalachian League, persuaded the St. Louis Cardinals to make a better offer.
As Bowman told it, on the day of his professional debut, he walked or jogged from his parents’ home on Fairview Avenue, crossed Brush Creek and the railroad tracks to Bert Street and Keystone Field.
The Johnson City Cardinals never had too much money. Players often wore hand-me-down uniforms. Bowman recalled being assigned superstar Stan Musial’s pants. He said they were a size or three too large – in more ways than one.
At 23, Billy Joe was old for the low minors. He won his first seven games. There was talk of moving up. His record was 11-3 and he was leading the league with an ERA of 2.10 when he answered a different call, from the U.S. Army. ROTC classes at UT got him a second lieutenant’s commission and a trip to Korea.
The team gave going-away gifts – a watch, electric razor, luggage and a billfold containing $65.
Just imagine how Twain would describe and Rockwell would paint that scene.
In time, Bowman returned to baseball, to Columbus, Ga., Peoria (16-3 record), Rochester, Nashville, Chattanooga and Houston. He pitched for Houston when it was in the Texas League.
There is a story behind a change in organizations, a trade of minor leaguers and the move down from Rochester to Nashville. Ed Bailey, Bowman’s roommate for a season at UT, convinced the Reds they should obtain his pal, Billy Joe.
Bowman eventually made it to the big leagues with the Astros for a variety of jobs, from batting-practice pitcher to pitching coach. He had his own baseball card. He was on the staff with Yogi Berra and ex-Vol Phil Garner.
There were some very tall tales about what a great guy Yogi was. Bowman chuckled in recalling how he always had to pay for the post-game drinks and how the wealthy Berra also “bummed” his Skoal or chewing tobacco.
Bowman contributed in various ways to the careers of Hall of Fame players such as Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. In 1995, he was named the Astros’ “Distinguished Houstonian.” He was involved for 40 years with a trucking company.
Billy Joe Bowman returned to his East Tennessee roots in 1996. He was forever a fan of the Volunteers and Astros. He is survived by sons Joel Wayne Bowman of Houston and John Paul Bowman of Lemoore, California.
Berra was John Paul’s godfather. The younger Bowman became a VMI graduate and a lieutenant commander in the Navy. Yogi liked that. He was a Navy gunner’s mate in the Normandy landings during World War II.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is [email protected].