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Observations From Cooperstown–A Tribute to Bob Fowler

For much of the 1980s and nineties, I had the pleasure of learning baseball from Bob Fowler. Formerly a beat writer for the Twins, Fowler had become the owner of the Utica Blue Sox, a minor league team that I covered as part of my duties at WIBX Radio. Bob knew the game thoroughly—from the 1960s to the current day. Whenever I interviewed him, or just talked to him off the cuff, my knowledge of the game grew considerably.

I found it fascinating that Bob, a former sportswriter, had “graduated” to become an owner. Unlike many minor league operators, he knew the game from two vastly different perspectives. As a beat writer, he once listened to Rod Carew threaten him with a baseball bat. As a team owner in the New York-Penn League, he worked for many years out of a trailer, cramped and muggy. With those kinds of experiences, Bob Fowler became an interesting guy to know.

As a fan of baseball, I already knew the names of many players I had grown up with in the sixties and seventies. Bob helped flesh out those names for me, attaching personalities to the baseball cards. One of those characters was former Twins right-hander Jim “Mudcat” Grant. “He was really the catalyst of that [Minnesota] team,” Fowler told me years ago. “First of all, he was black. I think that was very significant to the Minnesota franchise. He wasn’t Cuban. He was [an American] black… Mudcat came in and he was a loosy-goosy guy. But the Minnesota team basically was a white team, outside of the Latins we had. It was basically a white team. And he came into that clubhouse, and he was the synergy of that ballclub. Harmon [Killebrew] was a quiet guy. Bob Allison was a quiet guy. We had a clubhouse of quiet guys. And Mudcat was sort of the spark, really.”

Bob also gave me great insights into the versatile Cesar Tovar, briefly a Yankee and one of the game’s eccentric but loveable characters. Bob told me how Tovar was a packrat. At the end of each season, he would collect as much baseball gear as he could find, from gloves to bats to catcher’s chest protectors. As Bob pointed out to me, Tovar didn’t gather the gear for himself; he collected those bats and balls and gloves for underprivileged kids in his native Venezuela.

A little over a decade ago, I set out a course of action to write my first book, a large volume on the Oakland A’s dynasty of the early seventies, I realized that Bob would provide a terrific source of information. He was more than happy to help—and provide me with a few surprising revelations. “Well, the best guy, the best guy on the A’s, the guy I really enjoyed the most—and I don’t mean that we became buddy-buddy—I liked Reggie Jackson,” Bob said. “I mean, Reggie Jackson was a real businessman. Reggie Jackson knew what you wanted. I don’t know that he had ever been schooled at Arizona State in media relations, but he could sense what was a good story, what was a good quote. And he was willing to give it. Other writers said, ‘Oh, he’s an egotist.’ I don’t feel that way at all. He knew his role; he knew your role. He was happy to give you his part of the mutual relationship, the working agreement that you had. And then that was it. He would go his way and you’d go your way.”

Any discussion of the A’s invariably included a debate about the merits and pitfalls of Charlie Finley. Much to my surprise, Bob appreciated Finley more than most sportswriters. “Oh yeah, great guy,” Bob informed me during a memorable interview. “Great, great, great guy. Charles Finley was… he was a character, obviously. I have to personally qualify this. I like different type of people. People that are of the same ilk from a media point of view weren’t interesting to me. I liked the different kind of guys. Certainly Charlie was that way. But the thing I like about Charlie—he was articulate. He was always willing to give you a quote. Now, all the people said, ‘Well, he’s an egotistical whatever.’ I always felt he was cooperative with me. He would answer your questions. He wouldn’t duck them.”

Bob didn’t duck questions either. I asked him questions on a variety of topics, whether it was running a minor league team or ripping a major leaguer in print. (Bob, by his own admission, could be very tough on Twins players.) He always gave me his opinion, whether I agreed with it or not. At times, he could be gruff, sometimes downright intimidating. On one occasion, Bob disagreed with me vehemently when I chastised local Utica fans for not coming out to watch the Blue Sox on opening night. I could tell that he was very upset with me—heck, the listeners could have told you that—but he carried on with the rest of the interview as if nothing had happened. There was no grudge. He just disagreed with me, that’s all, and was more than willing to move on to the next day.

Earlier this week, I came across an obituary on the Internet. I discovered that Bob Fowler, former sportswriter and former minor league owner, died earlier this month from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He had struggled with ALS for two and a half years before finally losing the battle at the age of 69. I felt bad that I had lost touch with Bob, felt bad that I didn’t even know about the diagnosis.

But I’m awfully glad that, for nearly the last twenty years, I had the good chance to know him. Thanks, Bob.

Bruce Markusen worked for WIBX Radio in Utica from 1987 to 1995.


1 thelarmis   ~  Feb 1, 2009 2:15 pm

i feel my knowledge of baseball grows whenever i read your columns here, bruce - many thanks!

2 Shaun P.   ~  Feb 1, 2009 8:13 pm

I have a lot of respect for Mr. Fowler, and I am saddened to learn of his passing. I had heard that he was suffering from ALS, but I didn't know he was gone. I went to an awful lot of Blue Sox games in the years you were covering them Bruce, and often listened to games on IBX too. Little did I know I was listening to you! Thanks for a nice walk down memory lane about Mr. Fowler, and filling in stuff I didn't know about him.

It wasn't entirely his fault*, and I'm on the record as officially blaming The Thief (the rest of you know him as the guy who played SS for the Orioles and wore #8), but I can't forget that Mr. Fowler sold the Blue Sox, and ever since, Utica is out the NY-Penn League, and out of MiLB.

(*Its not like he was making much - OK, any - money; not many people bought tickets - as Bruce remembers, opening night wasn't a guaranteed sell out; neither were promotional nights; the stands were barely filled on Tom Seaver night, for crying out loud, and Utica was crawling with Mets fans; and the biggest problem was that Murnane wasn't anywhere near an appropriate ballpark for a pro minor league - and after Staten Island and Brooklyn and other newer stadia opened, it REALLY wasn't at the appropriate level, and neither Utica nor Oneida County nor Fowler had the money to remake it - so I understand why it happened, but I'm still ticked that I can't go home and watch a Blue Sox game in the summer time. Stupid IronBirds.)

3 Bruce Markusen   ~  Feb 1, 2009 8:30 pm

Thanks for the kind words, thelarmis.

Shaun, I think by the end, Murnane Field was in acceptable shape for the NY-Penn League, but the community, for any number of reasons, just didn't support the team that well. Maybe an affiliation with the Mets or the Yankees would have helped, but I'm not sure.

Sadly, Utica has had a checkered history of support when it comes to professional teams, as seen quite demonstrably by the pro hockey situation there, with a series of poorly run teams supported poorly.

When I started in Utica in '87, there were two major pro franchises, one in hockey and one in baseball. Now there are none.

4 Shaun P.   ~  Feb 2, 2009 8:59 am

Bruce, I haven't been to Murnane since '96 or thereabouts, so my impressions of its state are probably a bit off. (In my defense, I went off to college, then law school, and haven't lived in the area, or been able to regularly attend games, since.) But you're certainly right about the area in terms of support - just people showing up to games. A few hundred die hards and handfuls of walkups, but that's it.

There are still pockets of people who are passionate - and incredibly sad - that the Utica Devils (former AAA club of the NJ Devils) are gone - but they are a huge minority. Its sad but there it is.

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