R.I.P. to Ernie Bowman, a middle infielder for the San Francisco Giants from 1961-1963. He died on August 4, a week after celebrating his 84th birthday.
Ernest Ferrell Bowman was born on July 28, 1935 in Johnson City, Tenn. He attended Science Hill High School and led both the baseball and basketball teams to state tournaments, according to his friend, Trey Williams. Williams has added a touching memorial and a slew of pictures of Bowman to Facebook, and it’s worth a visit to check them out. Bowman was a state champion long jumper as well. He turned down a chance to play football at the University of Tennessee to play basketball for East Tennessee State University. Oddly enough, be barely played baseball. “[Head coach] Jim Mooney told me I’d make a good hitter, but I couldn’t catch a cold,” Bowman said.
The New York Giants signed him to a contract anyway and assigned him to the St. Cloud Rox in 1956. He got off to a hot start but tailed off to .241 by the end of the year. He was lightning fast on the basepaths, but his fielding needed work. He improved with the Rox in 1957, batting .275 and stealing 20 bases. Throughout his early time in the minor leagues, Bowman hit decently, played increasingly well in the infield and did the little things like lay down a sacrifice bunt (he had 21 in 1959 with Corpus Christi). He also had a bit of a temper — in 1958, he and teammate Frank Reveire were fine an undisclosed amount for using profanity at fans in Williamsport, Pa. — at Bowman Field, of all places.
As he progressed in the minors, Bowman was told that his glove would be good enough to keep him in the majors as long as he could hit around .270 or so. Fielding, though, was not a natural thing for him (see the above quote from his would-be college baseball coach). He became a defensive whiz the old-fashioned way — hours and hours of practice.
“Charley Fox [his St. Cloud manager] must have hit me 1,000 ground balls a day,” Bowman recalled. “He ran me ragged, but he’s done more than anyone to help my fielding.”
Bowman moved up to the Tacoma Giants in 1960. It was the first pro ballclub in Tacoma since 1951 and was tied to the parent club’s move to San Francisco. It was loaded with rookies who made brief stops en route to the majors — Matty Alou, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey and Tom Haller all played there. Though Bowman played in only 40 games, he hit .286 — more than the .270 the Giants wanted — and put himself into position for a roster spot in 1961.
Bowman did break camp with the Giants, as baseball teams started the season with expanded rosters back then. He was used very sparingly — in 7 games through May 9, he was a pinch runner five times and struck out in his only at-bat. He was sent back to Tacoma on May 9 when the rosters narrowed to 25. A rash of Giants injuries created a need for an infielder, but Bowman was dealing with his own injuries; he was spiked in the leg and needed 13 stitches. The Giants brought him back to the majors in July, and he would stay for good.
Bowman seldom started but appeared regularly as a late-inning defensive replacement or a pinch runner. He hit around .200 but was dazzling in the field. His biggest hit of the year was a triple in the top of the 14th inning against the Cubs, driving home Joe Amalfitano with the go-ahead run in a 4-3 win. Though he ended the year with a .211 average, he impressed his manager. “He can really run, we knew that,” said Alvin Dark, “and he showed us at spring training that he could play three positions well — second, third or shortstop.”
Bowman appeared in 46 games in 1962 and had exactly 46 plate appearances. He was a punch runner 17 times and a pinch hitter 13 times, and split the rest of the time at his three infield spots. He hit .190 and didn’t commit a single error all year. He even hit his first (and only) big-league home run on August 23 against the Mets. It was a solo shot off of Al Jackson to break a scoreless tie. He also singled off of Jackson in the top of the 10th inning to score John Orsino and give the Giants a 2-1 win. Bowman wasn’t even supposed to play in the game, but Chuck Hiller was a last minute scratch. Bowman’s presence seemed to bring out the best in the Giants.
“I played in 47 games this season and we won 46 of them,” he told reporters. “The day we lost I gave the boys a pep talk and we went right out and won another the next day.” (The Giants were actually 30-16 when Bowman played, but we’ll let it slide.)
The Giants won the NL pennant after defeating Los Angeles 6-4 on October 3. The Dodgers were 2 outs away from a 4-2 win and a trip to the World Series when the bullpen gave up 4 runs in the top of the 9th. Bowman was in the middle of it, pinch-running for McCovey after he walked. Willie Mays hit an RBI single to make it 4-3, and Orlando Cepeda hit a sacrifice fly to bring Bowman home with the tying run.
The Giants lost to the Yankees in the World Series in 7 games. Bowman made two appearances. He pinch ran and scored on a Hiller grand slam in Game Four, and he played shortstop for an inning in Game Seven, retiring Moose Skowron on a grounder.
Bowman played in a career-high 81 games in 1963 and hit a career-low .184. He never walked and hit 2 sacrifice flies, so he had the odd occurrence of having a higher batting average than on-base percentage (.181). He lost out on a double on July 4 when he was called out for failing to touch first base. It took Dark and first base coach Larry Jansen to keep the 5’9″ Bowman from getting physical with 6’1″ umpire Frank Walsh.
Bowman was traded from the Giants to the Braves in January 1964. He was later traded to the Mets and then to the Indians. He played for another six seasons in the minor leagues before retiring at the end of 1969. In his three seasons in the major leagues, Bowman played in 165 games, with a .190/.200/.244 slash line. He had 39 hits (including 4 doubles, 2 triples and 1 home run), scored 39 runs and stole 3 bases in 6 tries.
After baseball, Bowman worked for three decades in the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department and was added to its Wall of Fame in 2013. He was inducted to the Northeast Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. Bowman remained loyal to the Giants and hated the Dodgers till the very end. His brother Billy Joe, who survives him, had a 6-year professional career of his own as a pitcher in the minor leagues.