Obituary: Larry Gowell (1948-2020)

RIP to Larry Gowell, a pitcher who appeared in two major-league games. Despite the short career, he had one noteworthy accomplishment that makes him a unique part of baseball history. He died on May 11 at the age of 72 while playing golf, according to the posts his family and friends have left on Facebook. Gowell played for the 1972 New York Yankees.

His son Chad Holland posted the following message on Gowell’s Facebook page: “It is with complete and utter sadness that I have to share this but we lost a true spirit this morning doing what he loved to do out playing golf. So many loved and adored him. He always enjoyed his visits to see his grandkids and to see his grandson play baseball. He never met a stranger and was honestly the most positive person I had ever been around. If you were fortunate to know him please share on his wall. Thank you to so many who have already shared stories or reached out! I love you Dad and will miss you dearly!”

Larry Gowell was born in Lewiston, Maine, on May 2, 1948. He went to grade school at Pine Tree Academy, where he sang in the school choir. Music remained a part of his life and became a second career in his retirement. When he went to Edward Little High School in Auburn, Maine, though, it was his arm that got all the attention instead of his voice. He was undefeated in three years of high school baseball as a pitcher. When he wasn’t on the mound, he was in center field and hit 14 home runs. He was the team’s MVP in each season and was drafted in the Fourth Round of the 1967 June Amateur Draft, getting a reported $20,000 bonus. The Yanks also drafted his older brother, Richard, who was a pitcher-outfielder, too.

Source: The Miami Herald, June 5, 1969.

The Gowells both made their start with the Oneonta Yankees of the New York-Penn League. Richard departed the team after a handful of at-bats, but Larry appeared in 12 games, including 9 starts. He went 3-2 with a 3.21 ERA, with 43 strikeouts in 56 innings. In one of his first professional starts, the 19-year-old took a no-hitter into the 7th inning.

Gowell returned to Oneonta in 1968 to refine his pitching delivery, but he struggled through a winless season with a high 4.50 ERA in 13 games (9 starts). He got out of the short-season leagues and played for Fort Lauderdale in the Florida State League in 1969, and he won 16 games with a sublime 1.74 ERA. He was tough to hit; in 196 innings he allowed just 120 hits and 38 walks.

Fort Lauderdale manager Billy Shantz figured out how to best utilize Gowell and convinced the Yankees management to let it happen. “His religion [Seventh Day Adventist] won’t permit him to work on Fridays,” the manager explained. “So for a while there in the beginning of the season he was pitching only once a week. I got permission to let him pitch with just three days rest and now he can get two starts a week.”

On the day that his parents, Larry Sr. and Jean, saw him pitch his first professional game (it was the first time they traveled outside of Maine), Gowell picked up 16 of the 217 strikeouts he accumulated during the season. The only downside to the game was that he went hitless at the plate. “My dad would rather see me hit a home run than strike out 16 batters,” Gowell joked.

Gowell moved up to AA Manchester in 1970 and split 1971 between AA and A-ball. He was rocked in a brief tryout with the big league club in spring training in 1970, but he was still a highly touted prospect. Even so, he started 1972 with the AA West Haven Yankees instead of moving up to AAA. He proceeded to go 14-6 and had 11 straight victories at one point. He had a 2.54 ERA and fanned 171 hitters in 181 innings. The Yankees couldn’t say “no” to him again and promoted him to the majors in September when the rosters expanded.

This is not an actual Topps card. Gowell had Topps make a limited-edition run of custom cards for autograph seekers.

Gowell arrived in New York late, because West Haven made the postseason. He donned the Yankees pinstripes in late September and made his debut on the 21st. He threw 2 perfect innings in relief in Milwaukee and was given the chance to start the final game of the season, October 4, again against the Brewers. The Yankees used the game as an audition of two potential pitchers on the 1973 pitching staff, as Gowell threw the first 5 innings and Steve Blateric worked the final 4. Gowell had a quality start, allowing 3 hits and 2 walks while striking out 6. The only run of the game came in the top of the 4th inning, when Dave May doubled off Gowell, advanced to third base on a long fly ball and scored on a sacrifice fly by John Briggs. Brewers starter Jim Lonborg, meanwhile, tossed a 3-hit shutout, leaving Gowell with a hard-luck 1-0 loss.

None of the game recaps I found mentioned it, because it wasn’t significant at the time. But Gowell led off the bottom of the 3rd inning with a double to left field. Why is that noteworthy? It was the last base hit recorded by an American League pitcher before the designated hitter was instituted. The baseball he hit is part of the collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. As he related in an interview with Minor League Ball, he was given the ball because it was his first big-league hit. He didn’t realize until years later that it had special significance. After he had it appraised and found it was worth $6,000, he donated it to the Hall. They called it an “invaluable addition” to their collection. Not bad for a guy with 2 MLB games under his belt.

Gowell’s impressive major-league stat line includes a 1.29 ERA, albeit with an 0-1 record. He struck out 7 batters in 7 innings while walking 2. And of course, he is 1-for-1 at the plate for a 1.000/1.000/2.000 slash line.

Source: Larry Gowell’s Facebook page.

Gowell spent the next two seasons at AAA Syracuse, but he didn’t seem to fit into the Yankees plans anymore. He won 10 games in 1973 and 8 more in 1974, with ERAs in the low 3s. He was still a young man, having turned 26 in 1974. The fact that he wouldn’t play — or even go to the park — from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday may have had a lot to do with it, but it’s nothing the Yankees would ever flat-out say.

“I’ve been told subtly that I would be doing my career a great favor by forgetting my faith during the season,” Gowell said in the spring of 1974. “I thought about it a couple years ago. That’s when I was weak and I almost swayed. But I’m strong now and I’ll never change.

“They tell me it’s hard to work a pitching rotation around me when I keep leaving. But I bet they can find a place for me if I win 10 straight,” he added.

The Yankees released him after 1974 instead of trading him — again, it’s possible the team couldn’t find a team that wanted to work around Gowell’s religious beliefs. He had a 78-53 record in the minors, with a 2.88 ERA and 973 strikeouts across 8 seasons in the minor leagues. After a partial season in the Mexican League, Gowell walked away from baseball for good.

Source: Facebook

Gowell spent about 25 years in the life insurance business. When he retired from that, his love of music reignited, and Gowell became a working singer, giving about 140 performances a year to the senior community throughout Maine. “I perform the old standards and a lot of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Broadway music, gospel and much more,” he told Minor League Ball.

Gowell was invited to sing the National Anthem at a Boston Red Sox game on July 6, 2014, which the team had designated as “Maine Day.” He called it one of the highlights of his singing career. He also sang at the Metropolitan Club in New York City. The video below is of him belting out “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” You can find other videos of him at his YouTube page:

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3 thoughts on “Obituary: Larry Gowell (1948-2020)

  1. Your otherwise wonderful write-up gets one thing wrong and thereby misses even more significance of Larry’s double.

    He did not go 1 for 2. He went 1 for 1. He led off the 3rd with his double and was pinch hit for by Frank Tepedino in the bottom of the 5th. Therefore, he had a career Slugging Percentage of 2.000. If you include players with tiny careers, such as Gowell’s, he holds the all-time record for the highest SLG in MLB history.

    Liked by 1 person

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