Larry Bowa did not play high school baseball and he was not drafted. But when he arrived 50 years ago this month to Connie Mack Stadium, he was finally a big-leaguer. At least, that’s what he told the security guard outside the ballpark at 21st and Lehigh.
“Sure,” the guard told the undersized 24-year-old. “And I’m Raquel Welch.”
Once he forced his way inside the gate, Bowa stood on the third-base line as a high-school marching band played the final notes of the national anthem, his path to the major leagues ready to reach its destination.
The fiery Bowa, who was listed at 5-foot-10, 155 pounds as a big-leaguer, was cut three times in high school. He played two years at a California junior college but was not one of the 824 players selected in the 1965 draft.
He kept pushing and got the attention of Phillies scout Eddie Bockman, who watched Bowa get thrown out of both games of a doubleheader. Bockman urged farm director Paul Owens to take a chance on the fleet-footed defensive whiz.
The Phillies signed Bowa for $2,000. Five years later, he was their starting shortstop on opening day, a story that even a security guard could not believe.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Bowa said. “Standing on the lines, I was saying, ‘This is unbelievable. If I could stay here for a week, I’d be happy.' Then I start saying ‘Maybe a month.’ ”
A week later, Bowa was still starting. A month later, too. Frank Lucchesi, who managed Bowa in the minors before being hired to manage the 1970 Phillies, stuck by Bowa when he struggled as a rookie.
A month turned into a season and a season turned into 50. Five decades later, Bowa is showing no signs of leaving.
No one in Phillies history has spent more seasons in uniform than Bowa. He played 12 of his 16 major-league seasons with the Phillies, coached the team for 13 seasons, and managed it for four years. Bowa now works in the front office as a senior adviser to the general manager.
He turned 74 in December but was still throwing batting practice, swinging a fungo bat, and running infielders through drills at spring training. Fifty years after forcing his way into Connie Mack Stadium, Bowa’s baseball journey continues.
“It’s been a great ride,” Bowa said. “This has been my life. I’ve been very fortunate.”
Bockman persuaded Owens to sign Bowa by projecting a highlight tape onto a bed sheet that hung on the wall of a hotel room. Bowa was fast and he could play defense. He arrived as advertised in 1970, quickly emerging as baseball’s premier defensive shortstop. But his offense lagged behind.
Bowa hit just .242 with a .280 on-base percentage in his first four seasons as the Phillies combined for the second-worst record in the National League. The Phillies were committed to giving their homegrown talent a chance. Bowa said he would have been sent back to the minors in 1970 if Lucchesi wasn’t managing the Phillies.
The patience was prudent. Bowa’s offensive production improved by 1974, just as the Phillies were beginning to pull themselves to relevancy. They won 80 games that season under Danny Ozark, Bowa made his first All-Star team, and one of the greatest eras in franchise history was ready to begin.
Bowa hit .274 with a .309 on-base percentage from 1974 to 1980, playing a vital role on a team that won four division titles before capturing the World Series in 1980.
Bowa was a five-time All-Star by the time he hopped around the Veterans Stadium turf after Tug McGraw struck out Willie Wilson. He was no longer a rookie trying to stay a week in the big leagues.
“You have to be in the right place at the right time,” Bowa said. “You have to take advantage when you get an opportunity. It doesn’t always fall into place all the time. But I look at that team that we had from 1975 on, we had some good minor-leaguers who never got to the majors because we had Schmitty [Mike Schmidt], Pete Rose, me, [Bob Boone], [Manny] Trillo, Dave Cash. They never got an opportunity.
"I’ve been very fortunate that the man upstairs has treated me good and hopefully that will continue. The Phillies have been unbelievable to me.”
In his current role, Bowa attends nearly every game at Citizens Bank Park and travels to the minor-league affiliates to watch the next crop of Phillies. He’s a sounding board for general manager Matt Klentak, offering advice on the team’s decisions.
“I just tell them how I feel. I’m honest,” Bowa said. “I think they know my personality now. If they ask me if a player can do this, and in my mind, I don’t think he can, then I’m going to say, ‘I don’t think he can.’
"But that doesn’t mean I’m right. I preface that to all the GMs that ever asked me. ‘You asked for my opinion, and I’m not saying that I’m 100 percent right. I’m just giving you my opinion.’
"Up until now, it’s definitely worked. They respect that. I’m good with it. The Phillies listen to me, and if they say, ‘Yeah, we think you’re wrong.’ I don’t get offended by that because in baseball I don’t think anybody is 100 percent right. It’s an opinion. I try to be honest with them.”
Bowa retired as a player in 1985. The Phillies die-hard had been part of the infamous 1982 trade that sent him and future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs for shortstop Ivan DeJesus, and he played his last 14 games in a Mets uniform worthy of a double-take.
He managed the Padres for a season-and-a-half before his personality -- just as fiery as it was when he played -- ran him out of San Diego. He spent the next 13 seasons coaching and was hired in 2001 to manage the Phillies, the team that gave him a chance to be a major-leaguer.
Just like Lucchesi did for him, Bowa helped usher many players from the minors to the majors. Several key figures of the 2008 world champions -- Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Brett Myers, and Ryan Madson -- played for Bowa early in their careers.
Bowa’s intensity did not always endear him to his players. “I didn’t always tell them what they wanted to hear," he said, "and sometimes that got me into trouble.”
He was fired with two games left in the 2004 season, but it was evident then -- just like it was 30 years earlier -- that the Phillies were returning to relevance.
The kid who forced his way into Connie Mack Stadium and hoped he could spend a week in the big leagues would have a hand in the only two World Series championships in the franchise’s 137 seasons. Fifty years after his major-league debut, Bowa is part of a front office that has built a team again on the brink of returning relevant baseball to Philadelphia. And if this group captures the franchise’s third world title, Bowa -- just like he did in 1980 and 2008 -- will have played a hand in it.
“I just got a call from Pat Burrell a month ago. He’s getting into coaching. He’s going to be the minor-league hitting coach in San Jose, and he was asking questions,” Bowa said, referring to the San Francisco Giants’ high-A affiliate.
“He said, ‘I want to tell you that I appreciate everything you did for me. At times, you and I didn’t see eye to eye.’
"I just said, ‘Hey, Pat, that’s just the nature of this game. You’re going to go through it with these kids when you try to teach them hitting. They’re going to look at you like you have six heads. If you believe in what you’re doing, you have to enforce what you believe in. Hopefully, you get through to them.'”