The loss of Dick Howser left a void.
As I work through the history of Royals managers, we come to the difficult time after Dick Howser’s passing. In retrospect, the Royals look like a team in shock and not certain about making a commitment to a high-profile manager. Here’s a recap of the post-Howser years.
The illness and eventual death of Dick Howser in June of 1987 left a leadership void at the top of the Kansas City Royals hierarchy. Sure, Ewing and Muriel Kauffman were still there, as was General Manager John Schuerholz, but Howser’s loss left a stunned locker room lacking its alpha dog leader. To fill the void, the Royals first turned to one of Howser’s most trusted lieutenants, Mike Ferraro.
Like many professional athletes, Ferraro had been a three-sport star at Kingston (N.Y.) high school. As a senior, he hit .585 and signed with the New York Yankees, which had to be a dream come true for any high school baseball player in the state of New York. Ferraro never really lit up the minors: his best campaign came in 1964 as a 19-year-old in Class A ball, where he slashed a combined .293/.361/.374.
The Yankees gave him a ten-game callup in 1966 where he hit .179 in 32 plate appearances. He got 23 more games with the Yanks in 1968, but only hit .161. Baseball is a tough sport.
New York left him unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft and Seattle selected him with the 57th pick. Ferraro only got five games and four at-bats with the Pilots before they shipped him off to Baltimore as part of a five-player deal. With Brooks Robinson entrenched at third base, Ferraro spent two seasons in Baltimore’s minor league system, where his bat finally started to catch up. He hit .304 and .272 during those two seasons in Rochester. In the meantime, the Pilots had moved to Milwaukee and been rechristened the Brewers. The Brew Crew decided they needed more Ferraro and reacquired him in October of 1971.
Ferraro’s only season in the majors as a regular came in 1972. He appeared in 124 games, garnering 406 plate appearances and slashing .255/.284/.323. He hit the only two home runs of his career that season - the first coming on May 13th off the Twins Dave LaRoche, which gave the Brew Crew a short-lived 4 to 3 lead in the 15th inning. The Twins would win that game, 5-4, on a two-out, two run home run in the bottom half of the 15th. His last major league home run came in Oakland on July 19th, a 9th inning, two-run jack off Blue Moon Odom.
During spring training 1973, Milwaukee traded Ferraro to the Twins for pitcher Ken Reynolds. The Twins released him on May 2 and five days later he was back with the Yankees. Unfortunately, he never made it back to the big leagues and retired after the Yankees released him in April of 1974.
He immediately went into coaching, and over the next four seasons led the Yankees farm teams to pennants at the A, AA, and AAA levels. In 1979, he got the call up to the big club as their third base coach, where he worked on the staffs of Bob Lemon, Billy Martin, and Dick Howser.
In those days, no coach or manager of the Yankees was safe from controversy and job security was often a day-to-day issue. Ferraro found his controversy during Game Two of the 1980 Championship Series against Kansas City. The Yankees found themselves down by a run in the top of the eighth inning. With Willie Randolph at second, Bob Watson pulled a ball into the left-field corner. Royals left fielder Willie Wilson overthrew cutoff man UL Washington, so Ferraro sent Randolph home. George Brett alertly moved into position for the throw and his relay to the plate cut down Randolph. The play infuriated Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who could be seen on live TV streaming off several lines of invective. Steinbrenner wanted Howser to fire Ferraro immediately, to which Howser, always a stand-up guy, told the boss to stick it. The move sealed Howser’s fate as Yankee manager, much to the eventual good fortune of the Royals.
Ferraro stayed with the Yankees through the end of the 1982 season, before getting his first managerial shot with Cleveland. First, Ferraro overcame a very serious obstacle prior to the Cleveland job. He had a cancerous kidney removed just four weeks prior to their spring training opener. Ferraro only lasted 100 games with the Tribe, going 40-60 before getting the pink slip. He joined the Royals staff for the 1984 season, reuniting with Howser. He stayed on Howser’s staff until taking over for his stricken friend, picking up a World Series ring in the process.
When Howser resigned 88 games into the 1986 season, the Royals promoted Ferraro to the top job. He guided the Royals to a 36-38 finish, in the most difficult of circumstances, good for a third-place finish in the American League West. In the end, it wasn’t enough. The Royals decided to go with Billy Gardner for the 1987 season as their manager. Ferraro, who never got another managerial job, returned to New York as a coach on the Yankee staff, where he stayed through the 1991 season. When the Yankees parted ways with manager Stump Merrill and gave the job to Buck Showalter, Ferraro found himself on the outside.
He caught on with the Baltimore Orioles for the 1993 campaign but was released after the season and that was the end. Of his time with the Yankees, Ferraro said in an interview with Dave Anderson of the New York Times in 1983, “I’ve been in baseball 21 years, almost all of them in the Yankee organization as a player, a minor league manager and a coach,’’ he said. ‘’I’ve always believed in being loyal. With the Yankees, I was around great people like Yogi Berra. It was a great experience - the exposure, the attention. I’d never been a big-name player. I felt I was a very fortunate person to be a Yankee coach, even with the pressure. I didn’t get physically tired, I got mentally tired. I was more nervous there than I am here.’’
Ferraro seemed like a guy who never really got a fair shake at managing a team. He had a lot of success as a minor league manager and was well respected by players and peers. I’ve always thought the Royals should have stayed with him for the 1987 season.
Billy Gardner was one of those classic 1950’s era ballplayers. You know the type I’m talking about, always hustling. Dirt on the uniform. A large chaw of tobacco tucked into the left cheek. Gardner grew up poor in Waterford, Connecticut, the third of six children. Of his upbringing, Gardner said, “We milked cows, delivered milk, cut and put-up hay, cut and split wood, so when I looked at baseball, I never thought it was a tough way to make a living.”
He got his first professional tryout with the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds when he was 16 on June 6, 1944 – D-Day. After high school, he signed with the Giants and labored through their minor league system from 1945 until he made his major league debut on April 22, 1954, save for missing the 1946 season to military service. 1954 was a great season to be a New York Giant. They won the World Series that year, sweeping the heavily favored Cleveland Indians in a series remembered mostly for “The catch”. Gardner, nicknamed “Shotgun” for his powerful arm, didn’t see action in the series, but still picked up the winners share, which came to $11,147.90.
In April of 1956, the Giants sold Gardner to the Baltimore Orioles for $20,000. Gardner enjoyed his best seasons while in Baltimore, including leading the league in plate appearances, at-bats and doubles in 1957, while collecting some MVP votes. In April of 1960, the Orioles traded Gardner to the Washington Senators, which started a musical chair of teams and transactions for the spunky infielder: Washington to Minnesota to the New York Yankees to the Boston Red Sox. His last major league appearance came on September 11, 1963, for the Red Sox. After his playing days ended, Gardner stayed with the Sox for eight seasons, managing and coaching in their minor league system.
He joined the Royals organization in 1972 as manager of their AA club in Jacksonville, before moving up to AAA Omaha in 1975. He coached first base for the Montreal Expos in 1977 and 1978, before managing some of the Expos minor league teams. He returned to the majors in 1981 as coach for the Minnesota Twins, but after manager Johnny Goryl got axed for started 11 and 25, Gardner got his first managerial job. 1981 was a strike season, and the Twins played a bit better under Gardner, going 30-43. This earned Gardner another year, which was a disaster for the Twins. 1982 was the club’s first season in the Humphrey Metrodome and they christened the edifice with a 60 and 102 record. While in Minneapolis, Gardner, who maintained his home on the east coast, famously lived in a Super 8 close to the ballpark. This Twins team was loaded with a lot of young talent: Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, Greg Gagne, Jim Eisenreich, Frank Viola, and a 28-year-old outfielder named Rusty Kuntz. They just needed a few more years of maturity to put it together. Gardner got his young charges to 81-81 in 1984, before getting fired 62 games into the 1985 season. By 1987, the Twins were World Series champions.
The Royals initially brought Gardner back as a third base coach, but when Dick Howser was unable to manage in 1987, he was promoted to the top job. There was still a considerable amount of talent on the ’87 Royals as well: George Brett, Frank White, Kevin Seitzer, Willie Wilson, Danny Tartabull, Lonnie Smith, Bret Saberhagen, Dan Quisenberry, and a young Bo Jackson to name a few. The team never really jelled under Gardner, only going 62-64 before the Royals fired him. His replacement was John Wathan, who guided the team to a 21-15 finish, two games back of the eventual champion Twins. In hindsight, it looks like a missed opportunity for the Royals. Win the division, get into the playoffs. Who knows what might happen, as the Twins found out? Can you imagine seeing Bo Jackson in the World Series? No telling what he might have done.
Through it all, Gardner remained the same guy, saying “I packed up and went home. I don’t look over my shoulder, it was their decision.” Today, Gardner remains one of the oldest living baseball veterans, still kicking at the age of 94.