June 6, 2023

Sam Bowens: Detoured on the Road to Stardom

October 18, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

Sam BowensIn 1964, Brooks Robinson (.317, 28 HRs, 118 RBI) was voted American League Most Valuable Player and Boog Powell blasted 39 home runs.

But the Oriole who captured the attention of teenage baseball fans in my neighborhood was 22-year-old rookie outfielder Sam Bowens. The 6-1, 200-pounder clubbed 22 home runs, tallied 71 RBI and batted .263.

Why were we attracted to Bowens? He certainly wasn’t the best player on the Orioles. I think it was the exciting promise he displayed.

Like the time he bashed a solo homer off of Sudden Sam McDowell in the top of the ninth inning to give the Orioles a 2-1 victory, or his 14-game hitting streak, or his 4-hit game against the Angels, or his bullet throws from right field.

He appeared to be on the road to stardom, but, sadly, he was detoured.

Who would have thought Bowens’s major league career would end after the 1969 season?

After his respectable rookie season, he was never a full-time player. An untimely injury and the Orioles’ wealth of talent in the outfield relegated him to the bench. After he retired, Bowens revealed that alcoholism contributed to his downfall.

From 1965 through 1969, he clouted just 22 homers, matching his rookie total, and batted .188.

The Wilmington, N.C. native was athletically gifted. He played four sports at Williston Senior High School and was All-State in football, baseball and basketball. He attended Tennessee State University.

The Orioles inked Bowens to a contract in September 1959. After playing for Bluefield in the Appalachian League and Leesburg in the Florida State League in 1960, he was promoted to Class B Fox Cities in the Three-I League, where he slugged 20 homers in 1961.

Sam had a solid year with Class AAA Rochester in 1962, but blossomed in 1963. By mid-July, he was hitting .346. But then he slipped rounding third, pulled a muscle and struggled for the rest of the season. He ended up hitting .287 with 22 homers and 70 RBI.

Red Wings manager Darrell Johnson said, “Sam has an accurate arm, is fast and has good baseball instincts. I feel he has as good a chance as any player in the International League to play in the majors next year.”

Called up to Baltimore in September 1963, Bowens grabbed everyone’s attention as he rapped 16 hits in 48-at bats for a .333 average.

Considered the plum of the Orioles farm system, Sam had a good chance to play regularly in 1964. O’s manager Hank Bauer intended to platoon him in right field.

Early in the season, Bauer abandoned plans to platoon Bowens, who was hitting .324 in the beginning of May. He contributed consistently for the Orioles, at the plate and in the outfield. He compiled a 14-game hit streak from Aug. 2 through Aug. 16. And, he had hit in 5 of 6 games prior to that streak, giving him hits in 19 of 20 games.

At the beginning of September, the Orioles were in first place, a half game ahead of the White Sox and three games ahead of the Yankees.

Harry Dalton, the Orioles farm director, said, “Sam’s hitting and making all the right plays. He fights at the plate and remarkably, he’s responded to pressure far beyond what you might expect for a rookie. He’s a rare one who seems to thrive on pressure.”

Although the Orioles finished third, the future looked bright for both the club and Bowens.

The right fielder finished with 22 home runs, tying the club’s rookie mark set by Ron Hansen in 1960. Sam was being called the best all-round outfielder developed by the Orioles in the past 10 years.

Minnesota Twins’s Tony Oliva, however, overshadowed Bowens’ rookie season. Oliva batted .323, smashed 32 homers and drove in 94 runs. He collected 19 of the 20 first-place votes for 1964 American League Rookie of the Year. Oriole hurler Wally Bunker garnered the other vote.

Sam, who turned 26 before the start of the 1965 season, was in the Opening Day lineup in right field. Paul Blair was in center field and Jackie Brandt was in left field.

In the second game of the season, Bowens pulled a groin muscle and was out for four weeks. Rookie Curt Blefary took over in right field. He made the most of the opportunity as he nearly matched Bowens’ 1964 production. Curt clouted 22 homers, drove in 70 runs and batted .260. He split 136 games between right field and left field. Defensively, he was vastly inferior to Bowens. Blefary was voted the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year.

When Sam returned to the lineup in mid-May, he struggled to regain his swing and timing. A 0-for-20 slump plunged his average to .133. He said he was upper cutting the ball too much and failing to hit a steady diet of off-speed pitches, which once had been his bread and butter.

The Orioles outfield was crowded with Blair, Blefary, Bowens, Brandt and Russ Snyder. Boog Powell split his time between left field and first base.

Unable to get untracked, Bowens was hitting .145 at the beginning of August. The club sent him to Rochester until he was recalled in September. He finished the season batting .163 with seven homers and 20 RBI in 84 games. His future was cloudy, at best.

Seeking more power, the Orioles acquired right fielder Frank Robinson for pitcher Milt Pappas during the off-season.

As Robinson was headed to a MVP season and a Triple Crown, Bowens was relegated to starting 56 games, being a defensive replacement and pinch-hitting. He remained a shadow of himself at the plate, hitting .210 with seven home runs.

Although the Orioles won the 1966 World Series in four straight against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sam did not play as the club used just 13 players.

After the World Series, the taciturn Bowens asked the club to trade him. Once the O’s brightest outfield prospect, Sam had become the club’s forgotten man. He was convinced, however, that he was still an everyday player.

In March of 1967, Sam told the Baltimore Sun, “If I’m going to waste my time in the majors sitting on the bench, then I should be looking for something else. I know I’m not a part-time worker, never have been, never will be, if I can help it.

“I came into pro ball to play, not sit on the bench. If I didn’t have the ability to play regularly, I might be willing to sit on the bench, but I have more tools than that. There isn’t anything I can’t do–run, throw, hit, field and steal bases.

“I want to get out of here, and it doesn’t make any difference where I go. I’m not content to sit down.”

Despite his plea, the Orioles didn’t trade him. In 1967, he was limited to 62 games and 120 at-bats. He batted .183 with five homers.

After three consecutive sub-par seasons, Bowens’s trade value hit rock bottom. The Washington Senators purchased him on November 28, 1967.

Once again, however, he was part of an overcrowded outfield. He battled Cap Peterson, Hank Allen and Fred Valentine for the starting right fielder’s job. An old shoulder injury hampered him early in the 1968 season.

Sam split the season between Washington and Class AAA Buffalo. In 57 games with the Senators, he hit .191 with four homers.

He continued to struggle in 1969, playing the majority of his time with Buffalo. He saw action in just 33 games with Washington and batted .193.

Released by the Senators, Sam played 1970 with Class AAA Columbus Jets, a Pittsburgh Pirate affiliate, and the Class AA Shreveport Braves, an Atlanta Braves affiliate.

Once a promising star, Bowens’s major league career lasted just seven seasons. He finished with a .223 lifetime average and 45 homers.

After his playing days, Bowens confessed that alcoholism played a role in his downfall. He also maintained a beaning in 1965 seriously affected his hitting ability.

He said his drinking started when he reached the major leagues when beer was available in the clubhouse after every game. “I would drink six or seven a day,” he said. “It was like drinking soda pop.”

Discussing the beaning, Bowens said, “I’d pull my head out up at the plate. I wouldn’t stay with the inside pitches. I would bail out and drop my hands.”

Despite Bowens’s contention, he was not beaned in 1965. The records show he was hit by the pitch on 10 occasions during his career, but newspaper accounts of those games don’t mention him being hit in the head. Several of his former teammates also didn’t recall him being hit in the head.

The excitement Sam generated in 1964 was short-lived and his potential unfulfilled. He died in 2003 at the age of 65.

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