By Trey Williams
Yogi Berra’s life on earth ain’t over, it seems to Billy Joe Bowman, even after it’s over.
A wildcard trumped Berra’s death, at least for a night, when the Houston Astros defeated the New York Yankees to begin the American League playoffs Tuesday – two weeks after the death of the legendary New York Yankee.
Bowman, a Science Hill Hall of Famer, coached four of his 16 years in Houston with Berra, and formed quite a friendship with the MLB Hall of Famer. In fact, Berra was the godfather of Bowman’s son John Paul, a 2006 graduate of Maryville, where he played football for George Quarles. Bowman said Berra’s wife made the godfather suggestion.
“We were on the plane coming back from Spring Training, and Carmen mentioned it,” Bowman said. “And I said, ‘Sure, he can be Paul’s godfather.’ And here Paul is graduated from VMI … and he’s over near Afghanistan now on a carrier. … He’s a lieutenant commander now.”
Berra commanded the Houston clubhouse without stepping on the toes of managers Hal Lanier (1986-88) or Art Howe (’89), Bowman says, and it was no coincidence that the Astros went to the playoffs during Berra’s first year as a bench coach in 1986.
“Yogi was a hell of a teacher – hitters, pitchers, coaches,” Bowman said. “He really managed the ball club. … Everybody loved that guy and they took it to heart, you know, when he’d talk to them. We’d even be on the plane and he’d motion for them to come up and sit down. … He’d point to them and motion with his hand.
“No telling what went on. Maybe they made a bad play or something. But they were always shaking their head ‘yes.’ He was a great asset to us.”
Pitcher Mike Scott might’ve benefitted from Berra as much as any of the Astros players. He won the 1986 Cy Young Award and was the NLCS Most Valuable Player that year despite Houston losing the series 4-2 to the powerful New York Mets. Scott outdueled Dwight Gooden for a 1-0 victory in Game 1 and bested Sid Fernandez for a 3-1 win in Game 4.
“Scott had a split-finger and he had a good fastball, too,” Bowman said. “But that split-finger was some pitch.”
The Mets clinched the series with a 16-inning victory in Game 6 after Houston had led 3-0 entering the ninth inning.
“It was a great one,” Bowman said. “That was a real battle. It broke my heart when they beat us.
“They had (Darryl) Strawberry and that whole bunch. (Wally) Backman was the second baseman. They had a hell of a ball club. … That was the year they won the World Series when (Bill) Buckner let the ball go between his legs.”
Bowman, Berra and pitching coach Les Moss knew how to drown sorrow. Much laughter was shared drinking whiskey on road trips.
“Hell, every night he’d show up with Les Moss,” Bowman said. “He (Moss) was an ole catcher and … the pitching coach. And he and Les Moss and I sat in the room every night. Of course, I bought the whiskey. We sat in there and drank a bottle – the three of us – every damn night on the road.
“We drank Jack Daniel’s, and we also drank that Jim Beam. The first time I bought that he (Berra) liked it. … What Yogi said was usually what Les Moss did (during games).”
Bowman chuckles warmly recalling how he had to buy the whiskey and how the wealthy Berra also “bummed” his Skoal or chewing tobacco.
The Astros generated a buzz this year. After finishing 28 games behind the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, Houston spent the majority of the season in first place in the American League West and eliminated the Angels for the second wildcard spot on the final day of the season Sunday.
Bowman, 85, feels young again while watching Evan Gattis take healthy cuts. Diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve takes him back, too.
“Oh, that guy, I tell you what, I’d take him any day,” Bowman said. “He’s sort of like Albie Pearson, a little guy that really got the job done.”
Bowman can appreciate finishing a job. He combined with Ralph Carrier on a shutout in Science Hill’s 3-0 state championship victory in 1947, and won two games and homered while helping Tennessee finish runner-up to Oklahoma in the 1951 College World Series in Omaha. The Sooners beat UT, 3-2.
A 5-foot-11, 160-pound right-hander, Bowman recorded wins against Princeton and Southern California and he hit a home run against the Trojans.
“We had one heck of a ballclub and we had a hell of a coach in Cy Anderson,” Bowman said. “He was a former pro ballplayer. He was crippled and he walked with a cane, but he knew his baseball. I learned a hell of a lot from him.”
The Vols opened the CWS with a 7-1 loss to Utah, but Bowman pitched a six-hitter to beat Princeton, 3-2, in their second game.
Tennessee defeated Springfield 2-0 on day three and beat Utah, 5-4, in the first game of a doubleheader on day four. Southern Cal was next up for the Vols, and on one day of rest, Bowman worked 7 2/3 innings of relief for the win. He also hit a home run and drove in two runs while helping the Vols overcome a 6-2 deficit in the 9-8 win.
“I hit one over the scoreboard,” Bowman said. “I can still see that pitch going on the outer part of the plate. … And that last ballgame that we played that we lost (to Oklahoma), everybody was on Coach Anderson to put me in the ball game. And he was like, ‘Nope, nope, nope – he’s not going back in.’ And I would’ve gone, too.”
Bowman had pitched 16 2/3 innings in three days. So he understood Anderson’s thinking – even if his some of his teammates might not have.
“They came to coach – Coach Anderson always had me sit next to him – and they tried to get him to put me in,” Bowman said. “I said, ‘I feel okay coach.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He was just looking out for me. He was a fine baseball man. I learned as much from him, probably, as I did, you know, a lot of the pro coaches.”
Bowman nearly signed with Mississippi State.
“The coach from Mississippi State said, ‘Young man, I’ll give you a full scholarship, books, everything if you come to Mississippi State,’ and I almost went,” Bowman said. “But General Neyland and Cy Anderson came up on Elm Street ― they pulled up one day and knocked on the door ― and they said, ‘We’ll give you a full scholarship, books, and we’ll give you a $25 a month stipend. And I signed the papers.
“The General saw me play against Chattanooga Central in the playoffs (in Maryville). They had a good ball club. He stood behind home plate.”
Bowman is five years older than his brother Ernie Ferrell, who also signed with UT to play baseball, but transferred to ETSU to play basketball when Neyland insisted he return punts for the football team. After his basketball career at ETSU which included a trip to Kansas City for the NAIA national tournament, Ferrell played shortstop for San Francisco and got extensive work in the 1962 World Series.
Billy Joe recalls them hitting milk cans with broomsticks while growing up a few houses from Langston High School.
“We’d take a broomstick and throw it up and hit it in Brush Creek,” he said. “I went down there a while back and drove down that alley just to reminisce. We had a basketball goal there and also had a brick barbecue pit that we put together. He’d jump up on that and dunk the ball.”
Ferrell won the state title in the long jump in 1954.
“Boy, he could jump – broad jump and high jump,” Billy Joe said. “He just had really strong legs. But boy, he paid a price sticking in at second place when there’d be a double play. Whether he was at short or second, he stayed right there. And he didn’t mind stepping all over somebody, either.”
Billy Joe said he played with a good shortstop, Bobby Rowe, on Science Hill’s state championship team. Rowe, who is still Billy Joe’s dentist, went on to play at ETSU.
“Bobby Rowe sure was (a stabilizing force),” Billy Joe said, “him and (third baseman) Hobe Leonard.”
Carrier was a key, too. He and Bowman had combined to shut out Franklin for a 1-0 victory in the ’47 state semifinals. Carrier went on to play in the minors, as did catcher John Mackley.
“John was one fine ballplayer,” Bowman said. “Ralph Carrier, boy, he had a good curveball. It wasn’t great big, it was real sharp. And he sure could throw it on the outside part of that plate.”
Other key players included center fielder Willis Sexton, first baseman Jack Chinouth, Louis Copp and Dick “Chesty” Shepherd.
“We had a great high school team,” Bowman said. “Willis Sexton, Bobby Rowe, Hobe Leonard, Pete DeLoach and, of course, Mackley. Willis Sexton was the one that really pounded the long ball. And Willis played center field. Boy, he was a good one.”
Numerous players from that team have talked about how coach John Broyles was a players’ coach who didn’t micromanage. In fact, several said he might’ve managed players more thoroughly on his farm (where Target is now) than at Cardinal Park.
“When he’d bail hay, we’d load it and take it to the barn,” Bowman said. “It was up there where the shopping center is now. He paid us $2 a day out there. That was a lot of money, though.”
Broyles teams won two more state titles during Steve Spurrier’s junior and senior seasons (1962-63).
“You know, it sort of elevated athletics there at Science Hill when we did that (in ’47),” Bowman said.
Bowman began his professional career with the Johnson City Cardinals in 1953. He said Johnson City Press-Chronicle owner Carl Jones was instrumental in that happening. Bowman went 11-3 with a 2.10 ERA for Johnson City.
He also pitched in Peoria, Columbus, Ga., Nashville, Rochester, Chattanooga and Houston. His first season in Houston was in ’56 when it was a St. Louis Double-A affiliate in the Texas League. When he returned to Houston in ’59 the Houston Buffs were a Triple-A team in the American Association with a player-manager in Rube Walker.
It was the final stop for Bowman, who remained in Houston for four more decades, including 16 years with the Astros. He’s mentioned enjoying watching Astros such as Nolan Ryan, Jose Cruz, Cesar Cedeno, Craig Biggio, Bill Doran and J.R. Richard, who he said could’ve been one of the all-time greats.
“J.R. didn’t really take care of himself,” Bowman said. “Boy, he’d stay up all night. I took a bunch of ‘em fishing one time outside of Houston, and they started going. He and bunch of those guys would get together after a ball game and go up there and fish. And they’d come back and get a little rest and come to the ballpark. They were big fishermen.”
Bowman worked with pitchers and charted pitches and defense. He threw batting practice. He went to Spring Training.
Cedeno, the hitting coach at Greeneville in 2013, smiled when he saw Bowman come around the corner of the Cardinal Park clubhouse in August of 2013 an hour before an Appalachian League game.
“I really enjoyed working with the Astros,” Bowman said. “I have my uniform in there. I want to be buried in it.”
Before long, Berra was back on Bowman’s mind.
“Yogi, I tell you what,” Bowman said with a poignant pause, “he was a fine, fine fellow.”