Baseball Assistance Team was a lifesaver for Ernie Ferrell Bowman, and last week it made him feel as though he’d died and gone to heaven.
Bowman, a Science Hill Hall of Famer who played for the San Francisco Giants against the New York Yankees in the 1962 World Series, returned to the Big Apple as living proof what a hit BAT has been.
Bowman was told he was near death when he was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer in June of 2011. Shortly thereafter, former teammate Gaylord Perry put Bowman in touch with BAT, a Major League Baseball outreach program for its former players.
Suddenly, Bowman could afford to live, and his life expectancy grew from 2-3 months to perhaps 10-15 years.
Some 900 people attended the banquet, which was the highlight of a three-night, four-day stay at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Bowman’s all-expense trip included airfare, limousine service and $500 spending money for his wife and granddaughter.
But it was the old-pro fraternity scene that was priceless for the 77-year-old Bowman, who got to visit with former teammates such as Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda. Bowman scored on Cepeda’s sacrifice fly to tie the score at 4 during the Giants’ decisive four-run ninth inning in the final game of a three-game playoff in 1962 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I drowned (Richard) Nixon with champagne at Dodger Stadium when we beat the Dodgers, 6-4,” Bowman said. “I was drowning everybody. I’m telling you man, I didn’t care. … He had on a blue suit. I said, ‘He shouldn’t be in here if he didn’t want to get wet.’
“I said (in a postgame TV interview), ‘Hello to everybody back in Johnson City, Tennessee. We’re going to the World Series.’”
Fifty years and three months later, Bowman felt just as triumphant in a return to New York.
“There was 101 ex-big leaguers there and about 35 Hall of Famers,” Bowman said. “Cepeda said, ‘Squeaky, my buddy’ and walked around with his arm around my neck. He’d tell everybody, ‘This is my buddy Squeaky Bowman.’ He and I played in St. Cloud our first year together, just like Gaylord and I played in St. Cloud.”
Bowman’s only regret was Gaylord Perry not being able to attend.
“Gaylord was in Chicago,” Bowman said. “He had to go to be in Arizona on Wednesday, and he couldn’t get a flight out. But he got Rollie Fingers there. He said, ‘I’m sending Rollie to take care of you.’”
Current players such as Johan Santana and Joba Chamberlain attended, as did Jim Palmer, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Luis Gonzalez and Jim Bouton.
“You can’t believe how many people were hanging around the hotel to get all these autographs,” Bowman said. “They had 10 to 15 security guards keeping ’em kind of out of the fourth floor where we all would gather and everything for breakfast and lunch. Santana and those guys would come up and say, ‘Hey, congratulations. Glad to see you’re doing better.’ Everybody was so nice, just unreal nice.”
A frail Yogi Berra, this year’s primary honoree, was there, as was Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who introduced Bowman. (Video from the ceremony is posted on MLB.com.)
“I knew Joe and everything, because he was always with the Giants announcer, Jon Miller,” Bowman said. “Joe Morgan was really, really nice to me.”
Bowman was excited to see Rusty Staub, who is on BAT’s board of directors.
“After I talked (at the banquet) Rusty got up and came over and gave me a big hug and — it kind of embarrassed me — kissed me on the cheek,” Bowman said. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re gonna take care of you.’ Rusty and I was always real close, because he was at Oklahoma City when I was playing in Denver. When they’d come to Denver I’d let him use my car, you know, to get around and go here or there. And then when I’d go to Oklahoma City, he’d let me borrow his car.”
Former Houston All-Star Bob Watson was quick to mention Bowman’s brother, Billy Joe, when he saw Ernie in New York. Billy Joe pitched on Science Hill’s 1947 state championship baseball team, won 56 games in the minors and spent 15 years as a Houston Astros coach.
“Bob Watson come up to me and he said, ‘You’re Billy Joe’s brother aren’t you,’
Bowman said. “I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘Don’t yes sir me. We’re all in this together.’
“He said, ‘Billy Joe was my main man in Houston. He’s the finest person you’d ever want to meet in your life, and I’m sure you’re just like him.’ Billy Joe told me that Bob Watson was one fine person. Bob works in the commissioner’s office.”
Coming up in an era of racial tension didn’t keep Bowman from connecting with the African-American community. Of course, he grew up on Elm Street, a pop-fly from Johnson City’s all-black Langston High School.
Shortly after playing in the 1962 World Series, Bowman was back at Langston speaking at a sports banquet. He was invited there by Science Hill athletic director Sidney Smallwood, who’d coached the Hilltoppers basketball team when Bowman led it to an undefeated regular season and state tournament appearance in 1954.
“Me and Smallwood were the only white people there,” Bowman said. “Smallwood said, ‘I’ll come by and pick you up.’ I said, ‘Coach, it’s only five houses.’ I just walked up there. I said, ‘I know how to slip in that gym — leaving them windows open to play on Sunday and all.’”
The BAT event in New York began shortly after the death of Earl Weaver and Stan Musial, which Bowman was reminded of when he saw Palmer.
“Jim Palmer came up after the show and he said, ‘Ernie, I believe you’ve lost a step or two,” Bowman said before chuckling. “I’d kind of stumbled on the stage there. I said, ‘Yeah, just like your fastball.’ He said, ‘I don’t know if I can get one home.’ But he looked great — a good-looking guy who still looks like he could go out there and pitch today.”
Bowman crossed paths with Musial and Weaver.
“I have a big picture right here in back of my bar,” he said. “It says, ‘Ernie, hope you stay in the league many years. — Stan Musial.’
“Earl and I were real good friends. When he was managing up at Rochester and I was at Atlanta in the International League, I’d say, ‘Hit and run next pitch.’ And Earl would look at me real quick. I had his signs. That’s what I did a lot of times. … Mark Belanger, the shortstop, said, ‘You have our signs. Don’t tell everybody.’”
One of the first people Bowman called when he returned from New York was Bill Wilkins, a former Elizabethton Cub who succeeded Smallwood as Science Hill’s basketball coach. Bowman was playing basketball at East Tennessee State for Madison Brooks when Wilkins resurrected Bowman’s baseball career.
“I called Bill Wilkins, and boy, he and his wife (Kay) were happy about it,” Bowman said. “He’s the one that got me started. I was playing basketball at the college. I hadn’t played baseball in two years. Well, I played two games (at Appalachian State and Lincoln Memorial), until Coach (Madison) Brooks found out and told me I had to quit. …
“Bill Wilkins got me to go play up at Abingdon … in the Burley Belt League. We had some good teams, really played good. We had Buddy Nidiffer, Sid Smithdeal from Elizabethton, and Jim Cloyd (Science Hill). Bo Austin (Science Hill) played third base for us. Joe McClain (Science Hill) pitched for Saltville. They had Jesse James.”
Bowman, known more for his glove and base-running, said he once hit a long home run to center field into a swimming pool off of James in Saltville.
“When I came down that third-base line, he said, ‘They ain’t no way. Ain’t no way,’” Bowman said. “I always played good against Saltville. I’d steal bases and everything. They’d call me, ‘you little so-and-so’ and all this.
“What I liked was when you hit a home run, they’d go around with baseball cap in the stands collecting money for you.”
But never could Bowman have envisioned the kind of grand-slam treatment that would cap his baseball life.
“I think they’re gonna honor Willie Mays next year,” Bowman said. “They’ve already invited me back. Good Lord willing, I’m going. …
“I had so much fun. It was like something out of a fairy tale.”