Robert Lee Howsam played a key role in establishing two leagues—the American Football League and baseball’s Continental League.
Born in Denver, Colorado, February 28, 1918, he served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was the son-in-law of U.S. Senator and two-term Colorado Governor Edwin Johnson, who had founded and served as first president of the Class A Western League, an upper-level minor league. In 1947, Howsam began running the Denver Bears of the Western League. He immediately built 18,000 seat Bears Stadium—which later became Mile High Stadium—and the franchise set Class A season attendance records. In 1952, he was named Minor League Executive of the Year by The Sporting News. Four years later, Howsam elevated the Bears to Triple-A while becoming the affiliate of the New York Yankees and was again named Minor League Executive of the Year.
When the Giants and Dodgers headed west following the 1957 MLB season, prominent New York attorney William Shea spearheaded an attempt to bring National League baseball back to The Big Apple. When relocation and expansion talks stalled, Shea proposed the formation of a third Major League. In November 1958, the Continental League was founded. Set to begin play in April 1961, the upstart league announced intentions for eight teams to play in stadiums with a minimum seating capacity of 35,000. Franchises were targeted for New York, Toronto, Houston, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Dallas and Denver–with Bob Howsam owning that franchise. When Major League Baseball announced plans to expand from 16 teams to 20—including the addition in 1962 of the New York Mets [Daily Dose, 4/11/16] and Houston Colt .45s to the National League— the Continental League folded without ever playing a game. Howsam, who had expanded Bears stadium as part of the Continental League plan, was left with massive debt and a stadium too large for minor league baseball.
Still intent on bringing a major professional sport to Denver, Howsam joined Lamar Hunt [Daily Dose, 8/2/16] and six other wealthy businessmen in taking on the NFL and launching the American Football League. “The Foolish Club”—the self-imposed name taken by these Mavericks, announced in 1959 intentions to begin play the following year. Howsam had a new tenant for Bears Stadium but his new team—the Denver Broncos—were not much of a draw, forcing Howsam to sell the club in 1961. Five years later, the AFL and NFL announced plans to merge. One of the requirements was that all NFL stadiums seat at least 50,000 fans. Howsam sold Bears Stadium to the city of Denver, which added an upper deck and renamed the venue Mile High Stadium, which would go on to be the Broncos raucous home until 2000.
The St. Louis Cardinals were 9 ½ games out of first place in August 1964 when team president Branch Rickey hired Bob Howsam, whom Rickey had worked with in the Continental League venture, to replace Bing Devine as Card’s general manager. The Cardinals went on a late-season tear, culminating with beating the New York Yankees in the World Series. In 1966, Howsam acquired Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris [Daily Dose, 9/10/15] in midseason trades, retooling the team that would go on to win back-to-back pennants in 1967 and 1968.
In January 1967, the Cincinnati Reds lured Howsam away from the Cardinals. Believing that championship clubs were built through a strong farm system and shrewd trades, Howsam embarked upon constructing one of the finest teams ever to play. He brought along Lee May as 1967 Rookie of the Year and did the same with John Bench [Daily Dose, 7/7/15] one year later. He fired the popular Dave Bristol following the 1969 season and replaced him with George “Sparky” Anderson, a 35-year-old unknown who had never managed in the big leagues. After starting the 1970 season 70-30, questions of ‘Sparky Who?’ were quickly answered, and Anderson led the Reds to the NL pennant. In 1971, Howsam traded May and two other players to Houston in exchange for Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, and Jack Billingham. Morgan would win two NL MVPs, Geronimo won four Gold Gloves in center field, and Billingham became an ace of the pitching staff. Following the transaction, Sparky said to Howsam, “You have just won the pennant for the Cincinnati Reds.” That same year, Howsam obtained outfielder George Foster—who would go on to win 1977 NL MVP after clouting 52 home runs. Howsam drafted outfielder Ken Griffey Sr. [Daily Dose, 8/31/16] and signed shortstop Dave Concepcion. The “Big Red Machine” [Daily Dose, 9/23/16] would bring about the most glorious decade in Reds history. Cincinnati won five division titles, four pennants and back to back World Series titles, in 1975 and 1976. The “Great Eight” team of 1976 won 102 games then swept both the Phillies in the NLCS and Yankees in the World Series, which Mr. Howsam later stated was the best moment of his career.
Howsam resigned in April 1978 and the Reds went into free fall, losing 100 games for the first time in franchise history in 1982. “Deacon” returned to Cincinnati in July 1983 and helped restore competiveness, as the Reds finished second in their division four straight seasons. Mr. Howsam retired permanently July 1, 1985.
Robert Lee Howsam had his handson the AFL-NFL merger and the expansion of Major League Baseball. He put the Mile High City on the baseball and football map, with the success of his Denver Bears teams paving the way for the Rockies coming to Denver in 1993. The Reds drew two million fans for the first time in 1973 and did not fall below that mark for the next seven years. Cincinnati was first or second in attendance five times during the 70s. Mr. Howsam was the architect of the Big Red Machine, one of the most dominant clubs in baseball history. Four members of that team; Bench, Morgan, Anderson and Tony Perez, are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1971, he joined his father-in-law, Edwin Johnson, in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame and he was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2004. Bob Howsam died February 19, 2008, nine days shy of his 90th birthday.