I mentioned in an article last week that I enjoy pouring over Yankee lists using the Play Index at Baseball-reference.com. This time, on a whim, I searched for players who finished their Yankee career with a 1.000 batting average. I found five. Two of them do not really count because they also played elsewhere in the majors. Those two were Chris Latham, who had two plate appearances for the Yankees and recorded two hits and scored three runs in 2003. He was a Twins’ product and put in parts of five years in the majors. Then there was Mickey Witek who played six years for the New York Giants, mostly during the WWII years before his one at bat and one hit with the Yankees in 1949. So those two really do not count. The other three included a guy who piqued my interest because he was born and still lives in Maine where I live and because his one hit has a lot of history to it. He was a pitcher by the name of Larry Gowell and his two game career occurred in 1972.
The other two gents who finished with a 1.000 career batting average for the Yankees were Heinie Odom for the 1925 Yankees and C.B. Burns back in 1902, when the team was still the Baltimore Orioles. Those might be stories for another time, but for now, I want to focus on Larry Gowell.
Like most players drafted by Major League teams, Gowell was one heck of a high school player in Auburn, Maine, not too far from where he was born in Lewiston in 1948. He just had his 65th birthday on May 2. Gowell never lost a high school game as a pitcher and was drafted by the Yankees in the fourth round in 1967. He ended up toiling in the minor leagues for the Yankees for eight seasons and pitched in 202 games. His career in the minors included a .580 winning percentage and a 2.90 ERA. So why would a guy like that not have had more of a crack at making the Yankees?
There are probably two main reasons. First, the Yankees had good pitching back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Other guys contemporary to him in the minors were simply better like Larry Gura and Scott McGregor. The second reason, I suspect is that he is a Seventh Day Adventist. What sets that Protestant denomination apart is that they worship the Sabbath on Saturday, or more correctly, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Gowell would not pitch during those hours. That would perhaps fly in the minors, but not in the Majors unless you were Sandy Koufax or something.
But Gowell did get one taste of the majors at the end of the season in 1972. His first Major League appearance was on September 21, 1972 in Milwaukee. Gowell pitched two innings in a 6-4 loss. He struck out two and did not give up a hit or a walk. Not a bad career debut. He did not get to bat as when it was his turn, Felipe Alou pinch hit for him.
Gowell did not pitch again until the last day of the season on October 4, 1972. He would get the start for the game. And why not? The Yankees were limping toward the end of the season and had lost four straight to finish a distant fourth, six and a half games behind the Tigers and Boston who were still battling it out to the bitter end for the AL East title. The game started at 7:36 at Yankee Stadium and only 5,210 spectators showed up to see the finale on that Wednesday night. The opponent was again the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers were a bad team that season and lost 91 games. The only bright spot of that team was Jim Lonborg who finished his one and only season pitching for the Brewers. Lonborg, of course, had that great run in 1967 for the Red Sox and would later be a vital part of the Phillies for several seasons. Lonborg finished the season 14-12 with a solid 2.83 ERA. He was the guy Larry Gowell had to face in his one and only big league start.
And Gowell was nearly good enough to be up to the task. He pitched five innings and allowed only one run on three hits and two walks. The lone run he allowed was on a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning by John Briggs. Steve Blateric would relieve Gowell in the sixth and finish out the game in Blateric’s only appearance ever for the Yankees.
But Gowell lost the game because Steve Lonborg was terrific on that last day of the season. Lonborg pitched a complete game, three-hit shutout. One of those three hits was a double by Larry Gowell in the third inning. His double was a lead-off double that inning but Clarke, Munson and White could not get him home.
Not only did Gowell finish with a 1.000 batting average, but with a 2.000 slugging percentage and a 3.000 OPS. His short pitching career was nearly as impressive. He pitched seven innings, yielding one run on three hits, two walks and struck out seven batters.
But there was something else about that double he hit. The American League went to the DH in 1973, so it was the last regular season, regular lineup hit by a pitcher until interleague foisted itself on us. That ball ended up in the Hall of Fame and is a nice bookend to the ball that Ron Blomberg hit as the very first DH hit to start off the DH era.
Larry Gowell would go on to pitch for the Triple-A, Syracuse Chiefs in the Yankees’ system for two more years and pitched well. But he never got another chance and retired from professional baseball after the 1974 season.
While searching for background for this story, I found the standard Wikipedia page. Ho-hum. But I also discovered that Gowell sold insurance and has had a nice second career as a local singer of note. In fact, in this linked article, you will find that a song recorded by Gowell and his brother, Greg, also resides in Cooperstown as background music for one of the displays. Here is a link to Gowell singing. It is not my cup of tea, but he has a nice voice. And one last link, here is a link to Gowell’s Facebook page. Stop over there and say hello. Larry Gowell is one of the more interesting footnotes in Yankees’ baseball history.