What an amazing life Hank Gowdy had! How would you like to have played major league baseball during the early part of the 20th century, been the star and most valuable player of the 1914 World Series as a member of the championship “miracle” Boston Braves team and been a bona fide war hero who fought in two world wars? Let me introduce you to Henry Morgan Gowdy.
Henry “Hank” Gowdy was born on August 24, 1889 in Columbus, Ohio. His father was Horace C. Gowdy and his mother Carrie Burhart. From an early age, Hank was a good athlete. He played football, basketball and baseball at Hubbard Elementary and North High School in Columbus. Though he enjoyed all team sports as a walk-on, he convinced an official from the Columbus Senators to give him a tryout. He ended up with Lancaster in the Ohio State League and within a few months gained more seasoning with Dallas in the Texas League. By this time, Gowdy was a strapping six foot two, 180-pounder who was considered a team leader.
Hank's major league career started in 1910 when he played seven games for John McGraw's New York Giants. He only batted .214 that season and after a few games during the 1911 season, he was traded to the Boston Braves. In 1912 and 1913, he still had not quite found his stride, played several games for the Braves but spent most of his time in the minor leagues playing baseball and honing his craft as a catcher and leader for the Buffalo Bisons. It was at Buffalo that things began to click for Gowdy.
During the latter part of the 1912 season, while with the Bisons, that Gowdy began to make his mark under the watchful eye of veteran manager George Stallings. George Stallings, the son of a Confederate General, was a character known for his crafty, hardnosed baseball way. He had been managing in the baseball vineyards for years and always had a reputation for being a fine judge of baseball talent. Stallings would become one of Hank Gowdy's most ardent supporters.
Even though Stallings left the team in 1913, his “field general” Hank Gowdy ended up batting well over .300 for the year and became the mainstay of the Bison team. By the year's end he had developed leadership capabilities while playing perhaps the most vital position on the team . . . that of catcher. Gowdy and Stallings would, however, quickly reunite. By August of that year, Stallings would take over the helm of the Boston Braves and quickly recruit young Mr. Gowdy to help him anchor the woeful Braves team.
The Braves were known as being the perennial losers in the National League. By 1914 they had been absolutely dominated for several years by Gowdy's old team, John McGraw's New York Giants. In fact, the Giants were coming off a season in 1913 in which they won 101 games while capturing the National League pennant. Stallings' Braves ended up in fourth place. They won 69 games but lost 82. Sure, that was an improvement of their last place finish a year before in which they barely squeaked 52 victories, but most people thought that 1914 would simply bring more of the same. That is, more misery for the woeful Boston Braves and more joy to the great New York Giants with Christy Mathewson at the helm.
But fate had other plans for Hank Gowdy, his manager George Stallings and their team . . . for 1914 would become a spectacular season that is still considered amongst the most thrilling of all. Not only did the Braves embark on the greatest team comeback in major league baseball history when they came back from being over 20 games out of first place in early July, but the team overtook McGraw's Giants with ease in September and went on to sweep the heavily favored Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series, four games to none. Hank Gowdy was in his prime. He made several clutch hits during the pennant drive in late August and early September. But his star shown most brightly in October during the championship series.
Hank Gowdy was the original “Mr. October,” long before Reggie Jackson claimed that moniker. Gowdy hit six times safely and batted .545 for the World Series with three doubles, a homer and a triple. He was the peerless clutch hitter who anchored a team loaded with characters like Rabbit Maranville and grizzled vets like Johnny Evers. He also made key hits during all of the games and eventually won the final game with his bat by going three for four. His bat was, as they say, “on fire!” Later, Stallings himself would state flatly that Gowdy was the most valuable player during the “miracle” run.
In 1915, 16 and 17, Gowdy continued to catch for the Braves. Although he never really duplicated his spectacular batting exploits from the 1914 World Series, by the end of the decade, he gained considerable fame and admiration for becoming the first major leaguer to enlist in World War I. On June 1, 1917, Gowdy signed up to serve in the Ohio National Guard. He played for six weeks and eventually reported for duty on July 15, 1917. He was soon heading for the front lines in Europe.
Hank Gowdy's war record was quite impressive. He served with distinction in the 166th Infantry Regiment and became a part of the famed “Rainbow Division,” the Fighting 42nd. Gowdy carried the colors during the war for this spectacular fighting unit. They became known as the “Rainbow Division” when dubbed such by General Pershing. They, it seems, had the uncanny “luck” of being surrounded by actual rainbows on their way to and during the heavy combat that they were a part of in France during the war. It was “trench warfare” in the most brutal sense of the word.
Unlike many of his counterparts, Gowdy returned to the United States in one piece! By this time, Gowdy was a bona fide war hero as popular in Boston as the mayor himself. Hank continued to play ball with the Boston Braves from 1919 through mid 1923. He was eventually, though, traded to the New York Giants, still led by John McGraw. Certainly McGraw remembered Gowdy's clutch hitting as part of the “miracle” team. This time, though, they would be on the same team.
Gowdy played nearly 149 games for the New York Giants during a two and a half year stretch. He played in the 1923 and 1924 World Series championship contests for the Giants. His team captured the title in 1923, but Gowdy is most noted for an unfortunate incident that happened to him during the 1924 World Series. The Giants were in the midst of a barn burner against Walter Johnson and his fine Washington Senators ball club. The wily Giants manager John McGraw had led his team to a three-to-three tie against the Washington Senators. The pivotal seventh game of that exciting series, played before a packed house at Griffith Stadium in Washington D.C., was to determine the championship. The game was a classic!! The Giants had taken a three-to-one advantage going into the eighth inning of that fateful contest. With two outs and the bases loaded, the Senators' second baseman and manager Bucky Harris hit a grounder that skipped over the head of 18-year-old Giants third baseman (and future Hall of Famer) Freddy Lindstrom. Two runs scored and the game was tied.
The game remained deadlocked until the bottom of the 12th inning. That is when fate again pointed his crooked finger at Mr. Gowdy. This time, however, he would not be a hero. The Senators' Muddy Ruel was at the plate and hit an easy pop fly, in foul territory, which would have provided the Giants with their third out and a second consecutive championship. However, when catcher Gowdy threw down his catcher's mask, as he had effortlessly done thousands of times before, he stepped into the mask! He was unable to shake free of that piece of metal, lunged clumsily towards the ball but watched helplessly as it dropped foul. “It held me like a bear trap,” Gowdy would later recall. Given new life, Muddy Ruel smashed a double and would end up scoring the winning run as the Washington Senators joyfully and triumphantly won their first, and last, World Series Championship.
The Nats won and celebrated and the New Yorkers went home shocked and confused. The handwriting was on the wall! After being a World Series hero ten years earlier and a warrior during World War I, after a mere 47 games into the 1925 season, Gowdy would no longer be on the roster as a New York Giant. For all intents and purposes, Gowdy's major league career as a player was over. Though he ended up playing while coaching for the team that brought him his greatest joy, the Boston Braves, for a few games in 1929 and 30, his exploits as a player on the diamond was over.
After 17 years in the majors as a player, Hank Gowdy was not one to rest on his laurels. Although he never batted the ball for his team after 1930, he would be a major league coach for three different teams - the Boston Braves, New York Giants and Cincinnati Reds. Also, as unbelievable as it sounds, when World War II broke out, Gowdy sought to serve his country again and at age 53 was commissioned a Major in the United States Army. He again served with distinction and became, for some time, the Chief Athletic Officer at Fort Benning, Georgia. To this day, the baseball diamond at Fort Benning, where soldiers enjoy playing the National Pastime, is called “Hank Gowdy Field.” Gowdy passed away at the age of 76 on August 1, 1966 while living in Columbus, Ohio. Although married for many years, he and his wife left no children.