The Fielding Machine

In the 1940s, Paul Bowa played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization for the Sacramento Solons in the Pacific Coast League. One evening Bowa was at bat when a screaming fastball veered inside, smashing Bowa in the skull. He dropped to the dirt unconscious, and apparently dead. A minister was found who gave him last rites. But Bowa, known as a tough nut, recovered. The fastball couldn’t kill him but it killed his career.
Fortunately, the tough nut sired a chip off the old block—Larry Bowa, who put in 16 years in the big leagues, made four All-Star teams, and won two Gold Gloves while setting all-time records in fielding.
Lawrence Robert Bowa was born on Decmeber 6, 1945. His inherited mettle manifested itself when he tried out at shortstop for McClatchy High School in Sacramento. Bowa tried out for four years and was rejected each time. The coach said the 5’ 10” 155 pound Bowa was too small.
He then went to a junior college, made the team and played well enough to attract a scout named Eddie Bockman Bockman drove 90 miles to check out the scrappy Bowa in a double-header. Bowa was ejected in the first inning of each game for arguing with an umpire. Bockman crossed him off his list.
Later that year the Philadelphia Phillies sponsored a team in a San Francisco-area league. Bowa tried out for shortstop. The coach was none other than Eddie Bockman, who told him to behave or hit the road. Bowa behaved, played well and signed with the Phillies for $2,000.
He broke in to the big leagues in 1970 and played until 1985, mostly with the Phillies. Larry Bowa didn’t have the range of Dave Concepcion, the power of Robin Yount, or the arm of Mark Belanger; nor could be perform the back flips of Ozzie Smith. But he did one thing with uncanny consistency—he caught the ball and threw it accurately, almost never making an error.
In the late seventies, Bowa held six of the top ten all-time single-season fielding percentage titles for a shortstop. When he retired he had the best career fielding percentage in major league history (.980). He also had the single-season record (.991), set in 1979 when he made just six errors. His records have since been broken, but in his time he was the best.
Known as “Gnat” for his pesky persistence, Bowa once said, “Ya know, they say I have soft hands, but the thing that makes a good shortstop is footwork. You get to the ball, get your body out of the way, and make the throw.”
Now you might point out that today’s stat-mongers claim that range is more important than fielding percentage. That may be true, but of all the statistics regarding middle infielders (assists, putouts, double-plays, range factor), only one—fielding percentage—stands alone, having no relation to other factors. A shortstop with a million double-plays or assists must have a steady partner at second base, and probably plays on a team with a pitching staff loaded with ground-ball pitchers.
I’m not saying that range is unimportant. And keep in mind: Bowa was no slouch when it came to reaching balls. The guy played basketball in high school, which means he had more than a modicum of agility and quickness—tools essential for range. He was fast–stole over 300 bases.
Defensive stats are all measurable; they’re tangibles. But there’s an intangible: If you’re a pitcher out there on the mound and you look over your shoulder and see a guy like Bowa, who almost never makes an error, I’m thinking a sense of security washes over you; it makes you a better pitcher
After retiring, Bowa managed and coached. In 2001 he was named Manager of the Year with the Phillies. Now 72, he’s an advisor to the team’s General Manager.
A FINAL NOTE: In a previous post (The Halo Effect), I was unfair to Jim Bunning. I should have pointed out that he had 4 seasons with 19 wins, giving him nine seasons with at least 17 wins. His career was not all icing and no cake.

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