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Larry Gowell: Last American League pitcher to get a hit before the DH, interview part two

Part Two of Clinton Riddle’s interview

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(This is Part Two of my interview with former New York Yankees pitcher Larry Gowell, who found a place in the history books as the final AL pitcher to record a hit in the regular season before the DH rule was instituted in 1973. Part One is here.)

Clinton: After two seasons at Oneonta, the Yanks moved you to High-A Fort Lauderdale. How tough was it adjusting to advanced competition? You put up fantastic numbers there; did you change your approach to hitters, add a new pitch, or was there some fundamental change in how you worked on the mound? Any coaches that were a great help to you, in particular?

Larry: Well, after my first year I did not go to spring training because I went to school to stay out of the draft. The second year I did go to spring training, and that is what made the difference.

Our pitching coach, Cloyd Boyer, brother of Clete, was our pitching coach. He worked me hard on the changeup. He also said I was over-throwing and the ball was not moving as much as it could. If I could keep the ball down and take a little off the fastball, I would have more life on the fastball and it would sink really hard. So, right out of the gate I was mowing hitters down left and right. My control finally came together and my fastball was sinking like a rock, and I really developed a great slider at this time.

The Yankees always knew I would do so based on my arm angle. I was sidearm pitcher and had a lot of flexibility in my arm. I went 8-0 in my first 8 games. Then came the draft and I was drafted, and I had to go to Miami for a physical. Well, as luck would had it, I was flat-footed. Well, the military turned me down because of that, thank God. They did not know I was a professional ball player, either.

Well, I went on to win eight more games and strike out 217 hitters in 196 innings with a 1.76 ERA. I then became a top prospect for the Yankees. There was even some talk they were thinking about bringing me up at the end of the year.

Clinton: Your next season in 1970 with Manchester was a success, as well. What sort of adjustments did you make when you faced competition in Double-A? Was there a specific pitch or a tweak to your mechanics?

Larry: Yeah, going to Double-A, you are seeing much more experienced players. The big adjustment was getting left-handed hitters out, because I came from the side. Very tough on right-handers, as most people understand. So, I had to learn to get my arm out more and throw a curveball with more down movement, something I could throw down and in. Then I would throw my hard, sinking fastball away to the outside of the plate and work in a changeup. So, this is where I really worked hard at this and had an O.K year.

Clinton: In 1971 with Kinston and Manchester both, you put up fantastic numbers. That continued in West Haven in 1972. Had the Yankees hinted at a call-up before 1972 rolled around? Were they giving you any feedback as to how well you were doing?

Larry: In spring training, I could not get my control going. I was very wild, and so they had me go to Kinston to start to work it all out. And I did, with a good solid performance, and then I got the call to go to Bobby Cox's West Haven Yankees, where they expected me to pitch in the first place.

I did throw some of my best baseball in West Haven with great control and a lot of ball movement with the fastball, and the slider was lights-out on the right-handers. I also was keeping my wrist higher up for my slider to make it go down and in on the left-handers. They should have brought me up in the middle of the year, but chose to bring up Ron Klimkoski instead of me. He was experienced in the major leagues and pitching quite well.

They still made a mistake, because I really could have made a mark in the big leagues with the stuff I had at the time. Yes, I did hear rumors, pro and con, about bringing me up.

Clinton: You made your ML debut on Sept 21st, 1972, at Milwaukee. Mike Kekich was the starter; he took the loss, that day. You pitched two perfect innings, struck out a batter. Walk us through your first day with the team, and your first ML appearance.

Larry: I can remember the phone ringing in the dugout to get me up to warm up and come into the game after we were falling behind. I remember my legs were shaking some, and the adrenaline was pumping through my body like never before. I was always one to get up for the big moment in whatever I did. I wanted to show the Yankees and the world that this little high school pitcher from Auburn, Maine belonged in the big leagues.

I had worked my whole life for this moment. It is all a blur after getting on the mound. I remember Munson catching the warm-up throws and then coming out to tell me that I belong in the majors. He said it was just another hitter and that I would be OK.

I remember that first pitch, and I think it was a ball. I was overthrowing somewhat. I took a few deep breaths and settled right in. “Just another hitter to get out”. “He is no better than me”, I kept saying. I threw the ball very well with a good sinker and slider, and had very few problems in those two innings.

I have a Yankee fan, who is now my friend, that was in the stands that day, named Dr. Mark Cannon, and he said I looked great and seemed to be calm, even though my insides were all over the place. I kept my cool and am so very proud I had success!

Clinton: You ended up facing the Brewers again, this time at Yankee Stadium. You got the start, and went five strong innings, giving up only one run on three hits, striking out six. It was the final game of the regular season. You also made history, that night. It's bottom of the third, you're leading off the inning, bases are empty. Can you describe the at-bat vs. Jim Lonborg? Do you remember what pitch he threw that you sent into left field?

Larry: Again, I was always a guy that got pumped up for any big moment in my life. I remember standing in the batter's box, taking my warm-up swings, and I said to myself, “This could be my only at bat in the major leagues. I am not going down without a fight.”

I had a great bat in high school and loved to hit. I had a lot of pride in my pitching and hitting abilities. So, as I stood at the plate to face the great Jim Lonborg, who was pitching a great game, I said to myself, “I will not be called out on strikes. I will go down trying to hammer the ball.” His first pitch was a strike that I took, then he threw a few on the plate and I did not swing. I worked the count to 3-2. At this point I know that fastball is coming because I am a no-hit pitcher up to bat, and he is not going to walk me from a curve ball. So, I am looking fastball.

He throws me a high fastball at my letters, trying to throw it by me. I got my bat head out in front of that fastball and hit a bullet down the line, in Yankee Stadium! The ball went all the way to the wall. I was standing on second base thinking I was in a dream. I could not believe I had a double, and I looked up and out came Elston Howard with my jacket to keep my arm warm. My blood now was really boiling as at that point I was batting .1000 in the bigs, with a double, no less. No cheap hit from Jim.

The next hitter hit a ball to the shortstop and I shocked him by running to third, and he did not throw me out. The next hitter made an out, so they could not score me to tie the game up. If we would have tied that game, I would have pitched the rest of the game because I was throwing great that night, as you can see with the 6 K's in 5 innings.

Anyhow, it was an experience of a lifetime, and then 20 years or so later I find I out that that the ball is historic. Since that was my first hit, they stop the game and give me the ball. I decided to let the Hall Of Fame have it after it having been appraised for $6,000 or more, which I wrote off my taxes.

Today, the Hall tells me the ball is invaluable for its place in all of baseball history. I am so honored to be part of baseball history during my very short cup of coffee in the big leagues.

Clinton: So where did life take you after your time in baseball was over? What have you been up to, since then?

Larry: I decided to go in the life insurance business and worked as a sales rep soon after retiring from baseball. That career lasted about 25 years or so.

Today, I am semi-retired over the past nine years. I am now a professional singer and piano player doing about 140 performances a year, singing to the senior community all over Maine. I perform the old standards and a lot of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Broadway music, gospel and much more.

My two biggest moments were singing at the Metropolitan Club in New York City and singing the National Anthem for the Boston Red Sox. In my spare time I play a lot of golf, ski, go kayaking, and I'm generally enjoying my later years in life.

The nature of baseball is such that, even when a player has a small window in which to make his mark, nearly anything is possible. Larry Gowell experienced this, first-hand, and left his own mark in the history of the game. While his time with the Yankees is precious to him, it was merely prelude to a successful and fulfilling life after the cheering stopped.

Mr Gowell still retains that passion for the game that drove him as a pro, and is especially proud that his son and grandson have the same love for baseball as he does.

"My son Chad Holland had a great baseball career at Mt. Olive Community College in North Carolina. He broke a lot of records, like total shutouts and complete games."

"He was also a great defensive first baseman and hit over .300 during his time at the school. He hurt his arm his sophomore year. He came back strong right at the end of his college career, but not strongly enough to get drafted."

"An Independent team picked him up and he played several months. His arm was not right and he couldn't throw hard. He is now a coach for Velo Sports in Burlington, N.C, and gives private lessons, as well as coaching the Velo Sports road team, on which my grandson Tucker has become a strong prospect as a lefthanded pitcher and first baseman."

"The baseball tradition will live on in my family. I'm very proud of that. "

(Mr. Gowell has acquainted himself with social media, recently, and has a Facebook page under his name. He is also using a photo previously shot by a Topps photographer to make his own baseball card through the Topps website. It is based on the classic black-bordered 1971 issue, and is available via eBay for the moment, as the print number is very low. Check out his YouTube videos here.)