Montreal Gazette reporter Dink Carroll referred to Homer “Dixie” Howell as “the prodigal son.”
The description was apt when you consider that Howell played parts of six seasons, in four separate stints, with the Montreal Royals. No matter where the likeable catcher traveled during his lengthy professional baseball odyssey, his road always seemed to point back to Delorimier Stadium.
By the end of 1953, Howell was 33 and ostensibly in the twilight of his career. He had been a player-coach for the previous few seasons and was hoping to land a similar gig in 1954. Fortunately for him, ex-teammate Max Macon was named manager of the Royals that off-season and Macon’s first move was to bring in Howell as a catcher and coach.
“At 34, Howell was a team leader from the start, belting a three-run homer in the home opener against Syracuse,” writes William Brown, in his fine 1996 book, Baseball’s Fabulous Montreal Royals. “He was a workhorse in 1954, catching 107 games and upgrading Montreal’s offence by hitting .305 with 13 homers and 57 RBIs.”
On top of his offensive contributions, Howell was a steadying influence behind the plate who helped coax 18-win seasons out of Ken Lehman and Ed Roebuck. The Royals would finish second that year and come within one victory of the league title.
Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1920, Howell was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938. He competed in Class-D for two seasons, before spending part of the 1940 campaign with the Class-C Ottawa Senators of the Canadian-American League.
The following campaign he joined Macon, at that time a pitcher and outfielder, in Montreal and helped the Royals capture the International League championship and advance to the Junior World Series for the first time.
After a disappointing 1942 season, in which he batted just .171 in 62 contests for the Royals, he returned to Montreal and upped his batting average to .259 in 1943, enough to earn him the club’s regular catching duties.
His career was interrupted by military service in the U.S. Army in 1944 and 1945, before he returned to Montreal to suit up alongside Jackie Robinson for a Royals team that’s considered one of the best in minor league history. It was Robinson’s first season in integrated baseball and the pioneering African American was subjected to all sorts of racial taunts from both fans and opponents. In David Falkner’s book about Robinson, Great Time Coming, Howell’s 1946 Royals teammate, Al Campanis, shares that Howell was one of the Royals players who would yell back at opponents if they taunted Robinson.
“You wanna pick on somebody, pick on me,” Howell would say.
Howell shared catching duties with Herman Franks on that dominant Royals squad that not only captured the league championship, but for the first time in franchise history, won the Junior World Series.
The following spring, Howell finally cracked the Dodgers’ big league roster, but he didn’t see any game action before he was traded to the Pirates on May 3 as part of a package for Al Gionfriddo. The then-27-year-old catcher stuck with the Pirates in 1947 and hit .276 and belted four homers in 76 games.
Despite a respectable rookie season in the big leagues, Howell found himself back in Triple-A in 1948, this time with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. He hit .292 with the Seals, before the Cincinnati Reds selected him in the Rule 5 draft. Howell would serve as a back-up catcher with the Reds for the next four seasons.
On October 10, 1952, the Reds traded him back to the Dodgers for Clyde King. He played one game for the Dodgers in 1953, but spent the bulk of the campaign with the Dodgers’ Triple-A St. Paul Saints.
After a standout season with the Royals in 1954, Howell was employed as a player-coach with the big league Dodgers the following season. He hit .262 in 16 games, but his primary role was as the club’s bullpen catcher. The August 14, 1956 edition of the Montreal Gazette reported that after the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series, Howell was awarded a full World Series share “bringing his earnings up to $26,000” for the season.
Howell returned as a player-coach with the Dodgers and the Montreal Royals the next season. Unfortunately, he was at a Miami night club when a brawl broke out that June. Brown writes that Howell was present at the fracas along with fellow Royals Billy Harris and Bob Walz. The trio had to bailed out of jail by Royals manager Greg Mulleavy.
While Harris and Walz received relative slaps on the wrist from the organization, Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi was furious when he heard that Howell, a 36-year-old player coach, was involved and he suspended Howell for the rest of the season. Bavasi felt that he had went out of his way to look after Howell in the twilight of his playing career by providing him with coaching roles and a World Series share in 1955.
“That’s what made Buzzie Bavasi so angry when he learned about the rhubarb in the Miami Beach night club. He felt that Dixie had let down an organization that had given him every possible break,” wrote Dink Carroll in an August 14, 1956 Montreal Gazette article.
For his part, Howell, even though he was simply a bystander in the fracas, didn’t make excuses.
“I was wrong being there in the first place,” said Howell.
Fortunately, Howell had supporters in Mulleavy and Royals GM Rene Lemyre who lobbied Bavasi to have Howell reinstated. Bavasi eventually relented and Howell returned and would serve as a player-coach for the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in St. Paul in 1957 and 1958.
Baseball Reference indicates that Howell was the manager of the Class-A Jacksonville Jets (a Houston Colt .45s affiliate) of the South Atlantic League for part of 1961, but little has been written about Howell since.
We do know that he passed away on October 5, 1990 in Binghamton, N.Y. at the age of 70. He was survived by his wife, Frances.
*This is the 15th article in my series about members of the 1954 Montreal Royals. You can read my articles about Roberto Clemente, Billy Harris, Don Thompson, Gino Cimoli,Chico Fernandez, Glenn Cox , Joe Black, Ed Roebuck, Jack Cassini , Bobby Wilson, Ken Lehman, Charlie Thompson , Dick Whitman and Max Macon by clicking on their names.