By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
No one could’ve predicted that Dick Fowler would make history on September 9, 1945.
Just eight days earlier, the 6-foot-4 Toronto native had returned to the Philadelphia A’s pitching staff after a 30-month term in the Canadian Army.
Though Fowler had pitched in a recreational league while in the service, he was understandably underwhelming in his first three appearances back with the A’s, allowing 11 runs in 11-2/3 innings.
“I can honestly say I was never in worse shape in my life,” Fowler told a reporter in 1947 about his conditioning after returning from the army.
But Connie Mack’s bottom-dwelling A’s, with another lost season winding down, required a starting pitcher for the second game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns that day and Fowler, who was a fierce competitor and anxious to re-establish himself as a starter, gladly accepted the assignment.
Led by shortstop Vern Stephens and first baseman Lou Finney, the Browns were a formidable opponent. They had won the American League pennant the previous season and had 25 more wins than the A’s heading into this contest.
Given Fowler’s poor conditioning and the fact that he had been asked to throw seven innings in relief just four days earlier, there were questions about his stamina. Would he able to pitch deep into the game?
The answer was a definitive yes.
Armed with an arsenal that included a mid-to-high 80s fastball, a nasty curve and a work-in-progress change-up, Fowler took the mound in front of 16,755 fans on a dreary, overcast day at Shibe Park in Philadelphia and dominated.
Throwing to Buddy Rosar, one of the top defensive catchers of the era, the crafty Canadian walked Browns second baseman Don Gutteridge in the third inning to nullify his chance for a perfect game. And he nearly lost his no-hitter to the next batter when mound rival Ox Miller, who was making his first major league start, clubbed a grounder up the middle that A’s shortstop Al Brancato had to range far to his left to corral and flip to second baseman Irv Hall for a force out of Gutteridge.
With A’s fans cheering his every out from the fifth inning on, Fowler poured every ounce of energy he had into each pitch. Rosar would later tell reporters that Fowler’s fastball seemed “unusually alive” that day.
The Canuck right-hander laboured in the latter innings, issuing single walks in the seventh and eighth frames, but there was never a question of him coming out of the game and he had just enough grit and guile to make it to the ninth with his no-hitter intact.
After retiring Miller on a fly ball to left to open the ninth inning, he walked centre fielder Milt Byrnes and up stepped Finney, the leading hitter on the Browns. The left-handed hitting first baseman watched a strike and then took a ball before hacking at Fowler’s third pitch and ripping a line drive over the head of A’s first baseman Dick Siebert. A hush went over the crowd and Fowler’s heart seemed to stop as he watched the ball twisting, twisting, twisting and then smack the earth about four feet foul.
After catching his breath, Fowler took a moment to collect himself, then reared back and threw a fastball that Finney topped to Hall who flipped the ball to Brancato who fired it to Siebert to complete an inning-ending double play. In nine innings, Fowler had held the Browns without a hit.
“I threw every pitch that Buddy Rosar called,” Fowler told reporters after the game. “I had been away for three years and I figured he knew the hitters better than I did.”
But even after tossing nine hitless innings, Fowler wasn’t guaranteed a victory. Miller was almost equally as effective for the Browns, holding the A’s off the scoreboard and to just three hits – including a double by Fowler in the third inning – through eight innings.
Fowler later confided to Toronto Star reporter Trent Frayne that he was out of gas after the ninth and he couldn’t have pitched another inning.
Fortunately for him, in the bottom of the ninth, A’s right fielder Hal Peck, who once shot off two of his toes in a hunting accident, socked a ball off a loudspeaker on the right-centre field wall and chugged into third base with a triple. Hall then followed with a line-drive single over the second baseman’s head to score Peck and secure a 1-0 win. After Peck touched home plate, the A’s rushed towards Fowler just outside their dugout.
But in an extraordinary display of sportsmanship, Fowler escaped the grasp of his teammates and ran to the dejected Miller to shake his hand. The Canadian righty wanted to recognize that Miller had pitched his heart out that day, too.
A testament to how much Fowler’s teammates liked him came when, after giving him a moment with Miller, they ran over and embraced him one-by-one before A’s fans picked him up and hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him around the infield.
Even Fowler’s normally stoic manager was moved. Sporting his trademark business suit, the 82-year-old Mack left his customary spot on the A’s bench and walked out and put his arm around Fowler, no doubt feeling a sense of fatherly pride in the young pitcher his scouts had plucked from north of the border.
“Dick had a dazed look on his face and a big goofy grin,” recalled Phil Marchildon, a fellow Canadian who was also a key member of the A’s rotation, in his 1993 biography, Ace, of the on-field celebration after the no-hitter.
At one point, Fowler managed to sneak away from his teammates, who continued to celebrate in the clubhouse, to a phone booth under the stands and call his wife, Joyce, and his two-year-old son, Tommy, to share the news.
Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Hank Littlehales conducted the most extensive post-game interview with Fowler, in the right-hander’s hotel room.
“I felt fine from the very first inning,” Fowler told Littlehales. “I knew I had a good start toward a no-hitter, but strangely enough, I wasn’t worrying about it. It was a wonderful feeling when we got that one run . . . I’m a pretty lucky guy, I guess.”
In his article the next day, Littlehales praised Fowler for his “innate modesty” which was “perfectly blended with cool confidence.”
“He [Fowler] had a right to be elated – and he was,” wrote Littlehales. “He had a right, too, to be proud – but the manner of pride displayed was not of the smug, self-satisfied hue. Rather, it was the unprepossessing attitude of being grateful for the fielding and hitting support of eight Athletics teammates who helped make possible this red letter day.”
Of the 27 outs Fowler recorded, 11 were via the ground ball, eight were fly outs and he fanned six batters. Just five fly balls got out of the infield.
After the interview with the Littlehales, Fowler joined a group of teammates – including Marchildon – for some celebratory rounds at a local tavern.
Fowler’s no-hitter was the first thrown by a Canadian in the big leagues. It was also the first by an American League pitcher since Bob Feller held the Chicago White Sox hitless on April 16, 1940 and the first by an A’s pitcher since Joe Bush on August 26, 1916.
Author David M. Jordan, who wrote the 1999 book, The Athletics of Philadelphia, was a 10-year-old A’s fan in Philadelphia when Fowler tossed the no-hitter.
“I do remember that for the A’s fans around, it was exciting to have our just-returned Canadian airman throw a no-hitter, and it generated some hope for the future of the team in 1946,” recalled Jordan in an email. “We didn’t get too many of those excitements in Philadelphia in those days, so Dick Fowler did generate a good bit of talk, among the fans, in the papers, and on the radio.”
The no-hitter was the highlight of Fowler’s successful 10-year major league career.
Born in Toronto on March 30, 1921, Fowler was raised in the Stanley Park area of the city, which is approximately two kilometres west of the Rogers Centre. His parents were Richard J. Fowler, a sawmill operator, and Mary (Gould). He also had four sisters: Ethel, Marie, Gertrude and Martha.
His family was Roman Catholic and it was with the Catholic Youth Organization teams that Fowler would hone his skills, primarily in the Stanley Park and Christie Pits neighborhoods. The tall, lanky Torontonian began pitching at age 12 and was toeing the rubber for the St. Mary’s Juveniles four years later when he learned about a baseball school being overseen by Dan Howley, the manager of the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs, who had a working agreement with the A’s, in July 1937.
Just 16 at the time, Fowler initially told the organizers he was 21 in order to participate. Reports at the time describe him as a “tall, gangling youth” who stood 6-foot-1 and just 130 pounds, but his arm immediately dazzled Howley who compared the youngster to former A’s ace Chief Bender.
About 150 prospects attended the camp, but only 45 were selected to participate in a showcase game. Fowler was one of the standouts and he struck out two of the three batters he faced, while the other hit a weak fly ball to the third baseman.
Though he marvelled at Fowler’s arm, Howley, who had learned Fowler’s real age, couldn’t sign a 16-year-old and he told the local kid to go back to school, but to stay in touch and keep pitching. Fowler did as ordered and by happenstance, the young right-hander bumped into Howley at Maple Leaf Stadium a year later while he was watching a football game. By that time, Fowler had sprung up two inches and added 30 pounds to his frame. Recalling the youngster’s arm, Howley invited the Toronto native to Leafs’ spring training in Avon Park, Fla., in 1939.
The amiable, low-key Fowler, who had never strayed far from Toronto, took the invite in stride, but his St. Mary’s Juveniles teammates and baseball friends were so excited that they threw him a farewell party and took up a collection for him so he would have some spending money when he went south. Frayne reported the sum of the collection to be $35. They also bought him a suitcase.
“Dick had no bad habits, except an appetite for hot dogs and hamburgers,” wrote Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette. “And when the club started north a month later, he still had some of the money.”
Fowler impressed the Leafs that spring and they signed the 18-year-old and shipped him to their Class-C Can-Am League affiliate in Cornwall, Ontario where he felt homesick and was hit hard in three appearances. He returned to Toronto and told Howley that he would like to be reassigned to their Class-D club in Batavia which wasn’t as far from Toronto. Howley initially balked, but after he saw Fowler throw a bullpen session, he agreed to the move. With his new squad in Batavia, Fowler posted a 9-11 record and a 4.39 ERA in 25 games.
But it was the following campaign that would be life-changing for Fowler, both on and off the field. In 1940, he was sent to the Class-C Oneonta Indians of the Can-Am League where he proceeded to register a 16-10 record and a 3.57 ERA, while tossing 20 complete games, in 32 appearances.
That season, he also met a pretty 18-year-old named Joyce Howard. Joyce told Jim Shearon for his excellent 1994 book, Canada’s Baseball Legends, that she was a big baseball fan who had given her autograph book to a girlfriend to pass it on to Fowler. When told of his female admirer, the bold young right-hander kept the book and decided to return it in person. Upon meeting Joyce, he was smitten. The two began dating and quickly fell in love and the teenagers were married on March 8, 1941 at St. John’s Garrison Church in Toronto.
Veronica Fowler, Fowler’s eldest granddaughter, says that like her grandfather, her grandmother (Joyce) was “very tall and thin.”
“They made a really cute couple,” said Veronica. “You can tell they were deeply in love just by looking at the pictures.”
The new husband suited up for his hometown Maple Leafs in 1941 and went 10-10 with a 3.30 ERA in 27 contests, and his contract was purchased by the A’s that September.
The then 20-year-old Canadian made his major league debut on September 13, 1941 against the Chicago White Sox at Shibe Park and hurled a complete game, allowing just one run on seven hits to notch his first big league win.
Marchildon, who had won 10 games for the A’s that season, marvelled at Fowler’s poise.
“The big, friendly kid – he was still only 20 years old – seemed to have ice water in his veins,” wrote Marchildon in his biography. “Nothing bothered him. Fowler was no longer the string bean I’d first met, having filled out to 215 pounds and gained another half-inch in height. He threw hard and had a nasty curve. Right from the start it was obvious that he belonged.”
In all, Fowler would register a 3.38 ERA in four games (three starts) that September for the A’s before becoming a regular member of the staff the next season. In 31 contests – including 17 starts – in 1942, Fowler went 6-11 with a 4.95 ERA. His most notable appearance came on June 5 that year when he threw all 16 innings in the A’s 1-0 loss to the Browns at Shibe Park.
By this time, however, the Second World War had begun and Fowler officially joined the Canadian Army on January 17, 1943, becoming a member of the 48th Highlanders of the Royal Canadian Infantry. Gary Bedingfield writes on his Baseball in Wartime website that Fowler was injured during a military exercise and was assigned a job at the military post office. He also pitched recreationally while in the service and at one point, he was toeing the rubber every Sunday for the Hamilton Thurstons of the Victory Baseball League, a Niagara area circuit.
The 24-year-old Canadian was discharged from the Army on August 15, 1945. He returned to his home in Oneonta, N.Y., to be with Joyce and their two-year-old son Tommy. Since birth, Tommy had suffered from what was believed to be Fibrous Dysplasia – a condition which led to a physical deformity in one side of his face.
Unfortunately, Tommy would also struggle with other health issues during his childhood, including a thyroid condition that required surgery and his well-being weighed heavily on his father.
Shortly after Fowler’s return from the Army, Mack contacted him and asked him to come back to the A’s. The right-hander was torn. He wanted to be there for his wife and young son, but the family also needed money, so he reluctantly went back to the big league club.
His no-hitter on September 9 would be his only win of the 1945 season.
In the ensuing four campaigns, Fowler established himself as a reliable starter. In 1946, he recorded a strong 3.28 ERA for the last-place A’s. And he was even better the next year when his 2.81 ERA in 36 appearances was the third-best in the American League. He also hurled a career-high 16 complete games, including eight in a row between July 10 and August 27.
Fowler then put together back-to-back 15-win seasons in 1948 and 1949, despite pitching with bursitis in his throwing shoulder.
Bursitis is an extremely painful condition that made it hard for Fowler to lift his arm let alone throw more than 100 pitches a start. Nevertheless, Fowler used tenacity, guile and even incorporated a knuckle ball into his arsenal to compensate for his diminishing velocity. Rosar hailed Fowler as the smartest pitcher he had ever handled.
“I remember when I used to come to the mound when he was pitching and say, ‘how you cutting it?’” recalled his former A’s teammate Hank Majeski in a 1972 interview. “Dick would say, ‘If it didn’t hurt so much, I’d be okay.’ This guy had guts the size of his body.”
In 1950, however, the pain became too much and after posting a 6.48 ERA in 11 games to begin the season, Mack sent Fowler home to rest his arm.
By this time, Fowler had become a local celebrity in Oneonta, and the town took advantage of his hiatus from the A’s to honour him at a Can-Am League game between the hometown Red Sox and Amsterdam Rugmakers at Neahwa Park on August 25, 1950. The event was organized by the town’s Citizens’ Committee who presented Fowler with a gift for being the town’s first former Can-Am League player to reach the majors.
Four days later, Fowler’s daughter Candice was born at A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital in Oneonta, N.Y.
Fowler rested for the remainder of the summer. But with his arm feeling better, the Canadian right-hander re-signed with the A’s on February 6, 1951, and though he did pitch more that season, he struggled to a 5-11 record and a 5.62 ERA in 22 contests.
The following January he re-upped with the A’s and poked fun at his diminishing velocity in an interview with the local Oneonta paper.
“After I throw, I turn to count my infielders to see if they are still there,” Fowler said with a laugh adding that “when I pitch they take married men off the infield.”
Unfortunately the 1952 campaign would be his last in the majors. With his bursitis flaring up again, he recorded a 6.44 ERA in 18 games and was released by the A’s after the season.
With a family to provide for, Fowler was hoping to land a contract with another big league organization, but when that failed to materialize, he settled for a deal with the Triple-A Charleston Senators of the American Association.
Often pitching in agony, he did his best in his two seasons with the Senators. He registered a respectable 3.68 ERA in 29 starts with the club in 1953, but by the end of his second campaign, he knew his professional pitching career was over.
“I talked to him on the mound on several occasions when he had tears in his eyes from the pain,” Gordon Goldsberry, a first baseman for the Senators, told Shearon.
Fowler returned to Oneonta to begin his post-professional baseball career. Beginning in 1955, he worked various positions, including selling menswear at a local department store. He also coached one of the town’s first Little League teams and participated in instructional camps in the region. And when his damaged shoulder permitted him, he also toed the rubber for the local semi-pro squad.
In 1963, he began a job as the night deskman at the Oneonta Community Hotel. Fowler’s daughter Candice told Shearon that some of her fondest memories of her father are of him returning from his night shift and cooking breakfast for him on Sunday morning before he went to church. The family attended the St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church.
Fowler also became a loving and playful grandfather.
“The biggest thing I remember about my grandfather is that he used to like to play in the garden with my sister (Deanna) and I,” said Veronica Fowler. “He would do anything that we asked. If we asked him to make mud pies with us, he would make mud pies with us.”
She also recalls her grandfather’s affinity for shining shoes.
“I remember back in the 70s, it was a big thing to shine your shoes, so he would sit in his recliner in front of the TV, which was a very old green vinyl recliner. It had duct tape on the arms because he didn’t want to get rid of it. It was his favourite chair,” said Veronica. “He would have us go down in the cellar and get the polish for the shoes and we would sit on his lap and he would polish our shoes.”
Fowler’s son, Tommy, survived many health obstacles and treatments to graduate college, marry his wife, Linda, and be a loving father to Veronica, Deanna and Richard (named after his grandfather). Tommy worked in the construction business in New York and later for Porter Lumber after the family relocated to Florida.
Veronica says her father, who died in June 1985, had a “hard life.”
“My dad also had a growth hormone problem so he was very big,” said Veronica. “So when he was 16, he was probably 6-foot-7. And he had the facial deformity and the bigger you get, the bigger it gets. So one side of his face was bigger than the other.”
But he was also a source of strength and inspiration for his family, and his daughters loved him dearly.
“He certainly lived well past what they thought he would, but he was pretty sick all of his life,” said Tommy’s youngest daughter, Deanna Henry.
Veronica says her father was diagnosed with bone cancer in the early 80s and after several surgeries they also found an inoperable tumor on his pituitary gland.
“Towards the end it was worse, he had bone cancer and that’s eventually what he died from,” said Deanna. “But he was an inspiring man and an awesome dad.”
Tommy’s major league father, who continued to live in Oneonta, made it back to Toronto on different occasions, including on October 5, 1968 when the Stanley Park Baseball Association honoured him at their reunion dinner at the Skyline Hotel.
Unfortunately by the early 1970s, Fowler’s health began to deteriorate. The former big leaguer battled kidney and liver ailments and reports of him being too ill to attend local instructional camps began to surface as early as February 1971. At the beginning of May the following year, he was admitted to Oneonta’s A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital. Three weeks later, on May 22, 1972, he died when he was just 51.
“Dick was not only a great ballplayer, but he was a warm decent human being who was respected by all who knew him,” wrote Oneonta Star columnist Ed Moore after Fowler’s death.
Fowler’s body was laid to rest in the Oneonta Plains Cemetery.
Thirteen years after his death, Fowler was elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Toronto. His sister, Martha, accepted the honour on his behalf.
His widow, Joyce, lived until 1996.
“She was a strong person,” recalled Veronica of her grandmother. “She didn’t put up with crap from anybody . . . She was a very loving lady, but you knew what you got with her. There was never any surprise when it came to her personality. And I loved her for it.”
Fowler would also have been proud to know that his grandson followed in his footsteps and played professional baseball. Like his grandpa, Khalid Ballouli, Candice’s son, was a tall and smart right-handed pitcher. He toed the rubber for parts of five seasons in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization between 2002 and 2006 before a lat injury forced him to retire. And though his grandfather died almost eight years before he was born, Ballouli, who went on to earn three degrees – including a Ph. D. – from Texas A&M, considered him a significant influence.
“His impact on me being a ballplayer was certainly very heavy,” said Ballouli in an April 2020 phone interview. “I’m proud to be his grandson.”
In May 2018, Fowler’s name resurfaced in the news when James Paxton (Ladner, B.C.) became the second Canadian to throw a no-hitter in the major leagues when he did so against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre – about two kilometres from where Fowler was raised – on May 8, 2018.
Henry says she was proud to hear her grandfather’s name after Paxton’s no-hitter, so much so that when she saw his name on her TV screen, she recorded the graphic.
Veronica was also very proud. She has become the Fowler family historian and owns a vast collection of newspaper clippings and photos of her grandfather.
“I loved my grandfather and even though I only had him for five years I was very close to him,” she said. “I just regret that I didn’t have him longer because I’m definitely someone who would ask him all the questions about his major league career.”
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Reichler, Joe, “Dick Fowler Hurls No-Hit, No-Run Tilt,” Messenger Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky), September 10, 1945, p. 7.
Shearon, Jim, “The Underrated Dick Fowler,” The Baseball Research Journal – SABR.
Shields, Steve, “Dick Fowler, Veteran Hurler for the Athletics, Hopes to Regain Stride in 1952 Season,” The Oneonta Star, January 24, 1952, p. 12.
Shields, Steve, “Sport Spotlight,” The Oneonta Star, July 30, 1948, p. 26.
Sica (Sikes), Frederick R. “Speaking of Sports,” Bradford Evening Star. September 17, 1941, p. 12.
Smith, Dale, “Dick Fowler: One for the record books,” Along the Elephant Trail, Philadelphia Historical Society publication, 1999
Walker, Gordon, “Athletics Certain to Pick Up Dick Fowler,” The Globe and Mail, August 1941, p. 14.
Walker, Gordon, “Dick Fowler Impresses Howley and Shaughnessy at Maple Leafs School,” The Globe and Mail, July 22, 1937, p. 16.
Whitlemore, Bob, “300 attend annual baseball dinner, George Case honored,” The Oneonta Star, February 8, 1971, p. 10.
Whitlemore, Bob, “Big day for Jackets, and for Dick Fowler,” The Oneonta Star, October 5, 1968, p. 13.