Bowens, Sam

Primary Positions: Right field, left field
Birthplace: Wilmington

First, Middle Names: Samuel Edward Jr.

Date of Birth:  March 23, 1938          Date and Place of Death: March 28, 2003, Wilmington
Burial: Greenlawn Memorial Park, Wilmington

High School: Williston High School, Wilmington
College: Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tenn.

Bats: R             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1, 195
Debut Year: 1963       Final Year: 1969          Years Played: 7
Teams and Years: Baltimore Orioles, 1963-67; Washington Senators, 1968-69

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
479   1287   287    141      143      45      .223     .283     .375     0.0

Much was expected of Sam Bowens when he joined the Baltimore Orioles at their spring training camp in Miami, Florida, in 1964. He had been a star athlete in high school and college and had hit .346 in the minors the previous year before pulling a groin muscle in July and struggling through the rest of season. He hit with power and played the outfield with grace. His throwing arm was a weapon that base runners respected. Bowens would team with Boog Powell, another powerful youngster, to give the Orioles a potent, lasting tandem.

“You don’t give up on a guy like that,” manager Hank Bauer said that spring, “not at least until the day after tomorrow.”[I]

Young Sam, it seems, was made for this moment. “He was born like that, I would say,” Sam Sr. once said of his son’s athletic ability. “We would be in the yard, playing catch, and I’d have to tell him to cool down a little. He was throwing too hard.”[II]

He attended Williston High School where he won 12 letters in basketball, baseball and football during his four years , the most anyone at the school had ever won.[1] He pitched and played shortstop on the baseball team, quarterbacked the football team and was the center on the basketball team. He was captain of all three teams his junior and senior years and was all-state in each sport.

At what is now Tennessee State University in Nashville, Bowens started on dynastic basketball teams that won three straight small-college, national championships, starting in 1957. He was also an outfielder on the baseball team. Bowens would be inducted into the school’s hall of fame in 1983.

So, yes, much was expected that spring of 1964. And, by and large, Bowens delivered. He hit 22 home runs and drove in 71 that year as one of the Orioles’ regular outfielders. He got some votes for rookie of the year. That season, as it would turn out, would the highlight of his major-league career.

An injury shelved him for seven weeks the following year. By the time Bowens returned, rookie Curt Belfry had taken his job. Then, it was Paul Blair in 1965. Relegated to pinch hitting and late-inning defensive duties, Bowens’ average plummeted. Though the Orioles made it to the World Series in 1966, Bowens didn’t appear in a game.

He was dealt to the Washington Senators in 1968, where he was a part-time player for a couple of seasons. He was out of baseball by 1970.

Bowens moved to Indianapolis, the hometown of his wife, Pheola, and he was largely forgotten. His name would occasionally come up in discussions of one-season wonders, usually followed by the question: What happened?

Newspaper stories late in Bowens’ life attributed some of his decline to a beaning incident in a game against the Boston Red Sox in September 1965. “It affected my hitting,” Bowens told a reporter in 2002. “I’d pull my head out up there. I wouldn’t stay with the inside pitches. I would bail out and drop my hands.”[III]

The story was repeated in his obituary the following year.

The records, though, indicate that Bowens didn’t play in the three September games against Boston that year. In fact, he wasn’t hit by a pitch the entire season.

High, inside fastballs and alcohol are the more likely answers. Bowens couldn’t hit one and may have hit the other too often. American League pitchers exploited his weakness for high pitches. Alcoholism likely made them harder to hit. He said the drinking started when he reached the major leagues when beer was available in the clubhouse after every game. “I would drink six or seven a day,” he told a reporter. “It was like drinking soda pop.” He tried to do something about it by entering a rehab center in Boston during his career.[IV]

Divorced from Pheola, Bowens returned to Wilmington in the late 1980s. His three surviving children lived in Indianapolis at the time.

Bowens’ health continued to deteriorate, and he was living in a Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, nursing home when he died in 2003. His room was partially paid for by a Major League Baseball program to help destitute and disabled players.

Sam Bowens was inducted into the Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.

[1] Williston High School was an important historic and athletic landmark for African Americans in Wilmington. The school, now a middle school for gifted students, traces its roots to abolitionists who started a school in 1866 for freed slaves. Among its graduates are Meadowlark Lemon of the Harlem Globetrotters and Althea Gibson, the first black tennis star.

[I] “Sam Bowens: He’s Unnoticed Oriole.”  High Point (NC) Enterprise, April 10, 1964.
[II] Voorheis, Mike. “Former Williston Star, Oriole Sam Bowens, Dies in Wilmington.” Wilmington (NC) Star-News, April 1, 2003.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Carree, Chuck. “Unfulfilled Promise.” Wilmington (NC) Star-News, September 2, 2002.