The Best Toronto Manager You’ve Never Heard Of.

So, you think you know your Toronto baseball trivia – answer this:

Name the Toronto manager who:

-won two titles leading Toronto teams

-has close to 900 victories to his credit

-managed Toronto on three different occasions 

If you answered Dan Howley (and not Cito Gaston – had some of you there), you are a true Toronto baseball expert.

Library of Congress photo

Daniel Phillip Howley was a larger-than-life character, who was a dominant sporting personality in Toronto for almost two decades.

   In the first half of the last century, there were few bigger than Howling Dan in Canadian professional baseball circles.  He played in the major leagues, led the Toronto Maple Leafs to two International League and one Junior World Series titles, and managed in the big leagues with the Browns and Reds.  Howley was also the subject of two short stories by his good friend, famous sportswriter Ring Lardner, discovered and signed Canadian amateur players who turned into future big leaguers, and once roomed – albeit unsuccessfully – with Babe Ruth.  

   Born in 1885 in East Weymouth, MA (“Howley put the ‘mouth’ in East Weymouth,” wrote one writer), the loquacious Howley played and managed in Canada for almost half of his five decades in pro ball.  Howley made his professional debut in 1905, and represented the new breed of catcher.  In the early years of baseball, when the catcher stood well back of the batter, backstops tended to be long and lean, all the better to chase wayward pitches.  Howley was more of a stocky type, listed at 6’, 200 lbs, and his type of receiver was built to block pitches in the dirt, catch a lot of doubleheaders, and generally absorb a lot of punishment behind the plate.

Howley played for eight seasons in the minors, most of them with Indianapolis of the American Association, before reaching the major leagues with the Phillies in 1913. His stay was brief, as the quintessential backup catcher was back in the minors after only 36 plate appearances. In the last month of the season, Howley was sent from Portland of the Pacific Coast League to Montreal of the International League, which was considered to be an inferior league at the time. Howley was unhappy with the cut in salary that came with the demotion, and at the end of the year vowed that he was done with Canada in general, and Montreal in particular.

  Lured back to Montreal by the offer of being the Royals player-manager, Howley embarked on a managerial career that would span well over a quarter century.

  Howley quickly became a favourite of fans and reporters in International League cities.  A Baltimore beat reporter wrote:

Baltimore fans will always remember that battle cry: “You Orioles” and how those fans would rise up and greet Dan Howley with everything from peanuts, “sweet names,” to pop bottles. Howley was advertised, and the fans flocked to Oriole Park just to see Dan Howley in action. And he always coached on third base.

  International League reporters began to call Howley “Howling Dan.”  The Toronto Star described Howley as, “a big upstanding Irishman with a booming voice and inexhaustible fund of anecdote.”  Because he was well known to tailors in cities throughout the league, and was always nattily attired away from the ballpark, Howley also acquired the nickname “Dapper Dan,” as a nod to his resemblance to a notorious Prohibition gangster of the day.  

   After four seasons with the Royals, Howley briefly caught on as a coach with the Red Sox after the International League reorganized following the 1917 season, but he returned north of the border in spring training of 1918 when an opening with the Leafs came up in Toronto.  Once again serving as a player-manager, Howley led the club to an International League pennant (despite having only two players return from the previous season’s pennant winning team), but he feuded with club management, and was not invited to return.

  Howley was back with the Red Sox to work with the club’s pitchers and catchers in 1919, and early in the season he offered to help Manager Ed Barrow with a talented but undisciplined young player who was far too fond of the night life, in Barrow’s eyes.  Howley offered to room with the problematic Babe Ruth, saying, “Why, manager, I’ll put an iron ring through his nose if I have to.”  As it turned out, Howley was fond of after hours activities too, and his time with Ruth ended when the slugger promised to leave a note for Barrow at the front desk of the team hotel telling his Manager what time he came in the night before.  If his return wasn’t until the small hours of the morning, Barrow – desperate to have Ruth’s but in the lineup – wouldn’t put him in the starting nine that day. With the Red Sox – winners of the American League pennant three of the previous four seasons – finishing a disappointing sixth, twenty games behind the White Sox, both Howley and Ruth were gone before the 1920 season.

  After a year managing Hartford of the Eastern League, Howley was back in the bigs with the Tigers as a coach in 1921.  While with Detroit, he solidified his reputation as a great teacher of fundamentals, filled in for a sick umpire in a game, and developed what would become a longtime friendship with his boss, Tigers’ player-manager Ty Cobb.  Howley engineered a turnaround in the Tigers hitters’ performance when he ordered the club’s pitchers to all take a turn throwing their hardest and best stuff in batting practice, considered a radical move at the time, but one that saw the club compile team averages above .300 in his two seasons with the team. When the Tigers signed an affiliation agreement with Toronto prior to the 1923 campaign, Cobb asked Howley to return to the shores of Lake Ontario to help develop Detroit’s top prospects. 

The Leafs were under new ownership when Howley came back for his second stint as bench boss. Lol Solman had dreams of moving the team from their home park on the Toronto Islands to a sparkling new facility on the city’s rapidly bustling lakefront. Under Howley’s guidance, the Leafs improved steadily every year, and by 1926, Solman was ready to move his club into beautiful new Maple Leaf Stadium, a steel and concrete bowl on the lakefront called the best facility outside of the major leagues when it opened. Howley had lost prized slugger Charlie Gehringer to the Tigers, but he had a lineup that he felt could end the seven year reign of the Orioles atop the International League standings. The Leafs started slowly, but finished on a tear, going 37-6 over the final six weeks of the season to capture the pennant. Toronto then went on to play American Association champs Louisville in the Junior World Series, sweeping the best-of-nine series to bring the title home. Even though Howley’s squad lacked marquee names, his shrewd management of his pitching staff and the hustling, small ball style he had the team play landed the Leafs as the 21st-ranked club on the all time Top 100 minor league teams list.

Toronto Star, August 23, 1926

  After four successful seasons in Toronto, Howley was much in demand as a big league manager.  Cobb was coming to the end of his run with the Tigers, and Howley was offered the job of replacing him, but he refused, saying he couldn’t take the job of a close friend.  American League owners were concerned that Howley would sign with a National League club, so an opening was created for him with the St Louis Browns.  After a dismal seventh place finish in his first year (1927), 50 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees, Howley cleaned house, and engineered a turnaround that caught the attention of baseball fans and writers alike across both leagues.  The 1928 Browns finished third, still 19 games back of New York, but Howley guided the team to an 82-72 record, a twenty-three game improvement over the previous season.  But storm clouds were gathering, and to complicate matters, Howley had to deal with a meddling owner.  Browns president Phil Ball and Howley constantly bickered over personnel decisions, and in 1929, when St Louis finished a respectable fourth, six games over .500, it was not enough given the expectations created by the previous year.  Howley’s three year contract was not renewed when the season ended.  

Howley wasn’t out of work for long. Several weeks after the end of the 1929 schedule, he was offered the helm of the Cincinnati Reds by new owner Sidney Weil. Weil, a minority shareholder of the club, won an expensive bidding war in early October to take over control of the club. Several weeks after Howley took over, the stock market crash cost Weil much of his personal fortune. Unable to provide Howley with high-priced talent, the Reds lost 95 and 96 games in the first two years of Weil’s ownership. In 1932, Weil mortgaged much of his remaining wealth (the following season, the team filed for bankruptcy) to upgrade the Reds roster, the biggest acquisition being defending National League batting champ and future Hall of Famer Chick Hafey from the Cardinals. The often-sidelined Hafey had a torrid first two months for Cincinnati before being felled for a month with the after effects of a severe bout of influenza. When Hafey tried to come back in early July, the Midwest was in the grips of a record heat wave. Howley decided to call upon an old friend to help. Jim Shaw of Port McNicoll, Ontario, then an important Great Lakes grain port and steamship hub, had met Howley during his second go with the Leafs, and the two became close friends. To escape the heat, Howley sent Hafey up to recover with the Shaw family for two weeks. It was not the first time Howley had sent recuperating players up to Port McNicoll for rest, relaxation, plenty of home cooking, and a little bit of fishing on Georgian Bay with the Shaws.

  The Reds were in third place when Hafey went down in late May; by the time he came back in August, they had long fallen out of the pennant race.  Cincinnati finished dead last, 43 games behind the Cards, and once again, as his three year contract expired, Howley wasn’t renewed. Howley returned to Toronto once more for the 1933 season, managing the club but hoping for an ownership stake in the team.  When that failed to materialize, Howley resigned, but remained a Toronto resident.  With some extra time on his hands, Howley ventured north to Port McNicoll to do some fishing with Shaw, and to help mentor a talented but raw young pitcher Shaw was managing in nearby Penetanguishene by the name of Phil Marchildon in the summer of 1934.

  Howley came back to manage the Leafs once again in 1937, as a syndicate was hastily formed to buy the team and keep it in Toronto in the face of several seasons of disappointing attendance and rumours of an impending move south.  Burned in the past by call ups of key players by big league affiliates, Howley’s plan was to run the Leafs as an independent club, relying on his vast network of contacts to build a roster.  As part of that plan, Howley hired former big leaguer Clyde Engle to run tryout camps across Ontario to cull the best young amateur players in the province.  Those camps produced Marchildon, who won 19 games for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1947, Dick Fowler, the first Canadian born-and-raised pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the big leagues, and Frank Colman, who played with the Pirates and Yankees, as well as a number of minor leaguers.  

    Howley’s final turn with the Leafs was not as successful as had been hoped for, and he resigned following the 1940 season.  He later caught on with the Red Sox as a scout, helping out in spring training and duplicating Engle’s tryout camps across New England in the summer.  A huge outpouring of grief throughout the game occurred when Howley passed away suddenly in 1944.  A writer who had covered the International League eulogized Howley:

Howley didn’t get such a good break in the majors as his organization didn’t have the cash, or else they refused to put it out for him to get players, but his passing takes from the ranks of organized baseball a wonderful fellow and most colourful figure. Dan, the Big Umpire has called three strikes on you and there is no argument left. Baseball and the boys who pay the freight, will long remember you, Dan, and never a better sport or a true shooter played the game. Best of luck Dan in your new field.

  “Dan Howley always seemed to be the right guy in the wrong place,” observed his good friend Shaw, and that appeared to be the case more often than not.  In his second tour with Toronto, he had a talented team that took four years to break the dominance of the legendary Orioles, the greatest minor league team of all time.  In St Louis, he had to deal with a meddling owner, followed by an owner who put the team into bankruptcy the year after Howley finished in Cincinnati.  

   Howley won over 900 games as a minor league manager, and another 450 in the big leagues.  He was widely regarded as a teacher, and a deft handler of players – he was a player’s manager long before the term came into use.  Howley was elected to the International League Hall of Fame in 1950.  He was nominated this month to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, and deserves to take his rightful place along with the class of 2023.

Barb Benson photo

Clyde Engle Jim Shaw Dan Howley Toronto Maple Leafs tryout camp. Owen Sound, ON 1938

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