Al Cowens

August 19, 2008
Baseball was something of a caste system during the Cardboard God era. Here are the winners of the division races during those baseball-obsessed years of my childhood:
Year AL East AL West NL East NL West
1975 Red Sox A’s Pirates Reds
1976 Yankees Royals Phillies Reds
1977 Yankees Royals Phillies Dodgers
1978 Yankees Royals Phillies Dodgers
1979 Orioles Angels Pirates Reds
1980 Yankees Royals Phillies Astros

There’s a bit of variation, with four one-time division winners among the 24 possible division crowns, but for the most part the teams heading to the playoffs each year had been there before recently and/or would be there again soon. The years that were my most formative baseball years, 1976 through 1978, highlighted the overall static nature of the era, with only one team, the peaking dynastic Reds in 1976, marring the stranglehold on the divisions of the Phillies, Yankees, Royals, and Dodgers.

Those were the years, for me, that seemed to go on and on. Now the years go by like nothing. It seems to me now that back then each year was an immense expanse, and that the division winners had been the division winners forever and always would be. Because of my hatred for the Yankees this was wrenching to me in terms of the AL East. And judging by my enthusiastic embrace of upstart teams in the NL West (Astros) and NL East (Expos) in the latter stages of this era, I must have found the Phillies and Dodgers dominance stultifying. But I think there was on some level a kind of comfort in having the same teams win every year. I allowed myself to celebrate this comfort in my feelings for the Royals. The Royals could be counted on to kick ass and look cool doing it.

For some reason Al Cowens epitomizes this comforting aspect of my childhood. He was always there, a good player with no discernible weakness on a team loaded with good players with no discernible weaknesses. He could play good defense and fly around the bases and smack sizzling bases-clearing doubles. The entire Royal roster seemed to be like this. They came at teams like a powder blue electrical storm. I didn’t like them when they were beating my team, the Red Sox, but other than that I admired them and didn’t at all begrudge their stranglehold on the AL West.

In the most static years of the era, the playoffs reinforced the caste system feel, the Royals and Phillies always getting bounced. Finally, in 1980, the Royals and Phillies signaled the teetering of the caste system that would crumble in the coming decade by finally beating their respective torturers, the Yankees and Dodgers. But by then, Al Cowens had moved on from the Royals. I was somewhat stunned to find out just now that Cowens played more years in the majors away from the Royals than he had played with the Royals. To me he’ll always be a Royal, just as, strange as it may seem now, after years of franchise irrelevance, the Royals will always be for me a team of stylish, fleet, Cowensesque ass-kickers. The news that Cowens had drifted around for years and years for the Tigers, Angels, and Mariners was almost as jarring to me as the news that this symbol of one of the more stable aspects of my childhood passed away back in 2002. He was only 51.

The years are going by too fast.


  1. 1.  Amen to that. It was shocking to me to find out that some of my Brewer Icons floated around with other teams, as in Don Money with the Phillies, Ben Oglivie and Cecil Cooper with your very own Red Sox. I also had enough Al Cowens cards to pave the streets with, and for good reason, heck of a player. Like Dave Collins, he quietly put together season after season of solid years, and destroyed my team in the process while doing so.
    Sadly he passed just as quietly, with little fanfare.

  2. 2.  You should have taken comfort from the NFC Standings back then, too.

    70 – Cowboys, Vikings, 49ers
    71 – Cowboys, Vikings, 49ers
    72 – Redskins, Packers, 49ers
    73 – Cowboys, Vikings, Rams
    74 – Cards, Vikings, Rams
    75 – Cards, Vikings, Rams
    76 – Cowboys, Vikings, Rams
    77 – Cowboys, Vikings, Rams
    78 – Cowboys, Vikings, Rams
    79 – Eagles, Bucs, Rams
    80 – Cowboys, Vikings, Falcons

    When you were 10, a year was 1/10th of your entire life. Now, a year is 1/40th of your life. No wonder they go by quicker!

  3. 3.  1 : Cowens also had one great year, in 1977, when he finished second to Rod Carew in the MVP vote.

    2 : Man, what was it about time standing still in (NFC) football and baseball in the years ’76-’78? Interestingly, things couldn’t be much different during that time in hoops, when the crumbling of the graying powerhouses such as the Celtics, Lakers, and Knicks; the ABA merger; Bill Walton’s unpredictably brittle wheels; and a pre-Magic/Bird culture of team-wreckingly selfish play combined to make each season markedly different from the one before. Then again, in ’78 and ’79 the same two teams did face off in the Finals.

  4. 4.  The Bullets and the Sonics kept my faith in B-ball during those years.

  5. 5.  Time also stood still in NBA Milwaukeeland as the Milwaukee Bucks consistently finished as Groomsman for almost the entire decade of the 80’s. Edge of your seat in defeat.

  6. 6.  When the OJ chase was going on in California, I first thought I heard that the man with him was Al Cowens, not Al Cowlings.

  7. 7.  4 : That late ’70s era in the NBA gets kind of a bad rap, I think. It’s generally thought of as a “dark before the dawn” of the coming of Magic and Bird, but there certainly were plenty of guys who must have been a blast to watch, such as George Gervin, World B Free, Gus Williams, Bob McAdoo, Wes Unseld. Not to mention the elite threesome of Dr. J, Walton, and Kareem.

  8. 8.  5 : I liked those Bucks teams a lot. Is Sidney Moncreif in the Hall of Fame?

    6 : I think I may have thought the same thing. If nothing else I at least thought of Al Cowens as the news coverage of the chase cut into the 1994 NBA Finals game between the Knicks and Rockets. Conversely, I thought about OJ’s driver when I first looked at this card this morning, specifically at the “AC” on the batting glove on Cowens’ left hand.

  9. 9.  No, Sid’s not in the hall. He should be. If only for choke slamming Bill Lambeer into the second row behind the north back board at the old MECCA arena. Between him and Paul Pressey, those teams were fun to watch. Ah…… the days of 135 points on the board.

  10. 10.  9 : Boy, did anybody NOT attack Laimbeer? I know Bird did, and Parish sledgehammered him with his giant fist right in the middle of a playoff game, amazingly not getting called for a foul.

    One of my favorite ever SI covers featured Moncrief:


  11. 11.  This is my favorite part of the the Al Cowens baseball-reference page:
    Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 75th round of the 1969 amateur draft.

    Everybody except the Expos and the Royals (two of the four expansion teams that year) had gone home by the 53rd round. The Expos chose one player in the 76th and then stopped. The Royals kept going until the 90th round.

  12. 12.  I missed the time Cowens played with the Royals. To me he always was and always would be one of the better players on the Mariners, who would always suck, and the guy who attacked Ed Farmer.

  13. 13.  What’s that you say? Mariners?

    No. I absolutely refuse to believe that Al Cowens ever pulled on a pair of cleats and suited up for any other team in the entire universe other than the Kansas City Royals.

    Unimaginable. Period.
    End of discussion.

    Interesting corroboration of the mid-seventies static sports milieu in hockey as well.

    The Rangers may have been going through the unstable roster-front office-uniform altering “Crest” years, (culminating in Fred Shero guiding the “Ooh La La” team of ’79 to the Stanley Cup Finals,) BUT…

    the gold standard on the table (and engraved on The Cup) were the Montreal Canadiens, who were champions four times straight from ’76-’79. Just squeaking by the Bruins in the finals for two of those years, and the semis for one.

  14. Incidentally, I rocked the aviators during the mid-70’s too.
    They were silver wire-rimmed jobs that took up half my face,
    inevitably drawing comparisons to Ogilvie from my fourth-grade teacher, little league coach, and others.

    That’s Ogilvie as in Bears’ pinch hitter/team statistician Alfred Lutter.

    Not Ben.

  15. Al Cowens always reminded me of the token black character actor cast to play on a 70’s t.v. show usually playing the part of a black Physical Education teacher in an all white suburban high school.

    I usually look at the era as: 1976-1981 Where the core teams Yankees, Phillies, Royals, Dodgers made the playoffs every year except the Dodgers in 1980 and none of them made it in 1979. That was another odd thing about 1979, it’s like those four teams all took the year off. And 1979 always reminds more of a last gasp of the great teams of the early to mid 70’s.

    1982 seemed like the begining of a changing of the guard. The Big Red Machine was finally dead, the Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs until 1995, The Phillies other than a fluke season in 1983 wouldn’t be a strong team until 1993, the Dodgers infield finally got broken up.

    The Royals actually won the division in 84,85 and won the World Series in 1985. And if John Schurholz didn’t trade Cone and Danny Jackson for Ed Hearn and Kurt Stillwell and then sign Mark and Storm Davis, they might have been a powerhouse in the late 80’s early 90’s.

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