When Al Cowens went crazy on the baseball diamond

Al Cowens played for the Tigers in 1980 and 1981.

Outfielder Al Cowens played for the Tigers in 1980 and 1981.

One of the first things children are taught about the game of baseball is which way to round the bases. Every batter knows to make a right turn from the batter’s box toward first base. From there, it’s left turns all the way home.

In 1980 a veteran Detroit Tiger outfielder ignored those directions and navigated his own path directly up the middle of the diamond. His reason for performing that startling maneuver was to even the score, not in the scoreboard sense, but in the interest of revenge.

The Tigers acquired Al Cowens from the California Angels two months into the 1980 season in a straight-up trade for first baseman Jason Thompson. Sparky Anderson, in his first full season as Tiger manager, identified Thompson as one of those players in his clubhouse who would never be part of a winning team. Like Ron LeFlore and Rusty Staub before him and Steve Kemp later, Thompson was an All-Star player with a personality that didn’t mesh with the Tigers white-haired dugout leader.

At 28, Cowens had already enjoyed several good big league systems. In 1977 he’d finished second in American League Most Valuable Player voting, when he won a Gold Glove, hit 23 homers, drove in 112 runs, and batted .312 for the Kansas City Royals. But Cowens was dealt to the Angels after the 1979 season, having been involved in a few contract squabbles that hastened his exit from Kansas City.

While still playing with the Royals in 1979, on May 8, in a game against the Rangers, Cowens was injured when a pitch by reliever Ed Farmer struck the right-handed batter in the jaw. Also in that game, Cowens’ teammate Frank White was hit by a Farmer pitch. As a result of his beaning, Cowens missed three weeks. When he returned he wore a protective mask attached to his helmet to guard his surgically repaired jaw.

More than a year later, in a Tiger uniform, Cowens finally faced Farmer again. With the Tigers facing the White Sox in Chicago (Farmer had moved on to a new team also), Cowens led off the 11th inning of a 3-3 contest. After the tall right-hander coaxed Cowens into a grounder to short, he turned to watch the play behind him. Instead of going to first base, Cowens went straight out to the mound, surprising Farmer by tackling him from behind. Both benches emptied, as did the bullpens. Cowens was ejected, of course. But in his mind, he’d exacted a level of revenge.

Cowens bizarre tactic rattled Farmer. The reliever walked Lance Parrish and allowed a run-scoring double to John Wockenfuss before being pulled from the game.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Farmer said later about being greeted by Cowens after his grounder. “Man, I turned and just tried to get some blows in.”

Cowens was fined and suspended for seven games, but that was just baseball justice. Chicago Police issued a warrant for his arrest after filing a complaint against his “assault” on Farmer. To his credit, Farmer agreed to not press charges as long as Cowens would shake his hands.

The two did just that the next time the Tigers were back in Chicago. It put an “all’s well that ends well” ending to one of the more bizarre fights in Tiger history.

Cowens played one more season for Detroit, never solidifying right field the way it was hoped. He spent five more seasons with Seattle, enjoying a few comeback seasons before retiring in 1986. Sadly, in 2002, at the age of 50, Cowens died of a heart attack.

12 replies on “When Al Cowens went crazy on the baseball diamond

  • Fouroclock

    I remember that 1977 season with the Royals and always thought Cowens was one of the most underrated players of that time. Even on the Royals he went unnoticed with the likes of Brett and McCrae. 5 tool player with a cannon for an arm, he couldn’t quite replicate that great season in 1977.

  • Brian Simpson

    Great story Mr Holmes. I had never heard of this incident. I remember Al Cowens as being one of the best players on those great 70’s KC teams, including Amos Otis, John Mayberry, Hal McRae, Frank White, George Brett, and of course the great pitching staffs. And 1977 was Cowen’s best season and also the best record the Royals have ever had. (or ever will…probably) I remember going to games at Royals stadium when we lived in KC back then, and the big scoreboard lighting up with A~C, A~C when Cowens came up, and the crowd chanting A-O, A-O when Otis came up.

  • Joe Gillis

    I remember watching that Tigers/White Sox game when Cowens charged the mound. I was ten at the time. Blew my mind.

    What with the Greinke injury the other day, the Dave Rozema-karate-kick/Tigers/Twins brawl from ’82 has been in the ether. I’d forgotten that that was the SECOND bench-clearing brawl of that game. But I do remember the Tigers’ Kirk Gibson and Richie Hebner throwing (and landing) punches like I’d never seen before in a baseball fight.

    Quite a lot of crazy stuff back in those days. Disco Demolition Night, etc.

    Anyway, thanks for reminding me about Al Cowens, Jason Thompson, Johnny Wockenfuss, et al.

  • Divinity Cowens

    Thank you for sharing this story! Al Cowens was my grandpa. My grandma and grandpa have told me about this incident HUNDREDS of times. It brought a smile to my face hearing it from an outsider(:

  • Steve

    I concur with the Joe Gillis comment. That was a crazy brawl. I just remember it being a long, aggressive fight for a baseball brawl. If Joe says it was Parrish and Hebner, then I agree. Would love to see a video of it.

  • Horatio Ready

    Al Cowens had one of the biggest smiles on a ballplayer I have ever seen. He was a delight to watch in right field and as fans, you always wanted that runner to go for the extra base because you knew Cowens would throw him out. Great years of baseball and Al was one of my favorites, thanks for reviving those great feelings once again.

  • Chad

    I remember seeing Al Cowens get hit by that pitch, as an 8 year old kid I thought he was a goner. Al was our best right fielder and If the Royals would have kept him maybe we win the 1980 World Series. Does anyone have the video of Al getting hit by that pitch.

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