A Pittsburgh native, Art Howe broke into the majors with the Pirates as a backup for everyday third baseman Richie Hebner. After playing sporadically for Pittsburgh during two division-winning seasons Howe was sent to Houston after the 1975 season to complete a trade for Tommy Helms. In his first year with the club Howe managed only a .138 batting average in very limited action at third, but in 1977 saw significant time at second, replacing Rob Andrews (who had been traded to San Francisco for Willie Crawford and Rob Sperring.) Given the opportunity to play regularly Howe raised his average to .264 in ’77 and .293 in ’78. Slowed by a leg injury, Howe’s average dropped to .248 in 1979.
Howe had always been a versatile infielder, and the Astros’ signing of second baseman Joe Morgan as a free-agent in December of 1980 forced him to find playing time wherever he could. For the 1980 season, Houston manager Bill Virdon moved Cesar Cedeno to the outfield and used a combination of Howe, Denny Walling (another converted infielder) and Dave Bergman at first base — Howe also filled in at second, short, and third as needed.
In 1981, another Astros-Giants swap opened up a full-time job for Howe. This time, Howe inherited the third-base job from Enos Cabell, who was shipped to San Francisco for Bob Knepper and Chris Bourjos. Howe turned in his best season in a Houston uniform, including setting a team record with a 23-game hitting streak. His .432 average in May of that year earned him NL Player of the Month honors, and for the season he hit a career-high .296.
Howe’s tenure at the hot corner was short-lived. The Astros acquired the Reds’ Ray Knight in the offseason to replace Cesar Cedeno at first in 1982, but after Howe suffered an ankle injury Knight began to see time at third. Howe spent 1983 on the disabled list, and by 1984 the emergence of Bill Doran at second moved Phil Garner to third and left the declining Howe as the odd man out. After a mediocre 1984 with St. Louis, Howe was released in April 1985.
Always described as an intelligent player and a hard worker, Howe had been considered managerial material even during his playing days. Within a month after his release from the Cardinals, Howe had found work as a coach for the basement-dwelling Texas Rangers under new manager Bobby Valentine. Only three years after his retirement, he returned to Houston as the club’s manager (replacing Hal Lanier) and led the club to a respectable 86-76 finish. In 1990 the team underwent a rebuilding project which saw the team’s record dip in each of the next two seasons. By 1992 the Astros were back to .500 with a strong core of young players, notably Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Darryl Kile, and Ken Caminiti, which would keep the team in good shape throughout the ’90s.
In 1994, Howe was replaced by Terry Collins as the Astros’ manager as part of a front-office shakeup and became an advance scout for the Dodgers. After a year under Don Baylor as a coach for the Colorado Rockies, Howe took over from Tony LaRussa as manager of the last-place A’s. Despite the team’s mediocre 143-191 record over his first two years in Oakland, club management still believed Howe was the best man to oversee the development of budding superstars Ben Grieve and Jason Giambi.
Another sub-.500 finish in 1998 nearly cost Howe his job. During the season, ominous signs had emerged, hinting that his days in Oakland might be numbered. Howe’s pitching coach and close confidante Bob Cluck was fired just before the season began, and team management refused to offer Howe a long-term contract during the year. Many believed that had Jason Giambi, Matt Stairs, and Kenny Rogers not approached Billy Beane after the season, Howe would not have even been offered the one-year extension he eventually signed.
But a fine 1999 season convinced Oakland’s front office that their original hunches had been correct. With one of the lowest payrolls in the majors and his job on the line (it was common knowledge that he needed 39 wins by the All-Star break for his 2000 extension to kick in) Howe led Oakland to a surprising 87-75 record, just seven games behind Boston in the wild-card race.
That record was strong enough to earn Howe another year at the helm, and on February 16, 2001 he signed a one-year, $1 million extension with a club option for 2003. The chances of getting that option seemed slim at first –- the team slumped badly, the players’ attitude was poor, and 2000 MVP Giambi publicly discussed his desire to leave Oakland when his contract expired. By the All-Star break they were 10 games under .500.
In the press, general manager Billy Beane refused to concede the season and trade Giambi, expressing his belief that the team could turn it around. With renewed confidence, Howe guided the A’s to a scorching second half in which they clinched the Wild Card berth with the second best record in the majors behind the awe-inspiring Seattle Mariners.