PAULA GRAF: Baseball's
In The Blood
by Editor, Rick
For a gal who never played
Graf has seen a lifetime of baseball
games. And she knows a pair of big leaguers intimately:
Bowa (Sac City 1965) and
Johnson (McClatchy 1980). It's fair to say
that the Bowa Family--like the Forsch's and
Lee's--are in that exclusive echelon of baseball royalty^ in
In the Bowa family, major
leaguers go back to Frank Demaree, who played for the Chicago Cubs during the 1930s
and 40s. He was an uncle by marriage to Paul
Bowa, Larry and Paula's father. Paul spent
summers with his Aunt Nadine (Michello) and Uncle Frank at their home in Winters. Nadine,
however, eventually had a falling out with her family, and the relationship faded, according to
Paula Graf. Demaree was voted #9 on the All-Time Top 50 list compiled by
BaseballSacramento.com earlier this year. Go here to read DeMaree's stats.
Paula Graf goes through the
scrapbook of her father, Paul Bowa.
A talented athlete growing up, "Paulie" Bowa ran track, played football and soccer, and
naturally roamed the sandlots during the spring and summer. At Sac High, he also excelled on the
gridiron, but after graduation he turned to his number one passion:
In 1941, Paul began playing professionally for
Merced in the California League (Class-C). In 1944, he played one season for the Sacramento
Solons, which at the time was affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals. Younger brother Frank
Bowa followed in his footsteps, playing six seasons in the minors, including
During that time he met his future wife Mary at a dance. A fine softball
player growing up in Roseville, Mary excelled at shortstop, the position her son eventually
would play. Paul and Mary married, combining Italian and Yugoslavian heritages. Anticipating the
ubiquitous question about how brother Larry got his famous temper, Paula says about her parents,
both very strong individuals and had strong family values. As you can imagine, it was pretty
heated around the house," she laughs.
Paul Bowa played for the Solons in 1944. He is represented in
an artistic treatment
of an iconic photo showing Bowa crossing first base.
The fine art print is by
In 1946 Paul started the season playing for the
Stockton Ports (Class-C, California League). In mid-season the Cardinals' organization hired
him to serve as player-coach at Fresno (Class-C, California League). In 1947, the Cardinals
assigned him to Duluth (Class-C, Northern League)
in the same role.
In the book Larry Bowa: I Still
Hate to Lose,* it notes that during this
period Mary, who had been living and traveling with Paul, became tired of boarding houses, cheap
hotels and long periods alone in strange little towns, caring for her young
child (Larry). Then Paul was beaned in a game and
lost consciousness. When he awoke three days later, Mary was standing by his side. A priest had
read Paul his last rites.
At his wife's insistence, Paul Bowa reluctantly retired from a life on the
road, a decision he lamented the rest of his life. He told the book's co-author, Barry M.
wanted to go back for one more season on my own. Give it one more shot as a manager. Leave
them home," Paul recalled about his decision
(Go here to read Paul's minor league career playing and
The Bowa's raised their children in
a home located near the southwest corner of William Land Park. Larry Bowa played youth baseball (Little League, Pony League and Colt
League) on the Land Park diamonds near his home. His dad purposefully coached against Larry all
his life, starting in Little League, to avoid the whispers that the kid couldn't make it
"without his old man" (Paul even managed Fort Sutter American Legion while Larry was
playing for Post 61). Paula says her parents were fixtures at Land Park Diamond Number One (now
Doc Oliver Field), parking their lawn chairs in deep centerfield whenever Larry
One of the most often-told stories
is how Larry didn't make the McClatchy High varsity. There are various theories about why a
future major leaguer didn't play on his high school team. Each one sheds light on the
In a recent interview with the ESPN Rise Guys,
Larry confirmed, "I got cut three years in a row. The coach at that time
(Bill Whiteneck) said I was too
small." Paula Graf offers a
unique perspective into the story. "Larry never
came home and told us (about being cut)," she explains. "He kept it a secret. He
pretended he was going to practice for
"He was devastated," adds her
Graf, who had played with Larry in Winter
League as a teenager.
In Larry's biography, the senior
Bowa confided he thought Whiteneck actually was punishing Larry to get back at the
father. "We had
gotten into some arguments when we were managing against each other, so he took it out on
Larry," Paul told co-author Barry M.
Former scout Ron King managed the
1964-65 Julius Winter League team that included Larry Bowa, along with several future major
leaguers. He heard from several sources close to McClatchy that Whiteneck just didn't like Larry
Bowa because he was a known hot-head as a young player. King one time even counseled Larry
to "knock that s**t off," with coach Paul Bowa within
King, however, admired Bowa's play on the field.
"He had great hands," he remarked about the shortstop. "I don't think I ever saw him
make an error (for Julius)."
Paul Bowa (back row, far left) coached Julius in Winter
League 1964-65 (Ron King, manager,
stands next to Paul). Larry Bowa is in the front row, third from left.
Brother-in-law Jim Graf is next to him, second from left. (Photo courtesy of Ron
Bowa readily admits to the "hot-headed"
reputation, and now laughs about the time he was tossed from both ends of a
doubleheader after arguing calls with umpires on the day when Philadelphia Phillies scout
Eddie Bockman had come out to watch him. Jim Graf, who remembers it vividly, said
"(Larry) was unbelievable in that way."
Larry Bowa's feistiness and competitiveness
weren't limited to the diamond. Paula, who is six years younger, remembers her
brother "…gave me a tough time, even when we played cards, he wouldn't give me an edge.
Any game, he wanted to win."
Bockman eventually got a good look at Bowa when
he placed him on a Winter League club he managed in the Peninsula League. He
also watched him play two years at Sacramento City College for Del Bandy, where
Larry made all-conference in 1965.
Paula Graf remembers the day Larry signed his
Bockman came over to the house and told Larry to
go out to his car to fetch something from the glove box. Larry knew what it was and
raced to the automobile, opened the compartment and sprinted into the house holding a
Phillies contract with his name on it. It included a $2,000 signing bonus. Paul Bowa
suggested Larry should hold out for a higher bonus. But Larry just wanted to sign and get
started in his pro career.
The sister also recalls her mother challenging
Larry on his decision to play pro ball. "What if you don't make it?" Mary
"I'm going to make it, there is no
adamantly told his mother. "I'm going to play in the
big leagues." He signed that summer, and from 1966 to 1969 Larry progressed through the
Phillies organization. In April 1970 he debuted as the Phillies starting shortstop. He was
third in voting for Rookie of the Year Award. His career culminated with a Phillies World
Series ring in 1980.
(To read Bowa's career stats and
achievements see his page on the All-Time Top
Meantime, the Bowa family moved from Land Park to Greenhaven after the state
filed eminent domain on their house to clear a swath for Interstate 5 construction. Despite living
out of district, Paula was allowed to attend McClatchy High. Although she didn't play sports, she
was an active supporter of school teams and enjoyed her time in high
She married Bob Johnson in 1972, and together
they had two sons, Joe (born 1974) and Nick (1978). Both boys were active and played sports.
Grandpa Paul watched the kids after school since Paula worked, and he shared his love of
baseball with the grandchildren.
The Johnsons divorced when the kids were young,
and in 1985 Paula married Jim Graf, a school teacher and coach, and Larry's pal from the
Winter League days. Since they had joint custody, the Grafs bought a house in South Land Park
so the boys would be close to their father's home.
As the younger brother, Nick Johnson "always
played up" with the older boys, Paula says. Even as a youngster, she could see that Nick
"just loved to play baseball." Jim recalls that from an early age Nick always said one day he
would become a major league ballplayer.
For starters, Uncle Larry arranged for him serve
as the team batboy, and taught him how to behave around big leaguers before Bowa
retired in 1985 at age 39 from the Chicago Cubs.
Paula Graf and son Nick at
Legends Field in Tampa 1998 when Johnson played for the Yankees' High-A team in the
Florida State League.
(Photo courtesy of Paula Graf)
About a decade later, Nick Johnson's smooth,
lefthanded swing and baseball pedigree attracted the scouts to McClatchy High. When he wasn't
hitting off the tee in the garage or playing for the Lions, Nick hung around the Riverside
Athletic Club, his home away from home. He made All-Metro his senior season (hitting .364)
and all but one big league team visited the family home. The New York Yankees--the only team
that didn't come calling-- selected Nick in the third round. He was signed by Yankees' area
scout Greg Orr and was represented by Rex Gary, who is still his agent (Gary was referred by
Starting in the Gulf Coast League as a 17-year-old, Johnson spent five years
in the minors before the Yankees called him up August 21, 2001 for a game against the Texas
Rangers. Paula got the call the night before, but was unable to make the game on short
Nick started at first base. In the top of the second
inning, he came up with no outs and Shane Spencer standing on second base. On a 3-2 count, he
laced a single to right field off the Rangers' Doug Davis. In his first big league at bat,
Johnson had hit safely and also claimed his first run batted in, while going 2 for 4 on the
day. He played the rest of the season on the Yankees, batting .194. However,
Tino Martinez returned to his starting post at first base in time for the
season, Johnson made the Yankees out of spring training, and compiled a .243
average with more than 400 at bats. By 2002, Nick Johnson, like his uncle Larry Bowa,
had become a full-fledged major league
Over the years, his mom has seen many of
his games, usually on television. One game she is glad she missed was against the Mets
on September 23, 2006. That afternoon Nick Johnson collided with rightfielder Austin
Kearns and fractured his femur bone. The recovery forced him to miss the entire 2007 season.
The broken leg was one of many injuries that
have interrupted Johnson's once promising career. In 2003 it was a stress fracture in his
right hand. In 2004, a back injury. In 2006, the broken leg. In 2008, a torn ligament in
his right wrist. And in 2010, a reinjury of the right wrist. "It's just been one thing after
another," Paula says, noting that each injury requires strenuous rehabilitation, robbing time
from family and other off-season recreational activities. "After every injury, his rehab in
the offseason is like he has another job."
After playing for the Washington Nationals from
2004-2009 (and part of 2009 with the Florida Marlins), Nick rejoined the Yankees in 2010. But
the right wrist injury limited him to fewer than 100 at-bats.
This past offseason, he signed a deal with
Cleveland. But the wrist failed to recover in time to start the season, and the Indians
designated him for extended spring training.
Indians Director of Player Development, Ross
Atkins, said recently that Johnson's recovery is going well and he is nearly ready to
return to game activity at the team's training facility in Goodyear, Arizona. "We are hopeful
to have him in a more appropriately competitive environment in the coming weeks. He has been
very consistent with his work and follow-through," Atkins
The Grafs have their fingers
Over nine seasons Nick Johnson is
hitting .270 with 91 home runs and 387 RBI, and the stat Johnson is best known for: a .488
Nick Johnson was voted
#23 in the All-Time Top 50 poll of the greatest MLB players from
Sacramento. To read Johnson's
career stats, go here.
Paula notes that Nick and Larry have developed a
great relationship over the years, and talk frequently on the
Larry Bowa (background) coached third base for the
and Dodgers under manager Joe Torre.
(June 25, 2010 - Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images North
This year marked a transition for Larry
Bowa as well. A coach with the Yankees and Dodgers under
manager Joe Torre (2006-2010), when Torre retired last year Bowa hired on as an analyst for
MLB.tv. Jim and Paula enjoy watching Larry on television, where he was encouraged to let his
humor shine through. She says that Larry has calmed down a lot since his fiery temper tantrums
on the ball field, in part due to fatherhood.
Bowa, who occasionally visits his family in
Sacramento, told the Rise Guys radio show last month, "(Sacramento) was a good place to be
raised, a good place to play baseball. And that's always going to be home for
Asked if she still enjoys baseball after a
lifetime of watching her brother and son play, Paula Graf smiles: "I love it. I'm hoping the
fourth generation (two-year-old Nick Johnson Jr.), will continue the (family
Adds husband Jim Graf, "It's in her
contents © Rick Cabral 2011
Except where owned by other copyright
^The Forsch family includes brothers
Ken and Bob. The Lee family includes Leron, Leon and
* Larry Bowa: I Still Hate to
Lose, 2004, Barry M. Bloom and Larry Bowa
Sports Publishing L.L. C.