PAULA GRAF: Baseball's In The Blood

by Editor, Rick Cabral

For a gal who never played sports, Paula Graf has seen a lifetime of baseball games. And she knows a pair of big leaguers intimately: brother Larry Bowa (Sac City 1965) and son Nick 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 Sacramento.

Paula Graf goes through the
scrapbook of her father, Paul Bowa.

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 earlier this year. Go here to read DeMaree's stats.

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: baseball.

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 the Solons.

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, "They were 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
  Paul Guyer. 

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. Bloom, "I 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 managing stats).

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 played. 

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 situation.

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 awhile." 

"He was devastated," adds her husband, Jim 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. Bloom. 

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 earshot. 

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 King)

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 pro contract.

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 asked. 

"I'm going to make it, there is no doubt," Larry 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 50)

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 school.

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 Uncle Larry). 

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 notice.

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 playoffs. 

The following 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 ballplayer.  


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 said. 

The Grafs have their fingers crossed.

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 On-Base Percentage.

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 phone. 

Larry Bowa (background) coached third base for the Yankees
and Dodgers under manager Joe Torre.
(June 25, 2010 - Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images North America)

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 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 me…" 

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 tradition). 

Adds husband Jim Graf, "It's in her blood." 

Uploaded 05/07/11

All contents © Rick Cabral 2011
Except where owned by other copyright holders.

^The Forsch family includes brothers Ken and Bob. The Lee family includes Leron, Leon and Derrek.

* Larry Bowa: I Still Hate to Lose, 2004, Barry M. Bloom and Larry Bowa
  Sports Publishing L.L. C.