Bengals business manager Bill Connelly, with one of Riverfront Stadium's seats in his office, pays tribute to the late Bernie Stowe.
If Tony Perez was the Mayor of Riverfront Stadium, then Bernie Stowe was the Sage of Cinergy Field who tucked away Riverfront and Crosley Field into eternity with the same tender loving care he christened Great American Ball Park.
When Stowe, the Reds’ long-time clubhouse man, died at age 80 earlier this week it was a blow felt on both sides of The Banks, where in a galaxy far, far away his team and the Bengals once shared a stadium. If it wasn’t for the ever inexhaustible and always accessible Stowe, Bill Connelly wonders how a house divided would have stood.
“He was always there. It was his life,” Connelly recalled wistfully on Wednesday. “If you needed it, he had it. If he didn’t have it, he knew where to get it.”
Connelly, the Bengals business manager who is heading into his 41st season solving NFL logistics, took plenty of notes when he broke in as a rookie under the wing of John Murdough. In that heady summer and fall of 1976 when the Big Red Machine defended its world championship on the plastic plateau of Riverfront Stadium, one of Murdough’s many nuggets to Connelly contained the adage “Get to know Bernie.”
Connelly went one better. He took notes from Stowe, the former batboy who stayed in the on-deck circle for the next 67 years. Murdough, a character straight from the 1930s casting of “The Natural,” once was the Reds business manager and knew his man well.
“Bernie helped show me the ropes,” Connelly says. “He’s the kind of guy I wanted to model myself after. Do everything they ask you to do and more. Bernie was one of those guys. He was the example.”
And the Bengals and Reds always seemed to need something back in the multi-purpose millennium when they had to convert the Astroturf field starting with the August pre-season games through those late October World Series classics. Murdough bequeathed his field crew to Connelly that changed the configuration from a diamond to a gridiron. The Reds were responsible for getting it back.
But it was the Bengals who had to move in for every home game as Connelly and Paul Brown's original equipment manager, Tom Gray, presided over the shipping of their baggage from their practice facility a couple of miles down the road at Spinney Field. Their locker room was the baseball visitors’ locker room, manned for much of Connelly’s reign by Stowe’s son Mark. Not everything always made it on time, like towels or tape or other necessities.
“If he didn’t know or wouldn’t help you, it would have been extremely tough,” Connelly says. “At the operational level with two teams sharing the same place, it would have been tough. But if you needed something at the last minute, you could always knock on Bernie’s door in the Reds’ clubhouse and he’d have it. He was one of those generous guys who would do everything he could for you.”
Marty Brennaman, the Reds Hall-of-Fame announcer who has been calling games a few years longer than Connelly has been making travel itineraries, has no reservations about Stowe’s impact on the Reds franchise.
“He was there for seven decades and meant as much as anyone,” Brennaman says. “Every player who went through there, he treated the same. Whether it was Johnny Bench or Pete Rose or the 25th man struggling to make the team, he treated everyone alike and the players knew that and respected him for it.”
This isn’t football, Brennaman warns. It’s not once a week. This is baseball. This is 162 games a year.
“So he’d get back from a road trip at 2 in the morning,” Brennaman says. “And the players would leave and he’d stay doing the laundry and make sure those home uniforms were hanging in the lockers.”
That’s why Stowe was always there when Connelly knocked. And like all good and sound gatekeepers, Stowe had a knack for making you feel at ease and comfortable on his turf.
Even for wayward football reporters who might be having a tough day covering the other game. There could be a joke or a friendly insult to make it better. But most likely it was a good story from back in the day. Maybe you could even use it as a note because Stowe threw shutouts when it came to violating confidences.
It turns out he also helped out rookie business managers. During one of those first Conversions, it was Stowe who introduced Connelly to a Cincinnati delicacy when he gave him three cheese coneys from a food run. Usually the Bengals converted the field from 6 p.m.-midnight and along about 10 p.m. it would start to get cold, so Connelly would need to thaw the paint machine.
“And Bernie would say, ‘I’ve got a space heater you can use,’” Connelly says. “He’d come up and put his arm around you and say, ‘It’s OK sonny.’ I was just a young pup.”
But not that long ago to remember a good neighbor.
“He was a Reds legend,” Connelly says.