Fans, athletes will miss `host with most' Fowler


May 21, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

WHEN CHARLES Joseph Fowler Jr. is buried this morning, he will take a part of Baltimore sports history with him.

Chuck Fowler, 65, died of cancer Monday, and his death has stirred a lot of memories among old Colts, Orioles and Clippers fans who frequented Buck Fowler's Tavern at the intersection of Belair Road and Northern Parkway from the 1950s onward while Fowler was the bartender and owner.

On any given day or night, any pro athlete might have dropped in. John Unitas. Artie Donovan. Ordell Braase. Mike Curtis. Boog Powell. Rick Dempsey. Even the local media would come by, writers such as Larry Harris, Gerry Kelly, the late John Steadman and broadcasters including Chuck Thompson, Vince Bagli and the late Charley Eckman.

The transition continued when the Ravens came to town, with visits from coach Brian Billick and former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, now the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.

Buck Fowler's Tavern was a sports bar before they became fashionable.

"It was an old-fashioned, gritty, Baltimore kind of bar, and he was an old, blue-collar Baltimore kind of guy," former Colts defensive back Bruce Laird said of Fowler, who worked 37 years for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 1993.

"He didn't care if you were a CEO or whatever, he treated everyone the same, which is why the athletes came here. He was a great listener. If you came into his place with a lot of [hot air], he'd run your ass out. Players respected that."

Fowler had a lot of clout with athletes. Legend has it that Powell once faked an ankle injury in the late innings to leave early so he could attend a crab feast with Fowler (if Earl Weaver only knew). He'd throw an athlete out of his bar just as fast as any other patron if he misbehaved, and Fowler had the backing of other players.

When Donovan was hospitalized recently, Fowler, against doctors' orders, supposedly smuggled Donovan his favorite beer (Schlitz) along with spaghetti and meatballs, sausages and peppers.

"I was outside mowing the grass today thinking about how I would never see him again," Donovan said. "He was just a genuine man, a real gentleman."

Fowler, whose father, Charles "Buck" Fowler, opened the bar in 1950, always fit in with the players because he had the same locker-room humor. He'd talk like Laird, who opens up his monthly local NFL Players Association meetings at the tavern by saying, "Everybody sit down and shut up."

Fowler was that way. He was honest and blunt. If he really liked you, he would insult you. But he was extremely caring, which is why he gave away nearly $12,000 a year in charity over the past three decades. During the past 10 years, he allowed former players to meet once a month in his establishment to work on league issues such as pension plans and disability. The local NFLPA chapter will pick up the expenses for his wake.

"I spent a lot of time in Chuck's place laughing my butt off," Donovan said. "Everybody loved the guy. He was always giving, always taking care of somebody, especially the players."

Fowler's blue-collar personality matched the modest atmosphere of the tavern. There is nothing extravagant about the building, composed mostly of siding and a small brick front. The inside isn't much bigger than the combined space of a large living room and an average-sized dining room, but the bar is hand-carved oak with mirrors as backdrops.

The walls are packed with memorabilia - autographed pictures from Unitas, Jim Mutscheller, Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore. There are autographed jerseys on the wall from John Mackey and Berry.

Inside a case in the back are the old Orioles uniforms of Gene Woodling and Dave McNally, bats from Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger, all autographed. Al Kaline used to stop in here, and so did Billy Martin when he was manager of the New York Yankees.

At one time, street cars used to pick up and leave off passengers in front of the tavern before and after a hard day's work at the Sparrows Point steel plant.

"Guys would come in, get a few shots in the morning, jump on the street cars and go to work," said James L. Fowler, 61, a younger brother. "Guys could come here, be themselves. They'd autograph balls, and there wasn't any $5,000 signing fee.

"We always used to have a Christmas party here. I remember one year Artie forgot to tell Unitas he had moved the party. Unitas came in, sat down and hung around for two hours. People bought him drinks, and he bought them drinks.

"We never made any announcements about players coming in; they just dropped in. Charley Eckman, he'd come in and tell stories. Nobody could tear up a joint like Eckman. That's just the way it was back then."

Those days are over. We're in the era of athletes who command $10,000 to $25,000 for an appearance while the limousine is outside waiting. Autographs? They charge for them, too. Superstars don't eat out in public because they have their own chefs.

Donovan stayed at Buck Fowler's Tavern for the cheeseburgers, hot dogs and salami.

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