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Community mourns baseball star, singer, gentleman

'It's a big loss for the sporting community in Orillia,' teammate says about death of Doug 'Tex' Howard

Doug ‘Tex’ Howard was quiet and unassuming – a gentlemen’s gentleman. He was also a gifted athlete, a talented musician, a friend to all who knew him and, above all, a family man. On Friday, after a brief battle with cancer, Howard died. He was 87.

“I’m sure down the road, we’ll be grateful he didn’t suffer for long, but it’s a bit of a shock right now, for sure,” said his daughter, Brenda Udell.

Howard went to the hospital on Boxing Day due to pain in his abdomen. A lengthy series of scans and tests discovered kidney cancer that had spread to other parts of his body. In recent weeks, the pain intensified and he was taken back to the hospital, where he spent his final nine days.

“He took the news a lot better than we did,” said Udell. “He said to me: ‘I’m 87, I’ve lived a good life. A lot of people can’t say that.’ That’s just the way he was.”

On the night before he died, his son, Dave, brought him his guitar and his cowboy hat and suggested he play a song or two with his friend, who was visiting his hospital room. “He didn’t think he could do it,” said Brenda. “He ended up playing and singing for an hour-and-a-half. It was amazing.”

Udell, who grew up around baseball diamonds, always admired her dad’s baseball prowess. But, first and foremost, she admired him for the man and father he was. “It’s hard to put into words … I will miss him,” said Udell. “He and mom just celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last week – they did everything together. I guess we’re all feeling a little lost.”

That’s a sentiment many of his old teammates are also feeling.

Dean Heliotis, who played alongside Howard with the powerhouse Orillia Majors in the 1960s and later coached him, said Tex was “a great ball player and an even better person.”

Howard came to Orillia in 1960 when his employer, grocery giant Dominion, transferred him to the Sunshine City. That next summer, he ambled over to the Lions Oval, the city’s baseball cathedral, and quickly found a place on a stacked Orillia Merchants team.

He became, almost overnight, a valued teammate and a fan favourite. During his playing days in Orillia – he was a regular for 19 years, retiring at the age of 48 – the Merchants evolved into the Orillia Majors and became one of the most decorated teams of its era.

The Majors won 15 South Simcoe league championships within a 17-year span. In 1964 and 1969, the Majors won Ontario championships, highlighting a golden era of success for the local team. Those two provincial titles were highlights for Howard.

“Back then, the Oval was packed,” Howard recalled five years ago in a Packet & Times article. “Ken ‘Jiggs’ McDonald and Barry Norman (from CFOR) called the games on the radio. It was pretty impressive. It was great to be part of that.”

From an individual perspective, there were also many highlights. He won the team MVP award in 1961 – the same year he was named the Orillia Athlete of the Year. In 1965, he was the league’s batting champion; he hit .429.

He was also a crafty, if reluctant, pitcher, whose ‘Shelburne Bender’ – the name he gave his curveball – proved deceptive and difficult to hit. Even though he was one of the team’s most trusted pitchers, he never liked the role. But he loved the game, so he did whatever he could to help his team.

While baseball helped define Howard, it was only part of his life. He worked hard at Dominion, holding various positions over his time in Orillia, before retiring after 33 years with the grocery store.

After his playing days ended, after he gave up coaching, he turned to music to help fill the void. Over the years, he performed with Western Strings, Hometown Country and Tex & Dottie.

His former teammates were not surprised when he became a musician. Heliotis said he fondly remembers long bus trips to out-of-town games when “Tex would sing and play his guitar. He loved the old country and western songs.”

And his teammates loved him, said Heliotis. “He was a man of good humour who had a will to win,” said Heliotis. “He was dedicated to winning and was a great ball player as far as I’m concerned.”

Heliotis said he will miss his good friend. “It’s a big loss for the sporting community in Orillia,” said Heliotis. “He was a very popular guy. I’m going to miss him.”

A celebration of life will be held in honour of Tex on March 9 from 1 to 4:30 p.m. at ODAS Park. If desired, memorial donations to the Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital Foundation or the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch #34, would be appreciated and may be made at the Mundell Funeral Home.