Dick Howser, the soft-spoken former Kansas City manager who in 1985 led the Royals to their only World Series championship after one of the most dramatic comebacks in major-league history, died yesterday at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. Howser, a former Yankee player, coach and manager, was 51 years old and had been battling brain cancer for almost a year.
He entered the hospital June 3 after a series of three operations supplemented by experimental therapy failed to curb the cancerous tumor that had been diagnosed during the All-Star Game break in July 1986, when he managed the American League team.
Howser, who underwent surgery that month, had another operation last December and also underwent experimental treatment in which cancer-killing cells were injected into the affected area. He attempted a comeback as the Royals' manager in February, but after only one day of spring-training workouts he stepped down. Kept 'Pushing and Pushing'
''I've been pushing and pushing since the first operation in Kansas City and the second operation in Los Angeles,'' he said at the time. ''I couldn't do it.''
He had a third operation the next month, but his condition continued to worsen, and by early this month he was so weak he had to return to the hospital.
''No matter how you prepare for this day, when it actually happens, it's a shock,'' said George Brett, the Royals' third baseman. ''You just hate to see him go. He's going to be missed.''
''This is a sad day for baseball,'' Peter Ueberroth, the commissioner of baseball, said. ''Dick Howser was one of the great men of our game.''
In a major-league career that spanned 25 years, Howser, who broke into the big leagues in 1961 as a shortstop with the Athletics, then the Kansas City franchise, and later played with the Cleveland Indians and the Yankees, won acclaim both as a player and coach, but it was as a manager that he excelled. In five and a half seasons, Howser's teams never finished lower than second place. Rookie of Year in 1961
As a player, he was chosen as the American League's Rookie of the Year after batting .280 and striking out only 38 times in 158 games. With the Indians in 1964, he tied an American League record by playing all 162 games at shortstop. After completing his eight-year playing career with New York in 1968, he spent 10 seasons as a Yankee coach.
After coaching at Florida State for a year, he took over as the Yankee manager in 1980 and led the team to the American League Eastern Division championship, compiling 103 victories and becoming only the fourth manager in major-league history to win more than 100 games in his first season.
His most impressive achievement, however, came two years ago when he took a team that had not been regarded as a serious contender at the beginning of the season to the American League's Western Division championship and then to dramatic seventh-game victories over the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series and over the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. In both cases, the Royals came back after being down by three games to one.
Howser, who was born in Miami on May 14, 1936, laid the groundwork for his professional career as a star shortstop at Florida State, where he was twice an all-America selection and set a school record with a .422 batting average as a sophomore in 1956. Last April, the school's baseball stadium was renamed in his honor.
He played three seasons in the minors before joining the Athletics. Howser, who was traded to the Indians during the 1963 season and then sold to the Yankees before the 1967 season, never matched the batting record he had made as a rookie and finished his career in 1968 with a .248 career average. Replaced Martin as Manager
During his decade as a Yankee coach, Howser handled the duties at third base and managed winter-league teams. He left the Yankees after the 1978 season and spent a year coaching at Florida State, then was selected by Steinbrenner to replace Billy Martin for the 1980 season.
Under Howser, the Yankees built a strong lead, but slumped in August. Steinbrenner began criticizing his manager and his players almost daily. Howser, known for his patience, shrugged it off but didn't always ignore it.
After the Yankees lost three games of a five-game series to the Baltimore Orioles in August, Steinbrenner remarked that the Baltimore manager, Earl Weaver, ''is a genius; our guy is a rookie.'' The Yankees then went to Seattle, where they beat the Mariners and their rookie manager, Maury Wills. After the game, Howser said, ''I just want to say I might be in line to be rookie manager of the year because I beat the other rookie.''
Although the 1980 Yankees led the majors with 103 victories, they lost the league playoffs to Kansas City, and Steinbrenner did not invite Hoswer back.
Steinbrenner, however, refused to say that he was dismissing Howser. Instead, he told a gathering of reporters in his office six weeks after the end of the playoffs that Howser had been presented with an ''unbelievable'' real-estate deal in Florida that he could not turn down.
Asked point-blank if he had been dismissed, Howser said, ''I'm not going to comment on that.'' Hired by Royals in 1981
With two years to go on a three-year contract and his $200,000 annual salary assured, he returned to Florida to pursue real-estate investments. But when the call came from the Royals during the strike-shortened 1981 split season, he accepted and replaced Jim Frey as manager.
He took the club to a first-place finish in the West in the second half of the 1981 season. The club finished second in 1982 and 1983 and first in 1984 and again in 1985 when he and the Royals were finally able to overcome their postseason jinx.
He is survived by his wife, Nancy, and twin daughters, Jan and Jill