Card Corner: 1972 Topps: Frank Howard

Perhaps I’ve been watching too many late night horror movies on Turner Classic Movies, but Frank Howard does look a little bit like a vampire on his 1972 Topps card. Thanks to the angle from which the photographer took this shot, we can see what appear to be two small but sharp teeth protruding from either side of Howard’s mouth, with the middle teeth appearing almost invisible. At 6-fot-8 and 275 pounds, Howard was frightful enough; he really didn’t need fangs to strike fear into opposing pitchers of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The unusual angle from which this photo was taken became a kind of Plan B alternative for Topps photographers in the early 1970s. In addition to a standard pose, Topps cameramen made sure to photograph players without a hat, or to do so from underneath so that only the bottom of the cap’s bill is visible. That way, if a player happened to be traded during the winter, Topps would be able to cover up the change with a more generic photograph.

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In the case of Howard, he wasn’t actually traded between the 1971 and ’72 seasons. Like all of the other Texas Rangers, Howard moved with the franchise to Arlington, having relocated from Washington. So as you look at every 1972 card of a Rangers player—everyone from Toby Harrah to Denny McLain—you will see him from the “underneath” angle, or with the cap upturned, or without any cap at all. Given the quality of some of the airbrush jobs of the era, the treatment of the Senators-turned-Rangers was a suitable and wise alternative.

Frank Howard’s story began long before he made the move to Texas. Although he was drafted out of Ohio State by the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors, Howard chose to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He moved up quickly within the minor league ranks, putting up huge numbers at Triple-A and earning a 1958 promotion to L.A. Howard proceeded to win the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1960.

On the surface, Howard did not look like a baseball player. He had the size of an offensive lineman, yet he also wore wire frame glasses that gave him a genteel appearance. He could also look awkward playing the game. He had succeeded the great Carl Furillo as the Dodgers’ starting right fielder, and Howard was no Furillo when it came to fielding. His lack of speed and athleticism made him a difficult fit for the outfield.

Compounding the problem, his lack of a strong throwing arm made him a distinct liability in right field. He would have been better off in left, but Tommy Davis had staked claim to that position. In reality, first base would have been the best landing spot for Howard, but the Dodgers would develop a supreme defender in Wes Parker, arguably the best fielding first baseman of the mid-1960s.

From an offensive standpoint, Howard found himself trying to swat pitches out of the vast confines of Dodger Stadium, where the mound was higher than it should have been, and where the ball did not travel well to the outer limits.

The environment was tough enough for a slugging power hitter like Howard. He made life more difficult for himself by swinging at almost everything that came close to his oversized strike zone. At his height, Howard already had the largest strike zone of any big league hitter. The consummate free swinger, Howard drew few walks and struck out far too often.

After a productive 1962 season, in which he hit 31 home runs, Howard’s hitting fell off in 1963. But his slump did not prevent the Dodgers from winning the pennant, nor did it prevent Howard from having a monster World Series in which he slugged .700 against the Yankees. He capped off the performance by hitting a clutch home run in Game Four. Howard’s blow proved decisive, as the Dodgers won the game, 2-1, to finish off a four-game sweep of the defending world champions.

Then came the disaster of 1964. Howard hit only .226 and continued to strike out at an alarming rate. He began to sit against some right-handed pitching, making him a glorified platoon player. Howard wasn’t happy, but the Dodgers would soon change his outlook. That winter, they sent him to the Washington Senators as a part of a seven-player deal that brought soft-throwing left-hander Claude Osteen to Chavez Ravine.

The change in scenery resulted in other alterations for Howard. In Los Angeles, his teammates had nicknamed him “Hondo” because of his resemblance to a character in a John Wayne film. In Washington, Howard would gain two new nicknames. He became known as the “Capital Punisher” and the “Washington Monument,” with both monikers tied in directly to his new address in the nation’s capital.

Other than providing him with a better hitter’s ballpark in RFK Stadium, the Senators also made significant changes to Howard’s game. First, they switched him from right field to left field, where his throwing problems became minimized. Second, his coaches encouraged him to take a more patient approach at the plate. In his first season with the Senators, Howard drew 51 walks, not a large number but still an 18-walk increase over his last season in Los Angeles.

The notion of being patient at the plate really took hold in 1969, which marked Ted Williams’ debut as Washington manager. The consummate disciplined hitter during his Hall of Fame career, Williams completely overhauled Howard’s sense of the strike zone. Howard responded by drawing 102 walks in ’69, which helped raise his on-base percentage above .400. The next year, he achieved even greater heights, leading all American League batters with 132 walks and vaulting his on-base percentage to a career high.416. Howard won himself a Triple Crown of sorts, as he led the league in walks, home runs and RBIs.

By now Howard was 33 years old, a strange time to be achieving the peak of his career. If he had been five years younger, he might have prolonged the renaissance, but both his batting eye and his power suffered in 1971. Howard hit 26 home runs and drew 77 walks, still solid numbers, but far from the All-Star levels of 1969 and ’70.

The 1971 season would also turn out to be Hondo’s last in Washington. With roughly 10 days to go in the season, Senators owner Bob Short officially received permission from the other league owners to move the franchise to Texas, beginning with the 1972 season.

Howard was particularly upset over the decision. In the days leading up to Washington’s final home games, he had told reporters that he did not want to leave Washington to play in Texas. Instead, he expressed a wish to be traded. “I’m sure Dallas deserves a team,” Howard said, “but I’m sorry it had to be ours.” Of all of the Senators’ players, the prospect of playing the final game at RFK Stadium hit Howard the hardest.

Heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, the Senators trailed the Yankees, 5-1. As Howard stepped in to face left-hander Mike Kekich, fans cheered wildly for Howard, easily the most popular player on the Senators in the ’60s and ’70s. They loved Howard, partly because of the many mammoth home runs he hit at RFK, but also because of his warm and outgoing personality.

Kekich threw fastball after fastball during the match-up with Howard, until the southpaw finally delivered a hittable pitch. Howard crushed a fastball on a direct line into the left field stands. As Howard circled the bases for his 26th home run of the 1971 season, the onlookers at RFK responded with a standing ovation that lasted several thundering minutes.

Fans repeatedly called for Howard to make a curtain call, which he finally delivered at the urging of several of teammates and his manager, Williams (who had once famously refused to tip his cap). During his first curtain call, Howard tossed his helmet liner into the stands. As part of his second curtain call, the gentle giant blew the Senators’ fans an appreciative kiss. In one of the rarest emotional displays in the game’s history, Howard openly cried as he stepped back into the Senator dugout.

“This is utopia for me,” Howard exclaimed after the game, when asked to describe his feelings upon hitting the home run. “It’s the biggest thrill I’ve ever had, and anything else I’ll ever do in baseball will be anticlimactic,” Howard declared. “I’ve hit a home run in the World Series, but nothing will ever top this. I’ll take it to my grave.”

Spearheaded by Howard’s home run, the Senators tied the game before eventually taking the lead. Then in the top of the ninth, with Washington one out from winning, hundreds of fans began storming the field. Unable to restore order, the umpires forfeited the game to the Yankees.

“I was in the clubhouse,” recalled Howard, who had been replaced by Tom McCraw in the eighth inning. “We could see it coming. It was an emotional moment… We didn’t have a lot of fans, but the ones we did [have] were very faithful. To see those people pour their hearts out….” His voice trailed off.

Howard would not return to RFK Stadium until 2005, when major league baseball came back to Washington in the form of the Nationals. The Nationals honored Howard in their inaugural home game.

Like many of the ex-Senators, Howard struggled in making the transition to Texas. Playing in 95 games, Howard hit only nine home runs, his slugging percentage dropping to .369. Hopelessly out of the AL West pennant race, the Rangers sold Howard to the Tigers on Aug. 31. He appeared in 14 games for the Tigers but didn’t hit much, prompting Detroit to keep him off its postseason roster.

With the designated hitter rule coming into effect in 1973, the Tigers brought Howard back for a second season in Detroit. He split DH duties with Gates Brown and showed reasonable power, hitting 12 home runs in 251 at-bats. But he was now 36 and clearly a shell of his former self. After the season, the Tigers released Howard.

With American League teams showing little interest, Howard opted for a contract with the Japanese Leagues’ Taiheiyo Club Lions. But just before Opening Day, he injured his back. Howard played one game in pain before realizing that he could not continue. The injury eventually convinced him to call it quits, ending his Japanese career after just the one game.

Thankfully, an intelligent baseball man like Howard decided to remain in the game. He became a coach with the Brewers before earning managerial gigs with the Padres and Mets, where he had the misfortune of guiding rebuilding teams. Later on, he became a coach with the Yankees, earning praise for his work ethic, his ability to relate to young players, and his genuinely upbeat attitude.

I first had a chance to meet Howard in the 1990s, when he was working as a coach with the Mets. Even though I’m 6-foot-4, I felt like a Lilliputian standing next to him. But his gentlemanly demeanor belied his gargantuan size. I was most impressed with his energy and enthusiasm. It didn’t seem possible for someone so big to possess so much liveliness and vigor, but Howard had those qualities, with a bit extra to spare.

Howard is now retired from baseball, but he still manages to do something worthwhile, raising money for St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital. Retired or otherwise, he has been a baseball lifer, a man for whom baseball remains his first love. And baseball has been lucky to have a good man like Frank Howard.

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Comments

  1. Chris Waters said...

    Thanks for the great article, Bruce! Although some people sneered at Frank Howard ( especially the super-egotistical and supreme jerk Mike Epstein who my mentor at CAL said of him “a jerk in the classroom and on the playing field, and who made Reggie Jackson seem like Albert Schweitzer” ), Frank Howard was about as nice and genuinely caring human being that ever played the game. And, a really good person that more people now should be made aware of. Thanka again, Bruce!

  2. bucdaddy said...

    Howard’s hitting fell off in 1963. But his slump …
    —-
    He wasn’t in a slump. Everybody’s hitting fell off in 1963. That was the year they made the strike zone bigger, triggering the second deadball era, and Howard, more than anybody, didn’t need a bigger strike zone. Imagine Koufax, Gibson, Marichal and Drysdale able to throw fastballs roughly 6 FEET above the plate and having them called strikes on Howard. How was he supposed to hit anything?

    Coincidentally, when Howard had the big walk year in 1969, it was the same season the strike zone was returned to something closer to normal. That Howard had learned to take a pitch was to his credit and even greater benefit, of course, and probably Williams had something to do with that, but it really worked to his advantage when pitchers could no longer get the call at the top of the shoulders and the bottom of the knees. (And could no longer throw off 2-foot mounds, either.)

    Even with all the numbers and analysis available, I think people today continue to underrate the devastating effect those few extra inches of strike zone had on the game from 1963-68.

    Otherwise, this was a fine piece about what genuinely seems to be a good man.

  3. bucdaddy said...

    Well, I guess he wouldn’t have been facing Koufax and Drysdale in 1963 and 1964, but you get what I mean. “The LIKES of …”

    So replace “Koufax” and “Drysdale” with … oh, I dunno … Bob Veale, then.

  4. Joe Pilla said...

    Lovely piece again, Bruce!
    One of my favorite Howard memories is from a post-game “DynaMets Dash” at Shea Stadium in the late ‘90s, when kids were invited to run around the bases.
    There to greet the kids as they rounded third was Frank Howard, then a Mets coach (and in my memory the SOLE uniformed team member on the field), shaking hands, patting heads, and offering high—ah, heh-heh, LOW-fives.
    He seemed to be taking genuine delight at the endless parade of little ones, oft in Little League uniforms. And how awesome was it for a kid to be on a big league field and be met by a gentle, smiling bespectacled giant of a Met.
    Now THAT’s a baseball ambassador!

  5. Marc Schneider said...

    One small nitpick.  You suggest that Howard would have been better off at first base but that the Dodgers had Wes Parker, one of the best at that position.  But Parker didn’t come up until 1964 and it appears was not a regular until 1965 by which time Howard was gone.

  6. Marc Ducharme said...

    Great piece on Frank Howard and let’s not forget that in 1968, the year of the pitcher, Frank hit 44 homers, including 10 in 8 games during one stretch.

  7. Paul G. said...

    Was it his back or his knee that gave out on him?  Wikipedia says back; Baseball-Reference.com Bullpen has knee.

    I’m also curious about the arm strength.  I was under the impression he had a strong arm; one year during winter ball he actually pitched for a few games and threw hard.  Of course, a strong arm (if he had one) does not mean he was good at throwing out baserunners, but there is a difference.

    My favorite Frank Howard thing is his role in Danny Kaye’s song “D-O-D-G-E-R-S (Oh Really? No, O’Malley)”.  If you haven’t listened to it, I highly recommend it.  Frank plays against type….

  8. Cliff Blau said...

    bucdaddy wrote:
    “That was the year they made the strike zone bigger, triggering the second deadball era…”

    Making the strike zone larger had no effect on the liveliness of the ball.  It just reduced scoring.

  9. Sparky 11 said...

    Frank was quoted late in his career as saying….“if I could have kept hitting my weight Id be in the Hall of Fame”…..God Bless Hondo

  10. Bruce Markusen said...

    While clearly not a Hall of Famer, Hondo was not too far off the standard. If he could have maintained that peak of 1969 and ‘70 a little bit longer, he might have made the Hall.

    And I agree, God Bless Hondo.

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