In American history, 1968 is noted for the Vietnam war, protest marches, assassinations, riots, and other forms of turmoil. In baseball history, the 1968 season was infamous for offensive statistics that were less than riotous.
After the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots occurred all around the country, including the nation’s capital. On April 5, President Lyndon Johnson called in federal troops as well as National Guardsmen to back up the Washington, D.C. police force. Order was not restored till April 8.
Major league teams were scheduled to kick off their seasons on Monday and Tuesday, April 8 and 9, but the King assassination changed all that. Tuesday, April 9, was the day of King’s funeral, so the start of the season was postponed until the next day.
Understandably, Johnson, who had recently announced he would not seek re-election, was too busy to throw out the first ball at District of Columbia (like the district itself, popularly referred to as D.C.) Stadium. The bad news inside the beltway continued when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles two months later, on June 6, after winning the California Democratic presidential primary.
In retrospect, anything pertaining to baseball in Washington during the two-month period between the 1968 assassinations could be dismissed as trivial. That may be one reason why Frank Howard’s offensive onslaught from May 12-18 isn’t better known. Another reason was that the Senators were a lousy team. For whatever reason, few people were paying attention.
Frank “Hondo” Howard, was born in Columbus, Ohio, and became a hometown hero playing baseball and basketball (rebounding was his specialty) at Ohio State. Standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 255 pounds, Howard stood out in more ways than one. He aroused great expectations after he terrorized minor league pitching in 1958 (with Green Bay in the old Class B Three-I League) when he hit 37 home runs, drove home 119, and hit .333; and in 1959 (with Victoria of the Double-A Texas League and Spokane of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League) when he hit a combined 43 homers, drove home 126 and hit .342.
He got cups of coffee with the Dodgers during the 1958 and 1959 seasons but did not stick till the 1960 season when he hit 23 homers, knocked in 77 runs, and hit .268 in 448 at-bats. It was a commendable rookie season and he was duly voted the NL Rookie of the Year.
After a bit of a sophomore slump in 1961, he hit his stride in 1962, the inaugural season of Dodger Stadium. He hit .296 with 31 home runs and 119 RBI. His next two seasons were disappointing, particularly in the RBI department, so he was packaged together with Ken McMullen, Phil Ortega, Pete Richert and Dick Nen and traded to the Senators for John Kennedy and Claude Osteen. The Dodgers were built on speed and pitching (hence the interest in Osteen), not power hitting, so Howard was the odd man out – especially after a .226 season. It must have been disappointing to go from a perennial contender to a perennial tail-ender, but Howard’s greatest triumphs occurred while he was with the lowly Senators.
His first few seasons in D.C. were more or less a continuation of his Dodger days. Significantly, in 1967, he hit 36 home runs, his highest total to that point. His best seasons, when he was in his early 30s, were ahead of him.
Howard started the 1968 season with four home runs in April. That was pretty much in keeping with expectations. His batting average of .338 was well above expectations. Through May 11, he added three more home runs. Then he really ramped it up.
Day One: Sunday, May 12
At the beginning of the day, the Senators were at 12-15. One week before they had started the day at 11-10; that was the last time they were above .500 in 1968.
The May 12 contest against the Tigers in Washington resulted in a 6-3 Senators victory. Howard hit two solo home runs. His first was in the sixth inning off Mickey Lolich (who would go on to World Series glory five months later). In the seventh, he victimized Fred Lasher. So the 13,200 fans on hand went home happy, having witnessed a Senators victory (a complete game authored by Joe Coleman) plus two Hondo homers. Howard was just getting started, but the rest of his heroics would be on the road.
Day Two: Monday, May 13
No home runs for Howard on May 13 since it was a travel day. Well, God rested one day in seven when he created the world, so Howard is entitled to an off day, even if it came in the early stages of his achievement. God, of course, did not have to contend with the American League schedule makers.
Day Three: Tuesday, May 14
The next day the Senators began a two-game series at Fenway Park against the defending AL champion Red Sox. Again, Howard went deep twice. In his first at-bat, he hit a two-run shot off Ray Culp; he added a solo shot off Lee Stange in the sixth inning. It was all for naught, however, as the Senators lost 5-4 in 10 innings. The crowd of 19,439 was the largest of Howard’s historic week. At this point, he had four home runs in two games; impressive but not historic.
Day Four: Wednesday, May 15
The next day Howard again hit a two-run homer (this time off Jose Santiago) in his first at-bat. No more home runs that day but he did add a double later in the game. The result, however, was another Senators loss, this time by a 6-4 score. Howard now had five home runs in three games.
Day Five: Thursday, May 16
The next day the Senators found themselves in Cleveland for a one-and-done game with the Indians (this appears to have been a regularly scheduled contest, and not a makeup of a rainout, as it was the Senators’ first appearance in Cleveland that season). Only 5,447 (in other words, more than 72,000 empty seats) witnessed the 4-1 Senators victory. Actually, Howard was the whole show, as he drove home all four runs via a pair of two-run home runs off Sam McDowell. He now had seven home runs in four games, tying a record held by Tony Lazzeri (1936), Ralph Kiner (1947) and Gus Zernial (1951).
Day Six: Friday, May 17
Then it was on to Detroit for a weekend series. There was a bit of drama in the Friday night contest, as Howard waited till the ninth inning to continue his home run streak. His two-run shot off Joe Sparma was too little too late, however, as the Tigers cruised to a 7-3 victory. But now Howard owned the record for most homers (eight) in five games. (The record was tied by Barry Bonds in 2001).
Day Seven: Saturday, May 18
In this 8-4 Senators victory, Howard knocked in half the runs, going 3-for-5 with a single and two home runs, both off Lolich, who had now given up three homers to Howard in one week. The first home run was a solo shot in the third inning, the second was a three-run job in the fifth that knocked Lolich out of the game. The two home runs gave Howard a total of 10 in six games, a record Howard still has all to himself.
Of course, that put Howard in line to set a home run record for seven games, and since a Sunday double-header was scheduled, possibly for eight. On that Sunday, 45,491 showed up at Tiger Stadium for the double dip, and it is a matter of conjecture as to how much Howard’s streak boosted the attendance. Unfortunately, it was not a good day for Howard or the Senators, who were swept by the Tigers (5-4 and 7-0). Howard was limited to a double in the first game (and a single in the second game), thus returning to the ranks of mere mortals. But he still had some highlights left in his season.
By the end of May, Howard was hitting .343 and was a serious candidate for the Triple Crown. After a relatively quiet June, however, his average dropped to .289. He finished the season at .274, just one point higher than his career average.
Howard’s one-week streak would have been notable under any circumstances but in 1968 it was particularly distinctive. While Howard was on his rampage, it was relatively early in the season, so I don’t think pundits were referring to 1968 as the Year of the Pitcher at that point, but by the end of the year, clearly major league offense had dropped precipitously. Howard was one of very few hitters who had not fallen on hard times.
In the American League, the results were even worse than in the National. The collective AL batting average was .230, and 20 percent of the games ended in shutouts. Famously, AL batting champ Carl Yastrzemski hit .301 (less famously, the next highest average belonged to Danny Cater, who came in at .290). One fewer hit and Yaz would have been the only batting champ in history with a sub-.300 average. Dick McAuliffe led the AL in runs scored with 95; his NL counterpart, Glenn Beckert, scored 98. This was the only time in the modern era that both league leaders failed to reach triple digits, aside from the truncated 1918 and 1981 seasons.
Howard led the AL in extra base hits (75), home runs (44), and slugging percentage (.552). Willie Horton was a distant second in home runs with 36. Ken Harrelson, who went yard 35 times, was the only other AL hitter with more than 30. Harrelson finished up with 109 RBI, three more than Howard. Horton and Howard were the only AL hitters with a slugging percentage above .500 (Horton at .543, Harrelson at .518).
Despite Howard’s heroics, the Senators would go on to finish with the worst record (65-96) in the majors. This was the final season a last-place team would suffer the indignity of finishing in 10th place, as the NL and AL would add two teams apiece in 1969 (Padres and Expos in the NL; Royals and Pilots in the AL) and split into divisions of six teams each. If you’re wondering, the last NL team to finish in 10th place was, surprisingly, not the Mets (who had a date with destiny in 1969) but the Astros who crossed the finish line one game behind the Metropolitans.
Obviously, the Senators had nowhere to go but up. In 1969 they had a new owner (Bob Short) and a new manager (Ted Williams), and the team responded with the franchise’s first .500+ season (86-76, .531). Unlike his teammates, Hondo just picked up where he left off (though Williams’ tutelage resulted in his taking more pitches and drawing more walks), hitting 48 homers (his personal best) and driving home 111 with a .296 batting average. He led the league with 340 total bases.
The Senators’ showing in 1969 was unlikely, but perhaps not as unlikely as Richard Nixon delivering the Presidential first pitch on April 7. The odds of that would have long indeed in riot-torn Washington a year before.
Completely unforeseen was that when Nixon threw out that first pitch, D.C. Stadium would be renamed RFK Stadium in honor of the slain Bobby Kennedy. The stadium was officially re-named two days before Nixon’s Jan. 20, 1969 inauguration.
For the record, it was not Nixon’s first rodeo; as President Dwight Eisenhower’s VP, he had pinch-hit for his boss at Griffith Stadium on opening day of the 1959 season. Nixon’s first pitch in 1969 came just 10 days after the death of his former boss.
It’s been 43 years since Howard retired (after serving as DH for the Tigers) and 45 years since the Capital Punisher last inflicted punishment on American League baseballs in RFK Stadium. Nevertheless, there are physical reminders of his slugging feats. If you have the opportunity to see D.C. United in a soccer match at RFK, there are still three upper deck seats painted white to denote three of Howard’s longest blasts. They are: Section 536, Row 5, Seat 17; Section 538, Row 4, Seat 19; and Section 542, Row 3, Seat 3.
D.C. United is moving to a new home in 2018, so your photo ops are dwindling. If they auction off the fixtures before RFK Stadium gets the death sentence, I suspect those three seats will find some bidders.