>As Bill pointed out today, The Common Man had the opportunity to meet the great Frank Howard, “The Capitol Punisher,” this weekend, as he was signing autographs on behalf of the Bob Feller Museum. Howard is still one of the tallest position players of all time, at 6’7”, and one of its most effective. From 1958-1973, “Hondo” played for the Dodgers, the new Washington Senators, the Texas Rangers, and the Detroit Tigers, never posting an OPS+ below 107 after 1960. Despite a reputation as a low-average slugger in a terrible era for hitters, Howard managed to put together at .273/.352/.499 line across 16 seasons. His 142 OPS+ is tied for 61st all time, ahead of former teammate Duke Snider, and other Hall of Fame sluggers including Reggie Jackson, Chuck Klein, Al Simmons, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Billy Williams, Carl Yastrezemski, and (of course) Jim Rice.
In fact, it might be helpful to think of Frank Howard as the player everyone thinks Jim Rice was. Like Rice, Howard was a defensively challenged corner outfielder. Both lasted 16 seasons, each playing from age 21 to 36, and both hit, believe it or not, 382 homers. Howard’s career OPS was .851, and Rice’s was .854. Rice had a higher batting average, more hits, and more doubles, but also had 1700 more plate appearances. While superficially similar, however, Howard’s performance actually towers over Rice when we account for the era and stadiums in which he played. While Rice spent his whole career taking aim at the Green Monster, Howard was mired hitters’ hells in Dodger Stadium and RFK Stadium for almost all his career. Howard had two full seasons in LA’s Memorial Coliseum in 1960 and 1961, and one full year at Tiger Stadium in his last season, but otherwise played in a scoring wasteland.
Their careers also differ in another essential way. While some writers have twisted themselves into knots to demonstrate that Jim Rice was The Most Feared Hitter In the American League, it’s Howard who was really frightening.
Again, while getting just four times at bat to every five that Rice got, Howard was intentionally walked 75% more often (135 to 77), including 29 times in 1970 (when he also had 103 unintentional walks and still hit 44 homers). Rice, meanwhile, was never passed more than 10 times in any season (and maxed out at 62 walks for his career high). Howard scared opposing pitchers and teammates alike, not just for the terrific distances his hits traveled but the terrible speed with which the ball came off his bat. From a 1964 profile on Howard in Sports Illustrated, William Leggett writes that “the sight of Howard digging in at the plate causes third-base coach Leo Durocheer to shuffle six steps toward left field and a dozen steps back toward the stands, so that he looks more like a patron cheering from the field boxes than a man going about the business of being a baseline coach.”
And Durocher had good reason to be afraid. As Leggett recounted, Howard’s talent could quickly turn horrifying. In 1957, Howard was taking batting practice at his alma mater, Ohio State, and “a student manager, Melvin Lipton, was picking up balls in the infield behind the pitcher. Howard lined a ball that hit Lipton in the head ust as he looked up. It fractured Upton’s skull, and he was on the critical list for three days.” The next year, according to Los Angeles Times on September 17, “[Duke] Snider was on third base in the fifth inning of the Dodgers’ game at Cincinnati when he was struck by a line drive hit by his teammate, Frank Howard….”The ball ‘struck Snider’s right shoulder and then his right ear a glancing blow, dropping him as though he’d be [sic] shot with an elephant gun….’ ‘I saw the ball coming off Howard’s bat and I tried to duck into it so that I would take the blow off my plastic helmet,’ Snider said. ‘Boy, he really hit that one.’”
In Leggett’s article, Snider recounts that story, saying, “I had my protective helmet on just in case he hit one at me, and he did. I was in foul territory and didn’t see the ball come off the bat too good. All I saw was a blur and I threw my left shoulder up a bit. The ball glanced off the shoulder and hit below the bottom of my helmet. I went down. I didn’t know where I was, and blood started to flow out of my ear. They picked me up and I was dizzy for three, four, five days. Frank Howard has more raw power than anyone in baseball.”
Howard’s incredible ability, however, did little to help his confidence. He told Leggett, “I think I am a realistic guy…. I have the God-given talents of strength and leverage. I realize that I can never be a great ballplayer because a great ballplayer must be able to do five things well: run, field, throw, hit and hit with power. I am mediocre in four of those—but I can hit with power. I have a chance to be a good ballplayer. I work on my fielding all the time, but in the last two years I feel that I have gotten worse as a fielder. My greatest fear was being on the bases, and I still worry about it. I’m afraid to get picked off. I’m afraid to make a mistake on the bases, and I have made them again and again, but here I feel myself getting better.” In addition, Leggett describes him as “by no means the smartest man alive, and he knows it.” Already sensitive to criticism (being so tall probably didn’t help; ask Randy Johnson), and disappointed at a lack of playing time and a relative drop in performance didn’t help Hondo either. Late in 1963, he had to be talked into staying in baseball by Pete Reiser. That offseason, Howard reconsidered again, writing a letter to Dodgers’ GM Buzzie Bavasi saying “I have found that money is not the cure to all ills.” Again, Howard was talked into staying, but he struggled to a .226/.303/.432 line.
Howard’s struggles should resonate with men today. Despite his immense size, strength, and talent, the lack of confidence and confusion that plagued his early years are familiar to The Common Man. Talent, and the expectations that come with it can be a tremendous burden on a man, particularly if he slips out of the gate. And the greater the talent, the greater the disappointment when a man falls short. But as familiar as Frank Howard’s struggles seem, his recovery and ultimate triumph is more important. Traded to the new Senators the next offseason, Howard rediscovered his talent and confidence and became the toast of the nation’s capitol. Howard became a team leader and beloved figure, whose combination of size, gentleness, and humor endeared him to his fans.
And Howard, the player criticized as too dumb, too lazy, and too one-dimensional in Los Angeles became a big-league manager, credited with helping develop a young core of talent with both the San Diego Padres and New York Mets as they rebuilt their franchises. His experience provided the needed perspective to guide those young players through their struggles and crises of confidence. Looking at his evolution, it is clear that Frank Howard grew as a man as the 1960s progressed, and that he helped others with similar struggles after his career ended.
So while The Common Man enjoyed meeting Justin Morneau, Pat Neshek, Jack Morris, and others at TwinsFest, he’s happiest that he met Frank Howard, whose kindness and warmth met all expectations. Would that all former ballplayers were that excited to interact with fans and generous with their time and attention.