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Mudville: October 23, 2021 11:58 pm PDT
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The Capital Punisher

Frank Howard remains a mountain of a man, continuing to fill up a room with his size and personality in the same fashion that made him one of baseball’s most dominating presences throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.

The 6-foot-7 Ohio native, who could have easily gone on to enjoy a career in the NBA when he left Ohio State, was in many ways the Aaron Judge of his day, at least from the standpoint of seeing a behemoth digging in the batter’s box as he terrified pitchers from coast to coast. He gained his reputation the old-fashioned way in a time without internet or national television contracts – by destroying opposing pitchers in nearly every city he visited.

And, when his playing career was over, his legend and reputation continued to grow exponentially because he remained in the game as a coach and manager for several decades, imparting a deep understanding of the game upon several generations of players who had only heard stories of Howard’s prowess at the plate.

The impact he had on a legion of players – and fans – spread like a blanket over the baseball landscape for decades, as large and encompassing as the shadow he cast when standing at home plate.

Howard’s presence, intimidating as it can be, is matched, however, by his kindness and humility. He remains a man who simply loves discussing baseball and will take the time to share his thoughts on what life was like on the diamond for the man who had quite possibly the coolest nickname in baseball – The Capital Punisher.

“You just play and play as hard as you can play and let the chips fall where they may,” said Howard, who turned 85 on Aug. 8. “I don’t dwell much on lifetimes. I was blessed with 15 years as player, 20 years a coach and then in player development for 15 years with the Yankees. I spent over 50 years in baseball. It’s been a roller coaster ride, a fun ride. It didn’t always work out but I got no bitch.”

“They [the Yankees] ran across four of the finest pitched games in World Series history. Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres, Don Drysdale and Koufax again.”

FROM OSU TO L.A. AND ALL POINTS IN BETWEEN

Howard says that he was probably more well-known as a basketball player coming out of high school at Ohio State than he was as a baseball player. He enjoyed three sterling seasons for the Buckeyes, earning First-team All-American honors in 1957 after averaging 20.1 points and 15.3 three rebounds per game. He followed that up with a Second-Team All-American selection in 1958, joining future NBA Hall-of-Famer Elgin Baylor on that team, before the Philadelphia Warriors selected him with the 21st pick in the 1958 NBA draft.

Whether he would have enjoyed the same success he enjoyed in baseball is difficult to say, but Howard wasn’t even thinking about giving the sport a chance.

“I was more than just a baseball player but I always loved baseball more,” said Howard, who hit had two excellent seasons for OSU, including leading the team in batting [.366], hits [26], RBIs [13], doubles [six] and stolen bases [six] in 1957. “I just loved the game of baseball and I figured if I was going to try a sport professionally, it was going to be baseball. In those days we played all the sports but baseball was my favorite game; I followed it as a kid growing up. I followed our local team, the Columbus Redbirds, the Triple-A team for the Cardinals. I didn’t dwell much on it [playing basketball] in my lifetime.”

Howard probably could have signed a professional baseball contract in 1957. He was playing in a summer league and the Dodgers, who were still in Brooklyn at the time, were scouting him – but he opted for his senior season at OSU. He wasted little time signing with the Dodgers the following spring and was quickly dispatched to Green Bay of the Class-B Three-I [Illinois-Indiana-Iowa] League. Howard scorched the entry-level circuit, winning MVP honors after leading the league in homers [37], RBIs [119], runs [104] and slugging percentage [.639] while finishing fourth in batting [.333].

WASHINGTON, D.C - CIRCA 1960's: First Baseman Frank Howard #9 of the Washington Senators is ready to swing at a pitch during a Major League Baseball game circa mid 1960's at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Howard played for the Senators from 1965-71. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

He earned a promotion to L.A. for an eight-game looksee in September. He hit .241 [7-for-29] with a homer and two RBIs. He made his big-league debut on Sept. 10 at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. Though he flied out in his first at-bat he would connect for his first hit, fittingly it was a homer, in the fourth inning. It was a two-run shot to deep left off future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts. He also walked, added another fly out and singled in the ninth, also off Roberts.

“I knew it was just a start,” Howard said of his time in Green Bay. “I actually had the Double-A Texas League club made out of Spring Training but they sent me to Class B under the tutelage of [former Brooklyn Dodger outfield great [“Pistol”] Pete Reiser. The Dodgers always believed in starting their prospects maybe a level or two below where they were capable of playing so they could have a big year and build their confidence. You could have a big year and then go from there.”

Where Howard went from there was Victoria of the Double-A Texas League in 1959 and it was evident quickly that he was a man among boys. Hondo, another of Howard’s nicknames, was only in the Texas League for a mere two months but in that time he left quite an impression, hitting .371 with 27 homers and 79 RBIs in just 251 at-bats. He averaged a homer every 9.3 at-bats and by the end of May the locals in Texas were eagerly discussing whether Howard would have a chance at breaking Ken Guettler’s Texas League record of 62 homers.

Howard, who had three homers and 10 RBIs in the second game of a doubleheader against Austin on June 8, would not get a chance to chase down Guettler. The Dodgers promoted him to the big leagues by the middle of June.

The Major Leagues, however, would prove to be a bit of a different challenge than the Texas League.  Howard hit .143 with a homer and six RBIs in nine games and was quickly dispatched to Spokane of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He hit .319 with 16 homers and 47 RBIs in 76 games for Spokane to finish the season with 44 homers and 132 RBIs across three levels while earning The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year honors.

“I only spent a year and a half in the minors, that’s the thing,” Howard said. “I loved the game of baseball but I didn’t know how to play it the right way, the disciplined way, the knowledgeable way. I also spent three or four years in Winter Ball. The Dodgers were firm believers that the more games a young guy played the quicker he could reach the level of confidence and talent to succeed. The more games you played, the quicker you’d reach whatever potential you had.

“It was a great experience for me because No. 1 I got to learn how to speak another language. It was like a college education. You get to see a different culture, a different diet and you get paid for it. It was pretty good money in those days. You also got to see guys like Roberto Clemente, the Alous, Vic Power, the Latin American players who played 10, 12, 15 years for their winter hometown team. Then they would go and play for years in the U.S. and they excelled. They had that repetition over and over and over again until they reached their potential.”

Howard would begin to reach his potential in 1960.

POMPANO BEACH, FL - MARCH, 1967: Frank Howard #9 of the Washington Senators poses for a portrait during MLB Spring Training circa March, 1967 at Pompano Beach Municipal Park in Pompano Beach, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AND WORLD SERIES HERO

Despite the big numbers he put up in the minors in 1959, Howard was not on the Major League roster when 1960 began. He began his season back in Spokane and after hitting .371 with 24 RBIs in 26 games, he was summoned back down the coast to Los Angeles, where he would go on to win National League Rookie of the Year. Howard hit .268 with 23 homers and 77 RBIs in 117 games, leaving the minor leagues permanently in his rearview mirror.

Howard easily outdistanced four others, including teammate Tommy Davis, to win Rookie of the Year. Following up that big season proved to be difficult, though. Injuries slowed Howard and he had to fight for playing tin a crowded outfield, all of which limited him to 92 games in 1961. That number would represent his lowest season total until 1973, which was his final season in the Majors. Though Howard hit .296, which would tie him for a career high, he only connected for 15 homers while driving in 45.

1962 would be Howard’s first monster season. He rebounded to hit a team-leading 31 homers, drive in 119 and once again hit .296. Combined with Tommy Davis, who led the league in hits [230], RBIs [153] and batting average [.346], and MVP Maury Wills [104 stolen bases], Howard would help lead Los Angeles to a first-place tie with San Francisco. Though the Dodgers lost the playoff to the Giants, Howard looks at that squad as the best on which he played.

“The Dodgers were consistently in there, always competing for a National League pennant and a chance to go to the World Series,” Howard said. “The ’62 club got beat in the playoff but personnel wise, they were the best team. We had Willie Davis, Tommy Davis, Duke Snider, Frank Howard, seven outfielders competing for three jobs. With that kind of depth you had a pretty good chance at having a good club.”

Howard’s playing time suffered again in 1963, a lack of consistency proving to be the culprit. Still, he finished with 28 homers and drove in 64 runs as the Dodgers won the pennant and then swept the Yankees in the World Series. Howard contributed in the Fall Classic, going 3-for-10 with a home run in the clincher.

“To be a member of a World Championship club, you get more recognition for that than anything you do as an individual, unless you are so astounding on your own,” Howard said. “This is America. We love winners. We play to win and being on a World Championship club was a thrill.

“The Yankees had a great ball club but in a short series, anything can happen. They ran across four of the finest pitched games in World Series history [the starting pitchers went 35 1/3 innings in the four games]. Sandy Koufax, Johnny Podres, Don Drysdale and Koufax again.”

Howard’s inconsistency in 1964 led to more playing time issues. He finished with 24 homers and 69 RBIs but hit only .226. It led to him being traded to Washington following the season in the deal that sent pitcher Claude Osteen out West.

While the Dodgers would win the World Series in 1965 and go back in 1966, Howard never came close to the post-season again. He would, however, fulfill the potential that many believed he had when he came out of Ohio State.

“I couldn’t have been treated any fairer by any organization I ever played for,” Howard said of the Dodgers. “All my numbers there were based on 425-450 at-bats. I could see I would never be a frontline player. I thought a trade would send me somewhere I could get 560-600 at-bats. I got traded to a club where I played every day and my numbers went up and I made a little money.

“The biggest difference between the two clubs was quality ballplayers. The guys in Washington were hard-nosed, we just didn’t have enough depth to compete with the better clubs. Give us a Koufax or a Tommy Davis and we compete. No disrespect to the men I played with, they played their asses off and played hard. We just didn’t have enough depth skill wise to compete.”

Washington: Frank Howard, first baseman for the Senators is shown in action during Boston-Senator game here in Washington. July 27, 1968

THE CAPITAL PUNISHER ARRIVES

The expansion Senators were a second-division club when Howard arrived and would remain near the bottom of the American League much of the time before moving to Texas in 1972. Howard, however, got his wish for more at-bats though his first two seasons in Washington weren’t much different from a personal standpoint than what he did in L.A. He hit 39 homers and drove in 155 runs in 1965 and ’66 before flashing his dominating style in 1967 [36 HR, 89 RBI]. He then went on a three-year tear that cemented his reputation as a feared slugger.

Howard also got the chance to play for Gil Hodges, his former Dodger teammate who was now managing the Sens. It was Hodges who helped turn him into a dominating player.

“I played with and for him and he knew the game from A to Z and back to Z and A again,” Howard said. “I thought his depth perception of the entire baseball field, his vision for the entire field, was second to none. Another guy I thought was like that was Dick Williams. Those two guys saw everything that happened on the field. Most of us see one or two things here and there but they see it all. They are like the Bill Belichicks of baseball. They do not miss a drumbeat.

“I would show up to the park with no thought for pregame, no thought of how guy I was facing was going to pitch me. He [Hodges] asked me one time in Spring Training how many years I thought I would play in the big leagues. He was very direct. I told him I was hoping eight or 10 more years and he told me he gave me three unless I started thinking about the guy who was 60 feet away and how he was working you. I started preparing for games a little better. Not that I wasted my first four or five years but I didn’t put any thought or preparation into it. He woke me up, he was a very astute man.”

That preparation launched Howard into one of the most amazing runs of the era. Hodges left to manage the Mets in 1968 but his impact on Howard remained. Though ’68 was dubbed the year of the pitcher, someone forgot to tell Howard, who led the American League with 44 homers, a .552 slugging percentage and 330 total bases. His also hit .274, drove in 106 runs and collected a career-high 598 at-bats while finishing eighth in the MVP voting.

Howard followed that with a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting in 1969 as Washington, under new manager Ted Williams, had its best season during the slugger’s tenure with the club. The Sens [86-76] finished fourth in the newly created American League East as Howard hit a career-high 48 homers, drove in 111 runs and walked 102 times. He equaled his career high with a .296 batting average while once again leading the league in total bases [340]. And, he got to play for Williams.

“Ted Williams was an American icon,” Howard said. “The word on him was that he knew all about hitting. That’s a bunch of BS. He knew as much about outfield play and he knew as much about pitching. The only thing he didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about was infield play and he had [coaches] Nellie Fox, Wayne Terwilliger and Joe Camacho to help with that. Ted was the most electric, charismatic individual I have ever met.”

Washington would take a step back in 1970 but Howard went forward, putting forth the best year of his career. He once again hit 44 homers to lead the league, drove in a career-high and league-leading 126 runs and led the league with a career-best 132 walks in addition to hitting .283. He finished fifth in the MVP voting but statistically, he had better seasons than the four players who finished ahead of him – Boog Powell, Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew and Carl Yastrzemski.

“I started putting the ABCs of hitting together,” Howard said. “I had been preparing for games better and I had a better idea of how they would pitch me. Like I said, I didn’t waste my first few years but if I had to do it all over again, I’d have paid a little more attention to detail at an earlier age. I had some decent years but I didn’t become a professional hitter until I was 28-29-30 years old.

“I never thought about being a feared hitter. I just showed up with a game plan. Sometimes the game plan worked, sometimes it didn’t. I was in the prime of my career [those years]. I think I could have prolonged my career had I taken better care of myself but that is all hindsight now.”

Hondo covered a LOT of the plate.

THE TEXAS TWO-STEP AND COMING TO THE END

Howard earned a fourth consecutive All-Star selection in 1971 but his numbers dropped dramatically as he turned 34. He hit 26 homers and drove in 83 though his reputation contributed to his leading the league with 29 intentional walks. The team planned on moving to Texas in 1972 and fittingly, Howard hit the last home run in Senators history on Sept. 30 against the Yankees.

The move to Texas, though, did little to rejuvenate Howard. It was evident that he was no longer the same player. He hit nine homers and drove in 31 in 95 games for the newly named Rangers before getting sold to Detroit in August. Howard hit a homer in 14 games over the final month for the Tigers and added 12 more in 1973 for Detroit. He was released following the season, ending his Major League career.

Howard’s 382nd and final home run came on Sept. 8, 1973 at Fenway Park, a seventh-inning solo shot off Bill Lee. His final big-league hit was a single off New York’s Fritz Peterson at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 30.

“I had my best years in Washington and made good money there,” Howard said. “I probably should have made better adjustments to playing down there in Texas but my skills started to erode and they eroded in a hurry.”

Howard signed with Taiheiyo of the Japanese Pacific League for the 1974 season. He went 0-for-2 with a walk in the one game he played, before suffering a back injury that ended his career.

While Howard was done on the field, he was not done with baseball. He would go on to manage and coach in the Minor and Major Leagues for nearly three decades, working as a teacher, tutor and mentor to many young players. He managed San Diego in the strike-shortened 1981 season but was not brought back in ’82 after the Padres finished last in both halves of the season.

Howard would also manage the Mets in 1983 after close friend and previous manager George Bamberger was fired by the club. Though he was not retained as skipper in 1984, Howard’s presence helped set the stage for the Mets becoming one of the game’s best teams in the mid and late 80s. He was at the helm when the club made the franchise-altering trade for first baseman Keith Hernandez. New York sent closer Neal Allen to St. Louis for the former MVP and perennial Gold Glove winner.

“I loved Neal Allen,” Howard said. “He was one of the game’s great curveball pitchers with above-average velocity. I got to tell you, I loved him like a son. [New York general manager] Frank Cashen asked me a question. He said would you trade Neal Allen for Keith Hernandez? I said you know the way I feel about Neal but you have to make that trade. You can get 160 games out of him as opposed to 45 from Neal.

POMPANO BEACH, FL - MARCH 15: Manager Ted Williams #9 of the Washington Senators hugs Frank Howard #33 after Howard held out to signed a contract worth $100,000 during MLB Spring Training on March 15, 1969 at Pompano Beach Municipal Park in Pompano Beach, Florida. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

“Plus, Keith could play anywhere on the field, that’s how gifted he was. He had great arm strength, an outstanding glove and was a great two-strike hitter. He was a great hitter period. He should be considered for the Hall of Fame.”

Despite Howard’s endorsement of the deal, former Oriole and Brave Davey Johnson was handed the managerial reigns in 1984. Howard had the opportunity to stay in New York but elected to go to Milwaukee with Bamberger.

“I played against Davey and coached for him and I should have stayed with him,” Howard said. “Davey Johnson is seriously competitive and knows the game of baseball. He might have been the first one to put information onto a computer.

“I spent 10 years [six with Mets, four with the Yankees] as a coach in that city on both sides of the river. Those were 10 of the greatest years of my life. The clubs weren’t that strong but they were decent clubs. I coached for Buck [Showalter]. You want to talk about a sharp cookie, he didn’t miss a drumbeat either. Here is a guy who was five or six pitches away from going to five or six World Series.”

Howard, who lives in northern Virginia, is long retired but remains an ever-present figure at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. There is a statue of him outside the park, marking the contributions he made to baseball in the capital along with ones of Walter Johnson and Josh Gibson.

He remains third all-time on the Washington/Texas all-time home run list [246] and sixth in RBIs [701]. Howard holds the third, 10th and 11th spots on the franchise single-season home run list. He held the all-time mark for 32 years until Alex Rodriguez hit 52 homers in 2001. His 126 RBIs in 1970 was the club standard until 1996 when Juan Gonzalez drove in 144. Howard remains 11th all-time on that club list.

Howard was thrilled when baseball returned to Washington in 2005. He said the city had long been deserving of a team.

“The baseball perception of the DC area is 14 square miles and 600,000 people,” Howard said. “But you need to expand that 50 miles to the north, 50 miles to the south and 50 miles to the west. And then you have six million people to draw from. The demographics are there, the money is there and the affordable income is there. And they [the Nationals] have been a very successful franchise.”

While Howard has no “real” ties to the Nationals, he remains a legend in the nation’s capital, the mountainous slugger – who was the face of a franchise and of baseball – for the better part of a decade.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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