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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Frank Howard was a giant baseball star when the game was larger than life

By Thomas Boswell Washington Post

One summer night in the 1960s, our family went to RFK Stadium to see Frank Howard. I could say we went to see the lousy Washington Senators. But who would believe me?

You went to see Howard, who died Monday at 87, as he tried to become the first man to land – a ball – on the moon. You knew that “Hondo,” a gigantic humble fellow who tried to please everyone, would slip a disk to oblige.

So when Howard came to bat in the first inning, a half-in-the-bag fan near us in the grandstand bellowed, sarcastically, over and over, “Hondo, my hero, if you hit a home run, I will eat this newspaper.” And he waved his sports page.

Howard, at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, ran ponderously, fielded precariously and, to compensate, hustled to admirable but embarrassing excess. He also struck out often by the standards of the time, though today he would be downright abstemious.

Each time Howard batted, he struck out – to the delight of the middle-aged, potbellied troll who, in a “crowd” of perhaps a few thousand, attracted an amused audience.

Finally, however, justice prevailed. Howard connected, the ball got very small very fast, and every head in our section turned toward Mr. Hondo My Hero.

With as much dignity as his Falstaffian state allowed, he rose, tore the paper into long thin vertical strips and, decorously, chewed and swallowed them. Until then, I had never known that it took longer to eat a column by Shirley Povich than to read it.

For the next several years, as Howard’s home run totals went from a humble 21 and 18 in 1965 and 1966 to 36 and finally to two home run titles in three years – when he smashed 44, 48 and 44 – it became a Boswell family ritual when he homered to say, “Hondo, my hero!” That was in honor of, who knows, Howard’s heroics, the beery fan who kept his word or that whole night of laughter.

In recent times, Washington has had teams that finished first in the National League East four times, won more games than anybody else in baseball and, another year, won the World Series.

Then, we had Frank Howard.

Lest he be damned with even a hint of faint praise, let me underline that Hondo, in his Washington days, became a mighty man. He and Bryce Harper both played seven full seasons in D.C. Howard hit 237 homers; Harper hit 184.

Howard had 670 RBIs, Harper 521. Both hit .279. Howard slugged .513, Harper .512. Wins above replacement, per Baseball-Reference, in Washington: Harper 27.8, Howard 26.5.

Harper was wonderful here. Howard, in his way, was fully comparable. My gift, as a bar bet and as a tip of the hat to Howard’s relentless, unselfish, rhino-on-fire hustle, is that he also had more triples as a National than Harper (20 to 18).

For many years after Hondo retired in 1973, the easiest interview in baseball may have been, “Tell me a Frank Howard story.” Tommy John gave up his legendary upper-deck white-seat home run to center field at RFK Stadium. “It was a line drive. I almost jumped for it,” John told me. Then he laughed. No one could react that quickly. But John did turn around in time “to see it rising.” By the time he got back to the dugout, he looked like a ghost. “If it had hit me, it would have killed me.”

For years, as Hall of Famers came to RFK for the Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic, or MLB teams played exhibitions, or finally when the Nationals played there, I was often asked by players during batting practice, when the white seat came up, “Where was home plate back then?” I would say, “Right where it is now.” Some said, “That’s not possible.” Others just thought it.

When Howard retired and I was a young reporter, I was sent to Spokane in 1976 to write about his first season as a Triple-A manager, a stint that preceded more than 20 years as an MLB coach. He was in demand because he showed every player that the game was an honor to play and a feast to be enjoyed.

“Boys, in this game you never play as long as you want to or as well as you want to. And sooner than any of you thinks, your day will come to get that pink slip that says ‘released,’ ” Howard told his players one day. “When they pull those shades, they pull them for a lifetime. When it’s over, no one can bring it back for you. It’s a short road we run in this business. So run hard.”

To make his point, Howard would sometimes sneak up behind a player and whisper, “Released.” His players began pulling the joke on each other.

“He’s got us running getting dressed,” third baseman Tom Bianco said. “We lead the league in hustle, rules and meetings. We’re up to two meetings a day. We even had a meeting after a rainout to go over the rain.”

“We call him the 300-pound greenie,” said another player, Steve Bowling. “His energy is infinite.”

Howard’s blend of old-school hard guy and heart-of-gold good guy – both true – was always his killer combo.

“He’ll yell: ‘Stop the bus! Got to get some beer for my boys. They’re playing some hard baseball,’ ” Bianco said.

“He’ll buy a case for everybody on the bus, then say, ‘We got any Coke drinkers?’ And he’ll buy each of them a six-pack of Coke,” Bowling said.

After games, Howard liked to say, “How can you wheel that lumber tomorrow if you don’t pound that Budweiser tonight?” Granted, that’s not a sentiment that has aged well. But he would say it while lighting his cigar with three matches.

Hondo played when the salaries were still low, but the sense of mythmaking was still Ruthian. When he came through the minors in the late 1950s, he played in Spokane – and hit a line drive off the left-field wall that bounced back to the shortstop. That will inform an identity.

For $72,500 per year, his average salary as a Senator, nobody was going to tell Howard that his bat might be too heavy, his swing too big and his strategy – “Flat-out whale it like a crazy man” – might not be optimal. He was huge, fit, coordinated and a former Ohio State basketball star. The result: an Aaron Judge who swung as hard as he could, not as hard as you should. Those aren’t allowed any more.

Perhaps old-timer Rocky Bridges gave Howard the perfect nickname: Big Bird. He’s huge but “Sesame Street” on the inside. When Howard finally got to manage the Padres, the general manager who fired him said, “Frank’s just too nice.”

Howard was a better leader as a teammate than as a boss. “I remember some darn foul ball landing in the upper deck, and there’s Frank Howard running into the left-field railing chasing after it. Some people laughed at that kind of hustle,” said Senators pitcher Dick Bosman, who won an ERA title. “Put him on my team every day. Give me the guy that dies with every defeat. When you looked at Hondo, you said to yourself, ‘Take a lesson.’ ”

Though he is known, and always thought of himself, primarily as a Senator, Howard was a star with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1960, he was the Dodgers’ team leader with 31 homers on a 102-win team in 1962, and he got a ring and hit a home run in the 1963 World Series for L.A.

Then he indirectly helped win two more Dodgers pennants in 1965 and ‘66 by being the main piece in a trade for Senators ace left-hander Claude Osteen, who completed a dominant trio with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

Many players, coming from the glamour of Los Angeles with the cachet of being “a winner,” would have hated the cheapskate hopeless Senators owned by flimflamming Bob Short. Howard, never bitter, adapted and, in time, took the team in his arms and epitomized it.

“We always had a few guys on those Washington teams that weren’t playing with a full deck,” he once told me. “And, brother, I was one of ’em.”

Those Nats were often bad, except for an 86-76 year under Ted Williams in 1969, but they played hard, like Howard. And they were close. Once, when four Nats roomed together to save money, Hondo assigned Bosman to cook.

“Bozzie, why don’t you throw on about 18 eggs and six or eight steaks? … Now you guys take all you want. … Hey, take some more now. … OK, everybody got enough?”

Then Howard would eat the rest out of the big serving bowls. “Anybody doesn’t want one of them steaks, you just flop that thing over here on my plate,” he would say. “The big boy might have to crank out another (homer) tonight.”

When Howard was eligible for the Hall of Fame, he got only 1.4% of the writers’ vote in 1979. With his galumphing rampages around the bases and outfield and his Tilt-a-Whirl strikeouts, he didn’t look like Cooperstown to them.

Howard is no Hall of Famer, but modern analytics embrace him. He played in an era of pitching dominance. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher – after which MLB lowered the mound to even the fight – Howard hit 44 homers.

Maybe the best stat for comparing offensive performance between eras is adjusted OPS+. By that measure, Howard is tied for 69th in history at 142 – 42% better than the league average hitter. At 143, we find Paul Goldschmidt, Harper, Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews. At 142, Freddie Freeman, and at 141, Ronald Acuña Jr., Chipper Jones and David Ortiz.

If Howard had run into Williams 10 years earlier, who knows what might have been? Ted taught him the value of knowing the strike zone and drawing walks if he didn’t get a whale-able pitch.

“Us dumb hitters,” said Howard, who had more walks than strikeouts in 1969 and ’70 and an OPS close to 1.000 both years. “Too soon old. Too late smart.”

Perhaps Howard never quite understood the impact he had on young Washington fans.

If you were between ages 7 and 21 when the Nats absconded for Texas, then you were still no older than 54 when the Expos moved to Washington. Those fans, and their children and grandchildren, became part of the next fan base that saw true superstars and a parade.

During the 33 years when D.C. did not have a franchise, the Hondo fans and those white seats were a core piece of what kept Washington fighting to get another team. That Frank chose to live here, as part of the community, added to the sense that baseball was gone but not forgotten.

Frank Howard never thought of himself as a symbol. But for many, he was. Just two weeks ago, at a surprise birthday party for a friend, a man was introduced to me this way: “He saw the white-seat homer to center field in person. I bet you two have things to talk about.”

And we sure did.