erik lundegaard


Tuesday October 31, 2023

Frank Howard (1936-2023)

I grew up fearing Frank Howard. Not because of his size—though at 6' 7, 270, he was one of the biggest position players to ever play the game, today included—but because in my early baseball-watching and baseball-card-collecting days he always competed with my man Harmon Killebrew for the AL Homerun and RBI crowns. I hated getting one of those AL Leader cards with Frank on top.  

Ironically, Frank's career high in homeruns came in 1969, with 48, but Harmon hit 49 that year and won the MVP. His only one. Frank finished fourth, his highest finish. 

(And yes, the AL was awfully white back then, particularly compared to sluggers in the NL. The direction each league went in the late 1940s was still being felt in 1970.)

Both Frank and Harmon fell off about the same time, and rather quickly. In 1970 they were at the top, and then it all went away. Or it dropped a bit, then dribbled away as it tends to. Frank's HR totals went from 44 to 26 to 10, then he hit 12 more with the Tigers and was done; he retired after the '73 season. He later became a coach and briefly (very briefly) a manager: Padres for 110 games in '81, Mets for 116 in '83. He never had a winning record as a manager. Not many wins as a player, either, though he came up with a winning team, the LA Dodgers, and won Rookie of the Year in 1960; and in the 1963 World Series he mashed a monster double off Whitey Ford in Game 1, then a monster, second-deck home run off Whitey Ford in Game 4, and that last one was the margin of victory in a Dodgers sweep. But in December 1964, the Dodgers, feeling they needed pitching (!), traded Frank and others for Claude Osteen and others and cash, and Big Frank spent his glory years with the abysmal Washington Senators, who, though they were the second iteration, still fit the first's tagline: first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.

In '69, though, Ted Williams became his manager, and though he's usually not given much credit as a manager, or coach, Frank does just that. “He was just light years ahead of everybody,” Frank told a Washington Nats blog in 2007. “He didn't mess much with you mechanically—if you had played 6-8 years in the big leagues—unless you had absolutely no success. Then he would make some mechanical changes for you. But he never messed with your head. He was a thinking man's hitter.”

What he did with Frank was get him to take some pitches, to tighten the zone of what he'd swing at. And this is what happened. Look at how his walks jumped and strikeouts subsided.

1968 141 54 .274 .338 .890
1969 96 102 .296 .406 .976
1970 125 132 .283 .416 .962

Here's Frank's NY Times obit, with the hed/sub below, and oops they did it again:


I'm referring to the end of the sub. Sure, Big Frank struck out a bit (he had a big strike zone), and when he retired he was fifth on the all-time list—behind some all-time greats: Mantle, Killebrew, Mays and Mathews—but he only led the league in Ks once, and was in the top 10 only three times. His strikeout rate was more than 19%, which is up there for the time but would pale compared to those who came later: Reggie (22.7%), Thome (24.7%), Ryan Howard (28%), Chris Davis (32.9%). Just seems like an odd thing to bring up in an obit. But Times' obits have done this before: Bud Grant, Jim Fregosi, Fred Snodgrass.

Frank was nicknamed “Hondo,” after the John Wayne character, and was called “The Washington Monument,” and “The Gentle Giant,” and apparently (like Killebrew) was. He was a nice guy. He came on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1979—same year as Willie Mays—got a total of six votes and was done. He deserved better. Joe Posnanski has written a nice tribute about attending a game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium when he was 10 with his immigrant father: 

And Dad put his hand on my shoulder and pointed toward the first base coaching box, and said, “Look! There's Frank Howard!”

Two things stand out in my recollection. One was how big Frank Howard looked. He was the biggest human being I'd ever seen. In his peak playing days, Frank Howard was 6-foot-7, 270 or so pounds, but by the time I saw him there in the Milwaukee coaching box, he was probably 50 or 60 pounds heavier. To me, he looked even bigger than that. Hondo absolutely towered over Cleveland's first baseman, Andre Thornton, who I had thought of as one of the biggest men in the world.

The second thing that stands out is the reverence in my father's voice. "There's Frank Howard! He said it like we were stargazing, and he was pointing out Ursa Major.

Posted at 01:47 PM on Tuesday October 31, 2023 in category Baseball