(Part I of II)
By Glen Sparks
“Big Frank Howard.” How many times have people said that over the years?
Frank stood 6-feet-1 at age 14 and worked a jackhammer, making a buck-25 an hour in his native Columbus, Ohio. He inched up to 6-6 by time he walked onto the basketball court to play at Ohio State University.
When he finally quit growing, and stepped into the batter’s box for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the summer of 1958, Howard measured a full 6-7, maybe 6-8. Skinny early on, he filled out to 260 pounds or so in his baseball prime. “Big Frank Howard.” (Willie Mays stood 5-10. Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle were 5-11.)
The Dodgers began scouting Howard in 1956. Good arm, below-average fielder, below-average runner, according to the report. Big-time power. Howard signed in ’58 for $108,000, or $100,000 for himself and $8,000 for his parents to put a down payment on a house. Big Frank hit .333 and belted 37 home runs for Green Bay of the Class-B, Three-I League, the league MVP. Oh, and he met his future wife at a Green Bay pizza joint. It was a good year for Big Frank Howard.
The left-fielder (blond and, from 1963 until the rest of his career, bespectacled) finally made it up to the Majors for good in 1960. He hit some home runs and grumbled a lot. He often struggled to stay in the line-up. For one thing, the young slugger didn’t know the strike zone. And, Big Frank had an awfully big strike zone. He swung hard and frequently missed. Over his 448 at-bats in 1960, Howard fanned 108 times, third most in the National League. Even so, the promising young power hitter smacked 23 homers and took home Rookie of the Year honors.
A thumb injury limited Frank to just 92 games in 1961. He still clubbed 15 home runs and batted a robust .296 in limited duty. His hard-swinging career was taking off.
In 1962, Manager Walt Alston put Howard into 141 games. Much obliged, Big Frank responded by leading the team with 31 home runs and driving in 119 runs. He struck out 108 times, but he hit .296. Howard finished ninth in the MVP voting.
Over the next two years, Howard hit a total of 52 home runs. Most memorably, he smashed a 460-foot double to deep left-center field in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series at Yankee Stadium and a 450-feet shot into the left-field upper deck of Dodger Stadium in Game 4, both hits off Whitey Ford. The Dodgers swept the Yankees and claimed their second title in Los Angeles, third overall.
Even so, Frank wasn’t happy. Alston was platooning him, and Frank wanted to play every day. He knew his limitations. You can do five things on a baseball field, he said. You can run, throw, field, hit and hit for power. Frank, by his own admission, wasn’t very good at four of those five things. “But, I can hit with power,” he said in a SABR bio article. (A shoulder injury had ruined his throwing arm.) Just how many home runs could he hit if he could get into 145-150 games in a season? He found out by moving 3,000 miles away.