(Part II of II)
By Glen Sparks
Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, two of baseball’s best, topped the Dodgers rotation in the mid-1960s. So, what did the team need? More pitching, of course. Frank Howard, he of the strong bat and weak glove, served as bait.
The Dodgers traded Howard to the Washington Senators before the 1965 season. It was a big package deal. Mainly, the Dodgers wanted pitcher Claude Osteen, a veteran workhorse and the spitting image of popular comic actor and baritone Jim Nabors. (Fans called Osteen “Gomer.”)
Osteen flourished in L.A. (posting a career-high ERA+ of 117 in 1965 and following up that with a 116 in ’66. The lefty won 147 games in nine seasons as a Dodger.) Howard sputtered early on in D.C. He hit just 21 homers in 1965 and 18 in ’66, in 149 and 146 games, respectively. Senators skipper Gil Hodges, a former Dodger, suggested that Frank change his swing. Go with more of an uppercut, Hodges said. You’ll hit more flyballs. Step closer to the plate, Hodges suggested. You’ll be able to pull the ball a little easier.
Big Frank went to work in 1967, much to the disappointment of A.L. pitchers. He only hit .255 and struck out 155 times, but he blasted 36 home runs (third in the league). The next season, Howard hit more home runs than anyone (44). He also led the league in slugging percentage (.552 in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher). This time, he fanned 141 times, good for third in the league. Fans dubbed Howard the “Capitol Punisher.”
The Senators hired Hall of Famer Ted Williams to manage the club in 1969. This is what bugged Williams about Howard: He didn’t draw enough walks. Big Frank usually only walked 50-something times every season. Take a few pitches, Williams said. Work the count. Get a good pitch to hit.
Howard, an amiable sort, listened. He hit a career-high 48 home runs in 1969 and walked 102 times, 42 more walks than ever before. He also batted .296. His on-base percentage, usually in the .330s, rose to .402. Big Frank sent 44 baseballs out of the ballpark in 1970, leading the league again.
Washington’s clean-up hitter also knocked in more runs than anyone (126), walked 132 times, batted .283 and had an on-base percentage of .416. Williams called Howard “the biggest, strongest guy to ever play the game.”
The Capital Punisher dropped to 26 home runs in 1971 and hit 22 total homers in his final two seasons before retiring. He finished with 382 home runs and 1,119 RBI. He made four All-Star teams (1968-71) and stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for one year (1.4 percent of the vote in 1979).
This says something about Howard the hitter and Howard the fielder: He retired with 51.2 oWAR but -24.1 dWAR As Hodges said: “Frank’s getting paid to hit.”
Baseball analyst Bill James ranked Howard the 19th best left-fielder of all time in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract. In retirement, Howard did some coaching and managing (San Diego Padres, New York Mets). He eventually settled in northern Virginia; he remains a popular gentle giant.
Nationals Park opened in April 2008, the new home of D.C.’s latest baseball team. Three statues stand outside the park. The one of Walter Johnson represents the old Washington Senators. The one of Josh Gibson represents the Homestead Grey’s, a long-time Negro League team in D.C. The statue representing the expansion-era Senators is of “Big Frank Howard.”