By Glen Sparks
Frank Howard made John Wayne look like the runt of the litter. He stood 6-feet-7-inches, sans cleats. He weighed in at 270 pounds. Howard boasted forearms the size of biceps and biceps the size of Volkswagens.
When Frank held a Louisville Slugger in his hands, he wasn’t a ballplayer. He was a weapons system. Big? Howard custom-ordered bats from the Redwood forest. “Just take a little off the top.”
Infielders demanded hazard pay when Frank came to bat. Howard stepped into the batter’s box, and the guy sitting 20 rows back in the left-field bleachers feared for his life. Frank smashed line drives that could outrace a Ferrari.
The Columbus, Ohio, native broke in with the Dodgers in 1958. Writers voted him N.L. Rookie of the Year in 1960. The Big Guy cracked 32 homers in 1962 and drove in 119. Frank smacked 24 dingers the following season and helped the Dodgers sweep the New York Yankees in the World Series.
In Game 1, Howard belted a double off Whitey Ford at Yankee Stadium. The ball settled in left-center field, near the ballpark’s fabled monuments. Frank crushed a long home run off Ford in Game 4 at Dodger Stadium. It traveled, as they say, from here to Pasadena.
Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson once said this of Frank Howard: “One of these days, (Frank) Howard will unleash a line drive at the opposing pitcher, and the only identification left on the mound is going to be a laundry mark.”
But, Frank Howard was never a great fit in L.A. He’d trot from the dugout to his spot in rightfield and activate the earthquake sensors at Cal Tech. He threatened to send southern California into seismic shock. Not only that. Every time Frank swung his bat, he stirred up a stronger breeze than a Santa Ana wind rushing out of the desert.
Dodgers skipper Walt Alston complained about Howard’s defense. Frank patrolled his outfield position like Col. Klink patrolled Stalag 13. Poorly. He used his glove mostly to protect his left hand from getting sunburned.
The Dodgers shipped Howard cross country to the Washington Senators after the 1964 season. (That had to cost a bundle.) L.A. needed more pitching. Koufax and Drysdale weren’t enough. (Big Frank topped L.A. in home runs in ’64 with 24. Runner-up Tommy Davis hit 14. Your cousin Herbie scored more often than the Dodgers.)
The Senators parted with talented left-hander Claude Osteen. The rubber-armed starter won 147 games in nine seasons in L.A. and threw more than 250 innings seven times. Osteen won 20 games twice and made two NL All-Star teams. But. He looked like TV’s bumbling U.S. Marine. People called him “Gomer.” People called Frank “The Capital Punisher.” He looked only slightly smaller than the Washington Monument. In fact, that was another one of Frank’s nicknames – “The Washington Monument.”
Frank Howard was so strong …
Well, doesn’t Frank Oliver Howard make for some great hyperbole? The gentle giant of a slugger—one of the early bespectacled stars—smacked 382 career home runs, just for the record. Not surprisingly, he enjoyed some terrific power-hitting tears during his time in the major leagues.
His greatest one began on May 12, 1968. That day, Howard cracked one home run off Mickey Lolich in the sixth inning and another off Fred Lasher in the seventh. The Senators won 6-3 and improved their won-loss record to 13-15. Frank now had nine homers on the season.
Following a travel day, the Senators played the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Not surprisingly, Frank liked the Green Monster. He probably didn’t think it looked that big. Howard hit a solo home run in the first inning, off Ray Culp, and another solo job in the sixth, against Lee Strange. The Red Sox won 5-4.
Boston beat Washington again on May 15 by a score of 6-4. Howard launched a first-inning solo homer off Jose Santiago, his 12th dinger of 1968. The Senators’ road trip continued with a May 16 game against the Cleveland Indians. Washington won 4-1 with 5,447 fans watching at 78,000-seat Cleveland Stadium. Frank knocked a two-run home run off flame-throwing Sam McDowell in the third inning. He got McDowell again in the fifth with another two-run homer. Howard had now hit seven homers in four games.
Washington headed back to Detroit after that one-game affair in Cleveland. Howard waited until the ninth inning to slug a two-run round-tripper off Joe Sparma on May 17. The Tigers still won 7-3. Frank enjoyed the best game of his homer-hitting binge on May 18. He hammered two off Mickey Lolich, collected three hits altogether, and drove in four runs as Washington beat Detroit 8-4.
The Tigers held Howard homerless on May 19 and won the game 5-4. Frank did not homer again until May 24 against the Baltimore Orioles, a two-run dinger off Dave McNally. Fittingly, the struggling Senators still lost, 5-3, and dropped to 16-23 on the season. Frank was batting .354 following the day’s action. He had set major-record for most home runs in four games (seven), five games (eight) and six games (10).
Frank Howard led the American League with 44 home run in 1968. The Senators still ended up a dismal 65-97, in 10th – last — place. Howard hit a career-high 48 homers the following year and finished second in the A.L. to the Minnesota Twins’ Harmon Killebrew, who belted 49. Big Frank smacked 44 home runs again in 1970 for the Senators and once again led the league. He finished eighth, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in the league MVP vote between 1968 and 1970.
Howard, a modest man, said this about his power surge in May of ’68: “All I’m trying to do is get three good cuts each time up. I haven’t changed my swing, and I don’t kid myself. I’m streak hitter, and I’m hot.”