Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Manly Awesomeness of Frank Howard

As Bill pointed out today, The Common Man had the opportunity to meet the great Frank Howard, "The Capitol Punisher," this weekend, as he was signing autographs on behalf of the Bob Feller Museum. Howard is still one of the tallest position players of all time, at 6’7”, and one of its most effective. From 1958-1973, “Hondo” played for the Dodgers, the new Washington Senators, the Texas Rangers, and the Detroit Tigers, never posting an OPS+ below 107 after 1960. Despite a reputation as a low-average slugger in a terrible era for hitters, Howard managed to put together at .273/.352/.499 line across 16 seasons. His 142 OPS+ is tied for 61st all time, ahead of former teammate Duke Snider, and other Hall of Fame sluggers including Reggie Jackson, Chuck Klein, Al Simmons, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Billy Williams, Carl Yastrezemski, and (of course) Jim Rice.

In fact, it might be helpful to think of Frank Howard as the player everyone thinks Jim Rice was. Like Rice, Howard was a defensively challenged corner outfielder. Both lasted 16 seasons, each playing from age 21 to 36, and both hit, believe it or not, 382 homers. Howard’s career OPS was .851, and Rice’s was .854. Rice had a higher batting average, more hits, and more doubles, but also had 1700 more plate appearances. While superficially similar, however, Howard’s performance actually towers over Rice when we account for the era and stadiums in which he played. While Rice spent his whole career taking aim at the Green Monster, Howard was mired hitters’ hells in Dodger Stadium and RFK Stadium for almost all his career. Howard had two full seasons in LA’s Memorial Coliseum in 1960 and 1961, and one full year at Tiger Stadium in his last season, but otherwise played in a scoring wasteland.

Their careers also differ in another essential way. While some writers have twisted themselves into knots to demonstrate that Jim Rice was The Most Feared Hitter In the American League, it’s Howard who was really frightening.

Fig. 1 Some writers.

Again, while getting just four times at bat to every five that Rice got, Howard was intentionally walked 75% more often (135 to 77), including 29 times in 1970 (when he also had 103 unintentional walks and still hit 44 homers). Rice, meanwhile, was never passed more than 10 times in any season (and maxed out at 62 walks for his career high). Howard scared opposing pitchers and teammates alike, not just for the terrific distances his hits traveled but the terrible speed with which the ball came off his bat. From a 1964 profile on Howard in Sports Illustrated, William Leggett writes that “the sight of Howard digging in at the plate causes third-base coach Leo Durocheer to shuffle six steps toward left field and a dozen steps back toward the stands, so that he looks more like a patron cheering from the field boxes than a man going about the business of being a baseline coach.”

And Durocher had good reason to be afraid. As Leggett recounted, Howard’s talent could quickly turn horrifying. In 1957, Howard was taking batting practice at his alma mater, Ohio State, and “a student manager, Melvin Lipton, was picking up balls in the infield behind the pitcher. Howard lined a ball that hit Lipton in the head ust as he looked up. It fractured Upton’s skull, and he was on the critical list for three days.” The next year, according to Los Angeles Times on September 17, “[Duke] Snider was on third base in the fifth inning of the Dodgers’ game at Cincinnati when he was struck by a line drive hit by his teammate, Frank Howard….”The ball ‘struck Snider’s right shoulder and then his right ear a glancing blow, dropping him as though he’d be [sic] shot with an elephant gun….’ ‘I saw the ball coming off Howard’s bat and I tried to duck into it so that I would take the blow off my plastic helmet,’ Snider said. ‘Boy, he really hit that one.’”

In Leggett’s article, Snider recounts that story, saying, “I had my protective helmet on just in case he hit one at me, and he did. I was in foul territory and didn't see the ball come off the bat too good. All I saw was a blur and I threw my left shoulder up a bit. The ball glanced off the shoulder and hit below the bottom of my helmet. I went down. I didn't know where I was, and blood started to flow out of my ear. They picked me up and I was dizzy for three, four, five days. Frank Howard has more raw power than anyone in baseball."

Howard’s incredible ability, however, did little to help his confidence. He told Leggett, “I think I am a realistic guy…. I have the God-given talents of strength and leverage. I realize that I can never be a great ballplayer because a great ballplayer must be able to do five things well: run, field, throw, hit and hit with power. I am mediocre in four of those—but I can hit with power. I have a chance to be a good ballplayer. I work on my fielding all the time, but in the last two years I feel that I have gotten worse as a fielder. My greatest fear was being on the bases, and I still worry about it. I'm afraid to get picked off. I'm afraid to make a mistake on the bases, and I have made them again and again, but here I feel myself getting better." In addition, Leggett describes him as “by no means the smartest man alive, and he knows it.” Already sensitive to criticism (being so tall probably didn’t help; ask Randy Johnson), and disappointed at a lack of playing time and a relative drop in performance didn’t help Hondo either. Late in 1963, he had to be talked into staying in baseball by Pete Reiser. That offseason, Howard reconsidered again, writing a letter to Dodgers’ GM Buzzie Bavasi saying “I have found that money is not the cure to all ills.” Again, Howard was talked into staying, but he struggled to a .226/.303/.432 line.

Howard’s struggles should resonate with men today. Despite his immense size, strength, and talent, the lack of confidence and confusion that plagued his early years are familiar to The Common Man. Talent, and the expectations that come with it can be a tremendous burden on a man, particularly if he slips out of the gate. And the greater the talent, the greater the disappointment when a man falls short. But as familiar as Frank Howard’s struggles seem, his recovery and ultimate triumph is more important. Traded to the new Senators the next offseason, Howard rediscovered his talent and confidence and became the toast of the nation’s capitol. Howard became a team leader and beloved figure, whose combination of size, gentleness, and humor endeared him to his fans.

Fig. 2 Perhaps the greatest photo of Frank Howard of all time.

And Howard, the player criticized as too dumb, too lazy, and too one-dimensional in Los Angeles became a big-league manager, credited with helping develop a young core of talent with both the San Diego Padres and New York Mets as they rebuilt their franchises. His experience provided the needed perspective to guide those young players through their struggles and crises of confidence. Looking at his evolution, it is clear that Frank Howard grew as a man as the 1960s progressed, and that he helped others with similar struggles after his career ended.

So while The Common Man enjoyed meeting Justin Morneau, Pat Neshek, Jack Morris, and others at TwinsFest, he’s happiest that he met Frank Howard, whose kindness and warmth met all expectations. Would that all former ballplayers were that excited to interact with fans and generous with their time and attention.

Fig. 3 One awesome dude.

Photos taken from here, here, and here


Art Huston said...

Congratulations on getting a mention in Rob Neyer's column. I've always thought his prodigious power was overlooked.

You might want to find a copy of the Danny Kaye song "D-O-D-G-E-R-S (Oh Really? No, O'Malley)" from 1962 that mentions Frank Howard laying down a bunt--which nobody seems to know if it actually happened, or just apocryphal.

Larry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry said...

Hi... Two of those photographs are by the Los Angeles Times and should be credited as such. Thank you.

The Common Man said...

The Common Man apologizes, Larry. I never anticipated that my little blog would achieve such notoriety. That does not excuse my laziness in not attributing photos. I will remedy this post-haste.

Centerfielder said...

I grew up in Victoria TX where Howard played in 1959 and hit 27 HRs in 65 games. His legendary blasts are still talked about, including one that cleared the 20 ft high centerfield fence and went between 550-600 feet onto a golf course. He also hit 3-3 run HRs in 3 consecutive innings in one game. If he had played during the steroid era he could have made McGwire look like a dwarf because that was one big cornfed boy!

Gary said...

Your article brought back some pleasant memories. I had a chance to meet Frank Howard in the early 1980s when he was a coach with the Mets. I was a young reporter for a small magazine assigned to write an article on George Foster, who was then with the Mets. A photographer and I waited in the small, cramped visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium for Foster to show up. While waiting, Howard came over, shook our hands and welcomed us, showed us where the gum and candy were and invited us to help ourselves and then said to let him know if we needed anything. We were nobodies from a magazine no one had heard of, so there was no reason for him to go out of his way to talk to us other than that he genuinely was a nice guy. And a huge man, looming even larger in the cramped space. Dave Kingman was on the Mets at the time and although he was only an inch shorter, he seemed much smaller in comparison.

Blaine said...

My dad did some legal work for Mr. Howard when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I still have a photo of me standing next to him as he signed his 67 all star bat for me. I was in awe of his size and generosity! Yes, he was and is a very kind and humble man and I'll never forget it.
God bless you Frank Howard for your investment in me and so many others.
-Robert Blaine Cochran
PS My dad went by Bob

JimmyD said...

I was a kid during the 60's. My two favorite ballplayers were Willie Mays and Frank Howard. Frank would have hit 600 home runs if he had a decent hitter batting behind him. His stats compare with all of the greats during that decade, and he was the only bat in his lineup. When he retired, he was in the top 8 for home runs hit by right handed hitters in the history of baseball! Frank Howard was always a class act, someone kids could look up to and respect. A great role model. He belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Jerry K. said...

Great article on a great man! I met Frank Howard 40 years ago while a high school student in suburban Maryland. I was the manager of our baseball team & the coach was a good friend of Mr. Howard, who was an outfielder with the Washington Senators. He agreed to speak at our season-ending banquet. I don't recall Mr. Howard's exact words, but I do remember that he was a huge man with an equally large pleasant disposition. He smiled all the time, was kind to everyone & he autographed a photo that I cherish to this day. Thanks, Hondo!