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Learning that appearances can fool you, thanks to Frank Howard
I love baseball stories. I love telling them and I love hearing other people’s stories – of great moments, great players or just funny events. Over the next few months, while we wait for baseball to start up again, I’ll drop in a few stories just for entertainment sake. Feel free to add any fun stories of your own in the comments.
By the time you reach a certain age you realize you can’t judge people by their outward appearance. Nice-looking people can be jerks, mean-looking people can be nice. But we still often do form our opinions based on how people look.
Childhood memories of Frank Howard
Growing up, I remember two things about Frank Howard. One, he was a huge, huge man. He was listed as 6-foot-7, 255 pounds although probably by later in his career he weighed more. That was bigger than Alex Karras and other defensive lineman at the time. And he wasn’t just tall, he was big – wide shoulders, thick chest, big arms.
The other thing I remember about Howard is that he scowled in every picture. He never smiled. He simply looked big and mean.
Encountering Howard in 1982
Imagine my surprise, then, that in my one encounter with him I found him to be a kind and gentle man. Although still huge.
That was on May 4, 1982. At the time I did some writing for a small sports magazine in southern California. My assignment that day was to write a story about George Foster, the 1977 MVP with the Cincinnati Reds. Foster by then was on the downslope of his career and had been traded to the New York Mets before the season. When the Mets came to town to play the Dodgers, I went to the visiting locker room at Dodger Stadium (a tiny place, not much bigger than some high school locker rooms).
As it turned out, Foster wasn’t in the clubhouse yet. Since he grew up in Los Angeles, the Mets had given him permission to skip batting practice to visit relatives. So I, along with the photographer who accompanied me, had to wait for him.
Not only was George Foster new to the Mets that year, so was manager George Bamberger. Bamberger had hired as one of his coaches Frank Howard, who the previous season had gotten himself fired as manager of the San Diego Padres when they finished in last place. In 1983 Howard would replace Bamberger at the end of the season and lead them into a last-place finish. So Howard’s entire managing career involved last-place finishes.
Power hitting days as a player
But Howard had terrific years as a player, starting with his rookie campaign for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1960 when he hit 23 homers and 77 RBIs, earning him the Rookie of the Year Award.
He had several more good seasons in Los Angeles, hitting 31, 28 and 24 homers from 1962 to 1964, no small feat in Dodger Stadium during the pitchers era. But then he was traded to the Washington Senators.
His first two seasons with the Senators weren’t great, with 21 and 18 homers. But then in 1967, when he was 30 years old, he had his breakout season. He belted 36 homers with 89 RBIs. The next season he hit 44 homers with 106 RBIs, in 1969 48 and 111, and in 1970 he led the league with 44 homers and 126 RBIs.
But he dropped off drastically after that. He hit 26 homers the next season, then only 22 over the next two seasons combined and that was it.
It wasn’t just that Howard hit homers, he hit them a long, long way, including one estimated at 560 feet. He also was a streaky hitter. In 1968 he hit 10 homers in one week, still a record, and he hit those 10 homers in just 20 at bats. His power earned him the nickname the Capital Punisher.
None of the success seemed to make him happy. He still scowled in every picture.
A gentle giant
So in 1982, just nine years after he was finished playing, I immediately recognized him when I walked into the tiny visiting clubhouse in Dodger Stadium. It would have been impossible to not recognize him; he seemed like a mountain in the small space.
While I was waiting for Foster to make an appearance, I observed Frank Howard approaching. He probably weighed close to 300 pounds by then, looming eight inches over me and still wore that scowl. Since I was from a small, largely unknown magazine, I expected to be chastised for intruding in the sanctity of the clubhouse. Perhaps, given his size, I’d be physically heaved through the door.
Instead, he shook my hand, shook the photographer’s hand and welcomed us to the clubhouse. He led us to a shelf in the corner filled with boxes of candy bars, gum and chewing tobacco.
“Take whatever you want and make yourselves at home,” he said. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
Later he came by to check on us since Foster hadn’t arrived yet. When he left, Ellis Valentine, who had the locker next to Foster’s, leaned over toward me, his eyes following Howard, and in a stage whisper said, “And he’s still growing.”
Howard still a legend
Foster eventually arrived and I got my interview. He was courteous and answered my questions but I remember virtually nothing about Foster, the interview or the story.
No, what I remember the most is Howard’s sincere kindness toward me. I was an unknown person to him and he could have easily had a clubhouse boy talk to me, or a lesser-known coach or one of the scrub players. More likely, he could have just ignored me and I wouldn’t have had my feelings hurt. Instead, he went out of his way to make me feel welcome.
Howard is still a legend in Washington. I’m sure in part because of his mammoth homers, but if he treated others the way he did me that day in 1982, I’m sure he’s legendary for more than just baseball. When they Nationals built their new park, they erected a statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, Negro League superstar Josh Gibson and Frank Howard.
Other memories of that day
Addendum: A couple of other things I remember from that time in the Mets’ locker room:
- Legendary sportswriter Jim Murray, hands in his pockets and glasses that looked about an inch thick, standing in the corner talking to Rusty Staub. The next day he wrote a column about Staub, chock full of quotes, although he never took a note. Later legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell told me (a story for another time) that Murray never took notes yet had never been accused of misquoting anyone.
- Dave Kingman sitting slumped on a stool in the middle of clubhouse, ignoring everyone, eating three hot dogs in about a minute.
- The Dodgers won the game, 2-1, behind the pitching of Fernando Valenzuela. The game was tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. Valenzuela led off the inning with a single (yes, a starting pitcher batting for himself in the bottom of the ninth). He was replaced by a pinch runner, who later scored the winning run.