Can you image Frank Howard in the steroid era? A mountain of a man at 6-feet-7, 275 pounds, Howard produced jaw-dropping home runs and some of the most vicious line drives ever seen from 1958-73, a period of time dominated by pitchers. Known as “Hondo” and “The Capital Punisher,” the right-handed-hitting slugger began his career with the Dodgers and finished it with the Tigers, but it was in Washington where he made his mark. In a four-year stretch from 1967-1970, the gentle giant averaged 43 long balls while putting up an EqA run of .315, .340, .339, and .334. Howard, who hit .273/.352/.499 with 382 home runs over his career, sat down with Baseball Prospectus during last summer’s national SABR convention in Washington D.C.
David Laurila: How do you view the career you had in baseball?
Frank Howard: Most of us really probably never attain the level of success that we strive for, but I’ll tell you, for every one or two things that haven’t gone my way, there have been a thousand great things happen. I’ve met a million great people in the game of baseball. I certainly have no bitches or complaints about the way my career turned out. Certainly I would have done some things differently. I probably would have taken a little better care of myself. I probably would have paid a little more attention to detail as a young player than I did. But, with 50 years in this business as a player, a coach, and briefly as a manager, it’s been a fun rollercoaster ride for me. Man, I’ll tell you, I’m certainly not going to bite the hand that fed me for 50 years.
DL: You played both baseball and basketball at Ohio State. How did you view your future at that time?
FH: Everybody recognized me more as a basketball player, but I loved the game of baseball. I didn’t know how far I’d go in it, but I wanted to give it a try and through great instructors, and great players helping me as a young player, I spent 15 years up there. And I’m grateful for those 15 years. I was on a couple of world championship ball clubs. I’ve been blessed, and I’m very humbled and grateful, and very thankful, for the men that helped me to attain what little success I had in this business.
DL: When you played winter ball early in your career, your manager, Vic Power, used you as a pitcher a couple of times.
FH: Yeah, I closed for him a couple of times. I had a gun at that time and could blow it 95 [mph] on the radar, which would be close to 100 now on the Stalker gun, but the Dodgers kind of curtailed that. He needed somebody to close the game out for him and I did it a couple of times. Vic Power was a great man. He was a great first baseman and a great hitter. He could do everything on a baseball field that needed to be done. He could play any position on the field and he could hit in any situation. He was a very underrated player.
DL: Could you have pitched in the big leagues?
FH: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. After I hurt my arm, I certainly couldn’t have, but before that I probably could have closed. I don’t think I could have started, because I didn’t have enough pitches. I just threw dead red, about 95.
DL: You hit a big home run against Whitey Ford in Game Four of the 1963 World Series. Is that the biggest home run you hit in your career?
FH: It was a big one, but if (Joe) Pepitone doesn’t lose that ball out of those white shirts behind third base, Ford and (Sandy) Koufax are probably still pitching that game. Boy, both of them had great stuff. It was 2-1, because there was a misplay, a ball that came out of the shirts behind first base, or we’d still be playing that game at 1-1.
FH: Johnny Goryl is a class act, but I think there’s more of a difference than that. Harmon Killebrew is in the Hall of Fame for one reason: he put up some amazing numbers. And he studied the game; he studied all aspects of the game. He really is … I’ve always said that he’s a Hall of Famer off the field as well as on. He’s just a tremendous, tremendous credit to the game of baseball.
DL: What was it like playing for Ted Williams in Washington?
FH: He was a marvelous man. He loved the game of baseball, and he loved players who liked to play the game of baseball. No, there’s nothing I can say about him that hasn’t already been said. He’s a true American icon, a true American icon. He was a fun guy to play for.
DL: You’ve spoken about how Williams helped you to become a better hitter.
FH: He did. He made me become more disciplined at the plate, more selective. Ted shortened up my strike zone and got me more two-balls-no-strikes counts, more three-balls-one-strike counts than I’d ever had in my life. Before that, breaking pitches were like UFOs to me; they were a complete mystery. I had my best years for him. He was light years ahead of everybody else in the art of hitting.
DL: Being a power hitter, did you see your job solely as driving in runs, with relatively little attention paid to getting on base?
FH: No, I didn’t view it that way. I was just young and immature; I didn’t know any different. I didn’t become a big-league hitter until I was 28-30 years old and I should have been one when I was 24-25. If I had it all to do over again-most guys say they wouldn’t, but I would-I’d have made some adjustments earlier in my career as a hitter. I didn’t become a professional hitter in the big leagues until I was 28. I should have been one much earlier, but I just didn’t pay enough attention to detail. The guys who make those adjustments early in their career, most of them are in Cooperstown right now. They became great Hall of Fame players, because they not only had exceptional skill, they also had great baseball acumen.
DL: In September of 1970, at RFK Stadium, you had the only five-hit game of your career. It came against the Tigers with Les Cain on the mound. What do you remember about that day?
FH: I don’t remember the game, but the Tigers always had fierce, competitive ball clubs. I finished up my career with them, and my only regret about playing in Detroit is that I was at the tail end of my career and technically I couldn’t play anymore. I would have loved to have played there when I was 25 years old, because that was a great ballpark to hit in.
DL: One of your best games as a Tiger came in 1973. You went deep twice before Eddie Brinkman hit a walk-off home run in the ninth inning.
FH: I didn’t hit two home runs that game. Who did we play? When was it?
DL: It was July of 1973 against the Red Sox. You hit a pinch-hit home run in the sixth, stayed in the game, and went deep again in the eighth.
FH: I didn’t know that. But you guys with the stats have all the numbers.
DL: You were pinch-hitting for Gates Brown when you hit the first one.
FH: Gates Brown was a class act. Gates Brown is one of my dearest friends; he’s an absolute delight to be around. He was a great fastball hitter. Man alive, he had that rare ability to come off the bench in a clutch situation and win you a ballgame with a base hit or a home run-but a class act, and to this day a dear friend of mine.
DL: Can you talk a little about Eddie Brinkman?
FH: Eddie Brinkman, let me tell you, talk about a sharp baseball man. He played shortstop for 17 years in the big leagues and he definitely knew how to play this game, he definitely knew how to coach it, and he definitely knew how to manage it. He would have been a great big-league manager. He was a manager in the minor leagues, and a coach in the big leagues, and he could play. And I’ll tell you, he was tremendously popular with his teammates. Boy, he had that innate ability to put himself on any level, whether it bewith a superstar or whether it be with a utility guy, a blue-collar guy. He was a marvelous personality. He was phenomenal. He was Ron Schueler‘s right-hand man with the White Sox, for years, so you know he knew something about the game of baseball.
DL: Another former Senator who went on to play in Detroit was Joe Coleman. How good of a pitcher was he?
FH: Junior and I played together in Washington for three, or four, or five years, and he wasn’t quite ready to reach the peak of his career yet, but when we traded him to Detroit, he won 20, 23 and 19 games, three years in a row. Junior Coleman was a quality big league pitcher and he’s another dear friend of mine.
DL: How about Norm Cash?
FH: The best. A great talent and also an outstanding human being. He was a fun guy, a party guy. They had an article in Detroit about the three of us finishing up that last year, and there’s no question, Al Kaline could have played until he was 90. That’s how gifted he was. Just a tremendous … he was a Hall of Fame player, a great player. They used to say: If you want that base hit in the clutch, Al Kaline is your guy. If you want that party, Norm Cash is your guy. If you want a friend for life, Frank Howard is your guy. And all of those guys are still my friends. I just wish I could have still played when I played there, but I was just too old.
DL: Is the ball you hit over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium the longest home run you ever hit?
FH: I think I’ve hit baseballs a lot further than that. That one probably only traveled 530-540 feet, and I think I hit about half a dozen of them well over 600 feet.
DL: Are you aware that you went 5-for-6 off Larry Sherry and four of the hits were home runs?
FH: I didn’t know that. Larry Sherry and I played together in Los Angeles, and that shocks me. Like I said, when we get older, our imagination and our minds tend to expand, and you hit them farther and you hit them more often. That isn’t going to work with you guys here today, because you’re on top of all of those stats, but no, I didn’t know that.
DL: What was it like hitting in 1968?
FH: The year of the pitcher? It wasn’t any different than it was hitting in 1963 or 1973. Well, maybe there was a difference, because in 1973 I couldn’t hit anymore. But no, I didn’t notice any difference.
DL: Most of your career was played in a pitchers era, including five-plus years in Dodger Stadium, which at the time was among the least hitter-friendly ballparks in the game. Do you ever wonder what kind of numbers you might have put up in a more favorable environment?
FH: No, I can’t look back and speculate, or even wonder, about any of those things. I thought Rick Dempsey made a great statement when he said that nobody had more fun playing than him, and I believe that, and I might be in second place. I can’t go back and be critical of anything in the game of baseball. I’ve had a lot of fun, I’ve met a million great people, and the numbers don’t lie. I was up in Cooperstown to do a card show about three years ago, and someone said I should (be in) the Hall of Fame. I said, “Buddy, I’m about as close to it as I’m going to get; I’m about three blocks away.” For those guys who are in the Hall of Fame, there’s nobody happier for them than me. I’ve had people tell me, “Your numbers flirt with it.” I’ve said, “My numbers weren’t good enough.” What those guys did in their careers has no bearing on mine. The game of baseball has been an absolute delight to be a part of for me.