A hit, no bat

They were the odd couple of the expansion Washington Senators. Left fielder Frank Howard was 6-foot-7 and weighed at least 270 pounds. Shortstop Eddie Brinkman was 6-0 and 170. So teammates were understandably amused when the little guy began shoving around the big guy, at least figuratively.

“When Frank wasn’t hitting, Brinks would get right in his face, poke him in the chest and say, ‘Listen, big boy …’” former teammate Jim Hannan recalled. “Frank would push him back and be laughing, and so would everybody else. It was really funny.”

From 1965 to 1970, Howard and Brinkman were the most visible members of mostly bad Washington teams. They were roommates and close friends - “like brothers,” Howard recalled from his home in Northern Virginia. But as ballplayers, they couldn’t have been more different.

Howard, aka “Hondo” and “The Washington Monument,” was one of baseball’s great sluggers in the mid-to-late 1960s, as attested by his 237 home runs for the Senators.

Brinkman, who died Sept. 30 in his native Cincinnati at 66 after years of heart problems, was a Gold Glove fielder who couldn’t hit. His batting average during a 15-year career was .224, and he hit just 60 home runs.

At one point early in Brinkman’s career, pitching coach Sid Hudson suggested he might want to try the mound because he had a rocket for an arm. Eddie declined without thanks. He wanted to play every day.

Howard, for one, was delighted that Brinkman stayed at shortstop. Hondo had a weak arm, the result of an injury, and when an opposing batter hit a ball to left, Brinkman would scamper far into the outfield to take the relay.

“He told me that cost him three years off his career,” Howard said with a chuckle.

Brinkman was a teammate of fellow Cincinnatian Pete Rose in high school and American Legion ball. Oddly, considering his later struggles with the bat, Brinkman was regarded as a stronger batter than baseball’s all-time hits leader.

But after the Senators called him up from the minors at the end of the 1961 season, the 19-year-old Brinkman was helpless at the plate. He batted .165 over 54 games in 1962, and for the next six years hit no higher than .229. In three of those seasons, he failed to even reach baseball’s Mendoza line, a .200 average.

“He was just overmatched,” Howard said, “and in those days most young players were overmatched against guys like Whitey Ford.”

Said Hannan, who was Brinkman’s roommate during their rookie season: “I think the club brought him up too fast. He was hitting something like .330 in the Carolina League, and they thought he was ready when he wasn’t. But Brinks never let his problems get him down. He was a great guy, very quiet, with a good sense of humor.”

In 1969, however, Brinkman emerged as a surprising offensive threat as the Senators startled the rest of the American League by finishing 86-76. With manager Ted Williams and hitting coach Nellie Fox encouraging him to choke up and spray the ball to all fields, Eddie batted .266 - which was almost like anyone else hitting .350. The following year, he batted .262, though the Senators slumped to a 70-92 record.

That winter, club owner Bob Short made one of the worst deals ever, swapping Brinkman, promising third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and right-handers Hannan and Joe Coleman to Detroit for washed-up pitcher Denny McLain and others. McLain finished 10-22, the Senators were 63-96, and near season’s end Short received permission to move the team to Arlington, Texas, resulting in a 33-year absence of baseball in the nation’s capital before the arrival of the Nationals in 2005.

With the Tigers, Brinkman returned to his light-hitting ways, batting no higher than .237 in four seasons. In 1972, he set an AL record for shortstops with 72 straight errorless games, a mark later eclipsed by Cal Ripken Jr. He then played briefly for St. Louis, Texas and the New York Yankees before retiring in 1975. Later he was a coach and scout for the Chicago White Sox before leaving baseball in 2000.

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