- - Thursday, August 25, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

What made Frank Howard — who’s being inducted into the Washington Nationals Ring of Honor Friday night at Nationals Park — great?

Why does everyone in and out of baseball who has come into contact with Howard over his long career in the game — still today, at the age of 80, making appearances — have a story that brings a smile to their faces?

Why is there a statue for Howard outside Nationals Park?

The statue says he hit 237 home runs for the Washington Senators from 1965 to 1971, but it wasn’t the home runs that made the capital of the United States fall in love with a baseball player who was here for seven seasons with a losing team.

And it wasn’t even the size of Frank Howard — 6-foot-8, 280 pounds — that made Frank Howard great.

Howard’s greatness has been his heart — a heart bigger than his stature, statue or statistics.

He could have been feared, but save for major league pitchers who had to face the “Capital Punisher,” no one feared Howard because his presence exudes friendship, not fear.

He is, as they say, a gentle giant.

“He is so nice,” said Russ White, who covered the expansion Washington Senators from 1961 to 1971, for the Washington Star. “Frank was the face of baseball for that team. He loved playing in Washington, and loved the people here.”

Howard still does, and the people will have a chance to show their love for him Friday night at Nationals Park. He will embrace them as he always has.

“Any time you wanted to talk to Frank, he would say, ‘Pull up a chair and come on over,’” White said.

White could remember only one time when Howard lost his temper. “He argued a call once at D.C. Stadium and got thrown out of the game,” he said. “Frank was so furious he went into the umpire’s locker room, took the shower and put it on scalding hot and made it stuck there. The umpires had a pretty good idea. He was boiling mad that night to say the least.”

Howard played in a different time, when the divide between players and writers wasn’t as great as it is today. White has fond — and unique — memories of hanging out with Howard.

“He was always so generous,” White said. “He always insisted on paying wherever we went. One time after a night game in Cleveland, there was no place open to eat then. We went back to the hotel to the kitchen counter. There were about four of us with him. He says to the server, ‘I’d like to have about three or four milk shakes and four orders of pancakes.’ She asked, ‘Is that for everyone?’ He said, ‘No, that’s for me. Take the other orders and put it on my check.’”

White remembered that when he reported for spring training, those days in Pompano Beach, Florida., Howard struggled to lose those offseason pancakes that put the weight on his considerable frame.

“Spring training in Pompano Beach, each year he would come in around 300 with his weight, and he would try to get it down to 280 or so,” White said. “He would use a rubber suit under his uniform and work and work at it to get it down. Sometimes after the workouts there was a little Christian church just over the bridge into Pompano. They had a sauna there and he would go work out in the sauna. He would turn the thing up so high sometimes no one else could go in there. Then we would get in a cab and head back to the hotel and always say to the driver, “Stop here, let’s buy the boys some beer.’ And then he would have three or four beers. There went the sauna.”

On the field, the beer and pancakes translated to home runs. An all-American in both baseball and basketball at Ohio State, Howard signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958, where he played for seven seasons — including being a member of the 1963 World Series championship team — before being traded to the Washington Senators in December 1964 in a multiplayer deal.

It was in Washington, first under Jim Lemon and then under Ted Williams, where Howard had his best seasons — 44 home runs, 106 RBI, and a .283 batting average in 1967 when Lemon managed the club, followed by 48 home runs, 111 RBI and a .296 average and 44 home runs, 126 RBI and a .283 average in 1969 and 1970 with Williams as manager.

“He got going in 1968 with Jim Lemon,” White said. “Lemon was a disaster as a manager. He took Gil Hodges’ good club from 1967 and put it in the cellar. But Howard would never say anything bad about Lemon because he got Frank hitting.

“Then Williams came in the next year and asked, ‘How many walks did you get?’ Frank told him about 40 or 50. Williams said, ‘That’s not good enough. You’re going to take one more pitch and get your pitch.’

Howard went from 54 walks in 1968 to 102 in 1969 to 132 in 1970. “There was no more feared hitter in the American League those seasons than Frank Howard,” White said.

Most of those fears were when Howard was at the plate. Sometimes they would be when Howard was running the base paths.

“One time Frank was on first base,” White said. “Alvin Dark was managing the (Cleveland) Indians. Ken McMullen is the next guy up. Sam McDowell is pitching. Dark puts McDowell at second base and brings someone else in to pitch to McMullen, who hits a grounder to third. Eddie Leon is the third baseman. All he has to do is flip it over to first for the third out. But he goes to second, where McDowell is. And here comes Hondo chugging down the base line. If he had continued like he was going, he would have knocked McDowell into Lake Erie. But Frank didn’t.

“I talked to Mrs. McDowell after the game,” White said. “She said, ‘I was so glad Frank didn’t come in hard. I was scared to death.’

“But Frank, being the gentle giant, backed off,” White said. “He is a lovely person.”

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