Big Frank Howard gazed at the even bigger sculpture of himself in the center field plaza at Nationals Park and whistled softly.
“Beautiful, just great,” the former Capital Clouter said softly. “I feel like I just got my college degree today.”
Howard, who stood 6-foot-7 and weighed nearly 300 pounds when he was bashing home runs for the Senators in the late 1960s and early 1970s, hasn’t had to look up at many things during a 50-year career in baseball. In this case, however, he had no choice.
Omri Amrany, who operates a fine arts studio outside Chicago with his wife, Julie Rotblatt-Amrany, has sculpted dozens of sports figures over several decades. His white bronze statue of Howard looms 10 feet 8 inches high and weighs 1,200 pounds, which is enough to make even Hondo feel insignificant by comparison.
Except that Howard will never be insignificant in the nation’s capital, where his slugging feats made customarily comatose Washington teams worth watching. Frank’s sculpture was unveiled Wednesday alongside Amrany’s renditions of two other D.C. immortals, pitcher Walter Johnson of the Senators and catcher Josh Gibson of the Negro League’s Homestead Grays.
“It’s a thrill to be in their company,” said Howard, modest as always. “This is the first time I’ve seen my statue. They asked if I wanted to come out to Chicago and approve it, but I said, ‘No, you fellows know what you’re doing.’ ”
So Amrany and his associates did. Howard is portrayed with his feet wide apart and his bat cocked at the ready. It’s so lifelike you almost expect fans in RFK Stadium’s left-field upper deck to start ducking any second.
Because Johnson died of a malignant brain tumor in 1946 and Gibson of a stroke at 35 in 1947, Howard was the only one of the honorees to attend the little ceremony at the chilly ballpark. Yet all three were there in spirit as a handful of fans applauded them and the District’s baseball history.
“You know, when Walter died, he was credited with 414 victories, and now he has 417,” broadcaster and baseball historian Phil Wood noted. “He’s won three games in the hereafter. How’s that for being great?”
Johnson’s sculpture depicts him flinging one of the sidearm fastballs that might have been the swiftest ever. Gibson is shown following the flight of the ball, bat in his left hand, after belting a long one. Like Howard’s, their statues seem about to spring to life, which is the whole idea.
Gibson’s “official” stats compiled by the National Baseball Hall of Fame do not accurately reflect his accomplishments. Cooperstown lists him with 115 home runs, but Negro League records often were sloppily kept. After breaking Henry Aaron’s major league mark of 755 dingers, Barry Bonds speculated that Gibson might have whacked 800.
“Josh was known as the black Babe Ruth,” Wood said. “Maybe Babe should have been known as the white Josh Gibson.”
Amrany was one of 14 sculptors who applied for the so-called Bronze Project in 2007. Obviously, a selection panel including representatives of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, the Nationals and the local arts community made a wise choice.
“Just tremendous,” Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said of the sculptures. “You know, [Amrany] did some statues in Detroit that were on the small side, but these are bigger than life. Of course, these three men were bigger than life.”
Indubitably. And the way the Nats started the season, a peek at our baseball past seems more attractive than ever.
Amrany made the sculptures even more realistic by showing what he called “a repetitive swing” with Howard and Gibson - meaning that a bronze line seems to follow the path of the ball. The same innovative technique was used with Johnson’s pitch.
“In anything like this, questions arise as how to handle the sculptures, how to show [the player’s] human side,” Amrany said. “You want to push the envelope as much as you can but not push it so much that conservative fans are turned off.”
Surrounded by admirers after the 45-minute unveiling ceremony, Middleburg, Va., resident Howard expressed his pleasure at being back in the District, “where I spent my most enjoyable days.”
And now that’s he’s at Nationals Park permanently in bronze, how about in the flesh? Howard, 72, retired during the winter after working 12 years for the Yankees in various capacities.
“I don’t know,” Howard said. “I’ve talked with [Nationals president] Stan Kasten about a job, but I don’t know if there’s anything there. If it happens, fine. If it doesn’t happen, fine.”
Meanwhile, big Frank, Walter and Josh will be looking down benevolently on fans who enter Nationals Park through the main gate this season and forevermore. Certainly nobody on the field will equal this titanic trio.