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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Frank Howard, towering slugger whose homers were, too, dies at 87

Frank Howard at the plate in 1968. He once lumbered to second base after hitting what may be the longest double in Yankee Stadium history.

By Richard Goldstein

Frank Howard, the Bunyanesque slugger who struck some of baseball’s more awesome home runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Senators while rolling up a prodigious strikeout total as well, unable to conquer his penchant for chasing bad balls, died on Monday in Aldie, Virginia. He was 87.

His death, at a hospital, was caused by complications of a stroke, his daughter Catherine Braun said.

Listed at 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds — although well above that weight at times — Howard played for 16 seasons in the major leagues and hit 382 homers. He twice led the American League in that category. Many of his home runs — and even some hits that didn’t clear the fence — were unforgettable.

As a Dodger in 1960, he hit a ball over the left-field wall at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh that was found alongside a parked car some 560 feet from home plate.

Batting against Whitey Ford in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series, at the original Yankee Stadium, he hit a drive that landed, in fair territory, just to the left of the monuments to New York Yankee greats in center field, about 460 feet from home plate. He lumbered only as far as second base in what has been called the longest double in Yankee Stadium history.

In Game 4, he hit a 450-foot homer off Ford into the left-field mezzanine at Dodger Stadium, in a 2-1 victory that completed a Dodger sweep of the Series.

Howard drove in 1,119 runs in his long career. But he also struck out 1,460 times.

A humble muscleman well liked by teammates and friendly to fans, Howard could laugh at his failings. He once told how the great hitter Ted Williams, who became the Senators’ manager in 1969, helped him show more patience at the plate. Still, Williams couldn’t contain his frustration.

“Somebody was explaining to a visitor that some of the outfield seats in RFK Stadium had been painted white to mark where some of my long home runs had landed,” Howard told The New York Times in 1981. “Ted turned to the guy and said, ‘All the green seats are for the times he struck out.’”

A basketball and baseball star at Ohio State University before signing for a $108,000 bonus with the Dodgers in 1958 (almost $1.2 million in today’s currency), Howard became known as Hondo, after Hondo Lane, the strapping cavalry scout played by John Wayne in the 1953 Hollywood Western “Hondo.” While playing for the Senators, he was called the Capital Punisher.

Howard was the National League’s rookie of the year in 1960, when he hit 23 home runs for the Dodgers after playing briefly for them in the two previous seasons.

His best years came with the Senators, who obtained him in a multiplayer trade before the 1965 season. He hit an American League-leading 44 home runs in 1968, buoyed by a spree in May when he walloped 10 in a stretch of six games.

“The right type of power pitchers were going against me,” he said in remembering that home-run barrage for the website of the Nationals, Washington’s third major league franchise in the modern era. “My balance at the plate was good. I was seeing the ball well. I wasn’t committing too early into the pitch.”

Howard hit a career-high 48 home runs in 1969 and the next year led the AL in homers, with 44, and runs batted in, with 126.

He was an All-Star for four consecutive seasons as a Senator, mostly with losing teams. On Sept. 30, 1971, he hit the Senators’ last home run at RFK Stadium before the team left Washington and became the Texas Rangers.

But he wasn’t a complete player. Although he wore glasses, his fielding, mostly as an outfielder and sometimes at first base, was lackluster. He couldn’t shake his strikeout woes. His career batting average was only .273.

Frank Oliver Howard was born on Aug. 8, 1936, in Columbus, Ohio. His father, John, was a machinist. His mother, Erma (Denny) Howard, was a homemaker. Frank was an All-American basketball player at Ohio State as a junior in the 1956-57 season, when he averaged 20.1 points a game.

He was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA but shunned pro basketball.

Howard hit 123 home runs for the Dodgers, but they decided he was dispensable after the 1964 season, in which his batting average declined by nearly 50 points, to .226, and his 24 homers represented a drop for a second straight year.

Concerned that two of their starting pitchers, Sandy Koufax and Johnny Podres, might not recover from arm ailments, the Dodgers sent Howard to the Senators in a multiplayer deal that brought them Claude Osteen, who had won 15 games for a Washington team that finished in ninth place. (That Washington ballclub was created in 1961 as an expansion team when the previous Senators left for Minnesota to become the Twins.)

After his time in Washington and Texas, Howard was sent to the Detroit Tigers in the middle of the 1972 season. He retired after the 1973 season. He managed the San Diego Padres in the strike-shortened 1981 split season and the New York Mets in 1983, succeeding George Bamberger during the season. Both teams finished last. He was also a coach for several teams, including the Mets and the Yankees.

In 2009, the Nationals erected three statues at their ballpark, representing a timeline of baseball in Washington. Howard was honored along with Walter Johnson, the great pitcher from the early decades of the 20th century, and Josh Gibson, the star catcher of the Homestead Grays of the Negro leagues, who played their home games in both Pittsburgh and Washington.

Howard married Carol Johanski in 1959. They divorced in the mid-1980s. He and Donna (Scott) Howard were married from 1990 until her death in 2016. A few years ago, Howard and his first wife remarried.

In addition to his daughter Catherine, he is survived by his wife, along with their five other children, Tim, Daniel, Mary and Mitch Howard and Rebecca Thomas; a sister, Grace Rocci; eight grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and several step-great-grandchildren. He lived in Aldie, west of Washington.

For all his long home runs, one of Howard’s most vicious drives, in a 1958 Dodger game at Cincinnati, went only 90 feet.

Duke Snider was the runner on third when Howard came to the plate.

“I had my protective helmet on just in case he hit one at me, and he did,” Snider told Sports Illustrated in 1964. “The ball glanced off the shoulder and hit below the bottom of my helmet. Blood started to flow out of my ear. They picked me up and I was dizzy for three, four, five days.”

As Snider told it, from firsthand knowledge, “Frank Howard has more raw power than anyone in baseball.”

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