Frank Howard spent more than 40 years in baseball, winning home run titles and a World Series.
Playing in the 1960s and early 1970s, Howard might be called the Aaron Judge of his day — a big guy (6-foot-7, 255) who could hit home runs into the next zip code while also hitting for average. He was someone that fans came to ball games to watch, and someone no pitcher wanted to see on deck. As he moved from playing into managing, coaching and player development, he mused more than once that if he had come along a few decades later, he could have parlayed that into some real money. His total salary over 14 playing seasons was $770,000 — about what Judge earns every three games.
I wasn’t Frank Howard’s accountant. I was one of his fans, a double fan in fact. He spent the first part of his career with my team, the Dodgers, and the second part with the Washington Senators. When I lived outside Washington for a time, I adopted the Senators as a sort of second team.
That’s how Frank Howard came to star in one of the most memorable baseball games I ever saw — and in a more abstract area, became the catalyst for a lifelong wrestling match with moral relativism.
The baseball part first.
By the time I got to Washington for the 1971 baseball season, the team’s situation was crumbling.
This was the second Washington team, the original franchise having become the Minnesota Twins in 1960 and Washington having been granted an expansion franchise as a consolation prize. It wasn’t a great prize. It was more like getting candy corn for Halloween. Owned by Bob Short, a trucking company magnate who paid twice what the franchise was worth and named himself general manager, the new team had only one brief flash of hope, in 1969 when it lured Ted Williams into managing and he guided the team to its only winning record, 86–76.
By 1971 Williams was getting bored with managing players who could never have his skills, baseball mind or work ethic. Short, realizing the team was neither particularly talented nor exciting, tried a couple of Hail Marys.
He signed Denny McLain, who three years earlier had become the last Major League pitcher to win 30 games, but was now a pariah because his gambling addiction seemed to have brought him into contact with — who would have guessed? — gamblers and bookies. Williams hated the move and hated McLain, whom he saw as more interested in his side hustles than pitching. McLain wasn’t fond of Williams, either, and joined several teammates to form a group Williams publicly called “The Underminers.” It didn’t make for what in sports is known as a “good clubhouse.”
McLain finished the year 10–22.
Short also signed Curt Flood, who had retired from baseball a year earlier rather than accept a trade from St. Louis to Philadelphia. Flood filed suit challenging baseball’s reserve clause, which bound a player to one team for life, and while that clause would be struck down in 1975, Flood’s suit failed. He signed with Washington on the handshake promise that Short would not bind him to the Senators. Alas, Flood at 33 had lost his once-exceptional skills. After 35 at-bats with only seven singles, he quit.
The Senators had other veterans who were past their prime and did not quit, which left them thin on hitting and pitching. It could be added that the Senators’s home field, RFK Stadium, was a lousy ballpark. Yet for all that, a Senators game was still a pleasant way to spend a summer evening. They had some good young players, including Toby Harrah and Jeff Burroughs, and decent veterans like Elliott Maddox.
We were at one game in mid-season when the PA system broke into “Hail to the Chief” and President Richard Nixon took a lower-deck seat.
Say what you will about Richard Nixon, and there is plenty to say, there was something pleasant in the idea that after a hard day shaping the free world, Nixon said to someone, “You know what would be a great place to go this evening? A baseball game.” It wasn’t a photo-op. The guy just liked baseball.
In any case, the best reason to see a Senators game wasn’t the off-chance of sharing a stadium with the President. It was Frank Howard.
In 1968 he hit 44 homers, leading the Majors. He hit 48 in 1969 and 44 again in 1970. He fell off a bit in 1971, but on a team that didn’t have a lot of standout players, or players who generated excitement, Frank Howard was and could.
All of which brings me to September 30, 1971, the last game of the season.
The Senators were playing Yankees, who were in the wilderness years when instead of Billy Martin or Bobby Richardson at second base, they had Horace Clarke. The game was an event in Washington only because nine days earlier the American League had agreed to let Short move the team to Arlington, Texas.
The Senators hadn’t convinced a lot of fans to pay high prices to watch a mediocre team in a lousy stadium. But that didn’t mean no one cared when their team was once again being snatched away.
So almost all of the 14,460 paying fans — and a few thousand more who walked in because the soon-to-be-unemployed ticket-takers saw no reason to bother stopping them — came in tribute and anger. Large signs, all directed at Short, were not all family-friendly, and the whole stadium felt like a going-out-of-business sale. The outer corridors had open boxes of all the team’s now-useless promo merchandise, like plastic helmets and paperback copies of Williams’s book.
Dick Bosman started for Washington and after five innings trailed 5–1, giving up homers to Rusty Torres, Roy White and Bobby Murcer.
This didn’t give the crowd many moments to vent their frustration. Then in the bottom of the sixth, Frank Howard led off against Yankees starter Mike Kekich, and on a 2–1 count sent a fastball into the left field stands.
The stadium went crazy, way crazier than you can imagine 14,460 or even 20,000 fans could sound. They stood, they yelled, they chanted. Howard came out for a curtain call. Then another. He tossed his helmet into the crowd. The fans kept clapping. Why were they so angry about losing their team? Because it took away a Frank Howard, that’s why. Because even if the team wasn’t very good, there were moments of exhilaration and players they could cheer.
Frank Howard’s home run answered Bob Short, in the most eloquent baseball way.
Perhaps inspired by Howard, or three Yankee errors, the Senators took a 7–5 lead into the ninth.
Before the inning started, a few fans ran onto the field. It was not a good sign that the relief pitchers all left the bullpen and trotted to the dugout.
The inning began against the backdrop of ominous crowd murmuring. Joe Grzenda quickly got two outs and was about to face, yes, Horace Clarke, when the dam burst and thousands of fans poured onto the field. Any security guards who remained assessed the numbers and stepped aside. It wasn’t violent. No one was hurt. It was pure venting, a chaotic primal scream. Someone did pry up all the bases.
The players repaired to the safety of the dugouts and eventually the clubhouses. After a futile plea or two from the PA system to clear the field, the umpires declared a forfeit. Yankees 9, Senators 0.
It would be 33 years before Washington got another baseball team — this time one that became good. The Nationals won the World Series in 2019, Washington’s first title since 1924.
When the Senators regrouped the following year as the Texas Rangers, Frank Howard got their first hit. A home run. The Rangers eventually became good, and as of this morning Texas is one game away from winning its first World Series. Call it one of life’s unsentimental dramas that Frank Howard passed away in the middle of it. While he did have a World Series win of his own, homering in a 2–1 Dodgers victory over the Yankees in the decisive game 4 of the 1963 Series, he deserved more.
As for the moral relativism part, it went like this.
After the forfeited game, Kekich was asked about the pitch Howard hit for the home run. Well, he said, I kind of grooved a fastball down the middle — suggesting he thought the fans deserved one final moment from their star.
It’s a foundational principle of sports that all players must at all times be doing their best to do their job, that is, win. If they aren’t, the whole premise of legitimate sports disappears. It becomes professional wrestling, scripted entertainment, which is fine but is not sports.
In theory, then, if a pitcher deliberately sets up a batter to hit a home run, it undermines the foundational principle. It compromises the game.
Yet if Kekich’s implication is correct, that he did groove that fastball, there’s a kind of admirable generosity at play, and that’s not a bad principle, either. You could even say it’s also part of the spirit of sports.
You could definitely say Frank Howard was part of the spirit of baseball.