On October 30, 2019, the Washington Nationals won the World Series, ending a 95 years long title drought for D.C. baseball. I was pleased to toast to the long-awaited championship with Maker’s Mark bourbon, poured out of a bottle signed by perhaps the greatest slugger to ever a W on his cap.
Now, four years to the night later, I’m toasting again. It’s in memorium for Frank Howard, who signed that bottle. In addition to his baseball career, Howard was in the spirits business and in 2006, he appeared at a Maker’s Mark at a D.C. liquor store. My wife and I visited, met Hondo, as he was known and went home with an autographed bottle that was also dipped in blue wax to go with the red.
The Capitol Punisher
Easily the greatest member of the expansion Washington Senators, Howard was the all-time D.C. home run king across three franchises until 2017. Even growing up, during the long interregnum between teams, I knew of Frank Howard. He was a giant, literrally (6′ 8″!) and figuratively in D.C. sports history.
Howard was the best known Washington ballplayer for a generation. The Nats weren’t much a team after their last pennant in 1933. On the expansion version, a chronic second-division club, Howard was the lone superstar. The Ohio native came to nation’s capital following a trade from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Following an All-American basketball career at Ohio State, Howard choose baseball. He debuted the same year in L.A. as the Dodgers and had a cup of coffee with them in 1958 and 1959. In 1960, he was National League Rookie of the Year. In 1963, he appeared in his only World Series as the Dodgers swept the New York Yankees.
“The white seats are for the balls I hit up there. The yellow ones are for all the times I struck out.”
Once in Washington, Howard could play daily after years of platooning. White seats in the outfield upper deck reflect the where some of his home runs landed. He joked that the yellow ones were for his frequent strikeouts.
Howard went on a torrid streak in 1968 that saw him hit 10 home runs in 20 at bats. He improved even more in 1969 when Ted Williams arrived to manage the Senators. Holding court at the liquor store in 2006, Howard happily shared the story of the Splendid Splinter addressing his plate discipline:
Williams: Hey, Bush – how does a fellow hit 44 homers and only get 42 bases on balls?
Thought skeptical, Howard followed Williams’ direction to take the first strike. His walk rate doubled, his strikeouts plummeted and he lead the league in homers and RBI. The Senators won 86 games, the only winning record of the expansion era and first since the early 1950s. The Capitol Punisher and team peaked that year.
Howard followed with another 44 homer season in 1970. By 1971 though, he was entering his decline and so were the Senators. “Smart late, old early” was how Howard explained it matter of factly. That September, Bob Short convinced the American League owners to let him move the franchise to “some jerk town with a single boast of being equidistant between Dallas and Fort Worth.”
Howard didn’t even last a full season with the newly christened Texas Rangers. He was traded to Detroit and came off the bench for a division winning Tigers team. He briefly played in Japan, though he injured himself in his first game and was finished as a player.
A baseball lifer, he managed in the minor leagues as well as brief managerial stints with the San Diego Padres and New York Mets. He once told my friend Joe Riley that he “went wherever Dallas Green went.” While he had stops with the Milwaukee Brewers and Tampa Bay Rays, I associate him with his time in the Yankees organization. He was a hitting coach in the early 1990s and apparently a favorite of George Steinbrenner.
Honors and omissions
While serving as hitting coach for the Yankees, they traveled to RFK Stadium for an exhibition game against the Mets in 1993. My father took my brother and I out of school for it and in the pregame ceremonies, Howard’s #33 was “retired” with the promise of it hanging from the rafters. As far I can tell, the promised was never fulfilled. The Nationals have not retired #33 either. Perhaps they will now.
His name did grace the Ring of Stars which became the Washington DC Sports Hall of Fame when Nationals Park opened.
At Nationals Park, Howard was honored twice. First, the many-armed statue commissioned by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2008. Eight years later, the franchise added him to the Ring of Honor.
In what I consider a major misstep by the Lerners, Howard was never brought in the organization in an official capacity. It was discussed, but never came to be. Nevertheless, Howard was a regular at functions around the greater Washington area. Affable and charming, Howard enjoyed meeting with fans and sharing stories form a life in baseball. He settled in Loudoun County, Va. after his playing days.
A final toast to Hondo
I don’t have much of that bottle of Maker’s Mark left. I opened it years ago – I think my alma mater Penn State beating his alma mater, Ohio State in football might have been what broke the seal. Another Nats fan I have met had to wait a little longer. On his inscription, it said “for the first Nats pennant” or some such thing. We both enjoyed October 2019 and I imagine Howard did too.