At 6-foot-7, Howard — who died Monday at 87 — could have been intimidating. He was beloved in Washington because he was anything but.
“You contrast his size with his demeanor,” said Phil Hochberg, the longtime public address announcer at RFK Stadium. “He just seemed to be a nice, nice guy.”
“Such a kind man,” said Jim Bowden, the general manager of the Washington Nationals when baseball returned to the District. “He was so kind to all of us. And remember the white seats?”
All those years later, those were the marks that Howard left on Washington baseball, the seats in RFK’s left field upper deck that were painted a different color, marking Howard’s most titanic blasts there, a reminder that baseball had history in Washington before the Nats brought the sport back. In seven seasons with the Senators — after a trade brought him east from the Los Angeles Dodgers — he hit 237 homers, the most in the history of Washington baseball until Ryan Zimmerman passed him in 2017.
On the night in April 2005 when baseball returned to the District, old Senators took their positions in the field, then were joined by the corresponding new Nats. Brad Wilkerson started in left that night for Washington. Wilkerson stands 6 feet tall. Howard made him look like a Little Leaguer.
Yet read what Howard told my colleague Dan Steinberg in 2016, when he was inducted into the Ring of Honor at Nationals Park. After his playing days, Howard spent more than two decades as a major league coach, including stints managing the San Diego Padres and the New York Mets. His central message to his charges wasn’t a batting tip. It was a life tip.
“I used to tell them, what does it cost us to treat our fellow Americans — or as far as that goes, our fellow human beings — what does it cost us to treat them with some general respect, some consideration, a little courtesy?” Howard told Dan. “You know, when I was coaching all those years, I used to talk to the players I had, and I said, look, I know you want your privacy. I know you want to get home to see your wife, your girlfriend, your kids. But take 10 minutes to sign some autographs. Give some kid a pat on the rear end and say, ‘I want to hit one for you tomorrow.’ Whether you do or not is immaterial. It’s just a small way of telling the fans we appreciate them. We get so wrapped up in trying to win a ballgame that we forget to thank them for their support. It’s common sense more than anything else.”
He could say all that because he lived it.
“Any activity designed to enhance the experience for fans, to make the fans more comfortable, he would do,” Hochberg said Monday by phone. “That could be autographs. That could be pictures. And of course, Frank was so big, but to have him respond by being a gentle giant, if you will, made people love him. He was always willing to participate in whatever was needed.”
Howard died on the day of Game 3 of the World Series, a game to which he had zero direct ties. Yet at 5:08 p.m. Phoenix time, when Max Scherzer took the mound to warm up for the bottom of the first inning — wearing the blue jersey and blue cap of the Texas Rangers — the two events could easily be intertwined.
Howard was beloved by Washington — and loved Washington. But in some ways, he represents the pain of having baseball stripped away. Scherzer still embodies the absolute apex of what it could be when it — finally, mercifully — came back.
Scherzer isn’t the pitcher he once was, particularly the pitcher he was for the better part of seven seasons with Washington, and he lasted just three innings before he succumbed to back tightness. Those Nats years, though, were from 2015 to 2021, when baseball was completely reestablished in the District. The Nats expected to contend every year. They did contend in most of them. When they won the World Series in 2019, it was Scherzer who started Game 7.
By then, Howard was living in Loudoun County.
“There’s nothing more passé than an old ex-player,” he told Steinberg. “I’m not so much linked to them anymore, but I’m very much a fan.”
Howard’s tenure in Washington began with that trade before the 1965 season and lasted until 1971, when Senators owner Bob Short decided to pick up the franchise in the nation’s capital and move it to someplace called Arlington, Tex. Howard was Short’s team’s biggest draw. In 1970, he led the American League with 44 homers and 126 RBI.
Short said he was moving the team because of flagging attendance. Howard, as positive a man as you could meet, was less than thrilled.
“This isn’t exactly a pleasure,” he told the media before the final home game, against the New York Yankees. “I’ve been playing for the Senators for seven years, and I think of this city as my home, no matter how bad we were.”
And they were bad, posting just one winning season in Howard’s tenure in D.C.
“Nobody’s going to buy a horses— product,” Howard said, “and that’s what we’ve been the last two years.”
What happened that night is one of the indelible events in Washington baseball history. In the sixth, Howard launched a pitch from Yankees lefty Mike Kekich into that territory reserved for him — upper deck in left field. Howard was never a showman. On that night, he tossed his hat into the crowd. He blew a kiss as a curtain call.
And afterward — after the fans had stormed the field in search of sod souvenirs, after the umps had called the game a forfeit by the home team with two outs in the ninth — Howard further endeared himself to a town that was about to venture into the baseball wilderness.
“What can a guy do to top this?” he asked. “A guy like me has maybe five big thrills in his lifetime. Well, this was my biggest tonight. I’ll take it to the grave with me. This was Utopia. I can’t do anything else like it. It’s all downhill the rest of the way.”
Frank Howard was too often and too easily defined by the size of his frame. He was “Hondo.” He was the “Capital Punisher.” He played for the Dodgers and the Rangers and the Tigers. But he was a Washington baseball hero and, to the end, a Washingtonian. To so many baseball fans who spent so many years without the sport, that’s indescribably important.