Frank Howard, a hugely popular giant of a man who singlehandedly elevated Washington baseball from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, has died, the Nationals announced on Monday. He was 87.
Though Howard never guided the Washington Senators to the postseason, he was an All-Star four times, had two top-5 finishes in MVP voting and won two home run crowns during his time with the club from 1965-71.
Howard, who stood 6-foot-7 and weighed more than 250 pounds during his heyday, was aptly nicknamed “The Capital Punisher” and “The Washington Monument.” His mammoth home runs -- including a 500-foot shot at RFK Stadium in 1970 -- only added to his legend. He finished his career with 382 home runs, leading the Majors with 44 in 1968 and the American League with 44 in '70.
"Growing up a baseball fan in Washington D.C., Frank Howard was my hero," Nationals managing principal owner Mark D. Lerner said in a statement. "The towering home runs he hit into the stands at RFK Stadium gave him the nickname 'Capital Punisher,' but I’ll always remember him as a kind and gentle man. The entire Lerner family would like to offer our thoughts and condolences to Frank's family during this difficult time. The world of baseball has truly lost a giant."
Howard turned down the chance to play in the NBA; he was a third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Warriors after starring as an All-American in baseball and basketball at Ohio State University. Instead, Howard pursued a career in baseball that began with the Dodgers, who signed the right-handed-hitting outfielder in 1958 and called him up late in the season. Howard was a platoon player for much of his tenure with the Dodgers, though he made the most of his playing time. He was named the National League Rookie of the Year in 1960 and helped Los Angeles to a World Series title in 1963.
After the ‘64 season, the Dodgers traded Howard -- along with Ken McMullen, Phil Ortega, Pete Richert and Dick Nen -- to the Senators for John Kennedy, Claude Osteen and $100,000. Once in Washington, Howard became a larger-than-life figure.
His coming-out party came in May 1968, when, during a stretch of 20 at-bats, Howard blasted 10 home runs. It still stands as the record for most home runs hit in one week.
"I wish I had more weeks like that; I might have made a couple of bucks in the game of baseball," Howard said in a 2018 interview with MLB.com. "It was a rare moment for me. Everything fell into place for me. As a hitter, sometimes you get into a groove where you are reading the pitchers well. You are seeing the ball well."
The homer barrage started at home on May 12, with home runs in consecutive innings -- the first a solo shot off Detroit's Mickey Lolich, followed by another solo homer the next inning off Fred Lasher. Two days later, Howard homered twice again, this time at Fenway Park. The next day, he tagged Red Sox starter Jose Santiago for his fifth home run in a four-day span.
From there, it was on to a one-game stopover in Cleveland, where Howard hit two more homers, both off flamethrower Sam McDowell. The Senators then continued to Detroit, where, over the next two days, Howard went deep three times.
"Growing up in Rockville, Maryland, we lived Frank Howard," said former Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. "He kept baseball relevant in D.C. during those years."
Five of Howard’s 10 home runs that week came against the Tigers, who went on to win the World Series that year. The Senators, meanwhile, finished last in the 10-team American League with a 65-96 record.
"He was such in a zone,” teammate Hank Allen recalled. “The pitchers couldn't get him out."
Howard’s career in Washington ended ahead of the 1972 season, when the team relocated to Texas and became known as the Rangers. He played his final season in the Majors with the Tigers in ’73, then signed with Japan’s Taiheiyo Club Lions for the '74 season. Howard was injured in his first game in Japan, however, ending his playing career.
After his playing career, Howard found himself in the coaching ranks throughout the 1980s and '90s, spending time with the Brewers, Mariners, Yankees, Mets and Devil Rays. He even had two stints as a manager with the Padres and Mets in 1981 and '83, respectively, and went a combined 93-133.
On Aug. 26, 2016, the Nationals added Howard's name to the Ring of Honor at Nationals Park. There, on the right-field facade near the foul pole, Howard's name is displayed alongside those of Jackie Robinson and former Nats manager Frank Robinson. It is proper recognition for a man who had once been the most feared slugger in the game.
"I'm not one to live in the past, but I'll tell you what -- any time you have a chance to be on Frank and Jackie Robinson's team, it's a real thrill for me," Howard said at the time. "It's nice when someone says, 'Welcome to the Ring of Honor.'"