The numerical case for the Nationals to honor Frank Howard is simple. He hit 237 home runs for the Senators — still the most in D.C. baseball history. He went to four all-star games, led the American League in homers twice and led all of baseball in homers over a three-year stretch from 1968 to 1970. He once hit 10 of ’em in 20 at-bats. That’s all reason enough to put Howard’s name in the Nationals Park Ring of Honor, as the team will do Friday night.
But take away the numbers for a second. The emotional case might be stronger. So now read George Minot Jr.’s account of the Senators’ final game at RFK Stadium, as D.C. baseball was trudging away into its decades of hibernation. That game was forfeited, of course, after fans overran the field and wouldn’t allow the contest with the Yankees to be completed. Before that, though, Howard homered here one last time, a moment he later said was “the greatest thrill I’ve ever experienced” and “the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Perhaps Walter Johnson received more heart-warming outpourings of affection, maybe Joe Cronin and Bucky Harris can remember louder tributes when they led the now-dead club to its only pennants,” Minot wrote. “Maybe so. But none of those three could be as deeply touched as was Howard, the mightiest home-run hitter the team has ever known.”
It went on:
He slammed a Mike Kekich fast ball off the visiting bullpen wall to ignite a game-tying, four-run rally in the sixth inning, and that’s what the fans had come to see. They rolled cheer after cheer upon his broad shoulders.
He waved his batting helmet to them before disappearing into the dugout. Then he came out and tossed his cap into the crowd. And he came out again to blow kisses.
“This is utopia,” he said later. “This is the greatest thrill of my life. What would top it?”
Then Howard defended the fans — those same fans who had spent much of that final season booing him, and who had gone cuckoo on that final night.
“This was their night,” he said. “They’ve been hurt. They’re disillusioned. They’re the greatest fans in the world.”
An ending like that might explain why so many Washingtonians still have such fondness for Howard; why there’s a statue of him outside Nationals Park; why the team this month decided to change its rules for induction into that Ring of Honor to accommodate Howard. Previous honorees had to have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and to have played “significant years” with the Nats, Senators, Homestead Grays or Expos. Howard had the latter, but not the former.
So the rules are now different. The new criteria also allow induction for “anyone who has made a significant contribution to the game of baseball in Washington, D.C.” When I talked with the 80-year-old this week, he said he was “flattered and gracefully humbled” to be included by the team, that he was thrilled with the honor, that every athlete has an ego, and “if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be worth a damn.” But he didn’t want to go overboard talking about himself.
“The real professionals, I think, keep things in perspective,” he said. “Whatever skill, whatever heart and intellect and belly we have or don’t have, you don’t have to tell people. They’ll know it. Like I said, it’s a great thrill for me, but I don’t want to get too carried away with it.”
Howard moved back to the D.C. area in the ’80s and still lives in Western Loudoun County. He marveled at the demographic changes in the area, and how much further the D.C. fan base now stretches (not to mention its disposable income). He doesn’t get to Nationals Park often because of the distance, but he picks up the paper to get updates — and to read Boz, who he’s known for about four decades. He also doesn’t think the franchise should obsess over past stars.
“There’s nothing more passe than an old ex-player,” he said. “I’m not so much linked to them anymore, but I’m very much a fan.”
And when I asked him why fans here still feel so fondly for him, he said it was because he had his best seasons here. Then he mentioned advice he used to give to younger colleagues.
“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?” he said. “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.”
Likewise for the decision to now honor Howard. In the days after that final game, Minot wrote that “no one tried harder, was more of a team player or obtained such outstanding results,” and that “the length of some of his homers will be talked about as long as the name Senators is remembered.” The Post’s editorial board was more effusive, calling Howard “the beloved symbol of Washington baseball, the hero, the hulk of a man.”
“The cheering refused to die down,” The Post wrote of his final homer. “Obviously moved, he tossed his cap into the delirious crowd — and the roar rose even more. Again, Frank Howard stepped out to acknowledge the salute from his longtime fans, and those who could see his face say that the towel in his hands was for the cheers.”
Howard said that night that “everything that happens after this is anticlimactic. Everything is downhill after this. I’m not a sentimental guy, but I’m sentimental about this.” Friday night won’t be anything like that, of course, but it feels like the right time for another thrill, another ovation, and maybe even another kiss to the crowd.