May 26, 2018

Frank Howard, Bryce Harper, and a Tip of the Hat to That

March 8, 2018 by · 2 Comments 

Frank Howard only played in Washington for seven years after coming over from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1965 trade. Bryce Harper is likely to play only seven seasons as well–the hour glass emptying steadily on what is likely his last in DC. In terms of longevity and in several important statistical categories, there is an eerie similarity to the two men’s careers here. For that reason, it is timely to consider and compare their impacts on the city and its sports history as we enter what will likely be Harper’s final campaign as a Washington National.

Howard and Harper have been the most talented sluggers Washington baseball has ever seen. That statement is undisputed. Granted, it is a small sample size, but none to date has put up home run numbers to match theirs. No prodigious power hitter ever graced old Griffith Stadium with its cavernous dimensions that defied the classic pull-hitting slugger. Goose Goslin was probably the best before the fences were pulled in by Calvin Griffith after his uncle died. Harmon Killebrew had 42 dingers in 1959 and 31 in 1960 before leaving for Minnesota. But no one comes close to Howard and Harper, even for their limited playing time.

Frank Howard was traded to the Washington Senators expansion team in 1965 in a seven-player deal that may have been the best ever made by a Washington baseball club. For top tier pitcher Claude Osteen–15 wins and a 3.33 ERA in 1964–Washington received Howard, Ken McMullen, Phil Ortega, Pete Richert and Dick Nen. All five players swapped for Osteen became mainstays of the lowly Senators. Richert immediately replaced Osteen, winning 15 games in 1965 and pitching to a 2.60 ERA. McMullen became a steady presence at the hot corner and the best bat on the team next to Howard’s.

But the trade was all about Frank Howard who became the face of Washington baseball for the next forty years. The memories he left behind at RFK Stadium in 1971 were all there was for 34 years.

At Ohio State University, Frank Howard was an All-American in both basketball and baseball.  When he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958, he was one of the most highly regarded prospects of his era. He hit 43 home runs in the Pacific Coast league and was named Minor League Player of the Year in 1959,and was Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in 1960. He was every bit as lustrous a comet as the shooting star named Bryce Harper that arrived as a Washington National’s prospect in 2010.

Hondo was considerably larger than Harper, standing 6′-8″ tall and having played center for the Buckeyes. Both men were regarded as temperamental, though in very different ways. The 6′-3″ Harper was explosive in his early years and invited the invective of opposing teams with his showboat style of play. Howard was reserved to a fault–possessing such self-doubts that he announced his retirement from the game in 1964 after failing to win the confidence of his manager, Walter Alston, who insisted on platooning the “Capital Punisher.”

After landing in DC, Howard did not prove his Dodger detractors wrong immediately, but broke out in 1967 for manager Gil Hodges, hitting 36 home runs, his career high at that point as a 30-year old. That season began a four-year run when he was one of the most feared sluggers in the game. He led the American League in homers with 44 in both 1968 and 1970 and had a personal high of 48 in 1969, though he lost the American League home run title to Killebrew that season–who hit 49.

On May 6, 2015, with three full MLB seasons under his belt, Bryce Harper entered the day hitting only .265 with five home runs. He was on pace to continue his slow climb toward excellence that began when he was one of the youngest players to ever hit 20 home runs during his age 19 season. But on that evening in May, against Tom Koehler of the Miami Marlins, Harper belted three booming shots into the left field stands and wowed the faithful at Nationals Park in a way that had only happened once before–when Howard began hitting moon shots at RFK Stadium in the late 1960’s. That night marked the takeoff for a very wondrous season for the young phenom from Nevada.

Harper went on to accomplish something Howard never did, winning the Most Valuable Player award in 2015 with a .330 batting average and a league-leading 42 home runs. His .460 OBP and a .649 slugging percentage led the league as well and he was one of only six to win a unanimous MVP selection. Hondo was fourth in the American League MVP voting in 1969 and that year was the high point of his career without a doubt. But Harper achieved his career year at the age of 22. Unfortunately, baseball has been waiting for a repeat performance. Like Hondo, the breakout has not quite come as quickly and resoundingly as might have been imagined. But Harper has been very good since 2015, limited by significant time spent on the injured list, failing to break the 30-home run mark in both 2016 and 2017.

There is one more season to be written in the battle of Washington’s best sluggers. Hondo had three magic seasons and ghost-like, old RFK Stadium still has the seats painted white in the upper deck where his mammoth home runs landed during those years. Bryce Harper has not had that kind of extended run and it must be said that the odds are against him displacing the old Senator’s captain, voted best player on those teams year after year. But there is another season and it could provide an interesting climactic moment for Harper.

The tale of the tape provides the following. Harper has 150 home runs over his first six years. Frank Howard had 211 from 1965 to 1971. Howard hit .289 as a Senator; Harper has hit .285 as a National. There is no disputing, however, that Harper is the far superior defensive player and it is reflected in his WAR rating for his years in DC. Aggregate WAR to date for Harper is 26.1. For Howard’s seven years his WAR was 26.6–both ratings from Baseball Reference.com

Frank Howard begins the 2018 season as an age 81 retiree, one with an immense celebratory statue of him just inside the center field gate, as you enter Nationals Park from Half Street. Regardless the tasteless art of the thing, he is lionized there for many years to come and is the most revered figure in DC baseball history next to Walter Johnson.

If this is Bryce Harper’s last season, he will still eclipse Howard in a few categories, most notably aggregate WAR. There is one other contrast that can be seen in the many fans who will enter Nationals Park wearing “Harper” jerseys with its number “34” emblazoned across the back for years to come. He has been a marketing genius that eclipses anything old Frank ever would have wanted or thought possible.

More importantly, however, are the magic moments that may yet come, even if Harper’s stay in DC is an abbreviated one. As a fan, I can easily imagine a final tip of the cap by Harper at the end of this season. It may be nothing more than a nice finish or it could be a hugely significant flash point in Washington baseball history if the Nationals play long into the post-season and Harper’s contribution is commensurate with his game-changing potential. It could outclass anything done by Howard in a setting he never saw during his DC years. Yet even if the circumstances are very different, Harper’s last doff of the chapeau will at best look eerily like Howard’s as he circled the bases one last time near the end of the final game at RFK Stadium on September 30, 1971. That is an iconic moment that will remain forever.

Which gesture will mean more to fans? It does not really matter much since the two men are so vastly different and the circumstances of their time here have been worlds apart. But at this writing everything says that Harper will have mountains to move to displace Frank “Hondo” Howard as Washington’s fan favorite. As we begin the 2018 season with its very potent possibilities, the betting favorite– the one already well ensconced in the clubhouse–is Frank Howard to remain the greatest slugger ever to lace up his cleats and jog out onto a baseball field in Washington, DC. And for what it’s worth, here’s a tip of the hat to that.

 

Comments

2 Responses to “Frank Howard, Bryce Harper, and a Tip of the Hat to That”
  1. ghostofwadelefler says:

    There is one other contrast that can be seen in the many fans who will enter Nationals Park wearing “Harper” jerseys with its number “37” emblazoned across the back for years to come.

    “Harper” jerseys usually have a number “34” emblazoned across the back. Jerseys with the number “37” across the back usually have “Strasburg” written above that number. Stephen Strasburg chose to stay in Washington when an extension was offered; it appears no one thinks Harper would consider doing the same. No matter; that’s what Victor Robles and Juan Soto are for.

    Harper and Howard have another thing in common: they have both brought the same number of postseason series wins, pennants and World Series titles to Washington. Harper has had a far superior supporting cast than Howard, which makes those numbers tougher to digest in his case.

  2. Thanks. I count on our editor to catch brain farts like that, but good help is so hard to find.

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