September 18, 2021

Hondo

July 21, 2021 by · 1 Comment 

Frank HowardFrank Howard is a big man. Now in his mid-‘80’s, he was an All-American basketball player at Ohio State University before signing a bonus baseball contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958. Two years later, he won the National League Rookie of the Year award.

At 6’7” and somewhere between 275 and 300 pounds, Frank was the biggest man in the major leagues in those days. He was nicknamed “Hondo.”

Prior to the 1965 season Hondo was traded by the Dodgers to the Washington Senators, my hometown team. Before long, he fell in love with the city and its baseball fans. We loved him, too.

His personality and heart matched his size and his prodigious feats on the baseball diamond. Hondo led the league or was near the top in home runs several seasons during his tenure in Washington. He also struck out with great ferocity and frequency. Mostly, he played left field, without much range – there was a worn spot in the outfield grass showing the limits of his movements. At times, he also played first base.

Whenever Hondo hit a home run into the upper deck at D.C. Stadium (later renamed RFK Stadium after Robert Kennedy), the seat where it landed was painted white. During one week, Sunday through Saturday in May of 1968, he hit 10 home runs in 20 times at bat. One of the homers skipped over the roof and completely out of Tiger Stadium in Detroit.

I witnessed a number of his home runs through the years, including some upper deck blasts. There was one, though, I never will forget.

It was the summer of 1970, a night game against the Milwaukee Brewers. I was sitting several rows behind the visitors’ third base-side dugout, on passes from Dave Baldwin, a former Washington pitcher and teammate of Hondo’s who was traded by the Senators to the Brewers following the 1969 season. President Richard Nixon also was in attendance, sitting next to the Senators’ dugout on the first base side with his daughter Julie and son-in-law David Eisenhower.

Pitching for Milwaukee that night was left-hander Al Downing, who four years later, pitching for the Dodgers, gained noteriety by giving up Hank Aaron’s historic 715th career home run, elevating Aaron past Babe Ruth as the All-Time Major League Home Run King.

In the sixth inning of the Washington game, with two outs and no one on base, Hondo went up to bat. Downing challenged Hondo with a fastball and he didn’t miss it. In fact he hit the ball so hard it went up like a rocket, ascending steeper and steeper until it streaked not only into the upper deck of the stadium, but right through the exit ramp. Everyone stood, stunned, and I could barely catch my breath, it was such an awesome sight.

Alas, the following season turned out to be the final one for the Senators in Washington, as the owner arranged to move the team to Arlington, Texas to become the Texas Rangers. The last game was played on September 30, 1971, against the New York Yankees, and Hondo accomplished one more memorable feat.

Late in the game, he came up to bat. In front of a rowdy crowd that hung the team owner in effigy and displayed signs expressing anger at the move, Hondo saw another fastball and launched it over the fence for his final home run in front of the Washington fans. The stadium practically exploded, Hondo flung his batting helmet into the crowd, and wept as everyone stood and cheered in an extended emotional tribute. Soon, the frenzied fans stormed the field in such great numbers that the game was called off, giving the Yankees a victory by forfeit, and the Senators were gone for good.

Fast-forward to February 2005: Living in St. Petersburg, Florida, one day I drove across the bridge to Tampa to watch the New York Yankees practice at their spring training facility. After observing the big leaguers work out in the main stadium, I decided to step outside to one of the side fields where the minor league players were practicing. There was an 8-foot tall fence surrounding the field and everything else to keep the masses separated from the players. Much to my surprise, standing on the other side of the fence was Frank Howard himself. He was a spring training instructor for the Yankees, and was hitting ground balls to the infielders.

At one point, Hondo put down his bat and walked over to the third base dugout. I moved over to the end of the dugout, and through the fence, watched as he started to pick up trash. While I thought it was strange, given that practice was still underway on the field, I was not going to miss this opportunity.

“Hey, Frank. I grew up watching you play in Washington.”

Hondo looked up at me and walked over. “Yeah? Nice to meet you.”

He stuck out his hand. Not quite sure what to do, I poked two fingers through the fence, and he shook them.

“I’m a friend of Dave Baldwin.” I said.

“Dave was a good pitcher. He sent me a letter a couple of years ago. I don’t remember what it was about, but I answered it.”

“Say, Frank, I saw you hit a ball that went through the exit ramp in the upper deck.”

Hondo smiled and said, “Well, you have to get a hit once in a while to stay on the team.”

With that, he turned and walked back onto the field.

Washington finally got another major league team that same year, 2005. In front of the Nationals’ stadium, there is a statue of Frank Howard, the most popular baseball player in the city’s history.

Comments

One Response to “Hondo”
  1. Dave Baldwin says:

    I enjoyed reading Greg’s article because both Greg and Hondo are my good friends. I’ve known Greg since 1966 when I joined the Senators. During the passing years we’ve shared the adventures we’ve had in baseball and otherwise. Hondo was my road roommate for a bit. He is a great guy who always has a positive outlook. And he hit many line-drive home runs that were unbelievable.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!