I was eight years old in 1972. It was the first year that I followed the baseball season from beginning to end, and it was also the first year that I bought and collected baseball cards. I remember when I first saw that year’s Topps card for Frank Howard (shown above). I thought, “Hmmm, he looks like an old man.”
Part of it was his faraway gaze, part of it was the wrinkles in his brow, and part of it was the way the photo made him seem oddly toothless. But the big thing was his eyeglasses. They didn’t seem right for his face, and they especially didn’t seem right for a baseball player’s face. To my young mind, it all made him seem very middle-aged. I figured Frank Howard must be the oldest player in baseball.
Later that same year, I was at a friend’s house. This friend had some baseball cards from the previous year, including this one:
“Oh!” I thought, “I know that player. It’s the old guy!” With his pinched expression and, again, those glasses, he looked old enough to be the other two guys’ father. I didn’t know it then, but the MLB centennial patch on Howard’s sleeve indicates that the photo of him was taken in 1969. He turned 33 that year. Hard to fathom.
A few years later, I learned that Frank Howard had been the National League Rookie of the Year in 1960. I couldn’t wrap my head around that. How could Frank Howard ever have been a rookie?
As you may have heard by now, Frank Howard died yesterday. He was, of course, one of the most tremendous sluggers of his generation, and was famously enormous — six-foot-seven. Happily, he made good use of his prodigious vertical stature by cuffing his pants up high and really showing off those stirrups to their best advantage, both as a player and as a coach:
As you can see in those shots, Howard looked great in a classic uniform but a bit out of place in a more modern uni. Here, for example, is a photo of him from his final season as a player, 1973, wearing the Tigers’ pullover jersey:
He just doesn’t look right in a pullover, right? Also — and I don’t mean to harp on this but it continues to amaze me — he looks about 58 years old there. (He was actually 36.)
My favorite thing about Howard is that he’s in the small fraternity of players whose home runs were marked by commemorative seats. When he played for the Senators from 1965 through 1971, several seats at the team’s ballpark were painted white to mark the spots where his titanic home runs landed. Here are two examples:
You have to be a serious slugger to get that treatment!
Howard wasn’t a Hall of Famer, but he was a four-time All-Star and twice led the American League in homers (1968 and 1970, with 44 dingers each year). The Nats honored his role in DC baseball history with a statue outside their ballpark (although longtime Uni Watch reader/contributor William Yurasko has noted that it includes a uni error). He briefly interim-managed my favorite team during a low point in their history (the second half of 1983), and I recall him as a class act during that abbreviated stint. He seems to have been widely beloved as a teammate and a coach — a proverbial gentle giant. R.I.P.