In the wake of Frank Howard’s recent death, lots of photos of him have been circulating, including the one above, which I’d never seen before. It shows Howard celebrating with his Tigers teammates after they clinched the 1972 American League East Division title.
The notable thing, of course, is that Howard’s NOB is vertically arched — a style that the Tigers did not wear that year. In fact, according to Bill Henderson’s jersey guide, the Tigers have never worn vertically arched NOBs.
And yet there’s the photo of Hondo. How can we explain this?
We’ve often seen the opposite situation, where a team with vertically arched lettering (VAL) has a random player or two with radially arched lettering (RAL). That’s because VAL is much trickier and more labor-intensive to execute, so minor league call-ups and midseason trade acquisitions sometimes didn’t get the full VAL treatment from their VAL-clad teams. For example, when Atlanta called up Kelly Johnson from Triple-A in 2005, he initially got a RAL nameplate, even though the rest of the team was wearing VAL. This was common for Atlanta call-ups and trade acquisitions at the time.
Frank Howard, it’s worth noting, was a late-season trade acquisition by the Tigers in 1972 (they traded for him on Aug. 31). But it doesn’t make sense that they’d make him a more labor-intensive VAL NOB if the rest of the team wasn’t wearing that style to begin with.
One thing that occurred to me: Maybe (a) the Tigers acquired Howard while they were on a road trip, and (b) they had a blank home jersey on hand and gave it to the home team’s stitcher so they’d have the jersey ready for Hondo when they got back to Detroit, and (c) the home team used VAL and their stitcher therefore executed the NOB in that style. Seems a bit improbable, but stranger things have happened.
As it turns out, the Tigers were indeed on the road when they acquired Howard — but they were in Oakland, and the A’s were not using VAL at the time. (In fact, they weren’t even using RAL — their NOBs were straight!) So that theory doesn’t pan out.
I emailed Bill Henderson to see if he had any insights. Here’s his response:
For the past couple of years, I also have had this photo in my files, and I’ve been looking for other examples to explain why he would’ve had that lettering style. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. I have many pictures of the 1972 Tigers in my collected archives, and I don’t see any other examples with a vertical arch. I’ve also restored several jerseys from that season, and they have a normal [radial] NOB. Well, that’s if you can call anything the Tigers did normal, because it looks like they pulled the letters out of some bin of assorted mishmash, because so many different variants of the NOB font appear. It just goes to show that we should expect the unusual from back in those days.
On a whim, I checked to see if Howard’s previous team used vertically arched names, because I thought maybe Wilson [the company that made the Tigers’ uniforms at the time] had already created the lettering pattern and just used what they had on hand when making his Tigers jersey. But his previous team was the Texas Rangers, and they did not use vertical arching.
I also consulted uni designer/historian Todd Radom. His response: “Not a clue!”
Hmmmm. It would be helpful to have some other photos of Howard’s home NOB from that season, just so we could see whether the VAL was a one-time thing. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find such an image. That’s not surprising — Howard appeared in only eight home games during his one month with the 1972 Tigers, and three of those were as a pinch-hitter.
But wait! Howard wasn’t eligible for the postseason that year because he reported to the Tigers after midnight on Aug. 31, but he supported his teammates by serving as the team’s first base coach during the American League playoffs against the A’s. The final three games of that series were in Detroit, and I’ve now spent more time than I’d like to admit poring over video highlights of those games, hoping to catch a glimpse of Howard’s NOB.
I finally hit paydirt in this clip from Game Five. All you have to watch are the first few seconds:
It’s a little blurry, but that’s definitely a vertically arched NOB. Just to confirm it, here’s another screen shot from that same game:
Again, it’s blurry, but you can clearly see that Howard’s NOB is styled differently from batter/runner Bill Freehan’s.
So the jersey Hondo was wearing in the photo at the top of this post was not just a one-time thing — he clearly went VAL on multiple occasions!
This still doesn’t solve the mystery of how or why the VAL NOB ended up on Howard’s jersey, but now at least we know it wasn’t a one-time fluke. Unless we can find any other examples, Frank Howard will go down in history as the only Tiger to wear that lettering style.
Meanwhile: Reader William Yurasko reports that Howard appeared in a Nestlé’s Quik TV commercial in 1971. He wore the his regular Washington Senators uniform for the spot, but for some reason they gave him a comically large “W” logo on his batting helmet:
What the hell were they thinking?
You can watch the commercial here:
(My thanks to Jeff Sak for sending me down the NOB rabbit hole, and to William Yurasko for the Quik commercial.)