The year was 1964. Frank Howard was 28 and one of the most feared hitters in baseball. The Los Angeles Dodgers had just traded him to the Washington Senators.
“Many thought of it as a comedown,” Howard says. “For me, it was a chance to put bread on the table.”
He was always a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy.
In LA, Howard was known for belting baseballs great distances. He helped the Dodgers win the 1963 World Series. His homers provided most of the runs Sandy Koufax needed for two of his no-hitters, one of them in 1962, the other in 1964.
The Dodgers called him Hondo, after John Wayne’s character in the 1953 film of that name, about an Army scout in the west. Hondo would have been happy to stay in LA, but the Dodgers traded him after the team moved to a new stadium where it was harder to hit home runs. The 2,700-mile trip took him from the penthouse of the National League to the basement of the American. But it gave him a second chance.
“In LA, I was basically a fourth outfielder,” he says. “Coming here gave me a chance to play every day. My numbers went up.”
Howard’s first season with the Senators in 1965 wasn’t his best. He played 143 games in left field, hit 21 homers, and rang up a .289 batting average. In 1968 he earned the nickname the Capital Punisher after he hit 10 home runs in 20 at-bats. Seats in RFK Stadium’s upper deck where his home runs landed got painted white.
Hondo and I meet at his home in Aldie, just east of Middleburg. The six-foot-eight frame that he used to unfurl as he approached the plate is now a bit stooped; grins come quickly and etch deep lines in his face. Since his retirement in 1974, he has managed and coached and worked in player development around the majors. At age 72, his memory and his wit are as sharp as ever.
What was he making that first year in Washington?
“I think it was $125,000,” he says. “That was big money in those days. We rarely made enough money to not work in the off-season.”
A week after my interview with Howard, the Nationals sign Cincinnati outfielder Adam Dunn to a two-year deal worth $20 million. I get Howard on the phone.
“They’re making them bigger, faster, smarter,” he says. “It’s well worth the price of admission.”
The day the team rolls Dunn out, I go down to Nationals Park to meet the new slugger. We meet in the locker room. His hand swallows mine, just as Hondo’s did.
Comparisons to Howard are inevitable. “I think this could be the power hitter we’ve been missing in DC since my childhood hero, Frank Howard,” Nationals co-owner Mark Lerner told reporters.
Dunn is six-foot-six and 275 pounds, a bit shorter, a few pounds heavier, and at age 29 a year older than Howard was when he came to Washington.
Ever meet Howard?
“Not yet,” Dunn says. “But I’m looking forward to it. I saw the white seats at RFK Stadium that he had hit with his 500-foot homers. How is that humanly possible?”
I have 15 minutes with Dunn. By the time I get to him, his new Nats hat is cocked to the side and his eyes have a slightly glazed look. My time with him comes after the press conference attended by his wife, Rachel, and his two-year-old son, Brady. TV and radio reporters already have worked him over.
I get the sense that Howard and Dunn share qualities beyond size. Both come from the American heartland—Howard from Columbus, Ohio, Dunn from Porter, Texas, north of Houston. Howard played basketball at Ohio State; Dunn played football for the University of Texas. Both come off as gentle, easygoing big men, quick to smile and in love with the game.
Dunn’s nickname is Big Donkey.
One is in the bloom of life, still with lots to learn; one is full of lore and lessons and is ready to teach. On matters basic to baseball and life, they see eye to eye.
Let’s start with steroids.
“I really don’t care what other people do,” Dunn says. “It’s not going to help you hit the ball, but it will harm your body.”
The week the Nats sign Dunn, news in the baseball world is dominated by the revelation that New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez has taken illegal substances.
“What aggravates me,” Dunn says, “is that fans lump all players together in the ‘steroid era.’ There are guys like Ken Griffey Jr. who are totally clean. Now there’s doubt on all of us, like a black cloud.”
Howard played long before steroids and hormones started showing up in the blood of ballplayers. “But,” he tells me, “there were always heavy drinkers. We had a hell of a drug problem, too. There was plenty of pot around.”
Like Dunn, Howard declines to wag his finger at individuals.
“It’s hard to stand in judgment,” he says. “Pitchers often loaded up their gloves with spitballs. They were trying to survive.”