Rob Neyer over at ESPN.com ran a pretty good piece commenting on another writer's piece about Frank Howard. While Frank Howard will probably never make it into the Hall of Fame, he was a scary hitter for his time and Neyer's blog brought back a lot of memories of the guy. He was one of the true giants of the game whose physical stature simply dwarfed those of his peers.
And Howard did play during the pitching era when mounds were higher, ball parks were more spacious (at least where Howard played) and the ball wasn't quite as lively as it is now. He had a three year stretch from 1968 to 1970 where he hit 132 homers. He finished with an impressive 142 for a career OPS+. He could simply crush a baseball. And the guy was six foot, seven inches tall and was built like a tank. And from all accounts, he was one of the nicest guys in sports.
But you know what? He looked like a high school principal or something like that. All the big guys of his era did. Guys like Elston Howard and Harmon Killebrew and Ed Kranepool were massive guys that looked more like dock workers than they did athletes. Later guys like Carlton Fisk and Cliff Johnson were similar. They were huge. They were giants among men.
We have big guys today too. Ryan Howard and C. C. Sabathia come to mind. But they don't look the same anymore do they? The Fan really likes Howard, Sabathia, Fielder and others. Hey, that's what Fans do. But their trademarks are their baggy uniforms and unkempt looks. Their caps are askew and they look clownish at times.
There was dignity in guys like Elston Howard and Frank Howard. There was a certain humility to their look and their demeanor. The Neyer piece mentions Don Sutton who is quoted as saying that no hitter instilled more fear in a pitcher than Frank Howard. There were other guys like Horner for the Braves who could hit a baseball through a wall. Even Dave Winfield qualifies, though he was a bit more of a strutter than the Howards mentioned earlier in this paragraph.
Maybe it was because guys like Elston Howard and Frank Howard didn't make the kind of money they are making today. Maybe that made it harder to swagger. Who knows. But they were a breed unto themselves.
All the Fan can tell you, from a geezer point of view, is that when we went to the Stadium to watch a game against the Senators, you always spotted Frank Howard right away. He didn't need a baggy uniform or an off-center cap to be the focus of our attention. He was the big guy. He was the palooka. He was the man.
One of the dangers of hitting upper middle age is the belief that everything was harder in our day. Yeah, we walked three miles to school in the dead of winter (up all hills if you really want to get dramatic). Food tasted better, parenting was better and so on and so forth. But sometimes, as much as it sounds like we don't respect today (we mostly do), we just remember certain things like a big mammoth of a guy with librarian glasses who swung this big bat that sounded different than anyone else's.
Hey, Frank Howard hit 44 homers in 1968 when American League pitchers (collectively) gave up 0.68 homers per nine innings. What would he have done today when that same rate is 1.10? His big year came when AL pitchers put up a 3.41 league ERA compared to last year's 4.75. That was a big man who hit a lot of balls a long way even playing half his games in that huge stadium in Washington.
Frank Howard was not cool. His pants didn't bag at his ankles and he didn't have gloves sticking out of his back pockets or eye-black under his eyes. But he was a giant and he was fun to watch.