The Los Angeles Dodgers staggered home from a road trip last week in desperate shape. They were a ninth-place team in a 10-team league and looked as if they had as much chance of winning the National League pennant as Sam Levenson has of becoming the mayor of Cairo. There were sore backs, sore elbows, sore ankles, sore shoulders, sore arms and inflamed appendixes all over the place, but the biggest sore spot of all was the Dodger bat rack. That old Dodger malady clava morbosa—sick bat, lack of power—was haunting them as never before.
Dodger fans from coast to coast were trying to pacify themselves by saying that at the end of their first 29 games last year the Dodger record was 14-15; this year it was 13-16, not much worse. There were injuries last year, too, and Dodger fans insist those injuries—to Maury Wills, Sandy Koufax and Tommy Davis—were just as serious as the injuries to Koufax, Ron Perranoski and Johnny Podres seem this year.
Behind everyone's thinking, however, is still the shadow of old clava morbosa. That is the one thing Dodger fans and the Dodgers themselves do not like to think or talk about. In 1963 Los Angeles scored only 640 runs, a bewildering drop of 24% from the year before when the Dodgers lost the pennant. Only one other team in 30 years, the 1945 Detroit Tigers, ever found itself in a World Series after scoring as few runs as the Dodgers did last year. And 1945 was a war year with a 154-game schedule. At their current rate of nonproduction, the 1964 Dodgers will score 14% fewer runs than they did last year, and it is going to be impossible for any pitching staff to carry such a team to a pennant. Although it looked for a while last week as if Los Angeles was finally going to make a move toward the first division, it was being done with those old Dodger reliables, pitching and speed, not power. In winning four games out of seven, the Dodgers had only nine extra-base hits, four of them by Howard.
The Dodgers have fewer extra-base hits than 17 of the 20 teams in the major leagues. Only the Houston Colt .45s and the New York Mets in the National League have hit fewer home runs. The Dodgers have just 21, and 12 of them have come from the bat of one man—Frank Oliver Howard (see cover), the 27-year-old, 6-foot-7, 258-pound outfielder who is the most powerful-looking man in baseball and, on certain well-spaced days, the game's most powerful slugger.
Frank Howard has been compared to Babe Ruth, Paul Bunyan and Swat Milligan, who became a legend in the early 1900s because when he hit a baseball '"there was a puff of smoke and a thin, blue streak of flame." Sandy Koufax says, "Frank Howard leads all leagues in eating," and Wally Moon, Howard's roommate, says, "I don't know that much about the American League, but I do know that Frank leads the National League in sleeping." There have been other descriptive superlatives, including a Los Angeles wit's paraphrase of Lord Tennyson's lines from Sit Galahad: "Frank's strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure." Frank Howard himself is certainly big, strong and ravenous, but also hardly a complete ballplayer, and a mighty confused young man besides.
This year Howard has knocked in almost a quarter of the runs scored by the entire Dodger team. He has hit a home run in every park that the Dodgers have played in, and he has poor Bob Hendley, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, thinking deep thoughts about the Golden Gate Bridge. In his last 11 at bats against Hendley, Howard has hit seven homers. But Howard has had some huge batting and fielding lapses, too; he has had one hit in 27 consecutive times at bat, and he has struck out nearly twice as many times as anyone else on the team. Howard's current strikeout rate could easily lead him beyond his 1963 strikeout record (116), which broke a Dodger mark that had stood for almost a quarter of a century.
When Howard is not striking out, he inspires tremendous fear in pitchers and third basemen on opposing teams—and in coaches, batting-practice pitchers and base runners among the Dodgers themselves. The sight of Howard digging in at the plate causes third-base coach Leo Durocher to shuffle six steps toward left field and a dozen steps back toward the stands, so that he looks more like a patron cheering from the field boxes than a man going about the business of being a baseline coach. "I remember in 1958," says Duke Snider, once a great young Dodger center fielder and now the senior citizen of the San Francisco Giants, "when I was leading off third base in Cincinnati with Howard at bat. I had my protective helmet on just in case he hit one at me, and he did. I was in foul territory and didn't see the ball come off the bat too good. All I saw was a blur and I threw my left shoulder up a bit. The ball glanced off the shoulder and hit below the bottom of my helmet. I went down. I didn't know where I was, and blood started to flow out of my ear. They picked me up and I was dizzy for three, four, five days. Frank Howard has more raw power than anyone in baseball."
Howard has been with the Dodgers for six years now and has yet to do the things they believe possible. "I think I am a realistic guy," says Howard. "I have the God-given talents of strength and leverage. I realize that I can never be a great ballplayer because a great ballplayer must be able to do five things well: run, field, throw, hit and hit with power. I am mediocre in four of those—but I can hit with power. I have a chance to be a good ballplayer. I work on my fielding all the time, but in the last two years I feel that I have gotten worse as a fielder. My greatest fear was being on the bases, and I still worry about it. I'm afraid to get picked off. I'm afraid to make a mistake on the bases, and I have made them again and again, but here I feel myself getting better."
Howard correctly judges his own fielding; this spring it has become even more of a problem than usual. His reaction time in the outfield is certainly not swift, but he is also plagued by a sore arm. He injured it last year in a fit of temper in Chicago. After looking dismal at the plate, he went back into the dugout and threw himself against a huge steel door, and the arm has not been the same since. This year, on some plays, he has not thrown the ball at all, and on others he has thrown it to the wrong relay man.
Howard is by no means the smartest man alive, and he knows it. When he first came to the Dodgers he was the target of many wisecracks and had trouble adapting to the humor and needling of big league baseball without losing his temper. The Dodgers signed Howard to a $108,000 bonus in 1958 when he was still attending Ohio State University. Though he had plenty of money, he steadfastly refused to buy a car. One night Harold Totten, the president of the Three-I League, left a game in Green Bay and saw Howard starting to walk the two miles from the ball park to the center of town. Totten picked Howard up and suggested that it was odd that Howard, of all the players, did not have a car. "No sir!" said Howard, "I don't own a car and I don't ever expect to because I don't know how to drive, and I don't want to learn."
Howard's father was a 6-foot-four, 240-pound machinist for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in Columbus, Ohio, and he encouraged Frank to play baseball. All Frank thought about in high school was baseball, but since Columbus is in the heart of the Midwest he played basketball, too. He was good at it and he was big, and soon basketball coaches from all over the nation were after him. He decided to stay home and go to Ohio State. "Frank was anxious to get an education," says Floyd Stahl, his basketball coach at OSU, "but he had almost no money. We didn't have the grants-in-aid and the sports scholarships that we have today. I told Frank I thought we could find jobs for him." Actually, Howard had always worked and was not afraid of it. He worked on a garbage truck when he was in high school, and when Stahl got him a job at Ohio State Howard joined the cement crew that was building the St. John Arena on the campus. The general superintendent for the contractor on the job told Stahl, "Frank does twice as much work as any laborer I've had."
Howard's love of hard work forced Stahl to watch him carefully so he would not overtrain. "One year," says Stahl, "he had the team trainer make him some anklets and put lead weights in them so he could build up his legs for rebounding."
Howard's determination impressed Stahl. "I remember when we were playing Indiana in 1956 and we got ahead by 20 points, Frank kept asking me to put him back in the ball game. I finally said, 'You act like we can't get along without you out there.' Frank said, 'Heck, coach, I know you can get along without me. I just don't want you to find out.'"
In his senior year something happened that still bothers Howard. He was taking batting practice one afternoon and a student manager, Melvin Lipton, was picking up balls in the infield behind the pitcher. Howard lined a ball that hit Lipton in the head just as he looked up. It fractured Upton's skull, and he was on the critical list for three days. Howard walked the streets of Columbus alone and cried. "I didn't much care about anything," he says now. "It was awful. Terrible. No one can ever know how I felt. Mel's father came to me and said, 'Frank, everyone knows that it isn't your fault.' But I felt it was. Luckily, he recovered. He graduated from dental school in 1962."
There is a single-mindedness and a stubbornness to Howard's dedication to baseball that showed itself as soon as he reported to the Dodgers in 1958. Unlike many players, he finds it difficult to relax. When members of the L.A. coaching staff try to teach him something they usually succeed only in confusing him. "I know that everyone is trying to help me," he says, "but sometimes it gets to be too much."
Howard has been platooned every year he has been with the Dodgers except 1962, and that season he hit .296, drove in 119 runs and had 31 homers. Last year, especially, he was not used as often as he felt he should have been. After the World Series, in which he hit two tremendous drives off Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford, he went to General Manager Buzzie Bavasi and asked where he stood with the Dodgers. "I didn't go in and give it that old nonsense about play me or trade me, because the Dodgers have some mighty fine players," says Howard. "I told Mr. Bavasi that these were my peak years as an athlete and that an athlete doesn't get two or three sets of peak years. I wanted to play regularly, and Mr. Bavasi said I would get that chance this year. Manager Alston said it, too. Now it's up to me.
"Five years ago I couldn't sit down and talk to anyone I didn't know well. I would run and hide to avoid publicity. I still don't get on easily with people that I don't know. I'm a moody guy, and I've done some stupid things. Last year before the season started, for instance, we played the Los Angeles Angels in an exhibition game in Dodger Stadium before a full house. A guy in the field seats on the third-base side of the diamond really got all over me, and I let him have it back. Bad! The next day I got a letter from a man who said that he was at the game with his wife and son and that they had heard what I'd shouted. I was ashamed and wrote the man a letter of apology. Then Vin Scully asked me to go on a radio program with him, and when I did I told everyone that I was sorry that I had lost my temper and was ashamed of myself."
Near the end of the 1963 season Howard felt that he no longer wanted to play baseball even though both he and the Dodgers were doing well at the time, but Pete Reiser took him aside and gave him an old-fashioned talking-to. Howard felt better and went on, but another crisis was coming. In December he went to work at The Sands in Las Vegas as part of a Dodger act that included Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, Ron Perranoski, Don Drysdale and Bill Skowron. "For the first time in my life," says Howard, "I felt that the shell was off me. I got to like appearing before people and, well, I didn't mind meeting people so much as I had before. In our act I did a ballet to the Blue Danube waltz, and I guess I got as much of a kick out of it as the audience." But if the relaxed atmosphere of Las Vegas unshelled Howard, it also seems to have further confused him, and early this spring Howard decided to quit baseball again. All he will say is, "A combination of things hit me all at once. I had some personal problems which had to be ironed out. The way I felt, mentally and physically, it would have been an injustice to the club and to myself to try and play baseball. Some people began writing things off the top of their heads about a matter which they knew nothing about. My wife became the brunt of unfair criticism, but she hadn't done anything. It was my fault, and I was confused. I went to several priests to see what I should do. Finally George Mackin, a vice-president of the Green Bay Packaging Company where I work as a sales trainee, gave me some good advice. He said, 'Frank, a man should do what his abilities show he should do. Right now you don't know much about the box business, but you know baseball, and deep down you love it. If I were you Frank, I would go back.' So I did."
On opening night this season at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Howard struck out his first two times at bat and looked terrible. Then, when the Dodgers needed runs, he hit a ball 420 feet to left field that went as fast and straight as a bullet from an M-1 rifle. When he took his position in right field the crowd of more than 50,000 was on its feet, applauding. "At times," he says, "I am a sentimental guy, but I just don't know what to do when that happens. I don't take off my cap or throw kisses to the crowd even though I might feel like it deep down inside. But I felt that they were truly pulling for me."