Every once in a while, a photograph making the rounds on the Internet will catch my eye. One that I’ve found particularly fascinating is this photograph of Frank Howard, as seen with longtime Tigers ace Mickey Lolich and coach Charlie Silvera. You might do a double take upon noticing that Big Frank is not wearing a uniform with “HOWARD” written on the back of his jersey. Instead, it says “LOLICH.” So why in the world would “Hondo” wear another man’s uniform?
The photograph was taken on September 1, 1972, at the Oakland Coliseum, with the Tigers in the midst of a West Coast swing. The Tigers were playing the A’s shortly after the acquisition of Howard from the Texas Rangers. The Tigers had not yet been able to fit the six-foot, eight-inch, 275-pound Howard with a uniform (after all, how many triple-extra large uniforms does a team keep on hand?), so they were forced to improvise. The Tigers decided that Lolich, always known for his girth, was the Tiger whose bodily dimensions most closely approached that of the massive Howard.
In terms of width, Lolich and Howard had similar builds. (Baseball Reference lists Lolich as 170 pounds, but that is a canard. At his peak, Lolich weighed at least 220 to 240 pounds.) But Howard had him beat in terms of height, as he was seven inches taller than the six-foot, one-inch Lolich. That’s why the uniform looks like such an awkward fit. The Tigers likely had to stretch this polyester road uniform, which they debuted in the middle of the 1972 season, just to give Howard adequate coverage. I think it’s safe to say that this was not exactly the most comfortable fit for the king-sized Howard, who looked more like an offensive lineman than he did a first baseman or outfielder.
Let’s take a closer look at Howard’s transition from Texas to Detroit. The Rangers, hopelessly out of the American League West race, had decided to part ways with the aging Howard, selling him to the Tigers on August 31. Howard reported immediately to the Tigers, joining them for their game on Friday night, September 1, the first of a three-game weekend series against the A’s.
Even though Howard was wearing Lolich’s ill-fitting jersey and pants, Tigers manager Billy Martin put him in the starting lineup right away. With the A’s starting left-hander Ken Holtzman, Martin sat down Norm Cash and put Howard at first base, batting him cleanup. Howard came to bat four times, picking up a single and a walk. He also had a busy day at first base, registering 11 putouts but also making an error on a grounder hit by Matty Alou. The error proved inconsequential in a 4-1 loss to the eventual world champions.
Howard would appear in 13 more games for the Tigers that season. On the surface, he didn’t hit much, with just one home run and a .688 OPS. But a closer look reveals one enormous hit that paid huge dividends. Playing against the Orioles on September 13, Howard blasted a grand slam against veteran left-hander Dave McNally, helping the Tigers to a dramatic 6-5 win over Baltimore. Given that the Tigers would win the pennant by just a half-game over the Red Sox, the home run proved crucial, more than justifying the acquisition of Hondo in a straight-up cash deal.
With the designated hitter rule coming into effect in 1973, the Tigers decided to bring the aging Howard back for an encore. Martin created a platoon of Howard and Gates Brown. Splitting time with “Gator,” Howard showed reasonable power as a DH, hitting 12 home runs in 251 at-bats. But he was now 36 and clearly not the premier slugger he had once been with the Dodgers and Senators. After the 1973 season, the Tigers gave Howard his release. With none of the other American League teams showing much interest, Howard decided to continue his career with the Japanese Leagues, signing with the Taiheiyo Club Lions. But just before Opening Day, Howard hurt his back. Howard played one game in pain before coming to the realization that he could not continue to play. The injury eventually convinced him to call it quits, ending his Japanese career after only the one game.
Over the years, I have read many good things about Howard, about he loved baseball to the extreme, put in hours and hours as a coach and as a manager, and approached his work with an unusual passion. So when I first had a chance to meet Hondo in the 1990s, when he was a coach with the Mets, I was a little bit apprehensive about meeting a man I had come to idolize. I became a little more nerve-wracked standing next to him; although I am six feet, four inches tall, I felt like a lawn gnome standing next to the gargantuan Howard. I now fully understood why he had been called the “Washington Monument” during his years with the Senators.
In contrast, his glasses gave him a genteel look that belied his mammoth stature. More significantly, his gentlemanly, friendly demeanor washed away the intimidation I felt over his size. I became especially impressed with his energy and enthusiasm. It didn’t seem possible for someone so large to have such liveliness, but Howard had it in ample quality. I now had further proof that this man revered the game, loved being at the ballpark, and epitomized what it meant to be a baseball lifer.
Howard is now retired from baseball, which is clearly the game’s loss, but he still manages to do good work in other areas. He helps raise money for St. Jude’s Children Research Hospital, one of the most worthwhile charities in the country. The man who was once willing to wear a uniform that was three sizes too small is still finding a way to spread his enthusiasm and good cheer.