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."