Tall tale Howard brings powerful presence, and some good Whitey Ford stories, to Yankees as hitting instructor

April 04, 1991|By Bob Rubin | Bob Rubin,Knight-Ridder

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Spring training is a time to look ahead. Baseball is a young man's game. Yankees batting coach Frank Howard firmly believes that.

"I'm not one to live in the past," said Howard, who will attempt to bolster a Yankees' offense that in '90 finished last in the American League in average, runs, walks, hits, doubles, triples and RBI. "There's nothing more passe than an old jock. I had my little walk in the sun."

Young slugger Kevin Maas, one of the team's great hopes for the future, calls Howard, "a knowledgeable, positive influence. He takes what you have and tries to work with it, instead of trying to change you dramatically. And his approach is as much mental as physical, which is important at this level, and, I think, not emphasized enough."

Maas was born four years after Howard was named Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers (1960). "He was before my time, but we kind of egg him on to tell us stories," Maas said.

Baseball is nurtured and renewed by stories and legends passed on from generation to generation, so here's one, Kevin. It was triggered by the sight of the towering 6-foot-7 1/2 , 260-pound Howard on the same field with 5-11, now portly Hall of Fame Yankee lefthander Whitey Ford at Fort Lauderdale Stadium Monday morning.

I was schmoozing with usher and former New Yorker Sy Penso about baseball long ago and far away while watching pre-game drills. Specifically, we recalled a double Howard hit against Ford to deepest left-center at Yankee Stadium in the opener of the Dodgers' four-game sweep of the Yankees in the 1963 World Series.

Simultaneously and to the word, we said the same thing.

"Hardest-hit ball I ever saw."

"Me, too," Ford added.

Many young fans may not know anything about Howard or, perish the thought, Whitey Ford. So before The Double, some background.

An outfielder and first baseman, Frank "Hondo" Howard, who weighed 300 near the end of his career, was probably the biggest position player in baseball history. He played 15 years, mostly for the Dodgers and old Washington Senators, and finished with a .273 average, 382 home runs and 1,119 RBIs -- not quite Cooperstown numbers but close. In one three-year span ('68-70) with the Senators, he hit 44, 48 and 44 home runs, twice leading the AL and once finishing second by one.

His size and power were simply awesome. It's an abused word, but in this case it fits. During Jose Canseco's 40-40 season, A's manager Tony La Russa was talking about the considerable apprehension Canseco created in pitchers and infielders over the possibility they might not react in time to a line drive.

"But in my experience, the guy they were most afraid of was Frank Howard," La Russa said.

"Aw, I don't know about that, but I did put a part in some infielders' hair," Howard said.

"He was the only batter who ever scared me," said Ford, a 17-year, major-league veteran.

Old-timers have favorite Howard stories. One that gets retold is the time Howard was at-bat with a runner on third (he thinks it was Joe Pignatano) and missed the squeeze sign. So here came Piggy waddling toward the plate only to recoil in horror as Howard took a full swing.

"Lucky I missed," Howard understated.

Legend has it Pignatano lay in the dirt staring at the sky with a glazed look as if he wondered if he was still alive.

No fair ball has ever been hit out of Yankee Stadium. It's a baseball truism. Only Tony Kubek thinks Howard hit one out.

"He hit one completely out down the leftfield line off Bobby Schantz that was called foul, but both Bobby and [third baseman] Clete Boyer said later it was fair," said Kubek, visiting his old team and donning the pinstripes again Monday. "The foul poles didn't go way up then, and the ball was hit so high the umps couldn't judge it."

Now, The Double.

The opener of the '63 Series matched Ford, 24-7 with a 2.74 earned run average, against Sandy Koufax, 25-5, 1.88 and 306 strikeouts. Ford's 10 Series victories and 33 1/3 shutout innings ('60-62) were, and remain, Series records. Ford asked for advice about Howard from teammate Stan Williams, who had pitched for the Dodgers.

"He said high fastballs," Ford recalled. "Problem was, I didn't have a high fastball, but I threw him one, anyway."

On 2-0. Crack! If you saw it, you never forgot it.

"Whitey had said he wasn't going to let Howard pull the ball, but make him hit it to Death Valley in center," said Kubek, the Yankees shortstop that day. "I remember before the pitch, Whitey turned and motioned to me to move more toward the bag.

"Howard hit a line drive right over my head. I jumped for it and missed it by about a foot, maybe two tops. There was a speaker in left-center, 457 feet away. The ball hit the speaker and bounced back like a bullet to Mickey [Mantle in centerfield]. I don't think it was higher than 10-12 feet all the way out."

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