Sometimes Size Counts

 

Homer Happy: Frank Howard

Frank Howard made opposing pitchers cringe. At six-foot-seven and 255 pounds, he was an imposing presence at the plate. Not even the higher mound (15 inches high until 1969) gave pitchers as much of an advantage. At his height, he could still nearly look them in the eye.

With his strength, every pitch was a potential souvenir. His last manager with the Washington Senators, the legendary Ted Williams, called Howard the strongest man in baseball. No one questioned Williams’ hitting acumen, and no one could argue his point about Howard.

In 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher” when most of major league hitting was in a coma, Howard hit home runs as if the regular season were simply extended batting practice. He launched 44 homers that season – ten of them within a single week – eight more than Willie Horton and the rest of the American League’s sluggers. He hit 136 home runs from 1968-1970, none of them cheap.

While known primarily for his size and strength, Frank Howard was also a fine all-around athlete. At Ohio State, he was an All-American in basketball as well as baseball.

What Howard brought to the batter’s box wasn’t fair. He was more than just another lumbering slugger. Matching his strength was an athletic ability practically unheard of in a hitter his size. He had been an All-American in basketball (as well as baseball) at Ohio State before signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958.

His minor league career lasted only two seasons, when he butchered minor league pitchers for 37 home runs in 1958 and 43 in 1959. He was ready for the big time.

In 1960, Howard walked away with National League Rookie of the Year honors by batting .268 with 23 home runs and 77 RBIs. A thumb injury limited him to only 15 home runs in 1961, but a healthy season in 1962 produced 31 home runs with 119 runs batted in.

After hitting 23 home runs as a rookie in 1960, Frank Howard led the Los Angeles Dodgers with 31 home runs and 119 RBIs in 1962.

Despite that kind of productivity at the plate, the Dodgers – and in particular, manager Walt Alston – saw Howard primarily as a platoon player. And pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium seemed more conducive to slashing hitters like Tommy Davis and to the base path speed of Maury Wills and Willie Davis. Howard just didn’t seem to fit in with the Dodgers’ offensive strategy. Plus Howard’s power output appeared to be declining: to 28 home runs in 1963 and 24 in 1964, and he drove in less than 70 runs both seasons.

So in December of 1964, the Dodgers sent Howard to the Washington Senators as part of a seven-player swap that brought Washington’s ace pitcher, Claude Osteen, to the West Coast.  Playing for the worst team in the American League and battling injuries season-long, Howard batted .289 for the Senators in 1965 and led the team with 21 home runs and 84 RBIs. After hitting only 18 home runs in 1966, he doubled that total in 1967.

The 1968 season was when Howard lifted his slugging to elite status. While the rest of the American League was hitting for a combined .230 average, Howard batted .274 and led the league with 44 home runs, 330 total bases and a .552 slugging percentage. His 106 RBIs were second best in the league (to Ken Harrelson‘s 109).

For six days in May of 1968, Frank Howard was a home run machine – hitting 10 homers in six games and only 20 at-bats. He finished the 1968 season with 44 home runs and 106 runs batted in.

This was also the season when Howard went on a home run tear in May, blasting ten home runs in six games and doing it in only 20 at-bats. Howard did even better in 1969, batting .296 with 48 home runs and 111 RBIs. Harmon Killebrew led the league in both home runs and RBIs that season, but Howard was the league leader with 340 total bases and was fourth with a .574 slugging percentage. In 1970, he would lead the league in home runs (44) and RBIs (126).

Howard retired in 1973 with 382 home runs and 1,119 RBIs. He posted a career batting average of .273 and a .499 career slugging average. At his peak as a slugger, from 1967 through 1970, Howard averaged 43 home runs and 108 RBIs per season.

 

 

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Theft Control

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Joe Azcue

In a major league career that spanned the 1960s, Joe Azcue was known as a dependable catcher with a strong, accurate throwing arm. He led American League catchers in fielding percentage in 1967 and 1968. Over his 11-year career, he threw out more than 45 percent of base runners attempting to steal, and in 1966 he threw out 62 percent.

And, on occasion, he could hit.

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Base runners, beware! Over his career, Joe Azcue threw out 45 percent of runners trying to steal off him. In 1966, he threw out 62 percent of base runners attempting to steal.

A Cuban native, Azcue was signed by the Cincinnati Reds in 1956 and appeared in 14 games with the Reds at the end of the 1960 season, hitting .097. He was purchased by the Milwaukee Braves and returned to the minors for the 1961 season, and in December of 1961 was traded with Ed Charles and Manny Jimenez to the Kansas City Athletics for Lou Klimchock and Bob Shaw. He hit .229 as the Athletics’ backup catcher, and at the beginning of the 1963 season was traded with shortstop Dick Howser to the Cleveland Indians for catcher Doc Edwards.

Azcue had his best seasons, as a hitter and defensively, with the Indians. He hit .284 with the Tribe in 1963 with career highs in home runs (14) and RBIs (46). He hit .273 in 1964 and .230 in 1965, and then bounced back to hit .275 in 1966 and .280 in 1968.

In April of 1969, Azcue was part of a blockbuster deal with the Boston Red Sox. Cleveland sent Azcue, Vicente Romo and Sonny Siebert to Boston for Ken Harrelson, Dick Ellsworth and Juan Pizarro. Azcue appeared in only 19 games for the Red Sox, hitting .216, before being traded to the California Angels for Tom Satriano. He finished the 1969 season with a combined .223 batting average, and then hit .242 for California in 1970, his last full season in the majors. Azcue sat out the 1971 season, and then played a total of 14 games for the Angels and the Milwaukee Brewers in 1972 before retiring.

In 11 big league seasons, Azcue collected 712 hits for a .252 career batting average.

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Hawk on the Wild Side

 

Homer Happy: Ken Harrelson

“Free spirit” would be an understatement when describing Ken Harrelson. An All-Star talent combined with steel-like independence, Harrelson put up outstanding power hitting numbers at his best, and walked away from his playing career while still near its peak … because he felt like it.

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Ken Harrelson led the league with 109 RBIs in 1968. His 35 home runs were third most in the American League, and he finished third in the race for MVP.

Harrelson was signed by the Kansas City Athletics in 1959 and made his debut in an A’s uniform four years later. In between, he tore up minor league pitching, hitting .301 at Visalia with 25 home runs and 114 RBIs in 1961, and then hitting 38 home runs with 138 RBIs at Binghampton in 1962. Against AAA pitching in 1964, Harrelson batted only .232 but also hit 18 home runs with 52 RBIs in 77 games before being called up to Kansas City.

His first full major league season came in 1965, when he led the Athletics with 23 home runs and 66 RBIs. He was traded to the Washington Senators in June of 1966, and was purchased back by the A’s a year later.

His second tour in Kansas City lasted only two months. When A’s owner Charles Finley fired manager Alvin Dark, Harrelson went public to protest Dark’s dismissal, calling Finley “a menace to baseball.” Finley released Harrelson outright, which turned out to be a career break for the outfielder. As a free agent, he signed a lucrative contract with the Boston Red Sox and was a key addition to Boston’s successful 1967 pennant drive, hitting three home runs with 14 RBIs down the stretch for the Red Sox.

After leading the American League with 109 RBIs in 1968, Ken Harrelson was traded by the Red Sox to the Indians in 1969. He retired two years later.

After leading the American League with 109 RBIs in 1968, Ken Harrelson was traded by the Red Sox to the Indians in 1969. He retired two years later.

In 1968, Harrelson had his best season, hitting 35 home runs and leading the majors with 109 RBIs. He started well in 1969, but after ten games was traded surprisingly with pitchers Dick Ellsworth and Juan Pizarro to the Cleveland Indians for Joe Azcue, Vicente Romo and Sonny Siebert. He finished the 1969 season hitting 30 home runs with 92 RBIs playing for the team with the worst record in the American League.

During the following spring training, Harrelson suffered a broken leg while sliding into second base. He sat out most of the season with the injury, returning only for the final 17 games and hitting only one home run. When he returned for the 1971 campaign, he found Chris Chambliss firmly entrenched as the Indians’ first baseman with an outfielder’s glove awaiting him. He played in 52 games for the Tribe that season, hitting five home runs and driving in 14 runs, and then abruptly retired to pursue a career as a professional golfer.

In nine major league seasons, Harrelson hit 131 home runs while batting .239. He was an All-Star in 1968.

Cleveland’s Mc-Complement

 

Glancing Back, and Remembering Sonny Siebert

During the mid-1960s, the Cleveland Indians had not only the most prolific strikeout pitcher in Sam McDowell, but also the league’s most lethal strikeout tandem. Sonny Siebert was the other half of that duo, and the right-handed complement to Sudden Sam.

Sonny Siebert averaged 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 1965, when he went 16-8 with a 2.43 ERA.

Sonny Siebert averaged 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 1965, when he went 16-8 with a 2.43 ERA.

Siebert was signed by the Indians out of the University of Missouri and pitched in Cleveland’s farm system for five seasons. He was a .500 pitcher until 1962, when he won 15 games for Charleston in the Eastern League. After a 7-9 rookie season in 1964, Siebert moved into the Indians’ starting rotation and stayed there for four seasons.

Clevelands’s young starting rotation of McDowell, Siebert and Luis Tiant was one of the best in the American League in terms of “stuff.” Unfortunately, that trio didn’t have the supporting talent to turn them into consistent winners. Of the three, Siebert seems to have fared the best at first. In his first season as a full-time starter, Siebert went 16-8 with a 2.43 ERA and 191 strikeouts in 188.2 innings pitched. He finished the season fourth in the American League in strikeouts, second in strikeouts per nine innings (9.1) and third in ERA. (Teammate McDowell led the league in all three categories.)

Siebert repeated his 16-8 campaign for 1966, increasing his innings pitched to 241 while keeping his ERA at a low 2.80. His 161 strikeouts were tenth best in the league (led again by McDowell). No other team in the American League had as potent a 1-2 strikeout punch.

On June 10, 1966, Sonny Siebert pitched a 2-0 no-hitter against the Washington Senators. He struck out seven and walked only one batter.

On June 10, 1966, Sonny Siebert pitched a 2-0 no-hitter against the Washington Senators. He struck out seven and walked only one batter.

Over the next two seasons, Siebert was a combined 22-22 for Cleveland despite a combined ERA of only 2.69. At the beginning of the 1969 season, Siebert was traded with Joe Azcue and Vicente Romo to the Boston Red Sox for Dick Ellsworth, Ken Harrelson and Juan Pizarro. He won 14 games for the Red Sox in 1969, 15 games in 1970, and 16 games in 1971. After a 12-12 season in 1972, Siebert was traded to the Texas Rangers. He played for four different teams over the next three seasons, posting a combined 22-26 record. He retired after the 1975 season.

During his 12-year career, Siebert won 140 games with a career ERA of 3.21.

 

 

 

 

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