Frank Howard, ‘Capitol Punisher,’ Returns to RFK

Posted June 22, 2007 at 6:36pm

On a short list of truly great Capitol Hill nicknames, a few stick out. One-time House Majority Leader Tom “The Hammer” DeLay, Reps. John “Mr. Big Chairman” Dingell and Ron “Dr. No” Paul, and former Senator Frank “the Capitol Punisher” Howard.

But unlike DeLay, Dingell and Paul, Howard’s office, when he worked in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s and ’70s, was many blocks away from the Capitol Dome at the far end of East Capitol Street. And instead of a gavel, Howard’s tool of choice for flexing his influence and power was a baseball bat.

In seven seasons playing for the Washington Senators, Frank Howard was a record-setting slugger who once hit 48 home runs in a single season while playing his home games at RFK Stadium, a venue that today’s players decry as anything but a hitter’s park.

Tonight, Howard will return to his old stomping grounds to throw out the first pitch in the 46th annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.

Howard said last week that he’s particularly excited to be a part of this year’s game — he fondly remembers watching the annual matchup from the players’ dugout as Republican and Democratic Members took the field prior to summer-night Senators games almost four decades ago.

And this time around, the Members seem to be just as excited about being on the field with Howard.

“I remember as a kid him being this huge power hitter,” the Democratic manager, Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.), said last week. “You remember these big guys like Howard, these big fearsome guys who would really connect with the ball. … That’s been one of the thrills [of the Congressional Baseball Game] to see some of these legends that growing up as a kid you watched. We’ve had a number of great baseball players come out and throw the first pitch.”

Doyle did note that as a kid, “I was very partial to the Pittsburgh Pirates, so he doesn’t get hero status. But he was on the respected enemies list as someone you’d rather walk than let them hit.”

Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), the Republican manager, said Howard “was one of my favorite players while I was growing up. I wish he were playing in the game for the Republicans instead of throwing out the first pitch. I’m definitely glad he won’t be batting against us.”

But at age 70, the former Senators outfielder who hit 382 homers in his career said he might have lost a step or two physically since his time in a Senators uniform.

“I’ll try to get it somewhere near the strike zone,” Howard said of throwing out the first ball tonight. “That thing used to feel like a feather in my hand, now it feels like a shot put.”

But Howard’s sense for the game is as sharp as ever. After ending his major league career in 1973, Howard went on to manage several teams before becoming a player development instructor and scout. These days the 6-foot-8-inch former National League Rookie of the Year in 1960 works for the New York Yankees evaluating players for possible trades and free-agent signings.

Though he admits he hasn’t seen a Congressional ballgame in many years, Howard said he probably won’t be sending an urgent report to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner after tonight’s game.

“We’re always out to see if there are any prospects, but most of them look a little suspect,” he joked of the two squads suiting up tonight.

Howard said he was disappointed to hear that Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a former Major League Baseball star who Howard played against back in the day, isn’t on the roster for tonight’s game. But one rookie that Howard estimated could be a real impact player tonight is former Washington Redskins quarterback and freshman Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.).

“There’s a guy who I’m sure as a young person played some baseball as well as football, and if anybody’s subject to [hit a home run] he probably is,” Howard said. “He’s probably still in pretty good shape and he’s strong enough physically to hit that ball out of that ballpark.”

And if anyone knows about hitting home runs at RFK it’s Howard.

In 1968 and 1970 he led the American League in home runs with 44. Howard’s last home run at RFK came during the team’s final game at the stadium on Sept. 30, 1971, before the franchise moved to Texas the next season.

And even though today’s players complain that RFK Stadium is one of the toughest places to hit one out, Howard said the park is ripe for the long ball this time of year.

“In the spring where you’ve got the cross winds and everything it can be a tough ballpark to hit in,” Howard explained. “But once you get into June, July and August and weather warms up, especially in day games, that ball really starts flying out of there. … It’s a fair ballpark to pitchers and hitters.”

But, in the end, the score won’t really matter tonight, Howard said.

“I think it’s great that they get everybody out there even though they’re on opposite sides [politically] up there,” he said. “They find something in common and it’s a fun night for all of them. … And in the course of competition like that you may get a little slant on your opponent. Maybe a new respect. … They may have political differences but they may not be as extreme as people think.”