That baseball I cherish in the trophy case: 1960 NL Rookie of the Year and signature of Frank Howard. A signed baseball that Howard handed to me in the manager’s office at Shea Stadium late in September of 1983 accounting for another abysmal Mets season.
A rookie reporter I was and a cardinal rule is never ask or accept a signature from a player, manager or coach. First thought this was special and the other beat reporters would resent something that broke a cardinal rule of sports journalism. I was still gaining acceptance in the fraternity with Hall of Fame writers who gave me the guidelines and later discovered they too would get signatures from Hall of Famers but I never bragged and said look who signed this baseball.
Howard insisted in his words of a gentle giant, “It’s yours and our secret or we don’t talk boxing again.” You don’t turn down an offer from a 6 ft-7 inch towering giant who hit 383 career home runs and delivered 1,119 RBI with the Dodgers, Washington Senators/Texas Rangers and Detroit Tigers. The 382 career home runs were the eighth most by a right-handed hitter when he retired, his 237 home runs and 1969 totals of 48 home runs, 340 total bases in a Washington uniform are a record to any of that city’s several franchises.
The home runs were majestic. Howard’s personality was similar in many ways and I will never forget that late September evening after the Mets lost their 12th consecutive game. Howard was appointed interim manager after George Bamberger was dismissed, an ugly time in franchise history and two years prior to Davey Johnson leading them to their second World Series championship over the Red Sox.
The media postgame scrums were held in the cramped managers office (now it’s held in a conference room). Howard had a post game tirade that was memorable and slammed the door but for some reason made me an exception. The writers exited but Howard asked me to remain as the others rushed out to make deadlines.
No, he did not want to question something I wrote or asked. And of course, this rookie reporter with notepad and pen, years away from a cell phone, had a deadline to write and needed to take that long haul back upstairs to the Shea Stadium press box. Instead, the gentle giant behind closed doors requested I remain in his sanctuary. He took off the uniform and wanted to talk.
He engaged in a boxing conversation. Had nothing to do with the errors, awful pitching, or constant failure to score runs. The belt unbuckled, the jersey off and undershirt revealing that same physical specimen that hit mammoth home run balls.
And then Howard said, “So Rich Mancuso…what’s new with boxing?” He knew I was a boxing beat writer and I was aware that Frank Howard was a Philadelphia Warrior, NBA third round draft pick after an All-American career of playing baseball and basketball at Ohio State. But he admired the sport of boxing and was a huge fan. He knew the history of the late heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, the rising fame of a young Mike Tyson.
And so we talked. We discussed the champions and the historic heavyweight boxing era of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and Larry Holmes. He asked me, who was my all-time favorite? I said, “Mr. Howard, I don’t have a favorite,” to this day when asked numerous times provide the same answer.
Howard said, “Stop with the Mr. Howard…You can call me Frank.” Or as he said, call me “Hondo” a name that his baseball colleagues would say fit his personality. Regardless of if it was Frank or “Hondo” that evening, I was a part of his fraternity and he became a mentor then and years later.
Yes, boxing not baseball was a punch that opened the door. More than once, Howard met and had engaging conversations with my late mentor Bert Sugar, Hall of Fame boxing historian and writer, whose passion also was baseball. The huge smile and in that voice of a leader saying, “Come on you gotta have a favorite story…Tell me you’re kidding. You have to have a favorite boxer of all-time.” Later in years, as a coach with the cross-town Yankees it was “Hondo” greeting me on the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse. Same question from “Hondo” “What’s the latest with boxing?”
He gave me tips on talking to players, opposing managers. He told me who to avoid, a prelude to the baseball steroid era as Howard knew something was not right with the proliferation of home runs. He was a natural and followed the rule book.
Years later from his residence in Aldi, Virginia, we would continue to chat with engaging phone conversations, exchange holiday greetings, and the boxing talk. I always said the signed baseball was still a part of our history. I could hear on the other end he was content though the voice was frail.
For one reason or another, as what occurs often in this hectic life and business, we lost contact. So the other day when news broke that Frank Howard had passed away due to complications from a stroke at the age of 87, I reflected about this professional friendship and how it developed. That signed baseball, I took it out of the case and placed it in my hand.
I will always cherish that baseball and our talks. The tributes came and mentioned in numerous media platforms, even a mention prior to World Series Game 3 Monday evening in Arlington, Texas, the Rangers, once the Senators where Howard hit their first home run in 1972.
He once said to me, “I was never meant to be a manager.” But the players admired the candor and ability to teach the fundamentals of baseball. He helped a young Darryl Strawberry, (1984 NL Rookie of the Year) as a coach with the Mets under manager Davey Johnson. He helped me as a young reporter covering the Mets beat.
The signed baseball is forever a memory. Indeed, he was majestic.
RIP my friend Frank “Hondo” Howard.