Nats fans will have a bittersweet reunion with superstar Juan Soto this weekend, when he returns to Nationals Park for a series with the San Diego Padres.
A half-century ago, D.C. fans also lost a star with Soto’s outsize impact on the team – but they never had the chance to see him return as a player. That’s because when slugger Frank Howard left town after the 1971 season, the rest of the Washington Senators went with him, leaving the city without a baseball team for 33 years.
Soto and Howard came from very different backgrounds and had different styles of play. But their stats over their last five years in Washington – which in Soto’s case were his first five years too – were strikingly similar. And those numbers were off-the-charts.
Soto was born in the Dominican Republic, and broke in with the Nats as a precocious 19-year-old rookie. Howard hailed from Columbus, Ohio, and didn’t join the Senators until he was an established player, acquired in a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December, 1964, as a 28-year-old veteran.
They put up similar numbers in their rookie seasons – Soto hit 22 home runs and 70 RBIs in 2018 and finished second in the Rookie of the Year award, compared to Howard’s 23 homers and 77 RBIs, which earned him Rookie of the Year award in 1960 at the age of 23.
Both helped lead their teams to World Series titles – in the 1963 World Series, Howard singled and homered in the fourth game, the Dodgers’ only hits in a 2-1 victory over the New York Yankees and series sweep, as Sandy Koufax outdueled Whitey Ford. Soto hit three homers in the 2019 World Series, helping the Nats beat the Houston Astros in seven games.
Howard had some excellent seasons in LA, but he was coming off his worst year there in 1964, hitting just .226, when he was traded to Washington. For my book on Washington baseball history, Howard told me it was a worthy tradeoff to get to play every day. In Los Angeles, he usually got between 400 and 500 at-bats a season.
After the trade, “I got a chance to get another 150 at bats, and I had my best years here,” said Howard, who became a fan favorite in D.C.
Indeed, he hit his peak in Washington, especially his last five seasons, when he put up nearly identical numbers to Soto in several key categories. During that time, Howard compiled a .533 slugging percentage, just a tick below Soto’s .538. More advanced stats like OPS+, which help demonstrate how a player compares to his peers, were also strikingly similar for the two stars. Howard’s was 164, while Soto’s was 160.
Both players left behind a crushed fan base. Last week, fans held signs that read, “Don’t go Soto,” chanted “We Love Soto!” and gave him a standing ovation after his final at-bat as a National.
In 1971, the Senators’ former marketing director, Bill Gilbert, wrote in a letter to the editor how his seven-year-old son took the news that the Senators (and Howard) were leaving town: “The blond head immediately buried itself in the pillow on his bed, face down. He was crying. After an eternity, the head struggled its way up from the pillow … He said, ‘I’ll never see Frank Howard ever again.’”
And both ended their days in Washington with a dramatic home run in their final game for the hometown team – Howard homered off Yankees pitcher Mike Kekich in the sixth inning into the New York bullpen, waving his batting helmet in the air and blowing kisses to the fans. As he crossed home plate, he told Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, “Thanks for the gift.” Kekich pretty much admitted he grooved one to Howard. “It’s okay,” he said. “Let’s just say I tried to throw him a straight pitch.”
Meanwhile, Soto homered off New York Mets pitcher Max Scherzer – most definitely NOT a gift – and slowly rounded the bases, as if to take it all in.
Howard’s numbers were particularly astounding from 1968 to 1970, when he hit 44, 48 and 44 home runs in successive seasons. Even more impressive, the first of those came in 1968’s “Year of the Pitcher,” when offense was depressed across the sport. Howard’s 44 home runs that year led baseball, and were eight more than his closest competitors.
That season, he also tied an American League record with home runs in six straight games, a streak that included 10 homers in 20 at-bats, including a 550-foot blast off Mickey Lolich, which landed on top of the grandstand at Tiger Stadium and bounced out of the stadium. And of course, his upper deck home runs at RFK Stadium were marked for decades by painted white seats, although his manager, Ted Williams, had a little fun with that.
A friend of Williams saw the seats before one game and asked, “Geez, is that where Howard hit those long home runs?”
“Yeah,” Williams deadpanned, “and there’s 13,980 green seats up there – those are all the times he struck out on me.”
One key difference between Soto and Howard is that Soto got to play for a World Series championship team in D.C., while Howard played for just one winning team in his seven seasons here. But they both finished on bad teams – the ’71 Senators came in fifth place (second-to-last) in the AL East, and the Nats seem like a lock for last place this year.
Another key difference is Howard had peaked by the time the Senators moved to Texas in 1972, when he was 35. He hit just .244 with nine home runs in 95 games, before the Rangers sold him to the Detroit Tigers late in the season. He would play just one more year.
Soto, on the other hand, is just 23, and many consider him a future Hall-of-Famer.
And Nats fans will get to see him every year – just not in a Washington uniform.