One of the formative baseball highlights of my youth was in 1987, when Angels utility man Jack Howell stunned everyone with a broken bat home run at Yankee Stadium. Over three decades later, it’s still memorable to Howell.
“I love talking about it, because everyone wants to be a part of baseball history,” Howell told Halos Heaven last week. “It was a big deal because there wasn’t a lot of TV back then and that was the Saturday game of the week.”
The date was September 5, 1987, and the Angels were trailing 7-4 in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium. The left-handed Howell pinch-hit for the right-handed George Hendrick, against Yankees righty Tim Stoddard with one out in the ninth, and muscled a ball over the wall in right field for a solo home run as the bat shattered.
Vin Scully on the call for NBC said, “Everybody’s hollering, ‘The bat, the bat!’ And they’re taking the bat over to the dugout. Piniella’s ticked, and [home plate umpire Richard] Shulock says ‘oh, never mind.’”
“I didn’t think much of it,” Howell recalled. “They wanted to check the bat, probably for cork or something, but nobody ever did. They put it in my locker, and I still have it to this day.”
Baseball saw a home run spike in 1987, the first time in history MLB averaged more than one home run per team game (1.06). It was up 16 percent from the previous year, and after the year of the rabbit ball the league never averaged above 0.80 homers per game for the next five seasons. 1987 was considered the year of the home run and an outlier for awhile, but there have since been 11 seasons with more home runs per game, topped by 2019 with an astonishing 1.39 home runs per game, 10 percent higher than any other year in baseball history.
Howell walloped a career-high 23 home runs in 1987, hitting .245/.331/.461 (110 OPS+) in his first year as a regular. Nine of his 11 major league seasons were with the Angels, and Howell also won an MVP during his four years in the Japanese Central League.
“It was no more than about a year or so [after playing] that I realized all I’ve known since I was eight years old was baseball,” Howell said.
“For me, being a non-drafted player who always fought his way through things, I had a lot of coaches and mentors that were really inspirational to me,” he said. “The big inspiration is that you can’t do it anymore as a player, but you’re giving back the same way a lot of important people and mentors did to me.”
This is Howell’s fifth season coaching in the Angels organization, and he’s seen several of the club’s top prospects in his current role as manager for Class-A Burlington in the Midwest League.
Broken-bat home runs have been hit a few times in the 32 seasons since that fateful day at Yankee Stadium, but Howell’s stood out, even in what was then the year of the home run.
“I didn’t think of this until about probably 6-7 years after, when people sent me clips. Keep listening to Vin Scully once they show the replay,” Howell said. “I had seen only the clip when he said, ‘Oh my gosh that’s a home run,’ but if you keep listening Vin Scully says, ‘That’s the first broken bat home run I think I’ve ever seen.’ For me, when Vin Scully says that, you know you have a real piece of history.”