Football star Dixie Howell was a spring phenom for the Tigers

Alabama football coach Frank Thomas (left) with Mildred Cowan and players Bill Lee and Dixie Howell (right), in 1934.

Alabama football coach Frank Thomas (left) with Mildred Cowan and players Bill Lee and Dixie Howell (right), in 1934.

What would spring training be without the young, unproven rookie who sets the Grapefruit League (or the Cactus League) on fire?

Faster than you can say Joker Marchant Stadium, the novelty of “pitchers and catchers reporting” wears off, and the tedium of the spring games begins. Unless there are some heated position battles, there usually isn’t much to hold a baseball fan’s interest after a certain point.

But what about the raw, non-roster kid who, thrown into a few exhibition games, suddenly looks like Babe Ruth or Sandy Koufax? It seems like every year there are always one or two teams with this by-now familiar storyline.

The kid bangs out base hit after base hit, or strikes out batter after batter. Fans and the media, who back in February had never even heard of him, suddenly are calling for him to break camp with the rest of the major league squad. The manager is almost left with no choice.

And then, once the regular season begins, the young kid falls back down to earth with a thud.

Of course, over time he may develop into a solid big league player.

But often he is sent back down to the bushes, never to be heard from again.

The Tigers had one of the great spring training phenoms back in 1935, the year they won their first World Series.

His name was Millard Fleming Howell, but he was known by everyone as Dixie. And even though he never played a major league game, his name is not forgotten.

Before we go any further, it should be pointed out that two men named Dixie Howell played in the major leagues in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, but neither one is the subject of our story.

The Tigers had signed the 22-year-old Howell in February of ‘35. He’d been the big man on campus at the University of Alabama, a star baseball and football player. Actually, the Tigers weren’t expecting him to join them until June. Howell had stated his intention to finish the Crimson Tide’s baseball season before heading to Detroit.

But Howell came to a fork in the road, and took it (as Yogi Berra would say).

Howell suddenly decided to journey to Hollywood. With his rugged, movie-star looks, he figured he could give it a go in the motion picture business.

He ran through a couple of screen tests. Universal Studios liked what they saw, and wanted to sign him up for a new football-themed serial based on the Frank Merriwell stories.

Howell, however, spurned the bright lights, at least for the time being. Maybe he was disappointed that he hadn’t received a better offer. Or maybe he just decided he would prefer to play baseball for a living.

After declaring to film execs that he would be available for filming in the fall if they still wanted him, Howell packed his bags and beat it back to Alabama.

He stayed just long enough to tell school officials that he’d decided to join the Tigers in Lakeland. Howell arrived in camp along with much fanfare, and after only a few sessions of batting practice, Tiger manager Mickey Cochrane’s staff was impressed with his sweet left-handed swing.

“He looks like a fellow who will be hard to fool,” the manager beamed. “He probably won’t knock the cover off the ball, but he should get plenty of hits…he’ll give pitchers many a headache.”

Howell’s atrocious glove work at third base and in the outfield, however, promised to give Cochrane himself headaches.

At the bat, however, Howell impressed so much that Cochrane found a spot for him on the team as a backup to regular third baseman Marv Owen.

That year, Detroit journeyed with the Reds to play a final series of exhibition games in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and the Virginias. Bad weather followed them everywhere they went.

The two teams were practicing together one morning in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The Tigers got a scare when Howell, the sweet swinger with the leading-man looks, was struck in the face by a batted ball. He suffered a broken right cheekbone, with the fracture extending into the eye socket. Howell was fortunate not to have suffered greater damage, but he would be out for at least three weeks, according to doctors.

Incidentally, the unlucky ball had been struck by Johnny Mize, a 22-year-old Reds’ minor leaguer. Mize had originally been signed by the St. Louis Cardinals back in 1930, but Cincinnati had purchased his contract in December. Mize couldn’t stick with the Reds, and in just a couple of weeks he would be returned to the Cardinals. And, of course, he went on to a Hall of Fame career with St. Louis, the New York Giants, and the Yankees.

As for Howell, he eventually made it back to the field in 1935, but not for the Tigers. He spent the summer in the minor leagues with the Beaumont Exporters and the Birmingham Barons, hitting a combined .312. When Marv Owen fell into a slump early in the season, Cochrane thought of calling up his promising young actor/ballplayer. But his scouting reports maintained that Howell wasn’t yet ready for prime time.

He played eight seasons in the minors for several different organizations, with a few .300 seasons sprinkled in. But he was never a power threat, and his poor defense kept him from the major leagues.

But Howell was a two-sport athlete. His football skills earned him a spot with the National Football League’s Washington Redskins for the 1937 season as a backup to quarterback Sammy Baugh. He played in only five games, with one completion in six attempts, and no touchdowns. After service in the Navy during World War II, Howell finally retired as a player.

He eventually made his way back to the college football ranks in 1938, where he coached for several schools over the course of a dozen years. In 1970, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame (as a player).

Howell’s Hollywood career never panned out. The Internet Movie Database has him in an uncredited role as a football player in a 1936 film entitled The Adventures of Frank Merriwell.

But the name of Dixie Howell lives on in American literature thanks to the 1960 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee, the book’s author, was from Alabama, and would have been familiar with Howell’s gridiron exploits. In the novel, there is a scene in which Scout tries to help her brother feel better. “We went to the livingroom. I picked up a football magazine, found a picture of Dixie Howell, showed it to Jem and said, ‘This looks like you.’ That was the nicest thing I could think to say to him…”