Minor Leagues

Ryan Howard developed into an MVP at Reading

Ryan Howard won Eastern League MVP in 2004 (Photo courtesy of the Reading Fightin Phils)

Before any of the late-season heroics or World Series glory, Ryan Howard was blocked.

Buried on the depth chart in an organization with an All-Star first baseman at the major-league level, the 2001 fifth-round pick spent his first few seasons in the Philadelphia Phillies system with no clear road to the bigs. That was the case until 2004, when Howard took Double-A by storm and completely changed the course of his career — and the Phillies franchise.

He was a productive hitter at the Single-A levels early in his professional career, posting OPS marks in the .800s in each of his first three seasons. However, star first baseman and eventual Hall of Famer Jim Thome signed a six-year contract in Philadelphia before the 2003 season and appeared set to be a longtime cornerstone for the team. Howard was a promising prospect, but the Phillies had their answer at his position.

Arriving in Reading as a 24-year-old, Howard forced the Phillies to reconsider. The left-handed hitter batted .297/.386/.647 in 2004 in one of the most impressive, dominant campaigns in team history. He set the Reading Phillies record for home runs in a season at the time with 37 long balls in only 107 games, while also adding 102 RBIs and 18 doubles.

Howard became the fifth Reading Phillie to be named Eastern League MVP (joining Greg Luzinski, Mark Davis, Jeff Stone and Marlon Byrd), while also earning the chance to climb the ranks. Following a 29-game stop at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the first baseman played his way into the majors and appeared in 19 games for the Phillies. Between Double-A, Triple-A and the big leagues, Howard hit 48 home runs in 150 games in 2004.

In 2005, Howard split time between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Philadelphia, but made the most of his big-league opportunities. He hit 22 home runs in 88 games on his way to the National League Rookie of the Year Award as Thome recovered from right elbow surgery. After the season, the Phillies traded Thome to the Chicago White Sox. Howard finally had a spot, and the 2004 season certainly helped him create it.

Of course, the rest is history. Howard went on to win NL MVP in 2006, lead the majors in homers twice, lead in RBIs three times, make three All-Star teams, win five consecutive NL East titles, be named 2009 NL Championship Series MVP and be crowned a World Series champion in 2008 in 13 total seasons with the Phillies.

Perhaps those don’t happen if things didn’t click in 2004.

Howard’s Reading home run record has been topped since his lone season in Baseballtown. Darin Ruf first surpassed it with 38 in 2012. Rhys Hoskins also hit 38 in 2016, while Dylan Cozens set the current club record with 40 home runs in the same season. Each of those three played at least 134 games for Reading in those seasons, compared to Howard’s 107.

Ruf, Cozens and Brock Stassi in 2015 joined the list of R-Phils players to win Eastern League MVP since Howard did it. The Eastern League was terminated by Major League Baseball before the 2021 season.

Among the eight MVP seasons by Reading players, Howard’s may have been the most significant. Before he could bring his MVP ways to Philly, he found them in Reading, which was a key turning point on a path to both individual and team success.


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