- C, LF, OF, RF, 1B
- February 23, 1929
- 6' 2"
- 196 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-14-1955 with NYA
- Allstar Selections:
- 1958 BR, 1963 GG, 1963 MVP, 1964 GG
The first African-American player to don a New York Yankees uniform, Elston Howard traveled a long and arduous road while working his way up the Yankee farm system. Although Howard first joined the Yankee organization in 1950, he had to overcome many obstacles before he finally found himself wearing pinstripes at the major league level. Yet, through it all, Howard carried himself with the same class and dignity on which he built his reputation.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri on February 23, 1929, Elston Gene Howard attended Vashon High School, where he starred in several sports. After turning down numerous scholarship offers from Big Ten universities upon graduating from Vashon in 1948, the 19-year-old Howard elected instead to join the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Howard played the outfield for three years in Kansas City, performing under the tutelage of manager Buck O'Neil and rooming with Ernie Banks. The Yankees, who had been extremely slow to sign black players, offered Howard a contract on July 19, 1950 and subsequently assigned the talented youngster to their farm team at Muskegon, Michigan. Howard spent the next four years in the minors, having his path to the big-league club blocked as much by the organization's unwillingness to promote him as by the level of talent on the Yankee roster.
In a move designed to prolong Howard's minor-league career, the Yankee front office first decided to convert the 24-year-old into a catcher in 1953, after he had already worked his way up to the Triple A level. The New York hierarchy not only knew that the transition would be a difficult one for Howard, but, also, that he would eventually have to contend with future Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra for playing time once he arrived in New York. Nevertheless, Howard took the move in stride because he wanted to play for the Yankees more than anything.
It was Howard's desire to play for New York and his calm demeanor that made him the perfect man to break the color barrier for the Yankees. While other dark-skinned players, such as former Yankee prospect Vic Power, had previously been dealt to other teams due to their more outspoken and confrontational personalities, Howard preferred to walk away from controversy and keep his emotions to himself. Although Howard's disposition had to make his career with the Yankees extremely unpleasant at times, he always carried himself with pride and dignity, and he never revealed to others the degree to which the injustices he constantly had to endure bothered him inside.
Still, as hard as the members of the Yankee front office tried, they found themselves unable to further delay Howard's arrival to the major league club by 1955. Playing for Toronto of the International League the previous year, Howard hit 22 home runs, drove in 109 runs, and batted .330, en route to capturing league MVP honors. Howard finally joined the Yankees in the spring of 1955, making his major league debut with the team on April 14, 1955, and singling in his first at-bat. A 1955 Bowman company baseball card elaborated on the reputation the 26-year-old rookie had previously established for himself around baseball: "Elston comes to the Yankees as one of the most heralded rookies in many years. Although he has been a catcher, and is carried on the roster as a catcher, it is thought that he may be converted into an outfielder. It seems he is just too good not to play regularly major league ball, and yet it is hard to displace a veteran as good as Yogi Berra..."
Howard did indeed find it extremely difficult to displace Yogi Berra behind the plate for the Yankees. Berra remained the team's primary receiver through 1960, with Howard splitting time his first six seasons between catcher, first base, and the outfield. Yet, even though Howard failed to attain full-time status at any point during that period, he remained a key contributor to New York's five pennant-winning and two world championship teams. After batting .314 and knocking in 66 runs in only 376 at-bats in 1958, Howard established new career highs with 18 home runs and 73 RBIs the following year. And, although he failed to compile more than 443 offical at-bats in any of those seasons, Howard was named to the American League All-Star Team each year from 1957 to 1960.
The circumstances surrounding Howard during the early years of his career greatly curtailed his offensive productivity. Nevertheless, his teammates were keenly aware of the kind of ability he possessed, and they knew how good he would have been had he been given more of an opportunity to play. Bobby Richardson, who spent his entire career playing with Howard, said, "I knew that Elston would have been a star on any other ballclub. When I first saw Elston and saw the tools that he had, I thought to myself, 'My goodness, the Yankees are certainly fortunate to have him.'"
Ascension to Stardom:
Howard finally supplanted Yogi Berra as the team's number one catcher in 1961. Although the New York media focused primarily on the exploits of Maris and Mantle over the course of the campaign, Howard had an exceptional year in his own right. In addition to hitting 21 home runs and driving in 77 runs in 446 at-bats, he batted a career-high .348 and finished tenth in the league MVP voting. The following year, Howard hit another 21 home runs and knocked in a career-best 91 runs.
Howard established himself as one of the leaders on the Yankees by 1963, having gained the admiration and respect of everyone on the team. The receiver's leadership qualities were recognized by the members of the BBWAA when they made him the first black player to be named the American League's Most Valuable Player for his role in helping the Yankees win the A.L. pennant. Playing without Mantle and Maris for much of the year, New York still managed to finish first in the junior circuit, due largely to the efforts of Howard. In addition to providing leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, he hit 28 home runs, knocked in 85 runs, and batted .287. Howard also finished third in the voting the following year, when he batted .313, drove in 84 runs, and won his second consecutive Gold Glove for establishing new A.L. Records for receivers with 939 putouts and 1,008 total chances. Howard earned his third selection in four seasons to The Sporting News All-Star Team and was also named to the A.L. All-Star Team for the eighth of nine consecutive times.
Injuries severely limited Howard's playing time and offensive productivity from 1965 to 1967, prompting the Yankees to part ways with him late in 1967. Yet, even though he batted only .147 for the Red Sox after they acquired him from the Yankees for their pennant drive, Howard's ability to handle a pitching staff shone through. In fact, he received much of the credit for stabilizing Boston's pitching staff over the course of the season's final two months.
Tony Conigliaro, the former Boston outfielder who played with Howard briefly, said, "I don't think I ever saw a pitcher shake off one of his signs. They had too much respect for him." Former Yankee relief pitcher Hal Reniff said of Howard, "Unless you pitched to him, you didn't know how good he was...how agile he was behind the plate. Ex-reliever Bill Fischer said, "Ellie Howard was a winning player, an All-Star. He was probably overlooked because of those great Yankee teams he played on. He was a leader; he took charge."
Perhaps more than anything, Elston Howard was a man of great inner strength, possessing an ability to deal with all kinds of adversity. Several years after he joined the Yankees, Howard and his wife attended a dinner with Jackie and Rachel Robinson. Jackie, who always resented the Yankees for their lack of interest in signing black players, told Howard that he considered the Yankees to be a bigoted organization. He also suggested that the things Howard went through in New York were, in some ways, harder than the things he earlier endured in Brooklyn. Robinson claimed at least he knew he had the full support of the Dodger front office. Meanwhile, Howard met a great deal of resistence from the Yankee front office on his way up the organizational ladder.
After ending his career with Boston in 1968, Howard returned to the Yankees, with whom he served as a first base coach from 1969 to 1979. In the last of those years, Howard was diagnosed with myocarditis, a rare heart disease that causes rapid heart failure. Howard initially considered a heart transplant, but his condition quickly deteriorated. After staying a week at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, Howard died of the heart ailment in 1980 at just 50 years of age. Upon learning of his passing, New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote, "The Yankees organization lost more class on the weekend than George Steinbrenner could buy in 10 years."
Dick Howser, the Yankee manager at the time, played and coached with Howard in New York. Howser, who passed away prematurely himself just a few years later, paid tribute to his former friend and colleague by saying, "Elston exemplified the Yankee class of the 1950s and 1960s. Class was the way to describe the guy. He epitomized the Yankee tradition. Everybody in baseball respected him."
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