Elston Howard: A Yankee Pioneer
Jackie Robinson did not just break the color barrier in April of 1947. He made an advancement for America as a nation, bringing together whites and blacks in the game of baseball. Everyone will forever remember his name for his tremendous innovation.
On July 5, 1947, nearly three months after Robinson broke the barrier, Larry Doby became the first African-American to play in the American League, suiting up for the Cleveland Indians.
With African Americans making their way in Major League Baseball, the most successful team in baseball, the New York Yankees, needed to break their color barrier.
Elston Howard was the man to do that.
Born on February 23, 1929, Howard was the son of successful parents. His mother was a nurse at a local hospital while his father taught in a segregated high school. Howard himself attended Vashon High School in St. Louis, MO, where he lettered in four sports: basketball, baseball, football, and track.
At the age of 19 in 1948, Howard rejected 25 scholarship offers from Big Ten schools. Instead of college, he opted to play baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League, a baseball organization created in 1937 when the game was segregated.
Howard played as a catcher and outfielder under manager Buck O’Neil while with the Monarchs, and even roomed with future MLB Hall of Famer Ernie Banks during that period. He did not remain in the Negro League for long, however, as the Yankees signed him on July 19, 1950.
He was promptly assigned to the farm team in Muskegon, MI to play catcher under the tutelage of Bill Dickey. However, he left to participate in Military Service from 1951-52. Aside from his stint in the Army, he spent four years in the minor leagues before taking the ultimate step in 1955: making it to the major league with the Yankees.
Breaking the Yankee Color Barrier
It’s no secret that most teams were hesitant to allow African Americans to partake in Major League Baseball, and the Yanks were no exception. In their rich history, no black player had ever donned the pinstripes.
But on Apr. 14, 1955—almost eight years to the day that Robinson broke the color barrier—Howard made his Yankee debut against the Boston Red Sox. He had one at-bat in his first game, one hit, and one RBI.
While he loved catching behind the plate, Yankee skipper Casey Stengel was content with Yogi Berra catching the Yankee hurlers. But Howard was so versatile; he could catch and play the outfield, a quality Stengel liked. He caught nine games in ’55 and played 75 games in the outfield.
Despite Stengel’s support of Howard’s ability, he was not keen on the idea of a black player on his team. Stengel was not prejudiced against Howard as a player or person, but his attitude toward African Americans in general was made loud and clear through the things he said and did.
Stengel, for instance, had no problem calling Howard an “eight ball” to his face. Stengel also commented on Howard’s lack of running ability, saying, “I finally get a black guy, and they give me the only one who can’t run.”
These were just two examples of the hatred and the racism Howard and all African Americans faced at the time. Through all the abuse and insult, Howard remained silent.
Despite the evident racism, his Yankee teammates embraced him and backed him up. In his rookie season, a fan was yelling racial remarks directed at Howard during a game.
Hank Bauer, Howard’s teammate and Yankee right fielder, crawled atop the dugout to confront the fan. Unfortunately, the heckling slime got away. After the game the press questioned Bauer about the incident. Bauer simply replied, “Ellie’s my friend.”
Breakout and World Series Years
In 1955 overall, Howard played in 97 games, averaged .290 at the dish, hit 10 home runs, and drove in 43 runs. He also played in his first career World Series, and homered in his first Fall Classic at-bat against Don Newcombe in the second inning of game one. Unfortunately, the Yankees lost the series to the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games.
In 1956, Howard played in 98 games for the Yankees, one more than the previous season. He caught 26 games and played 65 from the outfield. His numbers declined slightly from 1955, but overall he crushed five homers, knocked in 34 runs, and averaged .262.
The Yanks once again met the Dodgers in the World Series in ’56.
Howard only played in game seven of the Series, but he reminded Newcombe of the previous year, hitting another World Series homer off the Dodgers’ pitcher. His solo round-tripper in the fourth inning was one of four homers hit by the Yankees in their 9-0, Series clinching win.
1956 marked Howard’s first World Series title, one of four he would win in his career.
1957 would be another decent year for Howard. He played in 110 games, catching 32 of them. He even tried his hand at first base for two games, and of course played 71 games from the outfield. He hit .253 in ’57, smacking eight homers, and driving in 44 runs.
The Yanks once again made it to the World Series in 1957, but fell victim to the Milwaukee Braves in seven games. Despite the loss, Howard proved his worth in the Series. He clubbed a clutch, two-out, ninth inning homer in game four off Warren Spahn to tie the game, 4-4.
The Yankees eventually lost that game by a score of 7-5 in the tenth inning, however.
Howard had one of his better years in 1958, hitting .314 with 11 home runs and 66 RBI for the season. He caught a grand total of 67 games behind the plate for the Yankees, and played in 103 games.
Stengel regarded Howard as the best platoon man in the game at the time. “You can say that Howard is our most valuable utility player,” Stengel said.
The Bronx Bombers found themselves in the World Series yet again in 1958, against the same team that beat them the prior year, the Braves. Howard made a key play in game five of the series, catching a sinking line drive in left field and then doubling up Bill Brunton at first base to hold the Yanks’ 1-0 lead.
In Game Six, Howard singled and then later scored the deciding run to give the Yankees a win. With the Series on the line on game seven, Howard hit a two out, RBI single to score Berra, giving the Yanks a 3-2 edge. The Yankees went on to win the game 6-2 and take the Series.
Howard then captured his second World title, and for his efforts in the Series, won the Babe Ruth Award, given to him by the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America.
By the time the baseball world reached the 1960s, Howard had all but taken over the catching for Berra. He started 91 games from behind the plate in 1960, but his numbers were his lowest to date. He hit a meager .245 with six home runs and 39 RBI.
The Yankees made it to the Fall Classic again, but it was not meant to be, as they fell in misery to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Howard would once again know the feeling of hitting a World Series home run in 1960, however. Despite the Series loss, he clocked a pinch-hit homer off Roy Face in the ninth inning of game one. Overall, he hit .462 in the World Series.
1961 was the year every Yankee fan will remember. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle were en route to shattering Ruth’s home run record of 60 round trippers in a single season. Howard was overlooked, having his best season to date. He averaged a mind numbing .348 at the plate and set career-highs with 21 home runs and 77 RBI.
The Yankees made it to the World Series in 1961, and eventually won it all over the Cincinnati Reds. Howard had a solo home run in game one; a contest the Yankees won 2-0. In game five, he scored three of the Yankees’ 13 runs, as the Yankees clinched the Series by a count of 13-5 in game five. Howard was now wearing three World Series rings on his fingers.
Following suit in 1962, Howard put together another good season for himself. He matched his home run count from ’61 (21), hit a modest .279, and knocked in a career-high 91 runs.
A noteworthy game during the ’62 campaign came on Aug. 19, when Howard collected eight RBI in a game against Kansas City. The Yankees won that game, 21-7.
Howard would win his final World Series Championship in 1962. The Yankees met the San Francisco Giants, and defeated them in seven games. Howard only hit .143 for the series, but his effort was always appreciated.
The Yankees may not have won a title in 1963, but Howard made history. With his batting average at .287, his home run total at a career-best 28, an incredible .528 slugging percentage, and an RBI count at 85, Howard won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, becoming the first African American to ever accomplish this feat.
After his ground-breaking accomplishment in being the first African American to win the AL MVP, the Yankees headed into a bit of a decline. Although they made it to the Fall Classic in 1964, the Yankees would not see another title while Howard was with them.
In 1967, Howard would say good-bye to the Yankees, as he was traded to the rival Red Sox on August 3. He was sent to Bostonto aid the Red Sox in winning the ’67 pennant, which they did with Howard’s assistance.
Although only hitting .147, he was essential in handling the pitching staff. Tony Conigliaro, a pitcher for the Red Sox that season, once said, “I don’t think I ever saw a pitcher shake off one of his signs. They had too much respect for him.”
The Red Sox did not win the World Series in 1967, as the St. Louis Cardinals downed them in seven games, but Howard had his last postseason highlight in this series. He hit a bases-loaded single in the ninth inning of Game Five to score two runs. Those two runs would prove to be huge, as Boston won the game, 3-1.
Howard called it a career after the Red Sox released him on October 29, 1968. Even though his playing career was over, he was not done making history in the game of baseball.
Howard returned home to the Yankees in 1969, acting as the first base coach from 1969-79. Continuing to break ground, he became the first African American coach in American League history.
He was also a part of the team when the Yankees climbed back to the top of the mountain and regained World Series titles in 1977 and 1978. Howard helped to guide the likes of other black players such as Reggie Jackson, Mickey Rivers, and Willie Randolph to Championships.
Although he always wanted to be the first African American manager in baseball history, it never did happen for Howard. Frank Robinson however, did become the first black manager in MLB history, fulfilling Howard’s dream.
Legacy and Death
In 1979, Howard was diagnosed with myocarditis, a rare heart disease that causes rapid heart failure. He had considered a heart transplant, but his condition quickly worsened and claimed his life on Dec. 14, 1980. He was only 51 years old.
New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote that day, “The Yankees lost more class today than George Steinbrenner could buy in 10 years.”
In his honor, the Yankees wore black armbands during the 1981 season.
On July 21, 1984, Howard was given enshrinement in Monument Park posthumously, where his number 32 would lay retired next to the other Yankee greats, never to be worn again by another Yankee.
Howard accomplished so much over the course of his career. Four World Series titles as a player, two as a coach, nine All-Star game appearances, the 1958 Babe Ruth Award, the 1963 AL MVP Award, two Gold Glove Awards, and his number is retired.
What some people may not know is that Howard is the player who is credited for inventing the doughnut. The circular weight that the batters use for practice swings in the on-deck circle is Howard’s responsibility. Just as George Washington Carver invented peanut butter and James Forten invented the sail hoist, Howard was an inventor of a device still used by players today.
Not only that, but Howard is also the first known man to use his index and pinky fingers to signify two outs in the inning.
Call him what you will: Elston Howard, the inventor of the doughnut and two out sign. Elston Howard, the four time World Series Champion. Elston Howard, the 1963 AL MVP. Elston Howard, number 32 of the New York Yankees.
But no matter what his title, he will be Elston Howard, a pioneer and the first African American to play for the New York Yankees.
His plaque in Monument Park reads, “A man of great gentleness and dignity.” This is probably the most important and telling statement of all.
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