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Elston Howard’s long road to breaking the Yankees color barrier

The plaque honoring Elston Howard in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium says:

A man of great gentleness and dignity. One of (the) all-time Yankee greats. American League MVP in 1963. A fitting leader to be (the) first black player to wear the Yankee uniform. ‘If, indeed, humility is a trademark of many great men — Elston Howard was one of the truly great Yankees.’

It was dedicated on July 21, 1984. The only unfortunate thing about the day was that Elston was not alive to witness the ceremony and his number 32 being retired.

Podcast – A Brief History: Elston Howard breaks the Yankees color barrier

Check out the full history episode about how Elston Howard became the first African American player in Yankees history and paved the way for future minority players in the organization.

Slow to Adapt

Unfortunately, the Yankees integration history is not a good one. We want to think of the Yankees as always being the model organization — not only for winning but for their baseball operations and how they conduct themselves. The reality is that in the late 1940s and 1950s, they were slow to integrate.

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Elston Howard became the first African American player in Yankees history one day shy of eight years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. By 1949, both of the Yankees’ crosstown rivals — the Dodgers and Giants — were integrated. By 1953, half of baseball teams had at least one black player. In 1955, when the Yankees integrated, they were the fourth-to-last team to do so — the Phillies, Tigers, and Red Sox would all integrate by 1959.

The man in charge of personnel for the Yankees in this era was George Weiss. Weiss was very concerned with public perception and how his players conducted themselves on and off the field. His players had to be the “Yankee type” and they had to emulate the “Yankee way.” Not being the “type” or breaking the “way” got Billy Martin shipped out of town and probably prevented the Yankees from signing many players. But it was also what Weiss and Yankees ownership used as an excuse to not have a black player on the team.

In response to a growing narrative that the Yankees’ interest in black players was for show and that they’d only sign veterans and non-prospects to appease critics, Weiss said:

The Yankees are not going to promote a Negro player to the Stadium simply in order to be able to say that they have such a player. We are not going to bow to pressure groups on this issue.

To be fair the Yankees were not exactly trying to patch lineup holes in the 1950s — they were a powerhouse. But there was also this abhorrent comment by Weiss in 1952, after having signed Howard and other minorities, and after teams like the Dodgers and Giants signed prominent black stars with great success:

We don’t want that sort of crowd. It would offend box-holders from Westchester to have to sit with n—s.

As if that weren’t enough, a series of events in 1953 caused people to picket outside Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were close to promoting a first base prospect from Triple-A named Vic Power. Born in Puerto Rico, Power would have been the first non-white player for the Yankees, but instead they promoted Gus Triandos from Double-A.

Joe Bostic wrote in the New York Amsterdam News:

It would appear the only advantage Triandos had was one of circumstance in not being born a Negro.

Power was not African American but he was dark-skinned. When he was passed over for Triandos, blacks and Puerto Ricans picketed together.

Power was traded the following offseason along with five players and cash to the Athletics for four players — all white. The kicker came when Weiss gave the reason for trading the promising Power:

Maybe he can play, but not for us. He’s impudent and he goes for white women. Power is not the Yankee type.

The Yankees didn’t really care if he could play. They were more concerned that Power was dating a white woman and that if they called him up and fans found out, it would cause ripples — financial ripples.

Of course money was also behind the racism. Yankees ownership was concerned with who attended the games. Negro League teams also rented MLB ballparks, generating thousands of dollars in revenue for teams like the Yankees. An argument some owners made when teams first started to integrate was that if prominent black stars left the Negro League for the Major Leagues, teams would fold and that revenue would be lost.

Vic Power ended up having a solid career but he was not the most promising black player in the Yankees organization. That would be Elston Howard, whom the Yankees signed in July 1950 from the Kansas City Monarchs. But it took nearly six years for him to debut.

Journey to the Bronx

For Elston Howard, 1951 and ‘52 were lost due to military service. Perhaps he would have debuted earlier if he wasn’t drafted into the Army. When he returned he was surprised to learn the Yankees wanted to move his position from outfield to catcher, which he did have experience with briefly with the Monarchs.

Writers came up with the conspiracy that this was a ploy for the team to bury Howard in the minors, seeing as how the Yankees had Yogi Berra in the prime of his career and players don’t typically move from the outfield to catcher. Howard was big (listed at 6’2’’, 196-pounds.) but he didn’t have a ton of speed. He made up for that with good instincts in the outfield, but the Yankees saw him as a catcher.

The media characterized him as a “victim” and a “pawn.” After their playing days, Jackie Robinson said:

You know, in a sense, Elston had it tougher than me. At least I knew Mr. (Branch) Rickey wanted me, but Elston didn’t know if the Yankees wanted him.

Howard often said he couldn’t have done what Jackie did being the first black player in baseball, but he was a pioneer nonetheless because when it comes to the Yankees, the spotlight is always brighter.

Despite what Elston was feeling — and he did question if the Yankees wanted him — he didn’t let the position change or negative media attention affect his performance. He worked his ass off to develop his catching skills. The Yankees assigned Bill Dickey to help him (so that might dispel the theory that they didn’t want him to succeed) and it paid off. He performed well in Double-A his first year back from the Army, then won the Triple-A MVP in 1954 — primarily as a catcher. Elston then made the Yankees opening day roster in 1955 after a rare pennant loss in ’54 and much speculation during spring training.

April 14, 1955

Elston’s big league debut came on April 14 in the second game of the season at Fenway Park when he entered the game in the 6th inning, replacing Irv Noren in left field. In the 8th inning he ripped an RBI single in his first at bat. Even though they lost the game, it was a great moment for Howard and the Yankees.

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He’d have to wait until April 20 for his first appearance at Yankee Stadium and April 28 for his first start. Even though Howard was on the roster, the Yankees were moving forward with caution. Again, Howard’s debut was April 14 in Boston, but the season opener — which was at home — was April 13 vs. the Senators. The Yankees won that game 19-1. You’re telling me there were no pinch-hitting opportunities for Howard in an 18-run rout on opening day?!

A big reason he didn’t play everyday was because he had no clear position and the Yankees had no clear hole. Howard’s versatility proved important to him staying on the roster. Yogi wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon — he won back-to-back MVPs in ‘54 and ‘55. Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer were starting outfielders no matter what. In hindsight he should have started over Noren, but I guess the Yankees weren’t prepared to take that chance yet.

In the five years before he became the starting catcher, Howard played both corner outfield positions and first base in addition to catcher, which earned him about 100-games of playing time a year.

His friends called him Ellie

Playing time wasn’t his only hurdle. After his death, Elston’s wife Arlene said he came home angry many times and that people might not realize how hard it was to be the first black New York Yankee. Hotels near their spring training facilities were still segregated so he and others had to find housing elsewhere. He didn’t show frustration outwardly though — I guess in a way, that’s the “Yankee type” that Weiss wanted.

Casey Stengel referred to Elston as “eight ball” to his face in front of teammates. It’s pretty easy to find racist quotes attributed to Stengel over the years, and this is just another example. You’d assume that is the reason Elston wasn’t an everyday player, but people close to the team said it really was because there was no clear spot for Howard — Stengle did his best to get him on the field because he knew he could help the team win.

Howard’s teammates accepted him right from the start. When he was a rookie, Moose Skowron picked him up from the train station on occasion. Yogi and Phil Rizzuto invited him to dine and socialize with the team. He and Yogi remained close after they played too. They were on the same coaching staff in the ‘70s and spoke regularly on the phone in the offseason all the way up to Howard’s death.

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Hank Bauer took Elston under his wing though. Their lockers were next to one another and whenever somebody in the stands yelled racial slurs, it was Bauer who was the first to yell back — and nobody was going to mess with the ex-marine Hank Bauer. When asked why he would stand up for Howard, Bauer said, “because he is my friend.”

Elston’s friends called him “Ellie.”

Ellie’s indoctrination into the clubhouse came on May 14 when he smacked a walk off, 2-run triple to beat the Tigers. Joe Collins and Mickey laid-out an honorary carpet of towels from his locker to the shower to show their appreciation.

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Howard went on to play another twelve seasons for the Yankees, winning four championships, and then served as their first base coach for eleven seasons, winning two more championships.