On July 19, 1950, the Yankees signed 21-year old outfielder Elston Howard from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Howard was a good prospect and the respect of his legendary manager, Buck O’Neil, but it took six years before he appeared in a Yankee uniform.
🎧 New @YankeesPodcast #441
A Brief History: Elston Howard breaks the Yankees color barrier
▪️Elston’s long road to the Bronx
▪️Racism in the 1950s Yankees organization
▪️Ellie’s great playing & coaching career
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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 unfortunate reality is that the Yankees were slow to integrate. Despite criticism from the media and pressure from fans, it took the Yankees eight years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier to promote a black player to the majors.
The Say Hey Kid… in the Bronx?
There is a fantastic article in the New York Times titled When the Yankees Were Not Ready for Willie Mays that touches on some of the stubbornness — and just flat out racism — going on in the Yankees organization. It also highlights how the Yankees had the same chances to sign Willie Mays that the Giants did.
To summarize: Yankees scouts first saw Willie Mays in a game at the Polo Grounds in May 1949, when his Birmingham Black Barons played the New York Cubans of the Negro League. Mays was just 18-years old and not even out of high school yet, but his talent was obvious. On that trip to New York the Black Barons also played a semi-pro team called the Brooklyn Bushwicks — Yankees scouts got a second look at Mays and a second chance to ignore his talent. A year later the Black Barons came back to New York to play the Cubans. Once again Yankees scouts were in attendance. Mays was now 19 and clearly the best player on the field. Nine days later the Giants signed the centerfielder.
According to the article, which also cites the book Baseball’s Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel, the Yankees scouts who were in attendance at these games were in GM George Weiss’ “inner circle.” Weiss was very concerned with public perception and how his players conducted themselves. It would also seem that he and his scouts discriminated when it came to black players.
The scout that saw Mays play twice at the Polo Grounds was Bill McCorry. He said:
The kid can’t hit a curveball… I got no use for him or any of them. No n— will ever have a berth on any train I’m running.
The Yankees hid behind the guise that they were looking for the right black player — as Weiss called it, the “Yankee type.” But racism played a big factor.
It was believed that the Yankees’ interest in black players was for show; that they’d only sign veterans and non-prospects to appease critics.
Weiss made comments equally offensive as McCorry’s throughout those years as well, including not bowing to public pressure on the issue of black players and not wanting box-holders from Westchester (white people) to have to sit in the stands with fans of African American players (black people).
When the Yankees did explore Negro League players, they often went through Tom Baird — the owner of the Kansas City Monarchs and a registered member of the Kansas Ku Klux Klan. Baird was not officially part of the Yankees organization, but he said he felt like he was.
While Baird’s character was questionable, he did have an eye for talent. The Monarchs produced many great players. He wrote a letter to Weiss dated June 20, 1950 (the day Willie Mays signed with the Giants), that said: “I signed Ernest Banks, 19-year old shortstop, and he looks like he will make a hell of a good ballplayer.”
There was no reply from the Yankees.
It’s not like they had a ton of lineup holes. The Yankees, a fully white team, won the World Series six out of the eight years between Robinson’s debut in 1947 and Howard’s in ’55. But there was no ignoring a talent like Willie Mays or a prospect like Ernie Banks no matter how good your team is. Mays had a ton of success in the Giants minor league system and won the 1951 NL Rookie of the Year. Banks debuted with the Cubs in ’53 and won back-to-back MVPs in the late 1950. The Yankees missed an opportunity to sign both of those players, simply out of racism.
The Yankees had a young rookie centerfielder of their own in 1951 — Mickey Mantle. Willie and Mickey were “rivals” throughout their career, but what if they shared an outfield and hit back-to-back in the lineup? That’s what fans in the 1950s and ’60s were robbed of.
A month after the Yankees didn’t sign Mays and didn’t reply to the letter about Banks, they signed Elston Howard, who went on to have a tremendous 14-year career filled with awards, championships, and quirky facts.