One of the best parts about being a Yankees fan is remembering all of the legends that have worn the pinstripes. Ask any Yankees fan about the history of the Yankees and they can quickly tell you stories about legends like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Ford and Berra. They can tell you about the the Bronx Zoo era including Thurman Munson and Mr. October, Reggie Jackson. Meanwhile, Ron Guidry, Billy Martin, Catfish Hunter and Don Mattingly have remained fan favorites long past their playing days. Finally, the core four and Bernie will always hold a special place for their dominant run in the late 90s.
Today, I wanted to take a closer look at an integral part of Yankees history and make sure that we continue to give him the recognition that he deserves. I will be continuing these articles every Friday as we look take a look at those players who maybe we don’t think of immediately. But without their contributions, the Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees.
Without further ado, today we look at the man who became the first African-American to don the pinstripes: Elston Howard!
The success of Elston Howard can be traced back to his mother, Emmaline Webb. Webb was a schoolteacher in Sikeston Missouri when she became pregnant with Elston. However, the father, the school’s principal declined to marry Webb, causing her to flee to St. Louis. In St. Louis, Webb would eventually marry Wayman Hill and the family formed a close friendship with the local Baptist pastor Reverend Jeremiah Baker, who would serve as Elston’s godfather. With a strong family unit in place, Elston had a strong foundation for the rest of his life.
Growing up he became a standout athlete running track and playing basketball, football and baseball. It was in 1945 when playing in a sandlot that Howard drew the eyes of former Negro League player Frank Tetnus “Teannie” Edwards. Teannie was amazed to learn that Howard, who towered over his peers, was one of the youngest players on the field. After convincing Emmaline that he would personally look after him, Teannie brought Elston to the St. Louis Braves of the Tandy League. In his first game Howard collected a pair of hits and threw out two baserunners.
In April of 1947, the baseball world changed forever when Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Meanwhile, Elston was an 18 year old kid finishing school at the all black Vashon High and working at the local grocery store. Already a standout on the football and basketball teams, Vashon quickly formed a baseball team giving Howard another opportunity to play the game. After another summer playing with the Braves, Teannie reached out to the St. Louis Cardinals about a tryout for Elston; however, they passed on the opportunity. With MLB looking a little further out of reach, Howard turned his eyes to college with Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State eyeing him for football.
Not wanting to lose Elston, Teannie reached out the Kansas City Monarchs manager and Negro League/baseball legend, Buck O’Neil. O’Neil had a sharp eye for talent and is credited with helping to pave the way for many black players to make their way to MLB. He was the first African American coach in MLB history and brought Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Ernie Banks to the Cubs. And it was O’Neil, in 1947 who brought Elston Howard into the Negro Leagues, signing him to a $500 a month contract, sent directly to his mother.
In 1950, the Kansas City Monarchs were visited by legendary Yankees scout Tom Greenwade. After speaking with O’Neil, Greenwade learned of the young catcher and in 1950 signed Howard to the New York Yankees for $25,000. After signing, Elston was sent to the 39-46 Class A Michigan Clippers. Inserted into the cleanup position Howard and the Clippers would finish the year on a 36-18 tear. However, Howard was soon drafted into the Korean War and would have to wait to make his MLB debut.
After he returned home, Howard joined the top Yankees minor league team the Kansas City Blues. After another successful season he was invited to Yankees Prospect School with 28 other minor leaguers. It was here that he would meet former Yankees great Bill Dickey who would work with Howard to improve behind the plate. When the Yankees broke camp that year they had three catchers, Yogi, Ralph Houk and Charlie Silvera. Not wanting to send Howard back to the minors they sent him to Canada’s International League where he would play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. In his one season in Canada, Howard would hit .330 with 22 home runs and win the MVP award.
Breaking the Yankees Color Barrier
The next season, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Howard would break the Yankees color barrier. After a dominant spring that saw him bat mainly cleanup, he would join the Yankees big league roster on March 21st and see his first action on April 14th. Howard would appear in 97 games that season and hit .290 while being quickly embraced by Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto. Meanwhile, the Yankees would refuse to stay in any hotels that would not allow Howard to stay.
After the Yankees lost the World Series to the Dodgers, in which Howard hit a homer in his first at-bat, they went on a goodwill tour to Japan. Howard would hit .468 but still was unable to find significant playing time behind Yogi. Regardless, Howard would do all that he could to help the team and was said to always be ready to either support his teammates or come through with a clutch hit. He won his first World Series title in 1956, appearing in only game seven where he doubled in a run and hit a home run.
World Series Heroics
In 1958, the Yankees had another dominant season but found themselves down 3-1 in the World Series to the Braves. Looking for an additional offensive spark, Howard was given the start in left field despite having a dental procedure performed earlier that day. In the sixth with the Braves threatening, Howard made a diving catch and doubled off a runner trying to make it back. After the game he told reporters, “I skinned my knee and my stomach doing it. I’m no outfielder. I’m a catcher, but the manager put me out there and I had to do the best I could.”
In Game 6 Howard had two hits and scored a run in a 4-3 extra innings win. While Game 7 saw the game tied 2-2 in the eighth, Howard drove in Yogi Berra and the Yankees eventually won the game 6-2. Afterwards, the New York City sports writers voted Howard the MVP of the series.
Expanded Playing Time
In the 1960 World Series, the Yankees fell to the Pirates despite Howard hitting .462. The result saw the end of Casey Stengal’s reign as manager and he was replaced by the same Ralph Houk who lost the backup job to Howard. However, Houk saw Howard as the future and would start him behind the plate 111 times in 1961 while moving Yogi out the left. With a few tweaks to his stance, Howard responded by hitting .328 with 21 home runs and 129 RBIs. The Bronx Bombers would cruise to a title behind Whitey Ford’s 25 wins, Marris and Mantle’s home run race and Howard’s dominant season. Afterwards, he was named St. Louis’ Man of the City.
In 1963, Howard found himself mainly in the cleanup spot as Mantle and Marris were plagued by injuries. Howard hit a career high 32 home runs and become the first African-American player to win the American League MVP award. He would also win a gold glove with a .994 fielding percentage behind the plate.
Injuries, Retirement and a Doughnut
Unfortunately, like so many great catchers, injuries eventually crept up on Howard. He had previously broken a finger and in 1967 would re-break the finger on a foul ball. As a result his hitting suffered. With the Yankees struggling and losing money, Howard was shipped to Boston where he joined the Red Sox in the middle of a pennant race. The Red Sox would make it to the World Series that year, Howard’s 10th, but would lose to his hometown Cardinals. He struggled through one more season before calling it a career
That offseason, Howard helped a New Jersey business market a tool that Howard had credited for his success. Looking to improve his bat speed, Howard put a weighted ring on his bat while in the on-deck circle. Today, Howard’s legacy can still be seen during every professional baseball game as his doughnut is a popular piece of equipment across the sport.
Coaching and Post-Playing Career
After his playing days, Howard returned to the Bronx as a coach. While he never became a manager, he served as an important figure during the Bronx Zoo days. Howard was always cool, calm and collected and would often offset the more fiery Billy Martin. Howard would usually find himself between Reggie Jackson and Martin during their dugout dustups and his calming presence is often credited with helping the team find a balance. As a coach, he won two more World Series titles bringing his total championships in MLB to six.
Sadly, in 1979 Howard suffered a heart attack. Unable to attend Spring Training to fulfill his coaching duties, he was informed by George Steinbrenner that the Yankees would take care of him and would always hold his spot. Disaster struck later that year with the passing of catcher Thurman Munson. Unfortunately, Howard was too weak to travel to the funeral. After a brief recovery, Howard joined the Yankees front office as a special assistant to Steinbrenner. He attended banquets and help with scouting. However, his heart continued to deteriorate and on Dec. 14, 1980, Howard passed away at the age of 51.
Four years after his passing, Howard had his number 32 retired by the Yankees.
Elston Howard’s contributions aren’t discussed enough. The story of the New York Yankees cannot be told without Howard. He broke the color barrier, replaced Yogi, won an MVP, won four championships as a player and two more as a coach. He was a crucial player on the dominant 60s teams and helped to bring the Yankees back to prominence as a coach in the Bronx Zoo.
Simply put, he was one of the best to ever wear the pinstripes.