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August 21, 2004

Roots....The First Black Yankee
by Mad Mike

"Both as a man and as a ballplayer, this boy Howard looks every inch a Yankee"

-- Paul Krichell, scout for the New York Yankees on prospect Elston Howard

In 1884, a catcher--ironically enough--would play his final game with the American Association's Toledo Blue Hens. What made him stand out was not his hitting, nor his ability to call a game....but rather his skin colour.

He was black.

That catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker, would be the signpost for an era that would stretch for 53 years; an era where only two colours mattered. The green grass, and the greenbacks, along with the white baseball, and the white baseball player. For the Yankees the drought would continue for another eight years.

"I will never allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform. Boxholders from Westchester don't want that sort of crowd. They would be offended to have to sit with niggers."

-- New York Yankees general manager: George Weiss

So deep was this ennui toward those of African heritage the Yankees passed on a youngster who played for the Birmingham Black Barons. He eventually would be signed by New York's other team--the Giants. This youngster was a strapping youth by the name of Willie Mays.

"The Yankees will bring up a Negro as soon as one that fits the high Yankee standards is found."

-- George Weiss

Again: "Both as a man and as a ballplayer, this boy Howard looks every inch a Yankee"

-- Paul Krichell

It was easy to see, right from the start, that Elston Howard's tenure with the New York Yankees would be difficult. It was for the first player to break the colour barrier--the Brooklyn Dodgers' second baseman Jackie Robinson; not to mention the first man to break that barrier in the American League--Cleveland Indian outfielder Larry Doby.

Initially Howard--despite hitting .375 with the Kansas City Monarchs--was signed by the Yankees as more of a token gesture than anything else. Bowing to public pressure, the Yankee organization signed a handful of black players. Included along with Howard was a slick fielding first baseman named Vic Power (who would be dealt to the Philadelphia Athletics and debut there in 1954); Artie Wilson (who would have a cup of coffee with the New York Giants in 1951); Ruben Gomez, a right handed pitcher who likewise plied his trade at the Polo Grounds--where he would win 17 games for the World Series champion Giants in 1954 (winning Game Three of the Fall Classic against the Cleveland Indians); and Frank Barnes--also a right handed pitcher who had a brief, undistinguished career with the St. Louis Cardinals.

It appeared initially that the Yankees, or more specifically, George Weiss was doing everything in his power to keep Howard from making the major league roster. By the spring of 1954, Howard was the only black player still in the Yankees minor league system. Suddenly, without warning, Howard was being groomed as a catcher (having been taken from the outfield). Bear in mind that Howard was a good enough outfielder as witnessed by the fact that he was often used in left field at the major league level. This caused a new round of allegations that the Yankees were trying to bury Howard. Why? The Yankees were deep in catching, mostly in the person of the durable Yogi Berra. As Charlie Silvera and Ralph Houk could well testify, you didn't get a lot of playing time as Berra's understudy.

The positional change didn't slow Howard a whit. Despite spending the International League season as a backstop for the Toronto Maple Leafs at Tip Top Park, Howard hit .330, blasted 22 home runs, and plated 109 runs. He walked away with the International League Most Valuable Player award and because of this achievement, the Baltimore Orioles--freshly transplanted from their St. Louis roots as the Browns--offered Weiss $100,000 and a top minor league pitching prospect for Howard.

Weiss reluctantly refused.

The Yankees were among the very last teams in baseball to integrate their roster. Since the Bronx Bombers were the flagship team in the American League (if not all of baseball) public pressure was enormous to have the 1954 International League MVP join the Yankee varsity.

The Yankees left Spring Training with Elston Howard as a backup catcher and outfielder.

The Adjustment Period

With Spring Training held deep in the southern United States, it didn't matter whether you had a NY on your cap, or a B, or a STL; if you were black, you were still a "nigger" as far as attitudes went. Howard had to live in a different area of Florida during Spring Training. Heading north to open the season, the Yankees had an exhibition game in Birmingham Alabama against one of the Yankees minor league affiliates. However Birmingham had an ordinance that stated it was unlawful for white players to compete against blacks and so Weiss sent Howard on up ahead of the team. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who broke the colour barrier with Jackie Robinson, when faced with a similar situation [in Birmingham] simply cancelled the game rather than comply with that bylaw.

It was only the beginning.

When the Yankees went on their first road trip, Howard was barred by hotels in Kansas City and Baltimore from staying with his teammates. However the New York Post pressured Weiss to apply some pressure of his own to the hotels to accept Howard's presence. The hotels finally, reluctantly, acquiesced.

The First Black Yankee

Although he had to endure the slings and arrows that a man of colour had to tolerate during that time period, one place where he did feel welcome was among his teammates. The majority of Yankee players went out of their way to make Howard feel like part of the team. After a game winning hit, Howard returned to the locker room after an on field interview to see that his fellow players had given him "the red carpet treatment"--lining the path from the clubhouse door to his locker with towels as a tribute. When a heckler was hurling racial epithets at Howard, teammate and former United States Marine, Hank Bauer climbed up on top the dugout trying to find the person responsible. The heckler at least had the common sense to shut up. When queried later about the incident, Bauer simply shrugged and said: "Ellie's my friend."

Then Yankees’ manager Casey Stengel--despite a vocabulary that would be considered very politically incorrect today (Jackie Robinson often assailed Stengel for his infamous comment about Howard: "I finally get a nigger, I get the only one who can't run")--spoke glowingly of Howard. For his part, Howard never sensed any negative feelings from Stengel.

At any rate, Howard enjoyed a fine rookie season. He was given 279 at bats, hit 10 home runs--which was an impressive number for a right handed batter playing half his games in a stadium where 425 foot blasts were often turned into long, loud outs. He also plated 43 runs while hitting a solid .290 with an OPS+ of 119. Despite Stengel's quip about his speed, or lack thereof, Howard also legged out seven triples.

Howard’s first World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers saw him play the series in left field. In was an inauspicious debut as he batted .192, struck out eight times, and was the final out of the 1955 Fall Classic as he grounded a Johnny Podres pitch to Pee Wee Reese who threw him out at first.

1956 saw Howard suffer through "the sophomore jinx." He got off to a slow start, mostly due to a fractured finger. He only got 290 at bats that year, batting .262 (80 OPS+), hitting just five home runs, and driving in a mere 34 runs. Howard saw limited action in the World Series, (again against the Brooklyn Dodgers) however his five at bats produced two hits--a double and a home run in Game Seven....a 9-0 romp. Howard's hitting funk persisted into 1957 (82 OPS+)--although he remained fairly productive. Casey Stengel thought enough of his play to name him to the All Star team roster. It was still an impressive feat seeing as he didn't really have a set position; Howard logged time behind the plate, spelling Berra when he needed a rest, and filling in occasionally at first base.

Regardless, his eight home runs and 44 RBI were respectable enough considering he'd yet to have a season where he got 400 at bats. In the World Series against the Milwaukee Braves he hit his second Fall Classic four bagger in Game Four. It went for naught as the Braves won in seven games.

Howard started to find a groove with his bat. He enjoyed his first ever .300 season -- batting .314 and knocking 11 out of the yard (130 OPS+)-- Howard’s best total at this point in his career. Howard also notched 66 RBI that year--also a personal best at this juncture. Howard accomplished this despite not getting 400 at bats.

Stengel again rewarded his efforts with a trip to the All Star Game.

Howard would appear on the All Star roster every year until 1965. The Yankees would avenge the previous year's loss in the World Series triumphing over the Braves in seven games. 1959 would mark the first season Howard topped 400 at bats. He also saw considerable playing time at first base where he appeared in 50 games. Despite a new career high 18 home runs (and 73 RBI), the Yankees -- ravaged by injuries -- didn’t win the pennant for the first time since 1954.

The Bronx Bombers rediscovered their winning ways in 1960; but Howard's bat went south as his body had to adjust to the rigors of regular catching duty. Howard backstopped in 91 games--the most of his career. In the World Series Howard hit very well, batting .462 and notched his third career Fall Classic circuit clout. It went for naught as Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski homered off Ralph Terry in the bottom of the ninth of Game Seven (at Forbes Field) giving the Bucs the title.

The Yankees organization underwent a complete overhaul in the offseason. Casey Stengel was let go, and his shift-players-around-the-diamond philosophy went with him. New skipper and former backup catcher Ralph Houk, announced that Howard would be the number one catcher. Given a regular job and regular at bats worked wonders for his hitting. With expansion pitching, coupled with being part of an explosive lineup, enabled Howard to finish second in the American League batting race hitting .348 (153 OPS+). Howard also topped twenty homers for the first time (21) and drove in 77. He was one of six Yankees who topped 20 dingers in that magical year. Howard went on to prove that it wasn't a fluke season in 1962 as he matched his 21 four baggers of 1961 although his OPS+ fell to 113. Howard also drove in a career-best 91 runs. Unfortunately, Howard slumped during the World Series batting just .143. Regardless, 1960 World Series goat Ralph Terry would find redemption as he threw a Game Seven shutout against the transplanted San Francisco Giants.

American League Most Valuable Player

"Whatever can go wrong will go wrong" is the fabled phrase known as "Murphy's Law" and it applied to the 1963 Yankees. First baseman Bill Skowron's booming bat was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Stan Williams. Roger Maris opened the season with back miseries. In June, a collision between left fielder Tom Tresh and shortstop Tony Kubek put Kubek on the shelf for two weeks and his bat for the rest of the season. On June 5th, with Whitey Ford pitching [in Baltimore], the southpaw gave up a long drive to right center to third baseman Brooks Robinson. Centerfielder Mickey Mantle gave chase and slammed into the fence. Mantle got his foot caught in the wire mesh of the fence and broke his foot. “The Mick” wouldn't return to full-time duty until September. Roger Maris added to his woes by slamming a pitch into his ankle and had to undergo rectal surgery (seligectomy) in July. The resultant side effects from those experiences limited his effectiveness.

Picking up the shortfall was the slugging and defense of Elston Howard. In just 487 at bats he would slug a career high (and team leading) 28 home runs. Howard’s 85 RBI was his second best total ever (which also lead the Yankees). For good measure, Howard chipped in 21 doubles and six triples (and second best OPS+ of his career....141). Even more important to the Yankees was handling a pitching staff beset by injuries and inexperience. Howard guided a young Jim Bouton through his best season ever (21 wins). Howard’s superlative work behind home plate earned him both his first of two Gold Gloves and the American League MVP (the first African American player to do so in the junior circuit). Howard continued his stellar play into the World Series. Howard led the Yankees in hitting in the Fall Classic but the pitching of Sandy Koufax ended whatever hopes the Yankees had of winning their third consecutive world championship.

Unfortunately, some things hadn't changed. The following spring Howard had trouble finding lodging in Fort Lauderdale. Howard may have been American League Most Valuable Player, he may have have been the best catcher in the American League, he might have had four World Series rings gracing his hands, but in the deep south, all they could see was the pigmentation of his skin.

Regardless, Howard would pick up where he left off the following year. He continued to supply brilliant defense coupled with another fine offensive season (127 OPS+). Howard hit .300 for the third time in his career (.313), and set career bests in doubles (27) and walks (48). For the third consecutive campaign Howard would top the 80 RBI plateau with 84. He finished third in Most Valuable Player voting, finishing behind Baltimore Orioles’ third baseman Brooks Robinson and teammate Mickey Mantle. Howard also copped his second straight Gold Glove award for catchers. Howard’s efforts in the 1964 World Series accounted for seven runs, and a lofty .393 on base percentage. His efforts went for naught as the Cardinals edged the Yankees in seven games.

The Beginning of the End and "The Impossible Dream"

The Yankees decline coincided with Elston Howard's. Now 36, Howard began the phase of his career where the mind and experience make up for the inevitable physical shortfall that occurs at this stage of an athlete's career. Over the next two plus seasons with the Yankees, Howard hit just 18 home runs while batting .235. In 1967, Howard would find himself in a most unusual position. The Boston Red Sox--trying to shore up the roster for the stretch drive--needed a veteran catcher with pennant race experience. Howard fit the bill perfectly. However when Ralph Houk informed Howard that he had been traded for "two players to be named later," Howard said he was retiring. Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey called Howard personally to urge him to reconsider. Howard wouldn't contribute much offensively--other than a game winning single against the Senators--but his knowledge of American League hitters was invaluable for the Red Sox pitching staff. Howard also contributed a key defensive play against the White Sox when he took an off line throw from Jose Tartabull and still managed to tag Ken Berry who was tagging up from third base. Regardless, Howard only hit .147 with the Red Sox and .111 in the Fall Classic against the Cardinals. Howard’s experience, savvy, and knowledge of rival hitters played an important role on an inexperienced Red Sox team, but at 38 there wasn't much left. The following season Howard stayed with the Red Sox, caught 68 games, ripped five additional home runs, (bringing his lifetime total to 167) and left the game just as he had broken in the major leagues.

With class.