Major League Baseball celebrated the life and times of Jackie Robinson on Friday, as they do every year on the anniversary of his breaking baseball's unofficial color barrier in 1947. Almost eight years to the day after that monumental achievement for Robinson, the Yankees finally employed the first black player in franchise history. Elston Howard's name would go down in history no matter what he did from that point on, but his impact on the Yankees went well beyond that singular moment.
Howard began his baseball career in 1948 playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, perhaps the most prominent team in the storied history of the Negro Leagues. There he played under the direction of Buck O'Neil, one of baseball's all-time good guys, and roomed with future Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. In 1950, the Yankees signed him but he was almost immediately drafted into the US Army with the Korean War raging on the other side of the world. Returning to the Yankees organization in 1953, he was assigned to Triple-A Kansas City and landed on the big league roster to start the 1955 season.
After showing great skill with the bat in the minor leagues, Yankees' manager Casey Stengel tried to find him playing time any way he could. Although he was groomed as a catcher, he mostly played outfield or first base during his first few years, only getting behind the plate when Yogi Berra required rest. By 1960, Howard took the everyday job from Berra and he retained it through the 1966 season when he played a remarkable 100 games at backstop as a 37-year-old. He played out the last two years of his career as a reserve for both the Yankees and, unfortunately, the Red Sox.
Howard thrived at the plate throughout his 14-year career, as evidenced by his .427 slugging percentage which was top five all-time among AL catchers at the time of his retirement. This was all the more impressive considering he was a right-handed batter playing his home games in the cavernous Old Yankee Stadium. He did that damage during a period of great success for the Yankees and, while he may not have been a superstar on those teams, he was no slouch either. During his first 11 seasons with the club, he was named an All-Star nine times and appeared in 10 World Series, winning four of them. All the while he was a class act who was known to be a calming influence in the clubhouse.
As good as he was with the bat, Howard had an even better reputation for fielding his position. As a catcher, he was as sure-handed as they come. His .993 career fielding percentage was the all-time record when he retired, and he earned back to back gold gloves in 1963 and 1964. While it's difficult to measure how much impact a catcher can have on a pitching staff, by all accounts he was also very pitcher-friendly behind the plate. Playing in an era when the catchers still called their own game, he was obviously doing something right when considering the amount of success his teams had.
After his playing days were over, the Yankees called on Howard to serve as first base coach in 1969 when he became the first black coach in AL history. His calm presence was valuable in this capacity as well. For 11 years he stayed in that position, seeing the Yankees through one of the roughest periods in franchise history, but ultimately helping cultivate a winning culture again by the late 1970's. On those Bronx Zoo teams that took home three straight AL pennants and two World Series from 1976 through 1978, Howard was one of the few voices of reason when things got out of hand, which was often.
Howard's coaching career ended following the 1979 season when he was diagnosed with a rare heart disease that took his life in 1980 at the tragically young age of just 51. The Yankees posthumously retired his number 32 and memorialized him with a Monument Park plaque in 1984 on the same day that they honored his former teammate, Roger Maris. As humble men who succeeded with dignity under extraordinary circumstances, it was fitting that they were celebrated together.
His 25 years of MLB service as player or coach and pioneer status within the Yankees organization notwithstanding, Howard's impact to the game is felt everyday in a more subtle way as well. He is widely credited as the inventor of the batting doughnut during his career as a player. While the effectiveness of the device is a subject for debate, there's no doubting that its use is widespread across baseball and has been for many years.
While we celebrate Jackie Robinson this weekend, let's also remember Elston Howard. He was a man who left baseball a better game than it was before he arrived, and that's quite a legacy.