The Yankees of the 1950s and early-1960s were a juggernaut powered by some of the biggest names in the sport. The dynastic clubs seemingly produced MVPs year-in and year-out, while making the World Series with amazing consistency. Elston Howard joined the team in 1955 as the Yankees’ first Black player and became a key piece of the team for over a decade on the field and longer in the dugout. Prior to joining the franchise, he was a proud member of the Negro American League playing alongside many players recognized as the best to ever play the game, and in the league that is now considered by MLB as a major league.
Howard was a star athlete growing up in St. Louis. He was a standout football, track and basketball player, but his all-Black Vashon High School did not have a baseball team through 1946. Jackie Robinson’s major league debut changed that, and what had been a hobby for Howard now became a viable occupation.
Six years after another St. Louis native, Yogi Berra, attended a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals at Sportsman’s park, Howard tried out for his hometown team in the same location. Cardinals scout George Sisler Jr. said to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat that “I’ve been watching the best young prospect I’ve looked at in a year.” Yet the Cardinals never came calling with a contract, as they were not yet ready to break the color barrier for their team. (It would take until 1954 for the Cardinals to integrate, just a year before the Yankees.)
While passed up by MLB after his first look, Howard was being recruited to play football by Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois. He was also a standout at track and as a basketball player. With a growing reputation on the baseball field, scouts from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League were soon on Howard’s trail. Jackie Robinson had played for the Monarchs prior to signing with the Dodgers, and they were a legendary franchise that Howard knew very well from the St. Louis newspapers.
#STL native Elston Howard was a HoF C for the #Yankees and #RedSox, but he got his start in the Negro Leagues with the #KC Monarchs, in 1948. Here's his @sabr bio https://t.co/QqxpqxRtjQ #MLB #OpeningDay2018 pic.twitter.com/soUkRTqH1Z— SABR BioProject (@SABRbioproject) January 20, 2018
Howard loved Kansas City, and joined a team managed by player-manager Buck O’Neil whose esteemed status as a player, manager and scout was already well in motion. O’Neil loved managing Howard. He was quoted in Arlene Howard and Ralph Wimbish’s Elston as saying, “He was a fine young man. With Elston it was always baseball, baseball, baseball... in my book, he was a couldn’t miss.”
O’Neil played Howard in left field after he joined the team in 1948, and as a 19-year-old he hit somewhere between .253 and .283 depending on the source. Howard recalled, “I got one of my first big thrills that first year with the Monarchs, one day I hit three homers and the next day two more.” Most of the stats show him only hitting one or two home runs that year, so it is possible that his numbers were even better (as box scores are still being tabulated). His play helped Kansas City to the playoffs, where they lost in the playoffs to a Birmingham Barons team featuring a young Willie Mays.
Yankees scouts began reporting around this time that the Yankees should be interested in Mays, but the team passed and he signed with the Giants not long after. Howard continued to play well, and in 1950, another player who was recommended to the Yankees at one time was about to become Howard’s next roommate — Ernie Banks. The two were close friends and even had a deal that whoever made the major leagues first would call the other to tell him what it was like.
MLB teams started opening up to Black baseball talents, signing more and more players to contracts, leading to a change in the dynamic of the Negro American League. It was only a matter of time before Howard signed with a major league franchise. Several were interested, but in O’Neil’s words: “I wanted the Yankees to have a black ballplayer and I knew Elston was the type of player they were looking for.”
O’Neil then pointed legendary scout Tom Greenwade in Elston’s direction and within days the Monarchs sold Howard’s rights to the Yankees. His rise to the Yankees would be slowed by two years of military service during the Korean War, but he returned and forced the Yankees’ hand by winning the Triple-A International League MVP in 1954.
Elston Howard’s Negro League career overlapped with its eventual Major League status during his first professional season in 1948, so his career MLB numbers will soon see a boost — as well they should. Howard played with and against future Hall of Famers as a 19-year-old on his way to an outstanding career that would see him win the 1963 MVP award. The integration of MLB eventually put the Negro Leagues out of business, but their legacy lived on for years to come through players like Howard, who excelled against any competition they faced.