It is time for the second edition of our series looking at underappreciated seasons in Yankee history. After naming Bob Meusel as the first entry to this select group, we’ll move behind the plate for the next nominee. For a period of around 30 years or so, between the end of the ‘40s and ‘70s, the New York Yankees had one of the best runs of elite catching the sport has ever seen.
During that period, the Yankees had three catchers that dominated through multiple generations. It began with Yogi Berra, who became a regular in 1947 and reached heights not seen since Bill Dickey in the late ‘30s, and ended after Thurman Munson played his final season in 1979. However, we aren’t here to talk about any of those legends.
The second player to join our all-time team of “complementary” Yankee legends is catcher Elston Howard.
Career NYY stats: 1,492 Games, .279/.324/.436, 110 OPS+, 161 HR, 733 RBI
Accolades: 12 All-Star Game appearances, 4 World Series championships, 2 Gold Gloves, 1 MVP
The name Jackie Robinson is entrenched in the mind of anyone who follows baseball and in many more that hold no interest in the sport. The Dodger legend transcended the sport and is worthy of all that praise. During his era, there were also other players who came on a little later, but suffered through some of the same problems as Robinson. Elston Howard is one of those players.
The St. Louis native was only 18 years old when Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. The multisport star had many colleges lining up for a chance to recruit him, but instead chose to play for Robinson’s old team in the Negro Leagues, the Kansas City Monarchs.
In KC, Howard played and formed relationships with legends such as Buck O’Neil and Ernie Banks. Shortly thereafter sent to the Yankees alongside Frank Barnes for $25,000, Howard would only make his major league debut in 1956 at the age of 26. By then the color barrier was already broken it was the furthest thing from a smooth transition for any African-American athlete.
Howard had to be versatile for the majority of his career, playing a lot of corner outfield, as when he came up in 1955, Berra was entering his age-30 season. There was always speculation that Berra wouldn’t catch as much as Howard worked his way up, but year after year, Berra kept donning the tools of ignorance.
In 1956, Howard broke his hand in spring training and had a very disappointing season, but managed to hit a home run in the Game 7 of the World Series in a 8-0 win against the Dodgers (his only start of that series), earning his first ring. For the duration of his career, Howard would get used to playing in the World Series in a time of great success for the Yankees. In total, he appeared in 10 different Fall Classics with four championships.
Starting his major league career at age-26, the peak of Howard’s career came late in between his age 32-35 seasons with a slash line of .306/.354/.499, good for a 133 OPS+. Among players who played at least 50-percent of their games at catcher during that period, Howard led the majors in batting average, doubles, triples, home runs, runs batted in and OPS. He won one MVP award in 1963 and finished in the top-three in 1964.
Elston Howard was the first black player in Yankees history, and endured plenty because of that. He is to this day one of the more accomplished players in the glorious history of this team. He is the starting catcher for our underappreciated team.
Credit once again to SABR for help with research.