Whether you’re a Yankee fan, a baseball history enthusiast, or both, you surely recognize Elston Howard’s name. He’s well-remembered as the first African-American to play for the Yankees, the first African-American to coach in the American League, and a key catcher on a Yankee dynasty that appeared in five straight World Series.
What sometimes gets lost in the discussion is how great of a player Howard was. The often-overlooked reality is that he wasn’t just an ancillary part of a great team that featured names like Mantle, Ford, Berra, and Maris – he belongs in the discussion of best catchers in Yankee history. To be clear, when I write “in the discussion,” I don’t mean “with Posada on the next level after Dickey, Berra, and Munson” – I mean when some context is applied, he should be in the discussion of who’s the best among all of them.
Howard’s biography and his history as a Yankee are obviously too extensive to completely cover here today, but a quick review is necessary so we can apply some context to our discussion.
After declining multiple scholarship offers to play football for Division I universities, and to play basketball, baseball, and track for smaller schools, Howard signed on with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1948. Playing for the team that recently featured Jackie Robinson, still had player/manager Buck O’Neil, and would soon add Ernie Banks was an indication of Howard’s high regard. Howard joined future Hall of Famer Hilton Smith and eventual New York Giants standout Hank Thompson in Kansas City as well. No disrespect meant to the Memphis Red Sox, but the Kansas City Monarchs were the team* in the NAL.
*Although the 1948 Monarchs did lose a close Championship Series to the Birmingham Black Barons, who had a 17-year-old left fielder of whom you may have heard – some kid named Mays.
Howard was with the Monarchs through mid-1950, when his contract was purchased from Kansas City by the Yankees. He finished the 1950 season with the class A Muskegon Clippers, then was drafted into the army in the off-season of 1950-1951, causing him to miss the 1951 and 1952 seasons due to military service. When Howard returned from service, he played with the Kansas City Blues, one of the Yankees' top farm teams. Somewhat significantly as we’ll get to in a minute, Howard was Blues teammates with another black player, Vic Power. Power was being considered to be called up to be the first Yankee to break the pinstriped color barrier, but was considered “a loose cannon.”
After Howard won the International League MVP in 1954 with Toronto, pressure mounted on the Yankees to call him up. What also may have accelerated the process as much as anything, was that the 1954 Yankees won 103 games – and still finished eight games behind Cleveland. The fact that Cleveland was led by Larry Doby, who finished second in the MVP balloting, and Mexican-American Bobby Avila, who finished third, certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the Yankees. (Surely, neither did the fact that Minnie Miñoso of the White Sox finished fourth in the voting.)
Arthur Daley of the New York Times publicly questioned the Yankees’ hesitancy to call up Howard, writing “They’ve waited for one to come along who [is] ‘the Yankee type.’ Elston is a nice, quiet lad whose reserved, gentlemanly demeanor has won him complete acceptance from every Yankee.” (Such descriptions would later be changed to “He plays the game the right way”) Whether it was the success of other minority players, or public pressure, Howard started the 1955 season with the Yankees.
After Howard made his debut on April 14th in Boston, he ran into logistical issues that impeded his progress — namely, the Yankees of that era had an extremely deep roster. As an outfielder who also caught and played first base, Howard had some guys who you may have heard of ahead of him on the depth chart: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron, Hank Bauer, and Norm Siebern (if you haven’t heard of Siebern, he was a corner outfielder who could hit). As a result, Howard averaged only 344 at-bats per season from 1955-1960. That is to say, despite obviously being a good player, there was just no place to put him in the lineup on a regular basis.
It wasn’t until 1961 that the Yankees made him their full-time catcher. The point, which I’ve come to in my usual circuitous manner, is that due to the multiple factors detailed above, he never had the opportunity to display his value until he was 32 years old. When he did, he showed that he was clearly the best catcher in baseball and likely among the best 10-15 players overall in an era that reads like a who’s who of inner-circle Hall of Famers.
From 1961 through 1964, Howard became the AL’s first African-American MVP in 1963, finished third in the 1964 voting and 10th in 1961. He played in six All-Star games, won two Gold Glove awards, and was second on that Yankees’ dynasty in WAR behind only Mickey Mantle. Yet, it’s only when we add the context of his age to the discussion can we fairly compare Howard’s production to other great catchers in Yankee history. Let’s look at how Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, and Jorge Posada in their age 32-35 seasons stack up against Howard:
WAR, OPS+ age 32-35
Howard was clearly better than the others from ages 32-35. We can also add that the world lost Munson when he was 32, but his production had dropped precipitously over his last two seasons due mostly to chronic knee and back pain. It’s fair to say he wouldn’t have produced in the manner Howard did through age 35, or if he did it would have been playing a position other than catcher.
However, it can also be fairly noted that the others aside from Howard had already logged many seasons behind the plate by age 32 and had significant wear and tear that perhaps Howard did not at that age. I don’t mind playing devil’s advocate, so let’s compare Howard’s great four-season stretch from 1961-1964 when he was 32-35 years old, to the best four consecutive years of the other catchers regardless of age.
Best four consecutive seasons:
The best four consecutive season stretches in the careers of Dickey, Berra and Munson were a little better than Howard’s – but not that much better. It certainly is close enough to beg the counter-question: What would Howard’s best four consecutive seasons look like if he had the opportunity to start full-time when he was in his twenties? It’s not unreasonable to assume those years would be as good as Dickey’s, Berra’s, and Munson’s.
Of course, there are many other factors to consider when grading catchers besides WAR and OPS+ - far too many to fully explore here. We can’t conclude, however, without mentioning the elephant in the room: Howard had to produce with a racial component hanging over his head.
I’m sure none of the players mentioned above had it easy, but I think it’s safe to say that Dickey wasn’t referred to as “eight-ball” by his own manager. I can also safely say that Munson didn’t face pressure from the mayor of a town he wanted to build a house in because it was a white neighborhood (followed by construction sabotage and graffiti thereafter). In fact, the Baltimore Afro-American wrote that the constant moving of Howard from position to position in the minor leagues was just a way to delay having to call him up to the Bronx permanently. Additionally, when the Dodgers and Giants left for California, Howard was the only remaining black player in New York, so when there was racial animosity from the press or fans, it was directed at him and him alone.
Am I saying that Elston Howard is the best catcher in Yankee history? No. I’m saying he’s in the discussion. Furthermore, if he wasn’t, he certainly might have been if circumstances were different. When the question comes up, his name needs to be there as a peer of the other players who are typically the first to come to mind.