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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #24 Elston Howard

As talented as he was inspirational, the catcher was a pioneer on the field and beyond.

Elston Howard in New York Yankees Uniform

Name: Elston Gene Howard
Position: Catcher/Left Field
Born: February 23, 1929 (St Louis, MO)
Died: December 14, 1980 (New York, NY)
Yankee Years: 1955-67
Primary number: 32
Yankee statistics: 1,492 G, 5,487 PA, .279/.324/.436, 161 HR, 635 R, 733 RBI, 110 wRC+, 27.6 rWAR, 31.2 fWAR

Biography

In so many ways Elston Howard was a man constantly on the edge of history. He played for the near-mythic Kansas City Monarchs under Buck O’Neil, perhaps the single greatest Baseball Man to ever put on a uniform. He batted behind Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra in the legendary 1961 season. He won four rings as a player and another two as a coach with the Yankees.

But Elston Howard was not simply a passive observer of the grand story of baseball. Indeed, he had an outsized role in making it himself; the first Black man to wear Yankee pinstripes, he won an MVP while facing racial epithets from his own manager. It’s so hard to talk about the players who were part of breaking the color barrier, since their stoicism and grace that’s so frequently remarked upon was often a mask they were forced to wear, in order to be properly palatable to the White fan — or indeed, teammate — who may still reject their belonging in MLB.

St. Louis Standout

Discovered on a St. Louis sandlot at 16, Howard was signed to the Tandy League, a high-level, semi-independent league in the Deep South because the ball just sounded so damn loud off his bat. His mother, a dietician, stood opposed to him playing until team officials could assure her that her son would receive better meal offerings than she could provide. A year later, Jackie Robinson became MLB’s first Black player, and while finishing at the all-Black Vashon High School, Howard turned down three different football scholarships to go play for those famous Monarchs. He debuted in 1948 at just 19.

For those who don’t know, the Kansas City Monarchs combined on-field achievements — 10 Negro League titles — with the celebrity and cultural status that we’d associate with the Yankees or LA Lakers. Starting his time in KC in left field and rooming with veteran starting catcher Earl Taborn, balancing his new lifestyle with a higher level of play would be the perfect apprenticeship for a player destined for New York.

1949 Kansas City Monarchs

One of the ways the Monarchs stayed ahead of the rest of the Negro Leagues was by being proactive in selling the contracts of players to MLB clubs, including Howard’s roommate Earl Taborn. Elston’s youth and tools made him an attractive target, alongside teammate Ernie Banks, and Buck O’Neil himself pushed Yankee scout Tom Greenwade to bring the catcher east.

Signed along with Frank Barnes for $25,000 midway through the 1950 season, Howard was assigned to Class-A Muskegon, posting an .824 OPS in 200 minor league PAs. Drafted into the US Army at the close of the season, he was initially ticketed for combat on the Korean Peninsula, before the GIs figured out what a talented ballplayer they had just conscripted. Transferred to Special Services, Howard played ball in Japan for his two years of service — what would have been his age 22 and 23 seasons.

Barrier Breaking

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Louis Requena/MLB via Getty Images

Back in Kansas City, this time with the Triple-A Blues, Howard spent the summer of 1953 with teammate Vic Power, a Black Puerto Rican at first base. Seven MLB teams had by that point signed a Black player, and by the end of that season, Howard’s old teammate Ernie Banks would be the first Black player on the Cubs. The momentum was building, and it began to be speculative material when the Yankees were going to decide to be on the right side of history.

Howard had a solid year, but Power was a star, with a .900 OPS. George Weiss, onside with a directive from ownership that prospective Black players had to be the “right” kind of person, deemed Power not “the Yankee type” due to his relationships with white women. A year earlier, Weiss had privately remarked a Black Yankee would bring an undesirable element to the Yankee Stadium crowds, as recounted in The Boys of Summer “We don’t want that sort of crowd. It would offend box-holders from Westchester to have to sit with n—s”.

It wasn’t just ownership and management that was so anti-integration. The hatred directed toward Black players was held by other administrators, including traveling secretary Bill McCorry, who saw no value in Willie Mays: “I got no use for him or any of them. No n----- will ever have a berth on any train I’m running”.

Vic Power never made it to MLB with the Yankees. While the baseball world speculated on his promotion in July, Weiss instead promoted Double-A hand Gus Triandos. Joe Bostic of The New York Amsterdam News wrote that Triandos’ advantage “was one of circumstance in not being born a Negro”.

It wasn’t enough for Black players to be good — very good, at that. Major League Baseball has always been the highest level of ball in the world, you don’t get a roster spot as a stocking stuffer. To be a Black MLB player, especially at the time the league was propping the door open just an inch, you had to take the lasting effects of 350 years of subjugation and an administrative apparatus dedicated to devaluing you with a straight face.

Anger or rejection of that system would play into some of the oldest racist tropes that exist. A Black player must simply put his head down and run. Barack Obama famously paraphrased the quote about Ginger Rogers, backwards and in heels, about women in politics but the analogy extends to any pioneers, though the reality for Black players was perhaps even more violent.

This is the context that Elston Howard existed in when he received an invite to spring training in 1954. As the Yankees prioritized his flexibility behind the plate and in left field, legendary catcher Bill Dickey took the prospect under his wing, although the New York media wondered about ulterior motives. Writers openly questioned whether this was a way for the Yankees to delay integrating their team — with Yogi Berra in his prime, there was little need for another catcher, giving the club an easy excuse to keep Howard off the roster.

Whether that media skepticism was true or not, this existing context makes it understandable why people might think it was. For whatever it’s worth, the Yankees wanted Howard a little closer to home than Kansas City, arranging for him to spend one final minor league season with the Toronto Maple Leafs — a long tradition of Black players finding success, though not altogether avoiding prejudice, in Canadian minor league baseball.

Elston Howard was the MVP of the International League that year, his age-25 season. If the Yankees were deliberately holding him down, the excuses were running out. That they lost the pennant to Cleveland and the AL’s first Black player Larry Doby, may have been the final point that integration was more than the morally right thing to do; but a way of attracting and retaining the best talent across the sport.

Spring 1955, Howard bats cleanup most of the spring and it quickly becomes clear that he’s going to be the Yankees’ first Black major leaguer. The announcement is official, and celebrated on The Ed Sullivan Show.

A Star Among Stars

Gil McDougald 4
Andy Carey 5
Mickey Mantle 8
Yogi Berra 2
Bill Skowron 3
Hank Bauer 9
Bob Cerv 7
Phil Rizzuto 6
Whitey Ford 1

That was the Yankee starting nine on Opening Day, April 13th 1955. Seven of those nine guys will be featured in this countdown. Those Yankee teams weren’t just great in their eras, they are all-time collections of ballplayers. Elston Howard’s name belongs right up there with the rest of them, but what a nut to crack in your rookie season.

You’ll notice that he didn’t crack it in the season’s first game, nor to start the second. A Black player finally saw action in a Yankee uniform in the sixth inning on April 14th, when Howard took over for Irv Noren following Noren’s ejection. Whatever fans at the time felt about the integration of the Yankees, Howard was there to play ball — notching an RBI single, driving in the Mick, in the 8-4 loss to Boston.

The tough part about being a prospective catcher in the Bronx in 1955 is, Yogi Berra’s en route to his third AL MVP award. Even in the best possible circumstances, when you’re not fighting the bigotry of your team’s owner, GM, manager, and traveling secretary, it’s going to be tough to find time behind the dish. Howard didn’t make his first start for two weeks after his debut, in what must have felt like his second home, Kansas City. In his typically excellent fashion, 3-for-5, two runs scored, two driven in.

Portrait of New York Yankees Nineteen Fifty Five

The way you get over with Yankee fans is postseason performance, and in the 1955 World Series against the Dodgers, Howard notched a quintet of hits and a home run in his first at-bat. Although the baseball world was warming to the idea of Black players, violence in support of white power structures was omnipresent, and even an ascendant New York Yankee was never more than a degree or two removed from it.

The winter of ‘55-56, Howard left for spring training early, planning to spend time with Martin Luther King Jr., a friend of his godfather ahead of camp. En route to Montgomery, King’s home was firebombed in response to his first major bus boycott campaign. The bomber was never found, a pertinent reminder of just how close to the edge Black people, even those nominally protected by pinstripes, were in 1950s America.

On the field, the 1956 campaign wasn’t as bright as ‘55 for Howard. Breaking his finger in spring training, he was now physically prevented from catching as much as he wanted. Appearing in just 98 games, Elston did at least make a mark on the postseason, clubbing an opposite-field home run in the decisive Game 7 win over those same Dodgers.

World Series heroics became something of an expectation for Howard, and he would have earned a spot in this ranking almost off his performance in 1958 alone. Facing elimination in Game 5 against Milwaukee, Howard’s diving catch in left, then doubling off a runner straying too far from the bag, was the moment that turned the miraculous series around for the Yankees.

Followed up by a Game 6 extra-innings victory, the cherry on top of the whole damn season was driving in what would be the Series-winning run in Game 7. While pitcher Bob Turley took home the official World Series MVP that year, with a 2.75 ERA and 13 strikeouts, without those two shining moments, one of the greatest comeback stories in World Series history would have ended differently.

While Howard was entrenched for the rest of the decade as a useful platoon player — Casey Stengel did love those platoons — his mere presence pushed the organization in different directions. One bemoans the fate of that wayward traveling secretary, who was now compelled to put players up in non-segregated hotels. By 1962, the Yankees finally desegregated their spring training accommodations — just over a full year after Stengel and Weiss were relieved of their duties.

New manager Ralph Houk preferred Howard at catcher, as Berra was now in his late-30s, still a capable hitter but not the game-breaking force he had been. Of the 129 games Howard played in 1961, he was behind the plate in 111 of them, and would have been one of the best offensive stories of the season if not for that little home run race by the guys directly ahead of him in the order.

Coronation and Confrontation

That constant theme in Howard’s life, on-field success perennially met with racist obstacles, reared its head again as the team’s starting catcher entered the prime of his career. In the winter of 1962-63, ahead of his best season, Elston spent time convincing Teaneck mayor Matty Feldman that the world would not, in fact, end if he and his family built a house in the then-white neighborhood. He would spend that summer tweaking his offensive profile and scrubbing away the racist graffiti that sprouted up around the build site.

We spend a lot of these kinds of profiles talking about how different these guys are — they’re the standouts of the game’s premier franchise, of course, they’re going to be unique compared to the thousands of other MLBers. Perhaps the one way Elston Howard was most like just about every other ballplayer was the lust for Yankee Stadium’s right-field porch.

Switching to a heavier bat at the beginning of the 1963 season, Howard was planning to be just a hair later getting to balls, pushing fly balls out to the then-301-foot sign. He made the same decision the Babe did a half-century before, and heck, the same one Luke Voit made more than 50 years later. Get the ball in the air to that short porch, and you’ll be a plus hitter in your sleep.

Elston Howard Receiving 1963 MVP Award

Indeed, he set career highs in home runs and ISO in ‘63, with 28 balls clearing the fence. With the Mick battling injuries most of the season, Howard was a clear choice for MVP, the first Black player to take home the AL’s top award. He also won his first Gold Glove the same year, in recognition of his continued development as a backstop. The hardware led to a healthy raise, and a national profile — the first Black man to model for GQ.

Tinkering again with his approach, Howard became more interested in base hits than long balls the next season, and simply did it. 172 hits in 150 games were both career highs, and he finished third in MVP voting that season, although the loss to the Cardinals in the World Series signaled the end of Camelot for a post-war Yankee dynasty.

Elston Howard and the Yankees themselves would never have it that good again. Elbow problems ate away at the catcher’s ability to field and hit, and while bone chips were removed, the issue became chronic. Dealt to the Red Sox in 1967, Howard needed to be personally assured by deeply racist owner Tom Yawkey that he really could be a contributor. The Impossible Dream season, the veteran catcher’s biggest impact was his depth of experience in the American League.

Lou Brock Sliding to Home Plate

When you’re a team that doesn’t win, sometimes the best asset is a guy that has won, that can keep you level and brings that air of “yeah, I’ve been here before”. Elston Howard had been in the World Series nine damn times by then, so the nail-biting finish against Minnesota, the scoreboard watching with Detroit, all the things that led to the Sox’s first pennant in 21 years, much have felt like old hat to the veteran star.

The end was near for Howard’s career. He came back for one more season, after spending the winter developing the “donut” bat weight — he must have been tired of swinging two or three sticks in the on-deck circle. Leaving the playing field with a goal of being the game’s first Black manager, he was back in the Yankee fold as a coach for the great late ‘70s teams, although he never got the top job. The bigs wouldn’t see a Black skipper until Frank Robinson in 1975.

In a better world, Howard would’ve received a shot at least in the ‘80s when George Steinbrenner was cycling through skipper left and right, but he tragically succumbed to myocarditis at the end of 1980. He was only 51. His former teammates and the players he coached were heartbroken. Four years later, New York retired his No. 32 and gave him an overdue plaque in Monument Park. His widow, Arlene, did a beautiful job of keeping his legacy alive and representing him at Old-Timers’ Days until her own passing in December 2023.

This is the part where we would sum up the career accomplishments of the player in question. How does one even begin that process with someone like Elston Howard?

As supreme an athlete as you’ll find in the history of the game, Howard’s very existence made it implausible that he would compete on the sport’s biggest stage. At any time, it would have been understandable for him to turn around, walk away from fans’ epithets and spray-painted walls, walk away from an organization that didn’t see him as fully human. He never did.

Howard is one of the very great players in the game’s history, but his importance is so much more than what WAR can measure. He was unapologetically great, and unapologetically Black, at a time when one of those carried deep risk. The Yankees, and baseball, are better off because of him.

Portrait of Elston Howard Posing in Uniform and Holding Baseball Bat

Staff Rank: 22
Community Rank: 25
Stats Rank: 41
2013 Rank: 33

References

Appel, Marty. Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Character, 2017, Penguin Random House.

Baseball Reference

Brennan, Douglas M. Greatness in the Shadows: Larry Doby and the Integration of the American League, 2016, University of Nebraska Press

FanGraphs

History of the Muskegon Clippers History | GLCBL: Muskegon Clippers - Pointstreak Sites

Kahn, Roger. Boys of Summer, 1972, Harper & Row

Rosengren John, “Elston Howard became the Yankees’ Jackie Robinson 60 years ago” Sports Illustrated, April 13th, 2015

Tan, Cecilia. SABR Bio.

Previously on the Top 100

25. Robinson Canó
Full list to date