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Elston Howard: The First Black Yankee

Elston Howard was the first black Yankee. He overcame a great deal of verbal abuse and prejudice to become one of the all time Yankee greats. He was born in St. Louis on February 23rd, 1929. At Vashon High School in St. Louis, he was a star baseball, basketball, track, and football player. In 1948, at the age of 19, after graduating from high school, he joined the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Howard became a Yankee when the civil rights movement was just beginning in this country in the early 50's. Although the Brooklyn Dodgers had broken the color barrier in baseball in 1947 by signing Jackie Robinson, most other Major League ball clubs were slow to accept the idea of having black players on their teams. The Yankees were no exception. By 1952, pickets appeared in front of Yankee Stadium criticizing the discriminatory practices of the Yankee organization. The general manager of the Yankees, George Weiss, to postpone the inevitable as long as possible, did what a number of other clubs did. He signed a handful of black players to minor league contracts. Tokenism was having blacks playing in the farm system. In the early 1950's, the Yankees signed Artie Wilson, Ruben Gomez, Vic Power, Frank Barnes, and Elston Howard. Then, whenever Weiss was criticized for being a racist, he would reply, "The Yankees will bring up a Negro as soon as one that fits the high Yankee Standards is found." Barnes, Wilson, and Gomez were all traded to other organizations. And in December, 1953, Vic Power was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics. Many people thought he was traded because his excellent record made him eligible to become a Yankee. And the Yankee organization still did not want a black player on the team.

In the spring of 1954, Elston Howard, the one black player left in the Yankee organization, was converted from an outfielder to a catcher. There was criticism that Howard was switched in order to keep him from making the Yankees since Yogi Berra was the Yankees' catcher. By 1955, the public and media criticism that the Yanks didn't have a black player had become so severe, that it was almost impossible for Howard not to make the Yankees, especially since he had had a tremendous season with Toronto in the International League in 1954. He had batted .330, hit 22 home runs, drove in 109 runs, and was named the MVP of the league. The Orioles offered Weiss $100,000 and a top minor league pitcher for Howard. But Weiss reluctantly rejected the offer. It would have been a trade too difficult for him to explain, because Elston Howard was both an exceptional baseball player and a gentleman. He was quiet, pleasant, non-controversial, and the son of educated parents. Howard seemed the perfect Yankee. He didn't make trouble, and he could hit a fastball a long way.

During Weiss's reign as general manager of the Yankees, not one other black player would work his way through the Yankee farm system and become a Yankee. "If Weiss had to have a Negro on the Yankees, he would have one. But only one, and he wasn't going to have an aggressive, crusading, loud mouthed Negro like Jackie Robinson or Vic Power. He would be a Negro who would accept the conditions under which he had to play and not make trouble or headlines. He would live in segregated headquarters during spring training and in the southern cities and accept it, and he would be grateful just for the opportunity to play on the Yankees." (Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964 by Peter Golenbock, 1975)

Ellie Howard fit George Weiss's requirements perfectly. In 1955, Howard became a Yankee.

Howard's manager on the field, Casey Stengel, was not accustomed to blacks playing in the Major Leagues. Although he was not prejudiced against Howard as a player or a person, his general attitude toward blacks came through loud and clear in the things he said and the vocabulary he used, such as calling Howard "Eightball" to his face, a not so subtle reference to the jet back color of that ball in pool. However, Stengel's admiration for talent overcame all racial barriers. After seeing how valuable Howard was to the Yankees, Stengel became an admirer. He included Howard on every all star team beginning in 1957, and he always praised Howard for his all around ability and his strong desire to play.

Unlike Jackie Robinson, Howard was fortunate that his teammates accepted him immediately and wholeheartedly. In an interview with Peter Golenbock, author of Dynasty, Howard said, "Everybody tried to make everything pleasant for this black guy who was the first one with us. I remember Bill Skowron and his wife came to pick me up at the train station, which I'll never forget, and Phil Rizzuto, goddamn, he was great! I'll never forget him. I give Phil the most credit out of anyone. He would call me up during the day and take me out to various places, go to the movies, meet people around the league. I would call him the Great White Father. He was the type of man I respected and I give him a lot of credit. Also Hank Bauer… The whole ball club was great. I remember one day, the first year I was there, I hit a triple that won a ballgame. My biggest ballgame. I won the ballgame for the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th, and I was outside doing an interview. I came into the locker room, and they had towels lined up from the door to my locker. Joe Collins, Mickey Mantle. They lined the towels up. It was like a red carpet. Laid out for me. I was surprised. And when they did that, I figured I was accepted just like everyone else."

Ellie Howard was a very valuable man on the Yankees whether catching, playing first base, or playing the outfield. He played on ten pennant-winning teams in a 13-year stretch, earning four championship rings. As a catcher he ranked with the great ones, on the same level as Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella. By 1960, Howard was the starting catcher and Berra was more often in the field. Howard was an exceptional defensive catcher; his .993 career fielding average is one of the highest ever, and he pioneered the use of a hinged catcher's mitt that led to the modern one-handed catching techniques. He was also highly regarded as a handler of pitchers. He was named to the American League All-Star team nine consecutive years. Howard was also a strong hitter, three times topping .300, with a high of .348 in 1961. In 1963, he led the Yankees to their fourth straight pennant in a year when Maris and Mantle were often out with injuries. In fact, in 1963, Howard was voted the MVP in the American League. He was the first black baseball player to win this award in the American League.

Still, some things didn't change. In spring training in 1964, he was unable to rent an apartment in Fort Lauderdale. "To Florida landlords, he may have been the 'Most Valuable Nigger,' but he was still a 'nigger'." (Dynasty page 144) Ellie Howard, like all the blacks who were pioneers, had to put up with a great deal of abuse on and off the field. In an interview with Peter Golenbock, author of Dynasty, Howard said, "There were racial barriers in everything right on up, and when I came to the Yankee organization, there were still racial barriers. I couldn't live at the same hotel with the other ballplayers when I went down for Spring Training. I stayed with a private family in the black section of St. Petersburg. Bob Gibson, Sam Jones, and Bill White of the Cardinals used to stay with them. The Cardinals and the Yankees both trained at St. Petersburg, and at the time I was the only black training with the Yankees. Later on we had other fellows… I had a rough time in spring training. The camp would break at the end of the day, and you had to go back across the tracks to the black section to dress while the white boys would go back to the hotel to dress. They would all get on the bus, but I had to jump in a cab with my uniform and go back there to dress." He also said, "I remember when I received the most valuable player award. There was a picture in the newspaper of me and my wife. My wife is a light skinned black person. I received a letter from a nut in Delaware saying that he didn't know I was married to a white woman. He said, 'You ought to go back to Africa.'"

Howard's teammates took personally the insults directed at him. During one home game, Hank Bauer crawled on top of the dugout at Yankee Stadium to confront a fan who was shouting racial insults at Howard, a rookie at the time. Bauer, glaring, peered into the stands to see if he could identify the heckler. He searched a long while, hoping the man would incriminate himself by making another remark. Fortunately for the guy, he didn't. After the game, a reporter, watching all this, asked Bauer about the incident. Bauer just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Ellie's my friend."

Through all the insults and abuse, Elston Howard remained silent. He was not a person who enjoyed making waves. His primary goal was to play for the Yankees, even if his lack of action or reaction might cause him to be labeled an "Uncle Tom." Howard, a conservative man on a conservative team, sought to become a Yankee, and he succeeded his way, playing on the team from 1955 to 1967, and keeping most of his ordeal private. Along the way he earned the MVP award and after he retired as a player, he was named the first black Yankee coach. He said, "You know, I never would have gone through what Jackie Robinson went through. I don't think I could have taken it. I give Jackie a great deal of credit for opening the way up for me."

Just as Jackie Robinson opened the door for other blacks in Major League Baseball, Elston Howard opened the door for other blacks who wanted to become Yankees. Although he may not have been subjected to the same amount of abuse as Jackie Robinson, he still suffered through a great deal of verbal attacks and discriminatory practices at hotels, restaurants, etc. Through it all, Elston Howard remained dignified, courteous, and professional. He was a gentleman and he was the ultimate Yankee. And he did it his way.


Written by Jesse Bentert
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The Unofficial Website of the New York Yankees

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