Yankees Magazine: Elston Howard

By Marty Appel

It was the last of the seventh inning on Opening Day at Fenway Park – Thursday, April 14, 1955. A sunny sky warmed the 22,246 Bosox faithful who had turned out to see Arthur Fiedler lead the Boston Pops in the National Anthem, and to see Willard Nixon duel Bob Grim in what would be the second game of the season for the Yankees.

They would also be seeing Yankee history.

In the top of the inning, Irv Noren, the Yankees’ leftfielder, was called out at the plate on a bang-bang-play by umpire Bill McKinley. It was close, and Noren argued strongly. McKinley chased him along with Hank Bauer, who said something out of line from the dugout.

The inning over, Casey Stengel pointed to the lean rookie near the end of the bench and motioned him to left, sending veteran Joe Collins to right for Bauer.

McKinley waved his hand up and down towards the press box, noting where they would bat in the lineup (“up and down,” meaning right where the men they were replacing batted), and pointed to the Sox P.A. announcer to inform the crowd.

“Your attention, please, ladies and gentlemen. Now playing left field for the Yankees, number 32, Elston Howard, number 32.”

Ellie began throwing the ball back and forth with Mickey Mantle in center, warming up.

Left field. The Green Monster looming over his shoulder. Ted Williams country. And there you had it. After 52 seasons of all white players appearing in approximately 8,000 box scores, the Yankees had a black player in the lineup. He was, of course, the only black player on the field that day, for it would be another four years before the Red Sox would become the last team to integrate, adding Pumpsie Green to their roster in 1959. The Yankees were the 13th of the original 16 teams to add a black player.

The New York Times noted, “Howard thus became the first Negro to play for the Yankees in a league contest. He received a fine ovation.”

Although the Yankees would lose the game 8-4, Howard would get an RBI single in the eighth off the 40-year-old right-hander Ellis Kinder to make his debut personally satisfying.

Thus, April 14, 2005, marks the 50th anniversary of Elston Howard’s Yankee debut, the debut that broke the color line on the Yankees and launched the career of a proud man and future MVP, who would ultimately have his uniform number retired.

How apt that Fenway be the scene of the debut, for it would be there that Ellie would compete in so many great contests in the strong rivalry, would actually finish his career as an active player wearing the Boston uniform in 1967-68, and where he would coach for the Yankees during the wild ‘70s (when he put his strong body between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson in the dugout to play peacemaker).

For years, small choruses of civil rights proponents and activists had sent occasional picket lines to Yankee Stadium to demand that the team add a black player. For much of the first half of the 20th century, when all teams were white, the Yankees were no more singled out than was Major League Baseball in general. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had essentially set the tone for the sport by denying that a color line existed, by saying that the right player could always make a major league roster if shown to have the ability, but by showing no enlightenment at all, nor any active role in advancing that day.

The club owners, by and large, echoed his thoughts.

But in 1946, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson and, after a season at Montreal, promoted him to the Brooklyn Dodgers roster in 1947, breaking the color line, and in fact, preceding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on school desegregation (Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas) by seven years. So while baseball could take no bows for its long struggle with equality on the field, it was, at least, a leader in breaking down barriers in society.

At least that was the case in Brooklyn, and New York’s Negro fans, great baseball fans they were, became avid supporters and ticket-buying customers of the Dodgers.

As for the Giants, their Polo Grounds-based rivals just across the Harlem River from the Yankees, they had added Hank Thompson and Monte Irvin to their big league roster on July 5, 1949, and had added the great Willie Mays in 1951.

Robinson had won the first Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and the National League’s MVP award in 1949, putting to rest any question that Negro players could compete in the Majors. Still, the Yankees held out.

Were the Yankee owners, Dan Topping and Del Webb, men of prejudice? It is impossible to look back over more than a half century and read their minds. It is one thing to be prejudiced. It is another to just accept the culture of America and not dare to step forward and change it. It would take years for them to catch up with their National League counterparts. To their credit, they finally did; it was on their watch, however belatedly, that the Yankees were integrated.

Was Yankee head scout Paul Krichell (who had signed Lou Gehrig) prejudiced when he said of Howard, “I like that young man. Even though he’s black, he has manners.” Or was he a product of his times, speaking without thinking of the slur he had made to an entire race, with his comments.

The team’s general manager, George Weiss, was said to have feared a falloff of suburban white fans if the team integrated. Even the traveling secretary, Bill McCorry, was said to have fretted to writers about the “problems” that went with integration – train, hotel and restaurant access, roommate selection, Florida spring training accommodations, and so forth. Was he prejudiced or was he practical? After all, those problems were real. And they would be his problems, although not as much as they would be the black players’ problems.

Plus, the Yankees were winning. There was no pressure on the team to shake things up to better compete with their league rivals. The Yankees had reeled off five consecutive world championships between 1949-53, and in ’54, although they lost the pennant, they still won 103 games. Their attendance was well over 1.5 million each year, a strong number in that era, and internally, there were no anguished staff meetings about the need for a Negro player to beat down the competition or to draw more fans. Life was good.

The mainstream media in fact tended to accept the Yankee thinking, even “enabled” it, one might say. Arthur Daley, the influential columnist in The Times, wrote towards the end of spring training in 1955, “The charge has been leveled against the New York Yankees that they have been prejudiced against Negroes. It has been made mostly by irresponsible persons who point to the fact that the Bombers have never had one of their squad. It also has been made by the sensitive and crusading Jackie Robinson. This tourist has never believed a word of it.

“The men in the Yankee front office have stubbornly refused to be panicked into hiring a Negro just because he was a Negro. They’ve waited for one to come along who answers the description of ‘the Yankee type.’

“It’s quite possible that their search has ended. Elston Howard would seem to have qualified for the team, both as a ballplayer and as a person. There’s nothing official about this as yet. But he has been a mighty impressive performer thus far.”

“Yankee type” was a buzzword for a player who carried himself like a corporate executive off the field. Much has been written over the years of first baseman Vic Power, a Puerto Rican Yankee farmhand who would be dealt away in December of 1953 before ever reaching the majors, allegedly because he was “too flashy” to be the first black Yankee. (Power would go on to have a long, All-Star, Gold Glove career in the American League.)

But it was too simple an explanation, because in truth the Yankees didn’t take any flashy white players either. Joe McCarthy had set a tone for how a Yankee carried himself, and that standard continued to dictate choices in roster selection. The first black Yankee was going to have to maintain that dignity just as much as any new white player would.

And thus the path opened for Elston Howard, who fit the bill in many ways. He was not only a gentleman of dignity who carried that “Yankee corporate” demeanor, but he was a fabulously gifted athlete who fit Casey Stengel’s system of platoon baseball by being able to play left, right, first base and catcher. Indeed, in that first game at Fenway, with Noren and Bauer ejected, with Bob Cerv replaced early for a pinch-hitter, the Yankees were able to close the game with a lineup featuring Yogi Berra behind the plate, Moose Skowron, Jerry Coleman, Phil Rizzuto and Andy Carey in the infield, and Howard, Mantle and Collins in the outfield. And they still had Gil McDougald and Enos Slaughter on the bench. This was the kind of maneuverability that made Stengel a Hall of Fame manager.

Elston had come out of Vashon High in St. Louis with early aspirations to be a doctor. But in 1948, at 19, his athletic talents took him to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, where Satchel Paige had starred and where Robinson had played after college. On July 24, 1950, Ellie’s contract was sold to the Yankees, the transaction arranged by Tom Greenwade, the legendary Yankee scout who discovered Mantle. He played his first year of Organized Baseball at Muskegon, Michigan, then spent two years in the Army. In 1953 he hit .286 for the Kansas City Blues of the American Association, and in ’54, went to the Yankees spring training camp in St. Petersburg for the first time.

Enduring the racial prejudice of Florida, staying in separate housing from the rest of the team, but doing his job on the field, Ellie impressed his new Yankee teammates and found easy acceptance. Had he made the team in ’54, he would have been ready. But it was a process. Optioned to Toronto, he hit .330, drove in 109 runs, and was named MVP of the International League.

He went to spring training again in 1955, and it was clear that he was either going to make the team or be traded. A third year of Triple-A ball made little sense at age 26. (It was thought he was 25; his “baseball age” was always a year younger than he really was, a practice not uncommon then). He not only had big league skills, he had probably possessed them for at least two years. And what a message it would have been, at this point, to trade their best black prospect, the MVP of the International League.

Thus his historic addition to the roster, announced by Stengel and Weiss on March 21, was not unexpected, despite the history-making nature of the moment. The fact that Berra, Mantle, Skowron, Rizzuto, Whitey Ford and the rest, including McCarthy-trained coach Bill Dickey were all so good to him made the transition one of ease and comfort. (Elston would be the one to later nickname Ford “Chairman of the Board”).

The Yankee color line had been broken. The right man had come along. It is hard to say “right man at the right time” because in truth, the time was late.

Elston Howard would go on to earn his place in Yankee history, leading the great 1961 team with a .348 average, winning the league’s MVP award in 1963, finishing third in ’64, winning the Babe Ruth Award as MVP of the 1958 World Series, making ten All-Star teams, and becoming the first black coach in the American League. He homered in his first World Series at bat in 1955 and played for ten pennant winners. He not only succeeded Yogi Berra as the team’s regular catcher but also became a link in the great Yankee catching lineage of Dickey-Berra-Howard-Thurman Munson. He died, all too young at age 51, of a heart ailment while serving as a Yankee front office executive. It was the same age at which Roger Maris had died; both had had their uniform numbers retired on the same day in 1984.

Today, Elston Howard’s number rests in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, and he is far more than the answer to a trivia question about the first black Yankee. For he was far from a trivial part of the Yankee heritage. He was a pioneer who overcame obstacles with a quiet dignity, winning the hearts of fans and teammates, and earning his place on and off the field as one of the great Yankees of all time.