Classic Yankees: Elston Howard

New York Yankees Elston HowardDecember 14, 1980. New York, and the world, was still in a state of shock. The previous Monday night, John Lennon was assassinated in NYC. That day, thousands gathered in Central Park and around the world for a ten-minute silent vigil for the slain ex-Beatle.

That same day, Yankees fans had reason to mourn, for the first black Yankee, Elston Howard, died of a heart condition that day. He was only 51 years old.

The Yanks were slow to sign colored players. At first, it was thought that Vic Power would be the first black Yankees player, but Power was considered too flashy and “uppity” for the powers that be at the time, and once the front office, especially George Weiss, the Yankees GM at the time, found out Power dated white women, well then forget it. Weiss was, how shall we say, one who was very set back in his ways (to be kind) regarding black ballplayers. Although Howard became the first black Yankee in 1955, even as late as 1964—four years after Weiss was gone—the team photo saw only three black players in it; Howard, Al Downing and Hector Lopez; and to think, they could have had Ernie Banks. They were actually offered Ernie, who roomed with Howard when both played for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs.

In his early days with the Yankees, Howard couldn’t even stay at the same hotel with his teammates. After all, Florida was “the South” and as a result, Howard stayed as a boarder with a black family in the black part of town. Others in baseball had to do the same. It was shameful. FULL integration took quite some time. It didn’t just happen overnight when Jackie Robinson broke the collar barrier in 1947. Even in the 1960s, blacks playing in the South faced racism. As we will see later in this profile, racism would haunt Howard, even after he’d been in the majors for several seasons.

At first, the lack of a black player didn’t hurt the Yanks. The collapse wouldn’t come until 1965, but when that collapse came, it came fast and hard. After Howard, Downing and then Roy White (1965-1979), can you name another top-notch black Yankee player until the mid- to late-1970’s, when Chambliss, Randolph, Rivers and Jackson came aboard? Horace Clarke was there a while, but I wouldn’t put him in the “star” or “top notch” category with the others.

Ellie was a catcher, and therefore not blessed with great speed. Casey Stengel noted, “I finally got one of those players, and what do I get? The only one who can’t run.” You have to remember that Casey was old-school. He was from KC, played in the all-white era. It wasn’t like he hated Ellie, he was just making a point in his usual Stengelese.

As noted in the Hank Bauer profile, Bauer stuck up for Ellie, especially with the racial slurs Howard frequently endured. Howard was very popular with his teammates.

Howard finally cracked the Yanks in 1955, despite having been purchased from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1950. Howard did spend 1951 and 1952 in the Army. (The Phils were the last NL team to integrate when they did it in 1957. The last of the original 16 was the Red Sox in 1959). By the time Ellie made it to the Yankees, he was 26 years old, and the catcher had a large roadblock in front of him named Yogi Berra. As a result, Howard played LF, RF, and 1B as well as caught. In fact, it wasn’t until 1961—at the age of 32—that Howard caught 100 games in a season.

In that 1955 season, Howard hit .290 with 10 HR and 43 RBI. OPS+
118. Howard, a righty hitter, was hurt, as were other Yankees righty hitters, by the deep dimensions of left field at the old Yankee stadium. Nevertheless, he did have power. In his book The Bronx Zoo, Sparky Lyle recalled one day at Old Comiskey Park in Chicago, when banners were up on the roof pointing out shots that cleared that roof. Lyle was quick to note that Howard had one up there, and that baby was more towards LCF. Lyle wrote “that baby was hit.”

Howard went 5 for 26 in the 1955 WS, with a HR and 3 RBI. That HR came in his first WS at bat. Unfortunately for Yankees’ fans, Howard’s groundout was the last out of the only WS Brooklyn ever won.

Howard hit .262-5-34 in 1956, OPS+ just 80. He played in just one WS game, and the details of that are in the Moose Skowron profile; how Billy Martin begged Stengel to play Howard and Skowron and bench Joe Collins and Enos Slaughter. Howard had a HR in that game, Game 7. He went 2 for 5 with a double and that solo HR.

1957 marked the first of Howard’s All-Star years. He was named to every All-Star team from 1957 to 1965. He hit .253 with 8 HR, 44 RBI and an OPS+ of just 81. Even though the OPS+ was just 80 and 81 in 1956 and 1957, Howard’s versatility—playing OF and being Yogi’s backup catcher—was appreciated. That versatility, along with the versatility of Gil McDougald (an All-Star at three different positions in the 1950’s), helped make the Yanks “injury proof” and resulted in pennants. Howard went 3 for 11 in the WS, with a HR and 3 RBI.

1958 saw Ellie hit .314 and finish 17th in the MVP vote. He had 11 HR, 66 RBI and an excellent OPS+ of 130. He helped lead the Yanks back from a 3-1 deficit in games as they won the World Series. Even though Bob Turley was named the WS MVP, the Babe Ruth Award (the NY writers’ version of the WS MVP) went to Howard. He was just 4 for 18 for 2 RBI, but he made a great defensive play in Game 5 when the Yanks were up just 1-0, made another one in Game 6 (both while in LF), and drove in the GW run in Game 7.

In 1959, Howard hit .273-18-73, OPS+ 116 in what was otherwise an off-year for the Yanks.

1960 brought a bad year for Howard, just .245-6-39, OPS+ 81. He was 6 for 13 in the WS with a HR and 4 RBI. After having been HBP on the hand in Game 6, Howard could only watch Game 7.

With the force out of Stengel and Weiss by the Yankees front office after the 1960 WS, and the ascension of Ralph Houk to manager, Howard finally became the regular catcher as Houk shifted 36-year-old Yogi Berra to LF.  Howard responded with a monster season, overlooked (as was Skowron’s) by the M&M Boy’s HR barrage. Howard hit .348, second in the league to Norm Cash’s .361. Later, it was discovered that Cash, who also had 41 HR, corked his bat for the entire season. Howard added 21 HR and 77 RBI, OPS+ a fantastic 153. He finished 10th in the MVP voting. He was 5 for 20 in the World Series with a HR that was his only RBI. The HR, combined  with one by Moose Skowron, were the only Yankees’ runs in a 2-0 Game 1 victory.

Howard was an innovator as well as a great catcher. He pioneered the hinged glove, which made one-handed catching (and the ability to hide one’s meat hand behind one’s back) possible. Before that, two hands were necessary, which meant a lot of foul tips hitting that meat hand. What you have been able to see with a Bench, Pena, Pudge Rodriguez wouldn’t have been possible without that hinged glove that Howard came up with.

Not only that, Howard invented the weighted doughnut that you see batters swing in the on-deck circle. By putting on the doughnut, and taking a few swings, the bat then felt lighter once the doughnut was removed and the batter was ready to hit, thus increasing one’s bat speed.

Ellie wasn’t above trying to help his pitchers out. Every once in a while he might scuff up a ball in order to give his pitcher an edge.

Lastly, Howard is credited with being the first to signify two out by holding up his index finger and pinky finger, making it easier for the outfielders to see that rather than the index and middle finger. You’d have thought someone would have done that beforehand.

In 1962, Howard hit .279-21-91 with an OPS+ of 113. In the series, he was 3 for 21 with an RBI.

In 1963, Howard made AL history.

That year, Mantle missed some 90 games because of an injury. Maris missed about 65 games with injury. It could have been disastrous if not for Howard. Ellie guided the pitching staff. Ford won 24, Bouton 21, and Terry 17. Howard hit .287, with 28 HR and 85 RBI. OPS+ a superb 140. He also won the Gold Glove. For all this, Elston Howard became the first American League black player to win the MVP. The vote wasn’t close. Howard got 15 of the 20 first-place votes, and won by 100 points over runner-up Al Kaline of the Tigers. As Howard exclaimed, “I’ve just won the Nobel Prize of baseball.” Howard went 5 for 15 in the World Series.

Little did Howard know, however, that it would not be a “Peace” Prize. For even though black ballplayers Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Maury Wills had all won MVPs in the National League before Howard cracked the AL barrier, Howard received death threats which he was unprepared for.

In 1964, Howard almost repeated his feat. At the age of 35, Ellie had his last great season, hitting .313 (just ten points behind batting champ Tony Oliva) with 15 HR, 84 RBI, and an OPS+ 128. He won his second and last Gold Glove, and finished 3rd in the MVP voting, behind winner Brooks Robinson and runner-up Mickey Mantle. He was 7 for 24 in the World Series, with 2 RBI.

Reasons for the Yankees’ collapse in 1965 are many. One of them was the collapse of Howard, and the Yanks didn’t have a suitable backup for Ellie. Jake Gibbs was an ex-Mississippi QB who had a good arm, but who couldn’t hit a lick. Howard’s batting average dropped a whole eighty points from 1964 to 1965. His RBIs were cut in practically half as he went from .313-15-84 in 1964, OPS+ 128, to .233-9-45, OPS+ 77 in 1965. He was also having problems with his right (throwing) elbow.

Howard rebounded in 1966 to hit .256-6-35, OPS+ 98. Then, in 1967, he had a terrible offensive year.

How does a .178 hitting catcher finish 17th in the MVP voting? Here is how. On August 3, 1967, Howard was traded to the Boston Red Sox for a player to be named later (Ron Klimkowski) and Pete Magrini. You are forgiven for not knowing who Klimkowski and Magrini were. At the time, Howard was hitting just .196. Howard’s highlights that year basically came down to breaking up a no-hit attempt by Boston’s Billy Rohr in the third game of the season (2 outs in the 9th) and being the on deck batter when Mickey Mantle hit his 500th HR that year.

The Red Sox, who had finished 9th in 1966, were surprisingly in the midst of a pennant race. They were looking for a steady veteran to guide their young pitching staff down the stretch. The Yanks, in the midst of a 9th-place finish, gave them what they were looking for in Howard. Howard hit just .147 down the stretch for Boston, but his leadership was deemed so important (Boston won the pennant by one game) that despite a terrible offensive year, .178-4-28, OPS+  42, Howard finished 17th in MVP voting. I doubt you will ever see that again, where a player can play in over 100 games, hit .178, and still get be on an MVP ballot. Howard went 2 for 18 with 1 RBI in the World Series. He went up against another ex-Yankee in the Series—Roger Maris of St. Louis.

Howard’s final year was 1968, he rebounded a bit to have a .241-5-18, OPS+ 92 finale. On September 29th, he played in his final game—vs. the Yankees. Boston put him in to catch the last inning. The day before, Mickey Mantle played in what turned out to be HIS final game. On the same day that Howard played his final game, Roger Maris played in HIS last regular season game (the Cardinals won the NL pennant, so Maris had the WS to go). They would share a more significant day in 1984.

Howard played on ten pennant-winners, and four World Series Champions. Eight of the ten WS Howard played in went to a seventh game. Howard’s team won three of those. Howard played in 54 WS games, hitting .246 with 5 HR and 19 RBI.

On July 21, 1984, Howard’s #32 and Maris’ #9 were retired by the Yankees. In his short stint with Boston, Howard wore #18.

Howard finished his career with a .274 lifetime batting average and 167 HR, with an OPS+ of 108.

After retirement, Howard returned to the Yankees as a coach. For some time, there were rumors that Howard might become the first black manager in baseball, a feat achieved by Frank Robinson in 1975. As it was, Howard was the first black coach in the American League. Howard stayed as a coach from 1969-1979. He was one who tried to keep order when Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson had their dugout battle in Boston in June of 1977.

While a coach, Howard was part of three pennant winners and two World Championships. In 1980, Howard was moved into an administrative position due to his health.

In 1979, Howard was diagnosed with myocarditis, a rare heart disease that causes rapid heart failure. He was considering a heart transplant, but his condition failed rapidly, causing his death on December 14,  1980 at the age of just 51. New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote upon Howard’s passing that “the Yankees organization lost more class…than George Steinbrenner could buy in ten years.” Howard’s plaque describes him as a man of “great gentleness and dignity.”

Had Howard lived, you wonder if he, and not Willie Randolph, would have become the first black manager for a NY baseball team. Maybe in the 1980s, instead of having the merry-go-round best exemplified by Billy III, IV and V, as well as Lou I and II, not to mention the Yogi firing that led to a fourteen-year feud, Howard could have provided stability. Maybe his quiet dignity would have calmed George down. Probably not, for at that period of time maybe nothing could have calmed “the Boss” down. But you wonder. Would Howard have gotten his chance to manage? How would he have done? How long would he have lasted? With Howard there, would there have been the Billy sequels which after a while, became a joke? There are so many unanswered questions…

… and only one answer. Elston Howard passed away far too soon.

One of his daughters still occasionally sings the national anthem at Yankee Stadium. Ellie must be looking down with pride.

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