Arlene Howard still recalls the first time she saw her husband doing what he loved.
"I remember seeing him [when I was] in high school in St. Louis. He was playing for the semi-pro team," she said. "The whole country was segregated back then, of course."
At the time, neither she nor her future husband could know that he would go on to integrate the New York Yankees. For Elston Howard, the big break came in little pieces, spread out over the course of two decades. After thriving as a pro ballplayer for three seasons in the Negro Leagues, Howard had to prove himself all over again in the Minor Leagues.
And prove himself he did. When he put on a thrilling show in 1954 as the catcher for the Toronto Maple Leafs, he would have been the first African-American to win the International League MVP Award had another prospect not beaten him to the punch two years prior.
Jim "Junior" Gilliam's career ran a parallel course to Howard's. He too had spent time in the Negro Leagues, but to get his shot in the Majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he had to start in the Minors.
"One thing that was somewhat unique to these guys was their experience playing in the Negro Leagues," even as Jackie Robinson played his way into the Majors, said Dr. Richard Puerzer, a Hofstra University professor who presented a paper on the managerial aspirations of Gilliam and Howard at the 2009 Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. "By the time they got to the Minors, they were already informed about what they were getting into."
By most accounts, Gilliam and Howard were each ready for the big leagues well before they got their chances to shine there. Both men responded to roadblocks by giving the game their all over the course of a few brilliant Minor League summers.
A dream deferred
Gilliam, playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants under George Scales, developed into an undeniable talent. By the time he finished his third straight All-Star season for Baltimore in 1950, Major League Baseball had been officially integrated for four seasons.
The 23-year-old signed with the Dodgers before the 1951 season and that spring began working through the organization that featured Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. With all those black stars, though, Brooklyn wasn't necessarily an easier system than any other for an African-American to get through.
"On the one hand, the Dodgers as a team were more integrated," said Puerzer. "On the other hand... [Gilliam] was almost certainly Major League-ready as far back as 1951. They didn't make it easy for him."
Gilliam was a veteran of five professional seasons with the Elite Giants and one with the Nashville Black Vols before that, but he was assigned to the International League's Montreal Royals for his first campaign in integrated ball.
He led the league with 117 runs scored, played outstanding second base and helped the Royals secure the Governors' Cup that year. During a doubleheader against the Syracuse Chiefs on June 7, he had two home runs and hit safely seven times. Ten days later, in a doubleheader at Buffalo's Offermann Stadium, he went 8-for-8 with a grand slam, walking three times and adding a sacrifice. He was named an All-Star, and he finished the season with a .287 average., walking as many times as he scored.
Still, he was shipped back to Montreal in 1952.
"A potential reason that he stayed in the Minors was that Jackie Robinson was at second base, and if Junior Gilliam came up, Robinson would play third," said Puerzer. "If Robinson were to play third, Billy Cox would lose his job. If that happened, the Dodgers infield would be a black majority, which at that time, would still have been controversial."
The deferment didn't faze him.
Gilliam hit .301 with 39 doubles in 1952, again leading the league in runs scored and impressing on defense. His efforts made him the International League's first black MVP.
"That boy's the cream of our farm system," Dodgers vice president Buzzie Bavasi admitted to Baseball Digest
after Gilliam's MVP season. The next season, he'd become the National League Rookie of the Year.
Elston Howard was playing for Buck O'Neil's Kansas City Monarchs in 1950 when a midseason sale sent him to a team some felt was unlikely to give him a shot. The Yankees' slowness to change with the times may explain why he was kept in the Minors.
"There were people picketing in front of Yankee Stadium. People wanted a black player on the Yankees, but [the Yankees] didn't care," said Ralph Wimbish, who coauthored Arlene Howard's autobiography, Elston and Me: The Story of the First Black Yankee
"Don't forget, they won five straight pennants. And they did it without a black player," Wimbish added. "They were winning as an all-white team."
Howard went from the Kansas City Monarchs to the Class A Muskegon (Mich.) Clippers in the end of July 1950.
"He was sent to Michigan and he was immediately put in the cleanup spot, so they clearly thought he was capable of having success there," said Puerzer.
In under two months, Howard had 42 RBIs, 17 extra-base hits, a .283 batting average and helped the Clippers cut their Central League deficit in half.
The Yankees intended to send him to Double-A for the 1951 season, but Howard was drafted into the United States Army. His skills didn't rust, though -- he spent his time in the military playing for his unit's baseball team. He had the same mentality about playing in the Army that he had about playing in the Minors.
"Even when he was playing in the Army, he made sure he was learning," Mrs. Howard said.
With his service done, Howard was assigned to the Triple-A Kansas City Blues of the American Association in 1953. He hit .286, 10 points above his team's average, with 10 homers and 22 doubles.
"He was ready [for the Majors] in '53," Wimbish said. "He wasn't going to yell about [being in the Minors] -- that just wasn't his thing. He was going to go out and do his job."
In Spring Training of 1954, the Yankees asked Howard to move from the outfield and try catching, despite having a plethora of catching prospects and Yogi Berra behind the plate in the Bronx.
"A lot of people saw that as an attempt to find an excuse to keep him out of the Majors," said Puerzer. "But they did bring in Bill Dickey to help [Howard] learn."
Mrs. Howard has no memory of her husband being frustrated with the forced switch. He was, she recalls, excited to help out in any way he could and he soaked up all he could from his new tutor.
"I remember that he was very impressed with Bill Dickey and the way he handled pitches," she said.
"[The conversion] was going to be his ticket to the Majors, so he was all for it," said Wimbish. "Many of the Yankees [later] told me they thought that spring that he would be on the team."
Ultimately, the Yankees made an arrangement for Howard to spend the season with the International League's unaffiliated Maple Leafs, where he could catch on an everyday basis. He'd need to prove himself one more time before making it to the Bronx.
Howard tore the cover off of baseballs for Toronto in 1954. Although he'd been kept in the Minors to develop at his new position, his hitting was becoming impossible to ignore. Off the field, a developing love kept him inspired.
"We wrote every day," Mrs. Howard said. And she made a trip from St. Louis to Syracuse in order to see Elston play. "I took a flight. I remember it was the second time I'd ever flown and I made two or three connections. It took much longer than it should have."
It was the first time she saw him play in a regular-season integrated game, and it would be the last time she had the chance to see him as a Minor Leaguer. He hit .330 with 22 homers and 21 doubles, and he was clearly a reliable catcher by the end of the year.
"I asked Whitey Ford who was a better catcher: Yogi or Howard," said Wimbish. "Whitey said that Yogi was quicker around the plate, but Howard was a better receiver."
For his contributions at the plate and behind it, he was named the league's MVP two years after Gilliam broke the award's color barrier. Although many thought he should have been in the Majors, Howard had turned his questionable Triple-A assignment into an opportunity, and he produced outstanding results.
"He was always learning, always ready to learn," said Mrs. Howard. "So I'm sure he still learned a lot that year."
That fall, the Yankees made a commitment that would result in Elston Howard becoming the storied franchise's first African-American player.
No sophomore slump
For both of Howard and Gilliam, the path that led from the Negro Leagues through the Minor Leagues and into the Majors was longer and tougher than it would be for ballplayers in the future.
When a reporter asked Gilliam whether he expected to go through a "sophomore jinx," he was baffled, reported Jet
magazine in its March 25, 1954 issue.
"Why should I worry about that?" Gilliam asked. "I don't figure I'm a sophomore. Just like I didn't figure I was a freshman last year, even if it was my first year in the big leagues. This is my ninth year in professional baseball. I've been around."
Howard had the experience to laugh off the same kind of question -- both men toiled to get to "The Show" in an era when baseball, though officially integrated, often asked more of an African-American prospect than it did of a white prospect.
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MILB.com.