Following Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, integration across the American and National Leagues was shamefully slow. Both Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns each also fielded their first black players in 1947, but it was two full years until the next team, the New York Giants, would have its first black players.
By late in the 1953 season, only six of the AL and NL’s 16 teams had integrated. By that point black players were already All-Stars, MVPs and key pieces on World Series Champion teams. Six more teams integrated by the end of the 1954 season, leaving just four teams – the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox – as having never had a black player entering the 1955 season.
That changed on April 14, 1955 in the Yankees second game of the season at Fenway Park against the Red Sox. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Elston Gene Howard took the field in left, replacing the ejected Irv Noren, making his Yankees debut and integrating the club. He drove in Mickey Mantle with an RBI single in his only at-bat that day, but the impact of his appearance was much greater.
The Yankees had always publicly maintained that the reason they were slow to integrate was not racism, but because they were waiting for a player who was “the Yankee type.” That was an argument that for many did not hold water. After all, how were players like Willie Mays and Ernie Banks, both of whom were recommended to the Yankees by scouts but not signed, not “the Yankee type”?
That the Yankees were slow to integrate takes nothing away from Howard, who was a remarkable player at two positions and an innovator whose impact on the sport is still felt to this day.
Howard was born in St. Louis, Missouri on February 23, 1929, where he grew up and began playing baseball. At age 16, he was discovered playing sandlot ball and was offered to join a semipro team, the St. Louis Braves in the Tandy League in St. Louis.
He attended all-black Vashon High School, where he starred in football, track and basketball and worked at a local grocery store. Vashon began a baseball program during Howard’s senior season, and he was naturally also the star player of that team.
After graduation in 1947, Howard attended a tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park, but they passed on him. The Cardinals were another slow to integrate team, resisting until 1954. Howard also entertained scholarship offers to play football from Michigan, Illinois and Michigan State, and his mother hoped he would go to college and become a doctor.
However, Howard passed on college to sign with the famed Kansas City Monarchs for a sum of $500 a month (which was mailed directly to his mother).
He had grown up playing catcher, but the Monarchs had a great catcher named Mickey Taborn, so Howard was moved to left field. When Taborn left the team in 1949, Howard was moved back behind home plate. During his time in Kansas City, Howard roomed with shortstop Ernie Banks, and the two made a pact that whoever got to the majors first would call the other and tell him what it was like.
In the 1950 season, Yankees scout Tom Greenwade came to look at some players on the Monarchs, and manager Buck O’Neil told him to look at Howard. A few days later, Howard and Frank Barnes were sold to the Yankees for $25,000.
He hit .283 with nine home runs for the Class-A Muskegon Clippers after signing. However, that would be the last professional baseball Howard would play for nearly three years.
After the season, Howard was drafted into the Army and spent the entire 1951 and 1952 seasons in the military as the Korean Conflict raged on. He never saw combat, though, as was the case with many pro athletes drafted. The Army quickly realized it had a great player on its hands and stationed Howard in Japan to play baseball.
When he returned in 1953, the Yankees sent him to their Triple-A team in Kansas City, and much was made about his potential to be the first black Yankees player. He batted .286/.326/.427 in 139 games with the Blues, playing mostly left field. However, as the Yankees won the AL pennant and their fifth straight World Series under Casey Stengel, Howard was kept in the minors all year.
Before the 1954 season, the Yankees announced that they were moving Howard back to catcher, having him work with Hall of Famer Bill Dickey on his defense behind the plate during spring training. Some newspapers, such as the Baltimore Afro-American criticized the Yankees, who had an in-his-prime Yogi Berra catching in the big leagues, for the move, calling it a scheme to hold Howard back in the minor leagues.
They assigned him to Triple-A Toronto in the International League, where he hit .330/.380/.569 with 22 home runs and won the 1954 IL MVP Award. Once again, the Yankees left him in the minors all season.
The Yankees missed capturing the pennant in 1954, losing out to a heavily-talented (and heavily-integrated) Cleveland team. After the season, the calls for the club to integrate intensified in the press. It was becoming evident that the best teams in baseball were integrated, and the teams that resisted were resigned to finishing in the second division. The Yankees dynasty of the late 40s and early 50s was the exception, but it looked like they would start slipping back if they failed to integrate soon. And it looked like Elston Howard was going to be the man to do it.
After his early season debut in Boston in 1955, Howard hit .290/.336/.477 in 97 games with the Yankees in his rookie season, during which he was 26 years old. In that era of loaded Yankees teams, he wouldn’t play more than 100 games until 1957, and didn’t get more than 400 at-bats in a season until 1959, his age 30 season.
By that point Howard was on his way to a magnificent playing career. He was a 12-time All-Star, four-time World Series Champion, two-time Gold Glove Award winner, and was the 1963 AL MVP. Toward the end of his career in 1967, Howard was traded to the Red Sox and was a key piece in their improbable run to the AL pennant that year.
He pondered retirement at the end of the year, and Bill Veeck even had conversations about making him the game’s first black manager if he could buy the Washington Senators. Ultimately, Veeck was not successful in that bid, and Howard decided to return to the Red Sox for one last season.
He hit just .241 in 71 games before retiring to take the first base coach job for the Yankees. Howard became the first black coach for an American League team, and he would remain as a Yankees coach for the rest of his life.
While coaching, Howard engaged in various side businesses, including opening an art gallery, heading a division of Group Travel, serving as the vice chairman of the board at Home State Bank and marketing the batting doughnut – the weight put on bats for players to use in the on-deck circle.
In February 1979, Howard was diagnosed with myocarditis, and was prescribed total rest by his doctors. George Steinbrenner kept him on payroll and reassured him that his coaching role would be waiting for him when he was healthy. In 1980 he was reassigned by Steinbrenner to a scouting and ambassador role with the Yankees front office staff.
Sadly, he was admitted to the hospital on December 4, 1980 as his heart was giving out, and passed away two weeks later at the age of 51.
In 1984, the Yankees retired his number 32 and dedicated a plaque in his honor at Monument Park in Yankee Stadium. In 2020, the baseball field on the site of the old Yankee Stadium was renamed Elston Howard Field in his honor.
There is support to at long last elect Howard to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and while his final career numbers are below the established standards, it is easy to argue he belongs. Losing two years while serving in Korea and having his Yankees debut delayed until he was 26 cost him valuable time to accumulate stats, as did his role as a part-time player in his first two years.
But there was no doubt that Howard belonged before he got there, and that on the field and in the clubhouse he was a great example of the Yankee way.