The purpose of this blog has been to promote the unshakable, enduring historical connection African Americans have to the sport of baseball. One way I have tried doing this is highlighting former Negro League players and the pioneers from the early stages of Major League baseball integration on their birthdays.
Two weeks ago I missed the birthday of Elston Howard, born February 23, 1929 in St. Louis, Missouri. With Howard being a product of Negro League baseball and then breaking into the Major Leagues in 1955, there should be a post about him on this blog every February 23. I could say due to my busy schedule, I forgot to do a birthday blog post honoring him. However, this explanation does not satisfy my conscious which suggests the omission lends to an attitude I had as a young baseball fan about Elston Howard. It is not that I disliked him, but I thoroughly disliked the team of the uniform he wore; the New York Yankees.
From 1955 through 1964 the Yankees won nine American League pennants. My friends and I would always root against them come World Series time because they did not have as many African American and dark-skinned Latino players on the team as their National League opponents. For the majority of those years, Howard was the lone black face on the Yankees.
Some may call the attitude I had along with my friends about the Yankees racist. With Howard’s career coinciding with the evolving civil rights movement, I will call our attitude a part of the growing sense of black identification and black pride among African Americans during that period. Also, it was still a part of the “root for Jackie Robinson” attitude passed on to us by our parents. Remember, baseball had banned African American and dark- skinned Latino players for nearly half the 20th Century.
Howard won four World Series championships as a Yankee. I can still remember the feelings of disappointment from their victories. But I now understand that my attitude about the team blinded me to his accomplishments. Elston Howard was a courageous African American pioneer in Major League baseball that I did not give the credit and the respect he deserved.
Purchased by the Yankees from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1950, Howard consistently met the high character expectations the team put on him while it tolerated the off field low character behavior of their stars Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Billy Martin. He had to put up with segregated hotel facilities in Florida during spring training like other African American Major League ballplayers in the 1950s. They stayed at black hotels or rooming houses separate from the team’s hotel. Being the only black Yankee for most of those years, Howard had to endure those racial segregation practices by himself.
In referring to Howard, Yankee manager Casey Stengel said, “When I finally get a nigger, I get the only one who can’t run”. The Yankees were not a team built on speed, but power. Ignoring Stengel’s racially stereotyped attempt to be comical with sportswriters, Howard became a perfect fit for the team.
Hitting .290 with 10 home runs his 1955 rookie season, Howard spent the first six years splitting time between playing left field and sharing the catching duties with Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. In 1961, when he became the Yankees main catcher, Howard hit .348 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs and in 1962 hit .279 with 21 home runs and 91 RBIs. Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were both slowed by injuries during the 1963 season. But Howard provided the offensive punch the team needed. He batted fourth, the “clean-up” spot in the batting order, for most of the season and led the team in home runs (28), batting average (.287), and was second in RBIs (85) as it won another pennant. For his efforts, Howard was the first African American to be named Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the American League.
In 1969, Howard became the first African American coach in the American League. However, during his 11 year stint as a Yankee coach (1969 – 1980), the team overlooked him four times in choosing a new manager.
Even though Elston Howard died December 4, 1980, this post is still my public apology to him. I do not apologize for my dislike of those New York Yankee teams he played with, but I apologize for not giving him more respect during those times as an African American baseball pioneer.
Who was the African American catcher that finished eighth in the American League MVP voting in 1963?
For a historical journey to get prepared for the upcoming baseball season, read Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era”. For more information, go to http://booklaunch.io/kevinlmitchell/last-train-to-cooperstown.