Elston Howard

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Elston Gene Howard

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Biographical Information[edit]

Elston Howard played the outfield in the Negro Leagues for three years, switched to catcher for three seasons in the minors, and played 14 years in the majors, mainly for the New York Yankees, with a season and a half at the end of his career with the Boston Red Sox. He was the first black player to play for the Yankees. His debut in the American League was likely delayed by the two years he spent in the United States military at the time of the Korean War in 1951 and 1952.

Because of Yogi Berra, one of the greatest catchers in history, Howard played primarily in the outfield for the Yankees from 1955 to 1957 and more at first base than at catcher in 1959. In 1958 and from 1960 onwards he was mostly at catcher, as Berra moved to the outfield to accommodate him.

Elston attracted quite a bit of attention when he hit .348 in 1961, something that was unusual for a catcher. He had previously hit .314 in 1958 and would go on to hit .313 in 1964. In addition, he was the American League MVP in 1963, a year in which he did not hit .300 but had his career high of 28 home runs. In spite of his limited time as a starter with the Yankees, he is considered part of the great Yankee catching tradition that goes from Bill Dickey to Berra to him to Thurman Munson (and to Jorge Posada in more recent years). He was thought of so highly by the Yankees that after he died in December of 1980, the team wore a black arm band in his honor during the 1981 season and World Series.

Howard hit a homer in his first World Series at bat in 1955 and tied the following World Series records: most hits, inning (October 10, 1960: 2); most long hits, five game series, (1961: 4); most passed balls, game, (October 7, 1964: 2). He established AL catcher's records for putouts (939) and total chances accepted (1006) in 1964. He was the starting catcher for the Boston Red Sox during the second half of their Impossible Dream season of 1967; while his batting skills were gone by then, he was still an excellent defensive catcher and received much credit for achieving great results with a young and not particularly talented pitching staff as the Red Sox lost the World Series in seven games. He then returned for a final season with Boston in 1968.

Upon his retirement as a player, he was a Yankee coach from 1969 until 1978, but had to give up the job because of heart trouble. He died a premature death at age 51 from heart failure. He is interred at George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, New Jersey.

Howard was a trendsetter in many ways. In addition to being the first African-American Yankee, he is also widely credited as the creator of the batting donut. One can argue that, were it not for the two years of playing time he lost to military service, the color barrier, and being stuck behind the great Berra, Howard would may have been able to fashion a Hall of Fame career. As his peak he indeed put up Hall of Fame numbers for a catcher, and also was a respected handler of pitchers. Ironically, he was kept by the Yankees as a back-up for so many years because he was so good; a lesser player would have been traded, but the Yankees brass recognized that in Howard they had one of the very top catchers in baseball after Berra and Roy Campanella and did not want to let go of such a talent even if they were unable to use him to his full potential.

Howard was highlighted in Heroes Behind the Mask as one of the top catchers of all-time.

Notable Achievements[edit]

1962 1963 1964
Mickey Mantle Elston Howard Brooks Robinson

Further Reading[edit]

  • Arlene Howard and Ralph Wimbish: Elston: The Story of the First African-American Yankee, Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 2018. ISBN 978-1493029006
  • Elston Howard (as told to Tom Capezzuto): "The Game I'll Never Forget", Baseball Digest, July 1978, pp. 76-79.[1]
  • Bill Ladson: "Elston: From Negro Leagues to Yanks icon", mlb.com, February 22, 2022. [2]
  • Cecilia Tan: "Elston Howard", in Bill Nowlin and Dan Desrochers, eds.: The 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox: 'Pandemonium on the Field', SABR, Rounder Books, Burlington, MA, 2007, pp. 68-73. ISBN 978-1-5794-0141-2
  • Chad Thornburg: "Trailblazer Howard part of Yankees' dynasty: Team's first black player contributed to nine pennants, four World Series titles", mlb.com, February 12, 2018. [3]

Related Sites[edit]