Howard among pinstriped greats
First black Yankee sparked annual World Series run
When you think of the great Yankees of the past, names such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford roll off the tongue with ease.
Elston Howard is often overlooked in these conversations, but he shouldn't be.
Howard, the first African-American to don the famed pinstripes, had one of the most memorable careers in franchise history.
"I often think of him when I see Yogi and Whitey, who are considered to be Yankee royalty when they step into the ballpark," said Cheryl Howard, Elston's daughter. "I think my father would have gone through the same thing if he were alive, and it's sad to me that he never got a chance to receive the recognition that he deserved."
Howard played three seasons in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs before being signed by the Yankees to a minor league contract in 1950. He spent three years in the minors, receiving instruction from Hall of Fame backstop Bill Dickey as the Yankees tried to convert him from an outfielder to a catcher.
By 1954, the Yankees were still one of four Major League clubs that were without a black player on the roster. That was about to change, however, as Howard was on his way to International League MVP honors that season. He was nearly ready to join the big club as the successor to Berra, who had helped New York win six World Series titles from 1947-53, including five consecutive championships.
"There was a lot of pressure put on the Yankees from the outside," said Arlene Howard, his widow, in an interview with the YES Network. "New York City was supposed to be this liberal, northeastern state, so why didn't they have any black ballplayers? They certainly had the opportunity."
On April 14, 1955, Howard broke the Yankees' color barrier, becoming the first black man to play for the most successful franchise in the sport.
"I think he was very, very proud, but at the same time, he was aware and nervous about how he would be accepted by the team and the manager," said Cheryl Howard. "In terms of history, it was a difficult time with race relations. Coming into a situation where it was a dynasty of a team, he was concerned about how he'd be accepted. All of his teammates -- Whitey, Mickey, Yogi, Moose (Skowron) -- they really embraced him in an open and loving way."
Howard played in 97 games in his rookie campaign, batting .290 with 10 home runs and 43 RBIs. His versatility came in handy, as Casey Stengel used him 75 times in the outfield and just nine times in a catching role. It wasn't until 1958 that Howard would play the majority of his games behind the plate, as the aging Berra was shifted to a less taxing role in the outfield.
Like many Yankees of his era, Howard became accustomed to playing in the World Series. He homered in his first Fall Classic at-bat in 1955, though New York lost the series to the Brooklyn Dodgers. A year later, Howard and the Yankees exacted revenge with a win over the Dodgers, giving him his first championship.
In 1958, Howard seized the stage in October. He took home the Babe Ruth Award as the Most Outstanding Player in the Yankees' seven-game World Series win over the Milwaukee Braves, becoming the first African-American to earn that honor.
Though he had established himself as an All-Star and an important piece of the Yankees juggernaut by that point, Howard was just starting to show his skills. He hit .462 in the 1960 Fall Classic, his fifth World Series appearance over the first six years of his career.
The next season, while the baseball world watched Mantle and Roger Maris slug it out for the home run title, Howard took a back seat despite a stellar .348 batting average.
Two years later, Howard wouldn't be ignored by anyone, as he became the first African-American to win the American League's MVP award, hitting .287 with 28 homers and 85 RBIs while winning his first of two consecutive Gold Glove awards. The Yankees honored Howard's accomplishments in 1964, holding "Elston Howard Night" at Yankee Stadium.
"It was wonderful," Arlene told the YES Network. "It showed that he really arrived."
Howard didn't finish his career in pinstripes, as he was traded to the rival Red Sox in Aug. 1967 after nine All-Star appearances for New York. He played in his 10th and final World Series that season, though he finished with just four wins. His six Fall Classic losses tie him with Pee Wee Reese for the most in history by a single player.
Shortly after his retirement, Howard rejoined the Yankees as a coach -- appropriately enough, becoming the first black coach in team history. He served on the club's coaching staff for 11 years, but a rare heart disorder called myocardinitis, an inflammation of the muscles around the heart, forced him out of the game before he had a chance to manage, a course he seemed destined to follow.
"That's definitely something he wanted to do," said Cheryl. "He wanted to manage professionally, and that was a big heartbreak of his. It might have happened if he had lived longer."
Howard died on Dec. 14, 1980 at the age of 51. His No. 32 was retired by the Yankees in 1984.
"That was a great honor, one they do for very few Yankees," Cheryl said. "He loved being a Yankee. That was his greatest legacy, even though he finished up playing for the Red Sox. He always considered himself a Yankee, and we were very proud of that."
His spot in Monument Park will keep him alive in the hearts of Yankees fans forever, but the club has also kept a link to Howard and his family in recent years, inviting Cheryl to perform the national anthem before big games in the Bronx.
Cheryl, who is currently working toward a Masters degree in dramatic literature at Washington University in St. Louis, said that to her father, living up to the standards of "being a Yankee" was the thing of which he was most proud in his career.
"I think in terms of holding up the legacy of what a Yankee was, he did that," Cheryl said. "It had nothing to do with color as much as his character as a person."
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.