Yankees History: On this Jackie Robinson Day, the story of The Yankees Elston Howard

William Parlee
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1964: Elston Howard #32 of the New York Yankees bats during an Major League Baseball game circa 1964. Howard played for the Yankees from 1955-67. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Today the New York Yankees and all of baseball celebrate Jackie Robinson Day.  If baseball were to be played today, all of baseball would wear the number #42 in his honor. Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player to break the color barrier and break into the major leagues.  On this April 15, 73 years ago Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger.  He was the first African-American in all of baseball.  One day earlier but eight years later, the New York Yankees acquired their first black player in Elston Howard.

Elston Howard was born February 23, 1929, in St. Louis, Missouri, His Mother was a school teacher. Elston was born out of wedlock. When the elder Howard refused to marry her, she took Elston and moved to nearby St. Louis and became a dietician. While playing his favorite sport in the sandlots near his home, he was taught to work hard and eat right.

One day in the summer of 1945, at the age of 16, he was playing sandlot ball, he was approached by Tenus Edwards, a former Negro League player. Tenus was intrigued as to how hard he hit the ball. Tenus found out the boy with all this power; Howard was the youngest of those playing. Edwards helped run the St. Louis Braves and wanted Howard on the team, but first, he had to convince Howard’s Mom that he would watch over him and make sure he ate well. On Easter Sunday, 1946, Elston would debut in the Tandy League, and would get two hits, and as the catcher would throw out two batters.

The following year, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues. Elston was working at a grocery store and attending the all-black Vashon High School. When Jackie broke into the majors, Vashon High, hastily formed a baseball team. Elston easily became the best player on the team, and after graduating from Vashon, he played another summer with the Braves. He was urged by Tenus Edwards to attend an open tryout for the St. Louis Cardinals, but the Cards turned a blind eye to him as they had no black players in their organization.

Meanwhile the Monarch’s, the black team that Jackie had played for showed an interest in Howard. The Monarchs were so impressed that they went to his mother to negotiate a professional contract. Elston would get $500 a month, mailed directly to her.

While in Kansas City, their catcher and roommate Mikey Taborn would show him the ropes. As Taborn was the regular catcher, Elston would play in the outfield. In 1949 Taborn would go to the Newark Bears and Elston’s new roommate was Earnie Banks. The Monarch’s owner found that selling players to the majors was a money maker and sold Howard to the New York Yankees for $25k. Now 21, Howard debuted on July 26, 1950, in left field for the Class A Muskegon, Michigan, Clippers. In 1951, Howard was drafted due to the Korean War. He was sent to Japan, where all he did in the war was play baseball. By 1953, Howard was playing for the Yankees’ top farm team, the Kansas City Blues. Shortly before Christmas, Elston proposed to Arlene Henley, whose sister he had gone to high school with. They would be married on December 4, 1954.

During spring training Casey Stengel batted Howard in the cleanup spot much of the spring, prompting the New York Times to write that the Yankees may have their first black player. The Yankees waited for one to come along, who was the New York Yankee type. Nice, quiet and a gentleman. It gained him complete acceptance from every Yankee. Howard was given his uniform number (32), and on March 21 general manager George Weiss announced that Elston Howard would be coming to New York.

His on-field debut followed on April 14 at Fenway Park, subbing for Irv Noren, who had been ejected for arguing with an umpire. He got a base hit and knocked in a run. Perhaps the most memorable effect of Howard’s presence on the Yankees that year, though, was that the team changed its hotel policy, staying only in hotels that would accept Howard as a guest. He hit .290 in 97 games his rookie season, with another five hits in the World Series, including a home run in his first World Series at-bat.

After Moose Skowron got hurt in 1957, Howard played more, and in the midseason, Stengel named him to the American League All-Star team. He ended the season hitting .253, with 8 home runs and 44 RBIs, still pining for more playing time. 1958 found Elston in left field again, but he started to share catching duties with Yogi Berra more and more. Stengel was a stickler for platooning players. He ended the season playing in 103 games, 67 behind the plate. He ended the year hitting .314, with 11 homers, and 66 RBIs.

Elston’s heroism as a Yankee was cemented in the 1958 World Series. Down three games to one in Game Five, Howard got the start in left, despite having dental work that morning. In the sixth, he made a game-saving dive in the outfield, then doubled off the runner, in a play that turned the Series around. In Game Seven, with the score tied 2-2 in the eighth, Howard drove in the go-ahead run. The New York Baseball Writers chapter gave him the Babe Ruth Award as the outstanding player in the World Series.

Elston Howard would go on to play twelve seasons with the Yankees. He was an All-Star 12 times, a Gold Glove Award winner twice, an MVP nominee five times winning the MVP award once. On August 3rd, 1967, Elston was traded to the Red Sox. He played a year and a half with the Sox before retiring, but before retiring, he would get to play his last World Series in his home town St. Louis. However, the Cards would beat the Sox.

For a black player, Howard retired quite wealthy as he had loads of endorsements later in his career. He also owned the Elston Howard Sausage Company concession stands at Yankee Stadium; and served as vice-chairman of the board of Home State Bank. While doing all this he was also a coach for the New York Yankees. In 1979 Elston was diagnosed with heart disease. While being a special assistant to George Steinbrenner, Elston died in 1980. In a ceremony at Yankee Stadium in 1984, a plaque was dedicated to Howard, and his number 32 was retired.