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The First Black Player for the New York Yankees

Updated on May 17, 2013

Bottom of the ninth, Yankee Stadium, the Yanks trailing the Detroit Tigers, 6-4. The date is May 14, 1955. It’s the Bronx Bombers’ last chance to salvage the game.

The inning before, Yogi Berra, Andy Carey, and Gil McDougald each flied out, three up and three down. Top half of the ninth, the leading visitors’ batters went three up and three down. The 6-4 score remains unchanged at eight and a half innings.

The young shortstop Billy Hunter leads off the bottom of the last inning, lining out to short. Eddie Robinson steps in and gets a base hit. Then Hank Bauer pops up just in front of the plate, making the second out. Frank Leja pinch runs for Robinson. Two runs down, two away.

Next, Joe Collins walks. That brings up Mickey Mantle, who singles to left and scores Leja from second. One-run deficit now, 6-5.

The next batter is a rookie catcher/outfielder, Elston Howard. Howard triples on a line drive to left field. Collins and Mantle cross the plate for the tying and winning runs. Final score: Yankees 7, Tigers 6.

When the game-winning batter entered the clubhouse shortly after speaking with a reporter, he found a line of clean towels from the door to his locker, an honor bestowed by Mantle and Collins upon the rookie.

“It was like a red carpet,” Howard recalled. “Laid out for me. I was surprised. And when they did that, I figured I was accepted just like everyone else.”

The rookie, on the job for just a month in the major leagues, had won the hallmark sign of respect, a Yankee tradition, from one of the superstars of the day and from an established first baseman. It so happened that the rookie, Elston Howard, was the first black man to play for the New York Yankees. And his bat had spoken for him in the premier meritocracy.


Howard Gets Pinstripes

A native of St. Louis, Ellie Howard began his baseball career in 1948 with the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs. He turned down numerous college athletic scholarships — in baseball, football, basketball, and track. But Jackie Robinson, a former Monarch, had crossed the major league color line the season before, and Howard saw his shot.

The impressive youngster made his mark on Monarch player-manager Buck O’Neil, who in 1950 arranged for Howard to be in the first pair of black players the Yankees organization signed.

Howard’s minor league tenure was interrupted by the U.S. Army, which drafted him during the Korean War. He returned to the Yankees’ minor league club, the Kansas City Blues, in 1953. In 1954, Howard, an outfielder, learned to play catcher. For the International League’s Toronto club that year, the converted catcher was league MVP, batted .330, homered 22 times, and had 109 RBIs.

Then, in 1955, Howard was invited to the Yankees’ spring training camp. He made the club roster — the first black American on the team. On April 14, he played in his first game, on the road against the Red Sox. Howard played three innings, singled, and batted in a run.

The next day, April 15, eight years to the day after Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in the National or American League, Ellie Howard started the game against Boston, another first.

Baseball News of April 14, 1955

Following Yogi Berra

Even though Howard played backup catcher to the established Yogi Berra, his strong bat and reliable hitting won him playing time in the outfield and at first base. When Ralph Houk took the helm, he installed Howard as his regular behind the plate. (Yogi swung a pretty good bat, too, so he saw playing time in left field.)

Howard stooped closer to the plate than most catchers. That helped low-ball throwers like Whitey Ford, who appreciated Ellie’s qualities as a catcher. It was Howard who nicknamed Ford the “chairman of the board.” He could nail runners trying to steal second. And he handled his pitchers so well, instilling confidence and working pitch by pitch to get good throws.

Pitcher Jim Coates, a prejudiced Virginian, in later years heaped praise on his black catcher. “Ellie was the best catcher I ever threw to,” Coates recalled to Tony Kubek. “He could catch those low pitches and bring them up into the strike zone without the umpire noticing. . . . When Ellie caught, it was great because you could rear back and throw without any care in the world because he could catch any pitch.”

That was hardly a falsified recollection. Other pitchers, including Bobby Shantz and Ryne Duren, came to the same conclusion. Shantz referred to Howard as “a pitcher’s best friend.” Howard’s calming influence and manner, along with his skillful pitch calling, worked like the medicine the Yankee pitchers needed, no matter the game situation.

A True Yankee

At 6’2” and 196 pounds, Howard had a solid, athletic build. His steady expression and pleasant smile made him someone other players felt comfortable with. He batted and threw right-handed and wore number 32 on his jersey.

Over the course of his major league career, most of it with the Yankees, Howard’s batting average was .274. Over those 14 years, he drove 167 home runs and 762 RBIs. He made the All Stars from 1957 through 1964. He became the first black named American League Most Valuable Player in 1963. And Howard was the first black man to become a coach for the Yankees.

The wizened old manager Casey Stengel, who never hesitated to make a substitution in his platooning method, regardless of players’ feelings, respected Ellie Howard’s skill, acumen, and execution. “You can substitute, but you rarely can replace,” the Old Perfessor said. “With Howard, I have a replacement, not a substitute.”

Howard amassed an impressive record, while breaking the Yankee color barrier in the most perfect manner. He did so by speaking softly, displaying athletic skill with a glove, and carrying a big bat.


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    CJ Kelly 4 years ago from Auburn, WA

    I remember seeing Elston Howard when he was a coach with them team. He always seemed like a nice guy and good w/fans. Great article.