The Yankees’ Jackie Robinson: Elston Howard
Jackie Robinson undoubtedly faced the greatest challenge as the very first African-American playing in the major leagues. But Elston Howard by no means had it easy. After all, segregation still was in force in Florida during most of his years of major league spring training. Racial discrimination remained alive and well in all sections of the country, including in the North.
And he was the first black to join the storied New York Yankees. This was the team that boasted names like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Lazzeri, Gordon, Meusel, and Rizzuto. Breaking the color line with just anybody could have blown up in the face of both the individual and the team. No, like Robinson’s careful selection for plowing new ground with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Yankees needed to choose wisely and deliberately.
They couldn’t have made any better choice than Ellie Howard.
Elston Howard the Man
“. . . Elston Howard was both an exceptional baseball player and a gentleman,” baseball chronicler Peter Golenbock wrote. “He was quiet, pleasant, noncontroversial, the son of educated parents. Howard seemed the perfect Yankee — even if he was black. He didn’t make headlines. He kept his nose clean and he could hit a fastball a long way.”
But Howard was more than the first black player for the Yankees. He was more than a tremendously talented black ball player. He was more than a black man who won his teammates’ respect and friendship. Elston Howard was a model combination of athletic ability, quiet courage, self-controlled manner, and low-key personality — who happened to have black skin. He exemplified grace under pressure. He was a gentle man. He could and should be judged by the content of his character, which would be the appropriate measure of such a man.
Howard’s first, critical days with the parent club registered a positive impression on a lot of people. For instance, head scout Paul Krichell regarded his good manners. Standout players like Phil Rizzuto, Moose Skowron, and Hank Bauer instantly liked him and made it a point to befriend Howard.
Skowron and his wife met Howard at the train station. Rizzuto “would call me up during the day and take me out to various places, go to the movies, meet people around the league.”
Although he couldn’t stay with the team at the St. Petersburg hotel, Howard displayed inner courage and character far purer than those whose eyes stopped at the color of his skin.
Teammate Bob Turley reflected that Howard never showed any anger. Tony Kubek recognized Howard’s “inner toughness and burning desire” but steady, controlled outward demeanor.
Howard’s calm, quiet manner helped him through that period. “I do not understand them,” Howard said, “but I can’t be the one that’s gonna do the breaking down.”
Infielder Andy Carey assessed Howard’s performance — personally and internally as well as on the field. “He did his job under tremendous pressure. Elston knew what he had to do. He knew the world was watching. He did what Jackie Robinson did, and he did it for the Yankees. He worked hard, he hustled, he did everything he had to.”
Yankees 1954 Training Camp
Character and Integrity
His wife, Arlene, said Elston took the long view, seeing that things in society were changing, if slowly, and his job was to play the best baseball he could. This reflected a mature perspective that suited his personality.
“We integrated neighborhoods [such as in Teaneck, New Jersey] and so on, but Elston wasn’t the kind of guy to get up on a soapbox,” his wife said. “He never personalized racism.”
The inner strength that sustained Howard through trying times, loneliness during the early days when he roomed alone on road trips, when confronted by some more outspoken bigot, reflected his true character. And it showed through to his teammates.
Author Dom Forker reported, “All of the players I’ve questioned about Elston Howard have been unanimous in the following endorsement. ‘He was one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met.’”
Norm Siebern remembered, “In retrospect, you’d have to say that they couldn’t have done better [than to pick Howard]. He had great morals, personality, and character. He was just an outstanding individual.”
Roommate Al Downing looked up to Howard and regarded him as “the finest human being I ever met.”
Hank Bauer spoke in similar, glowing terms, calling his friend “one of the nicest men I ever met.”
Bobby Richardson, a Southerner, had no quarrel with and, in fact, had a genial relationship with Howard. Richardson admired him: “Dignity is a word that comes to mind when I think about how Ellie handled the pressure. Ellie was a true gentleman.”
Richardson, an unapologetic but not pushy Christian, organized chapel services for the team for those players who wanted to participate. It was Elston Howard who helped him spread the word about when and where the services would be held.
Richardson also recalled one game when he got hit by a pitch and thought it was intentional. Ellie Howard was among the first teammates up the steps of the dugout to defend their diminutive second baseman. The pinstripe ethos displayed itself yet again.
During those years, the young Howard boy, Elston, Jr., and the Richardson boy, Robby, played together, black and white, in the Yankee locker room. They took after the example set by their fathers.
In the stellar 1961 season, when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris slammed home runs chasing Babe Ruth’s record, Ellie Howard, the unsung regular catcher, recorded a batting average of .348. He contributed 155 hits, 77 runs batted in, and 21 home runs. His day-in, day-out consistency in defensive play and guiding the pitchers made for a not at all insignificant chunk of the Yankees’ incredible success that year.
Howard, both as a catcher and a man, exhibited courage and winsome confidence. On Elston Howard Night in 1964 between games of a double header at Yankee Stadium, his remarks to the 37,362 in attendance were few, but gracious.
“This was Elston Howard,” the Amsterdam News said, “eloquent but not loquacious, gentle but strong. This is a man whose acts and whose very character is represented in actions and deeds rather than words.”
Elston Howard passed away in 1980 at age 51.