Recalling Elston Howard on MLK Day

Much more than just the first African-American Yankee.
Much more than just the first African-American Yankee.

Today, as we remember and honor civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I thought it would be fitting to look back at the career Elston Howard, the Yankees’ first African-American player.

Howard made his major league debut in 1955, 8 years after Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball’s history. Howard was superb from the get go, batting .290/.336/.477 in his rookie season, hitting 10 home runs in 306 PAs. Although Howard is best known as a catcher, he only was behind the dish for 9 games that season, playing outfield primarly. In fact, it wasn’t until 1960 that he became the Yankees’ primary catcher. Yogi Berra, of course, was in his way before then. Like most catchers, Berra eventually had to switch position, which paved the way for Howard to take over.

On the legendary 1961 Yankees, Howard had a breakout season. He had posted some good numbers in years past, but nothing like ’61. Simply put, Elston was a monster, posting a .408 wOBA, a .348/.387/.549 slash line, and blasting 21 homers in 482 PAs. All of this was good for 5.9 fWAR and a 151 wRC+. At that time, per wRC+, only Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane, and Ernie Lombardi (all Hall of Famers) had a better offensive season as a catcher than Howard. While offensive catchers are more prevalent these days, Howard was truly a rarity for his time.

1961 was the beginning of Howard’s peak, which lasted through 1964. While he was incredible during this run, it simply was too short for him to ever earn Hall of Fame honors. Some accomplishments during this stretch: both 1963 and 1964 were 7 fWAR seasons, while 1962’s 4.8 win year wasn’t too shabby, either. He hit a career high 28 home runs in 1963, when he also won league MVP. He finished 3rd in MVP voting in ’64.

Speaking of awards and recognition, Howard had plenty: 9 All-Star games, three top-10 MVP vote finishes (including one MVP award), and two Gold Gloves. He was also part of four World Series champion teams (1956, 1958, 1961, 1962). No Hall of Fame election, but he certainly will forever be remembered in Yankee lore.

Howard passed in 1980, and sadly never lived to see his name immortalized alongside other Yankee greats in 1984, when his number #32 was retired. His plaque reads:

“A man of great gentleness and dignity”
One of all-time Yankee greats
American League MVP in 1963
Winner of two Golden Gloves
A fitting leader to be first black player to wear the Yankee uniform
“If, indeed, humility is a trademark of many great men – Elston Howard was one of the truly great Yankees”

While it shouldn’t have ever needed to be proven, Howard (along with many others) showed that it didn’t matter what color of skin he was. He was just as good, and truly better, than many white players. Thankfully, shining examples like Howard and leaders like Dr. King pushed America toward the rightful equality experienced today.

Photo by Arnie Lee [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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