Yanks' Howard followed in Jackie's footsteps

Yanks' Howard followed in Jackie's footsteps

Yanks' Howard followed in Jackie's footsteps
NEW YORK -- Almost eight years to the day that Jackie Robinson shattered baseball's color barrier, Elston Howard dug his spikes into the batter's box of Boston's Fenway Park and integrated the game's winningest franchise.

In their 53rd season of operation, the Yankees officially employed an African-American player on their active roster when Howard suited up on April 14, 1955. The talented prospect debuted in splendid fashion, lacing a single to center field that knocked home Mickey Mantle from second base.

"I know he was very excited and very pleased and probably a little scared, I guess," said Arlene Howard, the former Yankee's widow. "There was controversy. He was very, very aware of that, but his teammates, there was no controversy with them. He was a Yankee. I think all of his teammates felt the same way, that he was there to help the team."

As a chapter in the game's history was concluding, with only the Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox left to integrate among the original 16 clubs, Howard was beginning a 14-year big league career that would see him be selected as the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1963. He would appear in 10 World Series, winning six.

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Howard, who passed away in December 1980, is immortalized in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park, where his No. 32 has been retired by the club. While Howard was well received in the clubhouse, his arrival was delayed by what is widely believed to have been racism at the top of the Yankees organization.

Yankees general manager George Weiss reluctantly responded to cries for integration by signing several black players to Minor League contracts in the early 1950s, one of whom was Howard, a standout from St. Louis who had been discovered while playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.

Though the big league club seemed in no hurry to integrate -- and Weiss made comments to that effect during the time -- Howard forced Yankees brass to take notice by returning from military service and winning the International League MVP award in 1954 while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Scouts believed the strong-armed Howard might develop into a catcher and assigned him to work with Bill Dickey during the spring of '55. The awkward situation struck a chord with no less an authority than Robinson himself, who was still playing with the Dodgers at the time.

"One of the comments Jackie often made was, 'I think your job is tougher than mine, because Branch Rickey and the Dodgers went after me and supported me,'" Arlene Howard said. "The Yankees really didn't at the time -- they were the Yankees and they always won anyway. They had to be sort of forced into hiring a black player."

Yankees manager Casey Stengel has been quoted with comments toward Howard that today appear racially insensitive, but Arlene Howard dismisses the remarks as "garbage" and says Stengel was a "paternal" influence on the young player's career.

While the Yankees were on a trip to Japan after the '55 World Series, Arlene gave birth to the first of the couple's three children, Elston Jr. She recalls that it was Stengel who placed the long-distance telephone call.

"He was kind to Elston, but he had Yogi Berra, and he was a top catcher at the time," Arlene Howard said. "I hear all of that. Casey was of his time and that era, so there may have been some terms that people used at the time, but there was no outright racism from Casey. I thought he was very kind."

Robinson had been met coolly by several Dodgers in 1947, but Howard had no such trouble in the Bronx. Mantle took a liking to him, and Howard's widow named shortstop Phil Rizzuto and third baseman Andy Carey as fast friends. He was also close with Berra, who would eventually be succeeded by Howard as the starting catcher.

"I'm sure Yogi and he hit it off because they'd both been from St. Louis," Howard said. "When the Yankees went to St. Louis, Yogi would invite him over to his mother's for a big Italian dinner."

Even though the Major Leagues' integration was nearly complete, players of the time still dealt with segregation over the course of the schedule.

When Howard arrived in St. Petersburg, Fla., for Spring Training, he was told that he could not sleep in the team hotel. A similar situation occurred during a road series in Chicago, and the Yankees unified behind the future two-time Gold Glover.

"I do remember Elston relating to me an incident where Casey told the traveling secretary, 'If Elston can't stay in Chicago, we're not staying there,'" Howard said. "Of course, he stayed."

After being traded to the Red Sox in 1967, Howard completed his playing career with a lifetime .274 batting average and 167 home runs. He later returned to the Yankees as the AL's first black coach, where he helped the club win two more World Series trophies in 1977 and 1978.

"I think [the Yankees meant] a great deal to Elston," Howard said. "They were still the best team going and won more championships than anyone. He was very proud to be a Yankee; very proud."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.