Elston Howard joined the Yankees in the spring of 1955 to become the first African-American player in the franchise. Even though Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier eight years prior, it was not as if those that followed received a warm welcome. I cannot bring myself to put into print the comments made by his manager and some of his contemporaries about him when he joined the team. Suffice to say that he did not walk into a warm, fuzzy, supportive environment.
His next obstacle was the fact that there was no room for him on the field. He came up as a catcher, yet no one was going to play him in place of Yogi Berra, the reigning American League MVP. Without a DH rule, the only place to put him was in the outfield, occasionally spelling Mickey Mantle and Hank Bauer. None of this stopped him, as he made the All-Star team in 1957 without a main position in the field. He would be named to every American League All-Star team through 1965.
Howard would help the Yankees reach the World Series nine times as a player, winning four of them. He was the American League MVP in 1963 - the first African-American player to win the honor. He was a lifetime .274 hitter with 167 home runs and a .427 slugging percentage. Even more than his bat, his play behind the plate was stellar. He had a career fielding percentage of .992, despite the fact that he played significant time as an outfielder and first baseman. The fact that he only has two gold gloves as a catcher is quite surprising.
Howard went on to coach for the Yankees during the 70's. Many of those that played under him noted his leadership and his skill at mentoring young players. He famously blocked Reggie Jackson in the dugout in Fenway Park, keeping him from clobbering Billy Martin, and encouraging Jackson to exercise better judgment.
Roger Maris was a teammate Elston Howard's between 1960 and 1966. He also encountered turbulence during his time with the Yankees. In his first season with the Yankees, he led the league in RBI and slugging, won a Gold Glove, was named to the All-Star team, and was the American League MVP. So what was the problem? Like many future Yankee stars, like Rickey Henderson and Randy Johnson, he failed to endear himself to the New York media. His accomplishments got brief mentions, and his failures got lots of press. As it was wonderfully documented in the movie 61*, he was pitted against teammate Mickey Mantle over the race for who would break Babe Ruth’s record.
Despite all the pressure on him, in 1961 he succeeded on hitting 61 home runs in a season, still his most famous accomplishment. He also became the American League MVP for the second consecutive year, leading the league in HRs, Runs, RBI, and Total Bases. After a few years, his injuries finally caught up with him and it affected his playing time. The press had a field day with him. By the time he left the Yankees, he was convinced that he was a hated man in New York.
It was not until 1978, when the Yankees invited him to join in the hoisting of the 1977 World Series banner, that he got the hero’s welcome that was long overdue. By his own admission, he was not sure how the fans would react. The loud cheers welcomed him back, and he became a regular in the next few Old Timer’s games.
Elston Howard was diagnosed with myocarditis in 1979, He passed away on December 14, 1980, at the age of 51. Roger Maris was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1983. For the 1984 Old Timer’s Game, the Yankees made a great decision to honor both of these men for their contributions to the franchise. On July 21, 1984, with Roger Maris in attendance, numbers 32 and 9 were retired and plaques were erected in Monument Park for these two men. The timing could not have been better for Maris, who died just 17 months after the event.
It has been 30 years now, and maybe this is a good time to reflect. We do not honor them just because of their accomplishments. We honor them because of the fact that they did so under severe duress. Both of these men were attacked by their own. People who considered themselves strong loyalists to the team and loyalists to the values that they thought the team represented verbally harassed them. None of it was fair. Yet there is no record of them retaliating, or responding untowardly. They went about doing their job, doing it with class and excellence, and accumulating a few World Series Rings, MVPs, and Gold Gloves along the way. For that, I tip my hat to them.