Elston Gene Howard
- Bats Right, Throws Right
- Height 6' 2", Weight 200 lb.
- High School Vashon High School
- Debut April 14, 1955
- Final Game September 29, 1968
- Born February 23, 1929 in St. Louis, MO USA
- Died December 14, 1980 in New York, NY USA
Elston Howard played the outfield in the Negro Leagues for three years, switched to catcher for three seasons in the minors, and played 14 years in the majors, mainly for the New York Yankees, with a season and a half at the end of his career with the Boston Red Sox. He was the first black player to play for the Yankees.
Because of Yogi Berra, one of the greatest catchers in history, Howard played primarily in the outfield for the Yankees from 1955 to 1957 and more at first base than at catcher in 1959. In 1958 and from 1960 onwards he was mostly at catcher, as Berra moved to the outfield to accommodate him.
Elston attracted quite a bit of attention when he hit .348 in 1961, something that was unusual for a catcher. He had previously hit .314 in 1958 and would go on to hit .313 in 1964. In addition, he was the American League MVP in 1963, a year in which he did not hit .300 but had his career high of 28 home runs. In spite of his limited time as a starter with the Yankees, he is considered part of the great Yankee catching tradition that goes from Bill Dickey to Berra to him to Thurman Munson (and to Jorge Posada in more recent years). He was thought of so highly by the Yankees that after he died in December of 1980, the team wore a black arm band in his honor during the 1981 season and World Series.
Howard hit a homer in his first World Series at bat in 1955 and tied the following World Series records: most hits, inning (October 10, 1960: 2); most long hits, five game series, (1961: 4); most passed balls, game, (October 7, 1964: 2). He established AL catcher's records for putouts (939) and total chances accepted (1006) in 1964. He was the starting catcher for the Boston Red Sox during the second half of their Impossible Dream season of 1967; while his batting skills were gone by then, he was still an excellent defensive catcher and received much credit for achieving great results with a young and not particularly talented pitching staff as the Red Sox lost the World Series in seven games. He then returned for a final season with Boston in 1968.
Upon his retirement as a player, he was a Yankee coach from 1969 until 1978, but had to give up the job because of heart trouble. He died a premature death at age 51 from heart failure. He is interred at George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, New Jersey.
Howard was a trendsetter in many ways. In addition to being the first African-American Yankee, he is also widely credited as the creator of the batting donut. He also served two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, missing the 1951 and 1952 seasons. One can argue that, were it not for the playing time lost to military service, the color barrier, and being stuck behind the great Berra, Howard would may have been able to fashion a Hall of Fame career. As his peak he indeed put up Hall of Fame numbers for a catcher, and also was a respected handler of pitchers. Ironically, he was kept by the Yankees as a back-up for so many years because he was so good; a lesser player would have been traded, but the Yankees brass recognized that in Howard they had one of the very top catchers in baseball after Berra and Roy Campanella and did not want to let go of such a talent even if they were unable to use him to his full potential.
Howard was highlighted in Heroes Behind the Mask as one of the top catchers of all-time.
- 1954 MVP International League Toronto Maple Leafs
- 9-time AL All-Star (1957-1965)
- AL MVP: (1963)
- 2-time AL Gold Glove Winner (1963 & 1964)
- 20-Home Run Seasons: 3 (1961-1963)
- Won four World Series with the New York Yankees (1956, 1958, 1961 & 1962)
|Mickey Mantle||Elston Howard||Brooks Robinson|
- Elston Howard (as told to Tom Capezzuto): "The Game I'll Never Forget", Baseball Digest, July 1978, pp. 76-79.