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The First Black Player on the Yankees

"No one in the Yankee organization made me conscious of my color." - Elston Howard

Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color line on April 15, 1947.  It was not until April 14, 1955 that Elston Howard had his moment with the Yankees of New York and became the first African-American to play for the team in the Bronx.

A marker date for Howard was July 19, 1950 when the Yankees purchased his contract and that of pitcher Frank Barnes from the Kansas City Monarchs. Both were  assigned to Muskegon in the Central League.

Elston Howard was the International League's Most Valuable Player in 1954 and could have been the regular catcher for most major league teams in 1955 but not the Yankees. Lawrence Peter Berra was in his prime.

"So Howard bided his time," Irvin said.  He also had to suffer through the indignity in spring training of not being able to stay with the rest of the team at their hotel in segregated St. Petersburg; he had to be put up by a family in the black section of town. He bore up under this, too.

"Elston was quiet, efficient, good quick and accurate arm," Monte Irvin continued. "He paved the way for the first blacks on the Yankees."

Casey Stengel utilized Howard from 1955-1957 at first base, the outfield, catcher.  An American League All-Star nine straight seasons (1957-1965),a two time Gold Glove catcher, Howard batted over .300 three times.

The 1958 World Series against the Braves was a time that Howard especially showed off his talents. In the fifth game, with the Yankees trailing 3 games to one, Howard playing left field robbed the Braves of a hit, doubling a runner off first base. In Game Six, he collected two hits, and in the final game drove in the run giving the Yankees the series. He was named the World Series MVP, the first black to get that award.

In 1961, new manager Ralph Houk moved the aging Yogi Berra to left field and created the opportunity for Howard to finally be the became the everyday Yankee catcher.  He batted a career high .348 with 21 homers. In 1962, he again hit 21 homers, upping his RBI total to 91.

Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris missed playing time in 1963 with injuries; Howard, often batted cleanup, taking up the slack as team leader, hitting .287 with a career high 28 home runs. He won the 1963 American League MVP award.

In 1964, he won his second Gold Glove, and led American League catchers with a .998 fielding mark, as the Yankees won their fifth straight pennant.

An exceptional defensive catcher, highly regarded as a handler of pitchers, Howard pioneered the use of a hinged catcher's mitt that led to the modern one-handed catching techniques.

Traded to Boston in 1967, Howard returned to the Yankees a couple of years later where he coached for eleven years. When he passed away in 1980, Red Barber said: "The Yankees lost more class than George Steinbrenner could buy in ten years."

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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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