Howard was a man of firsts for Yanks, MLB
Former catcher was first black Yankees player, AL MVP Award winner, AL coach
It has been more than 60 years since Elston Howard dressed in a road-gray Yankees uniform and stepped into the batter's box at Fenway Park, becoming the first African-American man to play for the game's winningest franchise.
Howard made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955, and the talented prospect's presence was felt almost immediately as he laced an eighth-inning single to center field to drive home Mickey Mantle from second base.
"I know he was very excited and very pleased, and probably a little scared, I guess," Arlene Howard, the former Yankee's widow, told MLB.com in 2012. "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."
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 during which he would be named the American League's MVP in 1963 -- the first black player to be so honored.
A two-time Gold Glove Award winner, Howard would appear in 10 World Series as a player, winning four. He returned to the Yankees as the AL's first black coach, helping the club win two more World Series trophies in '77 and '78.
Howard, who died in December 1980 at age 51, 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 as a player was delayed by what is widely believed to have been racial prejudice at the top of the Yankees organization.
Yankees general manager George Weiss reluctantly responded to cries for integration in the early 1950s by signing several black players to Minor League contracts, 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.
"One of the comments Jackie [Robinson] 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."
Tutored by Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey, Howard quickly proved to be a valuable contributor. Away from the diamond, he enjoyed the company of Mantle, shortstop Phil Rizzuto and third baseman Andy Carey, as well as Yogi Berra, whom Howard would eventually succeed as the starting catcher.
"I'm sure Yogi and he hit it off because they'd both been from St. Louis," Arlene Howard said. "When the Yankees went to St. Louis, Yogi would invite him over to his mother's for a big Italian dinner."
After being traded to the Red Sox in August 1967, Howard was credited with lending a calming presence to a pennant-winner that was remembered as the "Impossible Dream." He completed his playing career one year later with a lifetime .274 batting average and 167 home runs.
"I think [the Yankees meant] a great deal to Elston," Arlene Howard said. "They were still the best team going and won more championships than anyone. He was very proud to be a Yankee."