Elston Howard, historic Yankee
Jorge Posada’s appearance at Yankee Stadium Friday to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the home opener led to some discussion in the press box about how the former All-Star catcher might do five years from now when he will be eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot. I suspect he will get some decent support but ultimately will fall short, although I would be very happy to be wrong about that.
It made me think about Elston Howard, another perennial All-Star catcher for the Yankees as well as the 1963 American League Most Valuable Player. Howard never did get elected, but to his credit he remained on the ballot for the full 15 years of eligibility. And in thinking about Howard, it so happens that Saturday marked the 57th anniversary of his first major-league game, which was a significant day in Yankees history because he was the first African-American player in the club’s history.
Howard broke in with the Yanks April 14, 1955 at Boston’s Fenway Park. It was the team’s second game of that season. They had clobbered the Washington Senators, 19-1, the day before in the home opener, but Howard did not get into the game. He didn’t start the game against the Red Sox, either.
Remember, Yogi Berra was the Yankees’ regular catcher in those days and that year would win his third AL MVP Award. Howard was primarily an outfielder at that time (he would later play some at first base) and caught in only nine games in 1955 – four as a starter.
Yankees manager Casey Stengel inserted Howard into the game as a defensive replacement for left fielder Irv Noren in the sixth inning. Howard batted against Boston righthander Willard Nixon, the winning pitcher in the Red Sox’ 8-4 victory, got his first hit and run batted in when he singled in Mickey Mantle from second base in the eighth inning.
Howard played in the first of his 10 World Series that year and unfortunately made the final out of Game 7 on a grounder to Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Ellie and Pee Wee share a dubious distinction as the players who were on the losing side most often in World Series play – six times. Howard did get to play on four World Series champions whereas Reese only had that 1955 ring.
Berra and Howard shared catching duties in 1958, ’59 and ’60 before Ellie took over as the regular in 1961 and hit .348 while Yogi went into a left field platoon with Hector Lopez. In 1963, Howard had career highs in home runs (28) and RBI (85) and batted .287 to earn MVP honors.
As it turned out, Howard’s last game was also at Fenway Park – Game 7 of the 1967 World Series. The Yankees had traded him to Boston Aug. 3 that year, and he played a big part in the Red Sox’ “Impossible Dream” season as they won their first pennant in 21 years but lost to the Cardinals in seven games in the World Series.
Ellie eventually returned to the Yankees as a long-time coach before his death in 1980 at the age of 51. His uniform No. 32 was retired in 1984 on the same day the Yankees also retired No. 9 for his old teammate, Roger Maris.