Howard's imprint on Yanks and baseball lives on

Trailblazing catcher contributed much on field but more with his courage

Howard's imprint on Yanks and baseball lives on

BALTIMORE -- Sixty years have passed since Elston Howard dressed in a road-gray Yankees uniform and dug his spikes into the batter's box at Fenway Park, becoming the first African-American player to appear in a game for the franchise.

Howard made his Major League debut on April 14, 1955, and the talented prospect's presence was felt before long, as he laced an eighth-inning single to center field that knocked 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, said 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 honored as the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1963. He would appear in 10 World Series as a player, winning four, and he returned to the Yankees as the AL's first black coach, helping the club win two more World Series trophies in 1977 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 racism 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."

Howard quickly proved to be a valuable contributor on the field. 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 1967, Howard completed his playing career 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."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.