Remembering Elston Howard
Shouldn't he be in the Hall of Fame?
Good morning, all! I hope you had a spectacular weekend!
It is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, the day we commemorate the Civil Rights leader. It is a day on which I am remembering Elston Howard, the first African-American player on the New York Yankees.
Sadly, it took the Yankees eight years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League baseball’s color barrier to integrate. Blame their myopic general manager George Weiss for that. Although he was an adept talent evaluator, building a string of Yankees championship clubs that lasted until the mid-1960’s, his record on race was reprehensible. The Yankees could have had Willie Mays. The Yankees could have had Ernie Banks. The Yankees could have called up the talented Vic Power from their minor league affiliate, but chose to trade him. All of this backward thinking can be blamed mostly on Weiss.
Howard, who had flourished under the great Buck O’Neill on the heralded Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, made his first start for the Yankees on April 28, 1955, the date of my birth. He went 3-for-5, scored two runs and knocked in two in the Bombers 11-4 win over Kansas City.
If the Yankees management was filled with prejudice, Howard’s teammates were not. Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra befriended him, making sure Howard was part of their social activities. When players went to eat in the hotel restaurant, Hank Bauer insured Howard was part of the entourage. And in May, when Howard stroked a game-winning triple, Joe Collins and Mickey Mantle laid out the ultimate teammate compliment, a carpet of towels from the locker to the shower.
“I’m sure Yogi and he (Howard) hit it off because they’d both been from St. Louis. When the Yankees went to St. Louis, Yogi would invite him over to his mother’s for a big Italian dinner.”
-Arlene Howard (Elston’s wife)
Not only was Howard the first African-American player on the Yankees, he was the first African-American AL MVP Award winner and the first African-American AL coach. He played in 54 World Series games. Only Mantle and Berra have played in more. He was among the first to hold up his index and pinky fingers to indicate to his teammates there were two outs in an inning. And in the days when players would simultaneously swing a weighted bat and regular bat in the on deck circle, it was Howard who invented the renowned weighted donut, that could be wrapped around a regular bat, to accomplish the same purpose.
One of the games I remember Howard for was long after the Yankees’ halcyon days. The date was April 14, 1967, the Yankees’ home opener, and I was huddled in front of my parents hi-fi set, listening to the game against the archrival Red Sox. Billy Rohr was one strike away from becoming the first rookie to pitch a no-hitter in his major league debut, when Howard broke it up with a single. Among those nearly witnessing history that day were former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and her son John. Coincidentally, later in that season Howard would be traded to the Red Sox, helping them to their first World Series in 21 years.
Then there was the game between the Yankees and the Red Sox at Fenway Park on June 18, 1977. Manager Billy Martin, at war with Reggie Jackson, yanked him from right field, during a game, claiming lack of hustle. The two nearly came to blows, but Howard stepped in between them, preventing further escalation of the embarrassing moment, caught on national television.
Howard, who never wore the slights against him on his sleeve, wanted to become the first African-American manager, but new, team owner George Steinbrenner passed him over in 1974. Steinbrenner defenders claim he was fearful of hiring the first African-American manager, because he would be known as the first owner to fire an African-American manager. I don’t know if I buy that, but in truth, Steinbrenner’s stewardship in areas of race, especially later in his tenure, were better than most owners of that era. Still, I remember the great line by New York Daily News sports columnist Dick Young, at the press conference announcing Bill Virdon as the new manager: “Off to the side to congratulate Virdon was coach Elston Howard, smiling with tears in his eyes.”
Howard, suffering from heart disease, died in 1980 at the much-too-young age of 51. The Yankees retired his uniform number 32 in 1984.
Yes, today is a good day to think of Elston Howard. It might not be a bad idea if someday soon, the Hall of Fame’s Veterans’ Committee thinks of him too, and enshrines him in his rightful place in Cooperstown. It would right another wrong.
Flaherty show casualty of pandemic
I always enjoyed David Feherty’s golf commentary and talk show Feherty on the Golf Channel. In fact, one of my favorite episodes was when he interviewed the great Bill Russell. Well, the show’s 10-year run has ended. The pandemic and moving Golf Channel’s studios from Orlando, FL to Stamford, CT are being blamed.
All is not lost, however. Feherty will still be part of NBC’s and the Golf Channel’s coverage.
Celtics vs. Lakers
I uncovered another nugget the other day on You Tube, five minutes of actual coverage of Game 6 of the 1963 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. What a treat. I hope you enjoy it. (By the way, the complete telecast is also available.
And, as always, thank you for your support.