On this date in 1955, Elston Howard became the first African American player to don the pinstripes for the New York Yankees. Quite often when cultural and societal firsts occur, some matters get a combination of forgotten or overlooked. In this case, many Yankee fans don’t realize how great of a player Howard was. Also, many Yankee fans don’t realize that the team’s track record with African American “firsts”…hmmm, how do I say…could use some work.
Let’s start with Howard the player: Howard shuttled between the corner outfields, first base, and catcher before becoming the Yanks’ full-time catcher in 1961.
Then – simply put – from 1961 through 1964, he was the best catcher in baseball. He led all catchers in WAR and OPS+, was an All-Star each season, won two gold gloves and the 1963 MVP (plus a third-place MVP finish in ’64).
And while playing for a team that won two World Series, four American League pennants and averaged 102 wins per season from ’61-’64, Howard was second on the Yankees in WAR over that stretch, trailing only Mickey Mantle in overall value. (Yes – Howard did have more WAR from ’61-’64 than Roger Maris…)
He was not just a good player, he was great. Again, an oversight on our part as fans that isn’t uncommon when “firsts” happen as more important societal and cultural gains are made. However, it also points out another overlooked aspect with the Yankees and their history of handling cultural firsts:
It’s not very good.
- MLB integrated in 1947. The Yankees integrated in 1955…? (Stops. Does math. Can that be right?) Keep in mind by 1955 Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella among other former Negro Leaguers, were not only in MLB, they were winning MVPs, Cy Youngs, Rookies of the Year and making All-Star teams. Even the densest of the dense of that era could see the mistakes that had been made and the changes that needed to happen long before 1955.
- Without checking, I can think of 14* African American MLB managers since Frank Robinson broke that barrier in 1974 (*which means there are probably a few I’m forgetting). And what do they have in common? None have managed the Yankees. The Yankees have had a managerial opening 23 times since 1974 and none were given to an African American – despite a few former Yankee players getting managerial jobs with other franchises.
- The Yankees have had one African American General Manager – Bob Watson. He, along with Gene Michael, assembled 90% of a team that would win four World Series in five seasons. He also resigned in February of ’98 under threat of being fired for refusing to trade Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte for Chuck Knoblauch. (I’ll give you a minute to re-read that last sentence.) And if you want to tell me “Well, Steinbrenner was unreasonable with many General Managers”, that’s true. But how many Yankee GMs who George was tough on took a team that wasn’t expected to do much to a 96 win, World Series winning season resulting in an MLB Executive of the Year award? None. And perhaps a little off track, but Watson’s successor getting much of the credit for the ’98 – ’00 teams without adding much to the rosters himself, and keeping his job for two decades makes the Watson departure look even worse.
I’m not a sociologist so I’m not going to pretend to know how the problem should be fixed – but there is a problem and it’s not just the Yankees. That’s my take home when thinking about Elston Howard’s debut, 65 years ago today.
That, and he was a great damn player.
Did I miss something? Let me know.
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