The National League had Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, and Maury Wills. The American League had nobody for 13 years.
After the 1963 season, the American League finally had Elston Howard. The New York Yankees’ catcher was the first black player to become the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
“We’re Going to Make a Catcher Out of You”
When he got out of the army in 1953, Elston Howard reported to the Yankees’ farm team at Lake Wales, Florida. Yankees’ scout Bill Skiff handed Howard, who was an outfielder, a catcher’s glove.
“Try this on for size,” Skiff said to Howard. “We’re going to make a catcher out of you.”
About a week later, Bill Dickey, the greatest catcher to ever play the game, worked with Elston, teaching him, as Yogi Berra once said when Dickey helped him, “his experience.”
Howard was sent to the Triple A Kansas City Blues, which was the Yankees’ top farm team before their top farm team became Arnold Johnson’s Kansas City A’s.
Manager Harry Craft put Ellie in the outfield, but one of the catchers was hurt and the back-up backstop was in a terrible slump. Howard became the Blues’ catcher for most of the season.
At spring training in 1954, Yankees’ manager Casey Stengel bluntly told Howard:
“You’ll never make it as an outfielder. Even though we have a lot of catchers here, none hits the long ball except you and Mister Berra. So I want you to be ready when I need you.”
Stengel was talking long range, not 1954. Howard spent the season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Howard Realized What He Was Up Against.
“I realized from the start that I was second-string to a man who is a cinch to be elected to the Hall of Fame some day. When I broke in, Yogi and Campanella were the best there were. Thank God I was able to play more than one position.”
Ellie joined the Yankees in 1955, catching only nine games and playing the outfield in 75.
In 1961, when Ralph Houk replaced Stengel as Yankees’ manager because Stengel committed the sin of getting older, Ellie became the Yankees’ regular catcher, but Elston Howard’s greatest moment had occurred in 1958.
It was the fifth game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees trailed the Braves, three games to one. They were clinging to a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning.
With one out and the Braves’ speedy Billy Bruton on first base, Red Schoendienst hit a looping line drive into left field that seemed to be a certain hit.
Bruton had been off with pitch when the slow-footed but sure-handed Elston Howard lunged, caught the ball off the top of his shoes, and fired to first base to double up Bruton.
The Yanks won as Bullet Bob Turley shut out the hard-hitting team from Milwaukee.
In the seventh game, Mr. Howard, as the great Red Barber sometimes called him, singled home Yogi in the eighth inning to snap a 2-2. The Yankees became World Champions once again.
The American League’s Most Valuable Player
In 1963, Elston Howard hit .287 with 28 home runs, 85 RBIs, a .342 on base average, and a .528 slugging average.
Ellie did not have the spectacular flair of Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. He was a solid player whose value went beyond cold statistics.
Elston Howard had the heart of a champion, drove in clutch runs, kept rallies going, guided young pitching staffs, and helped the Yankees win five consecutive pennants. He was a winner.
Daley, Arthur. “Sports of the Times: The Solid Man.” New York Times. 8 November 1963, p.50.