This is the post I wrote for Old Time Family Baseball’s 2013 Blogathon that’s going on right now. Please help him reach his goal of $3,000 by donating here. ALL PROCEEDS GO TO DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS.
How Elston Howard Made My Grandfather a Mets Fan
For my grandfather, Bernard Eisenberg, August 3, 1967 was a memorable date as any for him. It was on that day that his favorite Yankee, Elston Howard, was traded. And not only traded away from the Yankees, but traded to the Red Sox. It was that moment that forever sent my grandfather’s baseball fandom from the Bronx to Queens.
Born on February 23, 1929, Howard was a star athlete from Missouri. He turned down college scholarships to play for the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. After two seasons in Kansas City the New York Yankees bought out Howard’s contract. But his professional career was delayed when Howard was sent overseas, presumably to fight in Korea. But his playing ability led Howard to be re-assigned to Japan to play ball for the duration.
Returning from Asia in 1952, Howard would spend two more seasons in the minor leagues before making his debut on April 14, 1955 at Fenway Park.
For all his talent, two things stood in his way: Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel. Berra, of course, was the Yankees current catcher who would earn ten World Series rings while wearing pinstripes. A future Hall of Famer it would be tough to get Berra out from behind the plate. And manager Casey Stengel made it no easier.
Stengel was not keen on black players in the majors and even commented, when Howard was brought to the team, “Well, when I finally get a nigger I get the only one who can’t run.” Stengel would often call Howard “eight ball” – to his face. As so often happens in sports, play on the field offered an opportunity to overcome prejudice off of it.
Playing behind Berra, and in left field otherwise, Howard would make his first All-Star game in 1957. It would be the first of twelve All-Star appearances. By 1958, Howard was earning MVP votes, finishing 17th in the balloting with a .997 fielding percentage – having played five different positions. His postseason play earned him that season’s Babe Ruth Award.
Beginning in 1960 as they Yankees began a streak of five consecutive World Series appearances, Howard hit his peak. Now the starting catcher, Howard not only became a defensive standout but also increased his offensive production. It culminated in 1963 when Howard was voted the first African American MVP in the American League.
As the Yankees began their collapse that would see a World Series drought from 1965 through 1975, Howard’s role diminished as the team rebuilt. Finally on that fateful August day in 1967 Howard was traded to Boston.
But Howard was always a Yankee. The day after Howard retired from baseball he was hired as the Yankees first base coach, the first African American to hold that position in baseball. After 17 seasons behind home plate, he would spend ten more ninety feet away.
In February 1979, Howard collapsed and was diagnosed with myocarditis. As the virus attacked his heart he was forced to leave the Yankees. He would die on December 4, 1980 at the age of 51. In 1984, the Yankees would retire his number 32. All those who met Howard noted that he was not only a great player but a great man.
Thirty-one years after Elston Howard died, we adopted our son Jamari. When our first son Andrew was born we gave him the middle name “Gehrig” in honor of my favorite player. In order that Jamari not feel excluded, we gave him the middle name “Elston” a tribute to Mr. Howard and my grandfather.
Sources: SABR.org, Baseball-Reference.org, and Retrosheet.org
Image: Elston Howard’s 1956 Topps card, courtesy of vintagecardprices.com