While the Yankees weren’t the last team in baseball to integrate (that was the Red Sox), the club took their sweet time in making Elston Howard their first African-American player in 1955, eight years after the Dodgers brought up Jackie Robinson. Howard not only assumed catching duties from Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, he became one of the team’s most loyal and popular players, recording one of the highest fielding percentages (.993) ever at his demanding position. Howard died at age 51 in 1980, but despite the passage of time, Howard’s story is told by two people who knew him exceedingly well: co-author Arlene Howard, his wife, and friend Ralph Wimbish. Mrs. Howard was a close ally to her husband during his career, personally handling his contracts, while Wimbish’s connection to his childhood hero dates back to a time when Howard would stay with the Wimbish family in St. Petersburg, Fla., because the Yankees’ segregated spring training hotel didn’t allow black guests.
Here’s an excerpt from Elston:
“By the end of the 1958 season, the Yankees had the two best catchers in baseball. Elston always appreciated the way Yogi [Berra] and Bill Dickey had worked with him to develop his catching skills. Elston said being a Yankee catcher was like being in a special fraternity. In later years, he helped Thurman Munson. On and off the field, Yogi was a valuable friend. On road trips Yogi loved talking baseball with Elston. One time, I think it was in Milwaukee, Yogi took Elston to his aunt’s home and they had a big Italian dinner. Elston just loved that. When we settled down in our new home in Teaneck, [N.J.] Elston would hang out at the bowling alley that Yogi and Phil Rizzuto owned in nearby Clifton. Because Elston was such a team player, Yogi never felt threatened that Elston would eventually take his job. They were teammates. When we bought our house in New Jersey, it was Yogi who took a big interest. He and Carmen became very good friends of ours, and as the years went by, our families became close. Carmen and I would take turns picking up Yogi and Elston at the airport after road trips. Let me say this: Of all the Yankee wives, Carmen was the best dressed. I tried to keep up with her. We had a mutual admiration society.”