Bronx, NY—April 15th of 2012 was the 65th anniversary of the integration of Major League Baseball (MLB). It was on the 15th of April that Jack Roosevelt Robinson played his first game in the majors. The momentous event that opened big league baseball to men of color was remembered in every major league ballpark in which a game was being played on the anniversary of that date.
Yankee Stadium was the site of the major celebration of the day as Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and daughter Sharon were present to honor Robinson. All personnel in uniform wore the number 42 in homage to Robinson’s accomplishment. Only Mariano Rivera wears that number for all games as he was given that right when the number was retired by MLB.
Several blocks north and east of Yankee Stadium, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts at 1040 Grand Concourse, another pioneer of the integration of baseball was being recalled by his widow. Arlene (Mrs. Elston) Howard was speaking of her husband, the first African-American to play on the New York Yankees.
After two years in the Negro League, Howard was signed by the Yankees on July 19, 1950, but did not play his first game with the team until April 14, 1955 when he was 26 years of age. After playing two seasons in the Negro League, Howard served in the military in 1951 and 1952. In 1953 and 1954, Howard played in the minors. His MVP year in 1954 for AAA Toronto eradicated the barrier that previously kept him out the majors.
Mrs. Howard and Ralph Wimbish, co-author of the memoir “Elston and Me” responded to questions. They recalled that then Yankees General Manager George Weiss was reluctant to sign an African-American player. He had previously traded Vic Power from the organization because Power seemed a certainty to reach the majors. Eight years after Robinson integrated the majors, the Yankees were the 13th of the 16 teams in the majors to integrate. The Boston Red Sox were the last.
His widow said Howard, although supported by most of his Yankees teammates, suffered from the discrimination prevalent in the United States at that time. She said the one who stood out for his support of her husband was Phil Rizzuto. She also mentioned Yogi Berra as being very supportive. The only teammate she said who was not supportive was North Carolina born Hall of Famer Enos “Country” Slaughter.
During Spring Training, Howard and the other African-American players were not allowed to stay at the same Southern hotels as their teammates and had to find other accommodations. She stated this was the major discriminatory obstacle which her husband was subjected to as a ballplayer.
Wimbish then explained his relationship with the Howards. His father was a doctor in St. Petersburg, the city where the Yankees trained during Spring Training. His dad assisted the African-American players secure housing and invited Howard to stay at their home.
The discrimination in housing did not exist only in the South as Howard’s widow said the couple bought a house in Teaneck, New Jersey because they could not find housing near the other Yankees. Their choice of a residence was criticized by public officials in the town because it was a restricted area.
Howard was initially assigned the position of catcher, which at the time featured future Hall of Fame member Berra. Thus Howard’s playing time was limited. Arlene Howard remembered, “I didn’t think he was given the opportunity he should have been given to play. That was the most stressful situation for me. I told him to ask for a trade.”
Howard was a member of the Yankees through 1967 and after 1.5 years with the Red Sox returned to the Bronx to serve as a Yankees coach. His contributions to the success of the club in the 1950’s and 1960’s were immense.
After his playing career ended, Howard became a coach in the hope he would become a manager in the big leagues. He was the first base coach of the Yankees for a decade until his health declined to a level in which he could no longer be in uniform. He was never given the opportunity to manage. When asked if race was a factor in this decision, she replied unhesitatingly, “It was strictly race that kept him and others from being a major league manager. He and others also had the qualifications. They were not ready for a Black manager. That was a sore point [for her husband].”
After the talk, Mrs. Howard and Ralph Wimbish signed copies of the book they wrote in 2001, “Elston and Me.” The timing of the visit and the importance of the information the pair imparted is huge as young people can learn so much from our past history.
The informative and important talk was arranged by Dr. Cary Goodman, the Executive Director of the 161st Business Improvement District (161 BID). Among the audience and speakers at the first session were Rep. Jose Serrano and City Council member Helen Foster. Arlene Howard was the first of several guest speakers scheduled throughout the first month of the 2012 baseball season. The Baseball in the Bronx exhibit will be on display through May 13.