There has always been something special about the #32. I can’t explain what it is but I can tell you that it has been worn by many of the very best athletes in all of sports. The first time I noticed the #32 was as a kid watching the great Jim Brown run for the Cleveland Browns. Then Billy Cunningham made the #32 popular at the University of North Carolina before playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton, both Hall of Fame pitchers, wore #32, while “Magic” Johnson, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton, Scottie Pippin, and Karl Malone also earned Hall-of-Fame status in the NBA wearing that number. Don’t forget O.J. Simpson who also wore #32. Buck Leonard of the Negro Leagues made the #32 famous, and he has also been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Dale Hunter of the Washington Capitols, Jason Kidd with the Phoenix Suns, and Sean Elliot of the San Antonio Spurs all wore #32. Edgerrin James and Ricky Watters are also on the list. But there is one fellow who slides under the radar when speaking about the #32. His name is Elston Gene Howard, the first African-American to play for the New York Yankees.
Elston Howard was born in St. Louis, Missouri. “Ellie” was a big strong guy who usually played the part of peacemaker. He owned a great smile that displayed the gap between his two front teeth. A four-sport letterman in high school, he is now in the Missouri Hall of Fame. Howard tried out for the Cardinals in 1948, as an outfielder. He was never called back. Ellie later joined the Negro Leagues, the K.C. Monarchs. His manager was Buck O’Neil, and he roomed with Ernie Banks. “If I had a boy, I would want him to be like Elston,” said O’Neil. Howard later signed with the Yankees and was sent to their Minor League team known as the Kansas City Blues. He spent three years being converted to a catcher, by Bill Dickey. The Yankees already had an African-American power hitter by the name of Vic Power in the Minors, but felt that Power was too flashy to fit the Yankee mold. Power was traded in 1953, leaving Howard on deck. Howard was sent to the International Leagues where he not only hit .331, but was voted the MVP of the league. He was ready but the American League integrated much slower than the National League. In 1954, New York did not win the American League pennant, which may have helped Ellie. In 1955, there were still four teams that did not have an African-American player. One of this those teams were the Yankees, who brought Howard up in 1955. Yes, New York needed an African-American player but they also needed a Yankee. His first game was April 14, 1955, and he did not disappoint. Ellie hit .290, 10 home runs and 43 RBI’s, while platooning with Yogi Berra and Johnny Blanchard. He also became the sixth player in MLB history to hit a home run in his first World Series at-bat, against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Howard played about 100 games in 1956 and 1957. In 1958, Elston Howard became the first African-American to be named a World Series MVP, as the Yankees beat the Milwaukee Braves.
In 1960, Howard started more games at catcher as Yogi played in left field. Ellie would knock a pinch-hit home run in Game One and hit a smoking .462 in the World Series, against the winning Pittsburgh Pirates club. Casey Stengel was fired after the Series, and Ralph Houk took his place. The first move Houk made in 1961 was to designate Elston Howard as the Yankees’ starting catcher. Howard swatted .348, and the Bombers never looked back. “I’m very fortunate to be with the Yankees,” said Howard. “This is the greatest thing in my life.”
The year 1963 was huge for Ellie. Not only did he win the Gold Glove Award for the catcher’s position, but he basically carried the team as Maris and Mantle were hurt most of the year. For his contributions, Elston Howard would become the first African-American to win the American League MVP Award.
In August of 1964, the Yankees held an Elston Howard night at the stadium. Words like pioneer and “instrument of change” were used. The newspapers wrote, “He may be one of the most important Yankees ever.” Teammate Bobby Richardson said, “Ballplayers know who the greatest players are, and they all knew Ellie Howard.”
Howard injured his elbow later on, which required surgery. Unfortunately, he was still unable to straighten out his arm. He would never be the same. To his dismay, Howard was traded to the Boston Red Sox in the middle of the 1967 season. There he led the Red Sox to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals and helped Jim Lonborg win the American League Cy Young Award. After fourteen years, Howard retired from playing at the end of the 1968 season. In 1969, Howard became the first African-American coach in the American League with the Yankees and should have been the first African-American manager in 1973, but the Yanks chose Bill Virdon. “If Elston had played for any other club, he would be in the Hall of Fame,” said Bobby Richardson.
In 1978, Ellie was diagnosed with a rare heart disorder and suffered from inflammation of the heart muscle. He joined Phil Rizzuto in the broadcast booth as he was unable to fulfill his coaching duties. “I never felt like I had it made. I always played like I hadn’t got there yet. It’s been a long battle for me. When I look back on the years I can see where I earned whatever I got. Nobody walked up to me and gave me anything. I’m really proud of that. I’m really more proud of trying than I am of anything,” said Howard. Elston Howard died at the young age of 51 on December 14, 1980.
The New York Yankees retired Howard’s #32. He had played in a total of ten World Series. “He is the one person I really miss today,” said Ernie Banks. It has been said, there is no footprint to small too leave an imprint on the world. History will remember #32 Elston Howard.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.