1956 Elston Howard baseball card
There is a tendency to equate levels of racism with the order in which teams integrate between 1947 and 1959. Meaning that somehow the Dodgers, Giants, and Indians (all of which integrated very early in the period) are less racist than teams like the Red Sox who integrated last (“59). Maybe that’s true. I don’t have direct insight into the workings of the minds of Rickey, Veeck, Stoneman, and Yawkey or any other of the leaders of the period. I do know that if it’s true or not, there is one exception that has to be made from this thinking: the Yankees.
Now I’ve never been a Yankees fan but I’m willing to give them a pass on waiting until 1955 to integrate. The reason? Well, there are two of them. First, their unique spot in the baseball pantheon made it imperative that they get it right. Failure of black players in Philadelphia? Not a good thing, but not crucial. Failure of black players in the Bronx? Utterly devastating for integration in baseball. Three teams absolutely had to get it right. The first was Brooklyn, not because they were Brooklyn, but because they were first. The second team was Cleveland, again not because they were Cleveland, but because they were both first in the American League and they were in a position to prove that Jackie Robinson wasn’t a fluke. The third was, of course, the Yankees.
The second reason I give the Yanks a pass is because they were winning. As we like to say around here, “If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it.” And between Jackie Robinson’s arrival in Brooklyn and 1955 things in Yankess Stadium were definitely not broke. Between 1947 (Robinson’s first year) and 1953 the Yankees won every American League pennant but one (1948) and every World Series in which they played. Their Minor League system (including that so-call big league team in Kansas City) was churning out players yearly, they were making great trades, there were few serious injuries, and even Korea wasn’t hurting them as bad as other teams (except for Whitey Ford’s loss). Integration was going to be painful and when you’re baeball’s premier team and you’re winning why add pain to the mixture? To integrate risked losing white fans without picking up black ones. If white fans leave in Cleveland, there are black fans to replace them. Same in Pittsburgh. Not in New York where black fans had already gone to Brooklyn. It also meant alienating some of the power brokers in the city, it meant creating problems with the current team members. Both Yogi Berra (from Missouri) and Mickey Mantle (from Oklahoma) were from states that a lot of people saw as “Southern” and why create problems with two of your biggest stars? A quick aside to point out that neither Berra nor Mantle had significant problems with team integration, but the possibility existed. It created travel problems because some hotels refused to allow black patrons. As long as you were winning, why “mess with success?” Of course black players were good, so it didn’t hurt to start finding one and groom him, the team, and the fans for eventual integration.
Enter Elston Howard. Without trying to steal SportsPhd’s thunder with his “These Men Changed Baseball” series, Howard was from Missouri, played outfield for the Kansas City Monarchs, and was picked up by the Yankees (along with Vic Power) in 1950. He spent one year in Muskegon, Michigan, then went off to Korea for two seasons. Back with the Yankees system in 1953 he was at Kansas City then went to Toronto in 1954. He did alright. He hit .300, averaged 16 home runs, struck out more than he walked, and found himself changing positions.
As mentioned above, Howard was initially an outfielder. Most of you know him as a catcher. The switch occurred in the Minors. For some reason, the Yankees thought Howard could be converted to catcher. They asked former catcher Bill Dickey, also from Oklahoma and seen as a Southerner by many, to tutor Howard. Dickey had no trouble with working with a black man and Howard credited him with making him into a good catcher. But here we need to ask what’s going on? It’s not like the Yankees had great left fielders in 1953 and 1954. They had Gene Woodling (’53) and Irv Noren (’54) in left. And, well, that guy they had behind the plate in 1953 and 1954 won the MVP in 1954 (and would do so again in 1955). So it wasn’t like Howard was going to replace Berra anytime soon. So why the change? I’m not sure, but I can speculate that the Yankees saw Berra was aging. He was 30 in 1955, not exactly ready for Social Security, but for a catcher with a lot of games behind the plate, reaching a dangerous age. Give him a good backup, then as he aged, shift him to left field and keep the Berra bat in the lineup. Sounds like a good idea, right? Meanwhile the new guy could play some left while he backed up (Howard played 75 games in the outfield in 1955, 65 in 1956, 71 in 1957, and by 1958 was in a semi-platoon at catcher). In short it worked, but it also meant that Howard was going to get to the Major Leagues later (he was 26 in 1955) and that integration would come later to the Yankees. I’m not sure how much that last factor (integration coming later) mattered to the Yankees leadership. Maybe it was purposeful and indicates they were reluctant to integrate. Maybe it means that they were serious about getting both a left fielder and a backup catcher at the same time and were willing to wait on integration. Hopefully it was the latter. And, anyway, they were winning, so who cared? Of course they lost finally in 1954 and you’ll note that Howard made the roster the very next season.
The one thing I’ve been unable to determine in all this is the attitude of Casey Stengel towards integration. Stengel was also from Missouri (there are a lot of those in this post, aren’t there?), and was frequently heard to use the “N” word (and originally refered to Howard as “Eightball” ). It seems to have been a carryover from his childhood and a normal way of expressing himself (as if Casey Stengel ever had a “normal” way of expressing himself) without particularly racist connotations. Stengel had, over his career, recommended a number of black players to Negro League teams (including Hall of Fame pitcher Joe Rogan), so he knew black talent was available. Maybe he did believe in “separate but equal”, maybe he just expressed himself in ways we now find offensive, but it does seem that he had at least a little problem with accepting a black player to the team. Also, maybe I’m being overly critical of him, I don’t know.
Most importantly, it worked. Howard became an All-Star, became the first black player to win the American League MVP. The Yankees kept winning and integration kept going in baseball. Integrating the Yankees is crucial to making the experiment work. If there are great problems with baseball’s premier team, then integration can be checked. If the Yankees start losing, then the black guy can be blamed and another check can be applied. It didn’t happen and integration went on. The Yankees weren’t in the forefront of the issue, but they did handle it well and that, I believe, helped ensure it would continue apace. So I’ll give them a pass on late integration, something I’m not prone to do for other teams.