Howard to the Rescue

 

Career Year: Elston Howard – 1963

For four straight seasons, from 1960 to 1963, the New York Yankees won the American League pennant. Nothing unusual for those Yankee teams.

In those four seasons, the Yankees also fielded the American League’s Most Valuable Player, starting with Roger Maris in 1960 and 1961, then Mickey Mantle in 1962. Injuries would strike down the mighty M&M duo for much of the 1963 season, but the Yankees finished at the top in both the regular season standings and in the MVP sweepstakes.

The single everyday player most responsible for the Yankees’ success in 1963 – and for extending the Yankees’ MVP streak – was one of the most unlikely of Yankee superstars.

Elston Howard could hardly be called spectacular. Consistent, reliable, multi-skilled – yes. A true professional respected by both his teammates and opponents – absolutely.

After five seasons in the New York Yankees’ minor league system (and two years of military service), plus six seasons serving as the Yankees’ backup to Yogi Berra, Elston Howard finally emerged on the baseball landscape, batting .348 as a full-time catcher. He was already 32.

Yet what earned him the AL MVP was not a spectacular month or leading the league in any hitting category. What did it for Howard was the consistency that marked his career, the kind of consistency a splintered Yankee team needed in 1963 .

Howard carried the Yankees when they needed him. He pushed them into October when it seemed they had no chance for a fourth consecutive postseason appearance.

Howard had long been the most over-looked player on the Yankees’ potent roster. In his first five seasons with the club, he batted a combined .279 as Yogi Berra’s backup at catcher. The 1961 season was a breakout year of sorts for Howard, catching 111 games and batting .348, the second highest average in the American League. But he was 32 and a seven-year veteran already by the time he “arrived.” How much would be left in his tank?

As it turned out, Howard had plenty left. His batting average in 1962 slipped to .279, but he posted career highs in doubles (23) and RBIs (91) while hitting 21 home runs for the second consecutive year. Even though he would turn 34 before the start of the 1963 season, the Yankees were counting on Howard to be their everyday catcher. Almost literally, that was what Howard was. He would catch 132 games and over 1100 innings in 1963. He would also win his first Gold Glove.

But it was his bat that would make Howard most valuable in 1963. He batted .273 in April, and followed that in May batting .278. He caught 29 games in June, batting just .238, but bounced back in July, hitting .333 while catching “only” 22 games. Through the first four months of the 1963 campaign, Howard batted .279 with 19 home runs and 56 RBIs.

At the beginning of August, Maris was batting .288 with 19 home runs and 43 RBIs, but injuries would allow him to appear in only 23 games the rest of the way. Ditto for Mantle, only more so. The Yankee center fielder had appeared in only 36 games through the season’s first four months, batting .310 with only 11 home runs and 26 RBIs. Mantle would play only eight games in August before returning to the lineup full-time in September.

During his MVP season of 1962, Elston Howard led the Yankees in batting average (.287) and home runs (28). His 85 RBIs were second most on the team. Joe Pepitone drove in 89 runs.

Meanwhile, Howard was playing nearly every day, and getting clutch hits when they were needed. In the last two months of the seasons, Howard batted .305 with a .537 slugging percentage. He finished the season batting .287 with 28 home runs and 85 RBIs. His .528 slugging average was third highest in the American League, and he was fourth in hits with 172.

The Yankees rolled to their fourth consecutive pennant. They took first place for good on June 14, and finished the season 10.5 games ahead of the Chicago White Sox.

Howard won the Most Valuable Player Award in a romp. He got 15 of the 20 first place votes and finished 100 points ahead of runner-up Al Kaline.

He was the first African-American player to be named American League MVP. And he was the first catcher to win that award since Berra in 1955. Another catcher wouldn’t be AL MVP until another Yankee, Thurman Munson, would win it in 1976.

Of those three, Howard is the one not in the Hall of Fame.

3 comments
  1. Let’s be realistic. Howard is not HOF material. But he was a key player in keeping a fading Yankee dynasty alive. He also became a key leader on the ’67 Red Sox drive to the pennant, having been acquired in mid season. He retired after the ’68 season. He was the one who broke up Billy Rohr’s no hitter in April ’67 against the Red Sox with two out in the 9th.

    • Maybe, … but consider what his career numbers might have looked like if he hadn’t spent his 20s locked in the minors (until the Yankees were ready to integrate) and then playing part-time as a backup to Yogi Berra. Yeah, we’ll never know. He spent most of his prime in waiting. And Thurman Munson – God rest his soul – was more deserving?

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