Book Reviews and Products
Elston and Me
The Story of the First Black Yankee
By Arlene Howard with Ralph Wimbish (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri 65201)
Reviewer: Marc Maturo, MarcMyWords.net; Lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) and sports copy editor for The Journal News, White Plains, N.Y.
Ralph Wimbish, the son of Dr. Ralph Wimbish, a civil rights leader who helped black ballplayers fight discrimination, does a wonderful job recounting the life and times of the late Elston Howard, as seen and told by his wife Arlene. This book, in essence, is written in Arlene's voice.
Elston, of course, is best remembered as a great and versatile catcher in the heyday of the famed New York Yankees. But Elston's career, which coincided with those of such legendary players as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, just to name a few, didn't end in the one way he truly wanted -- as the game's first black manager, a breakthrough that ultimately fell to Frank Robinson. It is precisely this disappointment, claims Arlene, that at bottom led to Elston's early death at 51 in 1980 (interestingly, Arlene's dad also died prematurely, at 48 of diabetes). Writes Arlene, in her closing sentence, "Still, one thought has become increasingly clear to me: Baseball killed my husband."
Yet Elston will never be forgotten, and the Yankees, if not baseball, made sure of that. On July 21, 1984, the Yankees officially retired Elston Howard's No. 32 in a ceremony in which they also retired Roger Maris' No. 9. In his memory, a plaque was dedicated in center field of Yankee Stadium.
Wimbish, in his preface, states strongly that Arlene deserves a plaque as well, as she was the driving force behind Elston and their three children. Sadly, only one child, Cheryl, is alive today to enjoy Arlene's warm, sincere, and openly critical remembrances of life during a turbulent period in our nation's history.
But despite the disappointments and the fights for justice (among them, Elston's battle to earn a fair contract), Elston and Me is not a sounding board but rather an insider's view of a figure in baseball. From the funeral through the farewell, Elston and Me delivers in the clutch and is a breezy read for baseball fans in particular and all sports fans in general.
What comes through above all else is that Elston was a true gentleman, despite his strong opinions and tough stances, although there was some talk that Elston was not vocal enough. Elston never liked being called an Uncle Tom, recalls Arlene, but there was not much he could do. "If that was the price it took for him to be a Yankee, so be it," Arlene writes. But most others understood and better appreciated Elston's demeanor, particularly those who were close to him. Listen to the Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford, who was dubbed Chairman of the Board by Elston. Ford said all of Elston's teammates admired the way he carried himself on and, more importantly, off the field. "So much dignity, so much class," Ford says.
This authorial duo eloquently recounts Elston's rise to prominence, including his professional start with the Kansas City Monarchs, who were to the Negro Leagues what the Yankees were to the American League. It should be noted, too, that the Monarchs, in 1929, were the first team to install lights for night games. The major leagues didn't have lights until 1935.
But what makes Elston and Me so very intriguing are not the mere recitations of facts and figures (that's not to forget Elston's .348 batting average in 1961) but the vignettes that are brought to life by Arlene, such as the time she accompanied Elston to a union meeting with Ford Frick, the baseball commissioner. In one of the meetings, Arlene brought up how much she thought the players were underpaid and mistreated, leading Frick to look at Elston and intone, "I see you brought your secret weapon."
Arlene also vividly recounts Dr. Ralph Wimbish's continuing support of the black ballplayers, who had to stay in different hotels and eat in different restaurants than their teammates. She also gives much credit to the strong-willed Bill White, who went on to become an announcer for the Yankees.
Elston's unshakable spirit -- exemplified in many ways as he fought to become first a Yankee and then one of the game's greatest catchers -- is traced to his religious faith. Elston and Bobby Richardson, his teammate and a very fine second baseman, were responsible for the formation of the Baseball Chapel, an organization that sets up services for major-league players. In 1965, Elston and Bobby organized prayer meetings before Sunday games on the road. "Elston would round up the players," remembers Richardson. "He would go up to them and say, ?I want you to be there.' By the final week of the season, we had the whole team there."
Elston, who was generally able to get along with anyone, had one particular longstanding feud with Eddie Stanky, who was known as The Brat and later managed the White Sox. "I've never hated many people in this game," Elston told the press after one game that featured brush-back pitches and a near brawl. "But I don't want anything to do with that runt. And you can quote me on that."
There are many other such anecdotes, too numerous to list. Pick up Elston and Me, a home run delivered by Arlene Howard and Ralph Wimbish.