The Ellie MVP vote
|Joe Posnanski||Mar 6, 2019|
In 1967, Elston Howard hit .178/.233/.244. That was a 42 OPS+. It made him worth roughly 1.3 wins LESS than a replacement player.
Somehow, he got an MVP vote.
Yes, it was a down-ballot vote ... still, I've spent so much time wondering about it. How did it happen? What in the world could that voter have been thinking?
Well, here is the story of how it happened.
Elston Howard, you undoubtedly know, was the first African American player on pretty much the only team that mattered, the 1950s New York Yankees. This happened in 1955 -- eight years after Jackie Robinson (but then again, four years BEFORE Pumpsie Green).
The Yankees had said for several years that they would sign an African American player, but only when the right one came along ... this was the standard line for those late-arriving teams. The Yankees general manager George Weiss famously said that the Yankees, "are averse to settling on a Negro player merely to meet the wishes of the people who insist they must have a Negro player."
In the end, Weiss' words had an ironic twist: Elston Howard was too remarkable in every way for the Yankees to turn away. He was humble, versatile, baseball savvy and impossible not to like. And he could really hit. Pioneers always have to be twice as good, three times as good, five times as good ... and Elston Howard was all of that and more.
"Elston Howard, the pleasant, clean-cut Negro lad, is certain to be the most talked of player in the camp, perhaps in Florida," The New York Daily News wrote as training camp broke that year. "As the first of his race to be given a genuine chance to crack the proud pinstripes of the Yanks, he is a marked man."
Then Joe Trimble wrote this in the Daily News two weeks later:
"Foes of integration -- and there still plenty of the same north of the Mason Dixon line -- could take a lesson from the quiet, unprovactive manner in which Elston Howard has become a Yankee. The Negro youth has won favor with the most important people of all -- his teammates."
Howard played his first game in pinstripes in Boston on April 14. The papers reported that he was generously applauded after cracking a single in his only at-bat.
Bill James has written about this repeatedly -- Elston Howard was a Hall of Fame baseball player trapped by perhaps the most unique set of Hall of Fame challenges any player has ever faced.
You look at it:
-- He didn't make it to the big leagues until he was 26 because (1) he started in the Negro Leagues and (2) he was drafted into the army during the Korean War.
-- He was almost certainly the second-best catcher in baseball from 1955 to 1960, but he didn't play much as a catcher then because the Yankees had a guy named Yogi Berra.
-- He was the PERFECT Casey Stengel player. This doesn't sound like a challenge, but it was. Stengel, as you know, was the master of the platoon. He LOVED playing different players at different positions; you basically had to be Mickey Mantle to play every day for Stengel. So he loved moving Howard around. In those years, Stengel had Howard play:
225 games in left field 209 games at catcher 57 games at first base 42 games in right field
As such, he didn't get 500 plate appearances in any of those seasons -- he actually averaged 374 plate appearances for those six seasons. But everyone still knew how good he was. He made the All-Star team five times. He was given the Babe Ruth Award for best postseason performance in 1958. In 1960 he hit .462 in the World Series.
-- Howard played half his games at Yankees Stadium which was a death trap of a stadium for a player of his skill-set.
1956: Batted 30 points higher and slugged 80 points higher on the road.
1957: Batted 30 points higher and slugged 80 points higher on the road.
1958: Hit 8 of his 11 homers on the road.
1959: Hit 13 of his 18 homers on the road; batted 80 points and slugged 150 points higher.
1960: Hit 45 points higher on the road.
1962: His 14 of 21 homers on the road; slugged 120 points better.
1963: Hit 17 of 28 homers on the road; slugged 100 points better.
1964: Hit 12 of 15 homers on the road, batted almost 70 points better.
In all, Howard hit 113 of his 167 homers on the road and slugged 40 points better.
When Stengel left after the 1960 season -- and with Berra fading -- Howard was finally given the catcher's job. And for the next four seasons, he was basically Yogi Berra during those years when Berra won three MVP awards.
Berra from 1951-55: .289/.358/.489, 133 OPS+, 8 runs above average defense.
Howard from 1961-64: .306/.354/.499, 133 OPS+, 27 runs above average defense.
In those four years, Howard made six All-Star teams (for a while there were two All-Star games per year), won two Gold Gloves and won an MVP award.
"I think everybody knows what I think of Elston," Mickey Mantle said. "We played together about 14 or 15 years, and I know that, if it hadn't been for Elston, there's about three or four pennants that we wouldn't have been in. He helped win 'em."
You know how much I love the numbers. But Elston Howard's Hall of Fame case has NOTHING to do with his career 27 WAR. With every single thing stacked against him, he was a staggeringly great player. There is no doubt in my mind that he belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But this essay is supposed to be about that MVP vote of 1967.
Howard, as you can see by the numbers, was more or less finished as a ballplayer by then. He was 38 years old. And the Yankees were in a transition period -- well, they stunk. The 1965 and '66 Yankees had been dreadful, and the '67 version was looking like the worst of the bunch. Mickey Mantle was on his last legs, same with Whitey Ford.
And time had finally run out on Elston Howard.
On August 3, 1967 -- with Howard batting less than .200 -- the Yankees did the unthinkable. They traded him. And not only that -- they traded him for a couple of pseudo pitching prospects and some much-needed cash. But it wasn't just that. They traded him to the rival Boston Red Sox.
"I always wanted to finish right here," a heartbroken Howard told the press. "I've been with this club so long. I won't cry, but I admit I am shocked. But I can't fault the team. They have to make some moves. This was a good chance for them to get a couple of young players."
Class all the way. At first, Howard considered retiring rather than going to the Red Sox. But his wife, Arlene, talked him into going. Arlene Howard is worthy of several essays herself. The two met when she was still in college. And she played a similar role in Elston's life that Rachel Robinson played in Jackie's life. She was his rock, his promoter, his sounding board and, when it came down to it, his conscience.
"You know, in a sense, Elston had it tougher than me,'" Jackie Robinson once told her. "At least I knew Mr. Rickey wanted me. But Elston didn't know if the Yankees wanted him."
For Arlene Howard, going to Boston was important. She always thought the Yankees undervalued Elston. For years, Arlene and Elston had stayed in a separate hotel from the team during spring training ... each year they promised it would be different and it was never different. She believed that the Yankees underpaid him. And, as you can see in the Jackie Robinson quote, she sensed that the Yankees didn't respect him.
So she was not going to let the Yankees write Elston Howard's ending.
"She reminded me that Boston isn't too far away from home," Elston told the press. "And then she added the kicker -- that she always had liked Boston."
You will remember this: 1967 was the year of the Miracle Red Sox. The Red Sox had picked up Howard to help the team down the pennant stretch.
"Howard will help us immensely," Red Sox manager Dick Williams said. "He'll help us in our drive right down to the wire, and won't tighten up in the pennant drive since he's been in so many of them."
On the surface, it does not appear that Howard helped much. He hit .147 and slugged .198 in 42 games with the Red Sox. But ...
... the one homer he hit was a three-run homer that won a game against Washington and moved the Red Sox into a tie for first place in the division. That got some attention.
.. he had a key RBI in a victory over the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
... most of all, he got a lot of attention for how he was handling the Red Sox pitchers.
"He's has been a steadying influence on the Red Sox' young pitchers," the Globe reported.
"They're learning so much from him," Dick Williams said.
"I like Ellie to catch me," Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg said. "He's got so much enthusiasm, he gets you excited."
"I hope he's back for next year," Carl Yastrzemski said.
The Red Sox won the pennant in remarkable fashion, then lost the World Series in seven games to St. Louis (Howard hit just .111 -- his bat was gone). But the good feelings that spread throughout Boston, well, Howard was a part of all that. And that's why he got that down-ballot MVP vote. It was a nod to the greatness of the man.
Howard played one more year with the Red Sox in 1968 -- his bat came back a little but only a little. He hit .241 and slugged .335. Then again, nobody else hit in 1968 either. Howard retired and, like his mentor Buck O'Neil, made some more history by becoming the first African American coach in the American League.