Compile a list of the greatest St. Louis-born athletes and it frequently starts with Yogi Berra who compiled a hall of fame career with the New York Yankees as an all-star catcher and manager. The man who replaced Berra behind the plate as Yankees catcher was also a St. Louisan.
Elston Howard was the first African-American to play for the Yankees. By the time he joined the Yankees in 1955, New York was the fourth-to-last baseball franchise to integrate, eight years after Jackie Robinson.
"Like Jackie Robinson, he didn’t get to the major leagues until he was 26 years old," said retired New York Post sports editor Ralph Wimbish, a longtime friend of Howard. "He had to go through the Army, he had to go through the minors, he went through the Negro Leagues."
Wimbish was in grade school when he met Howard. Wimbish's father, Dr. Ralph Wimbish, Sr. allowed Howard to stay at their home during spring training because hotels in St. Petersburg, Florida were segregated.
"My dad would bring him home because he needed a place to stay," said Wimbish. "He couldn’t stay with the Yankees at the white hotel, so my dad would put him in my bedroom. I was six years old or whatever. I didn't quite grasp why he had to do that."
Wimbish quickly idolized the New York Yankees who stayed in his room. Howard's gift of a child-sized Yankees uniform has been a treasured possession for most of Wimbish's life.
"God, I lived in that when I was 8 or 9 years old," recalled Wimbish. "Kind of a neat thing to have it, always been one of my prized possessions."
Wimbish co-wrote Howard's biography in 2001, "Elston and Me" with Arlene Howard, Elston's wife. The book details Howard's barrier-breaking career. After becoming the Yankees' first black player, Howard became the first African-American to win the American League MVP Award in 1963. When he joined the Yankees coaching staff he became the first black American League coach.
But he never became a manager, one of Howard's baseball dreams.
Had Bill Veeck been successful in buying the Washington Senators he planned to hire Howard to manage the team, but the franchise sale fell through. Several times George Steinbrenner could have hired Howard to manage the Yankees, but reportedly he didn't want to become the first team owner to fire the first black manager. Frank Robinson gained that distinction after the 1974 season.
"Well, that was just an excuse," said Wimbish. "He should have been manager of the Yankees for the '74 season."
Wimbish believes his longtime friend would have been a successful manager if he had been given the chance.
"He had quite a presence in the dugout. He was a leader. He would have been a great manager," said Wimbish. "Unfortunately he was just left being a coach, which is what he was from 1969 til he died in 1980."
The debate continues about whether the 4-time World Series champion should be in the hall of fame.