“If you can’t go in we don’t go in.”
Those were the words of Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin to Elston Howard, the first black Yankee, during spring training of 1955.
Billy Martin told me this story way back in 1975. Yesterday when I posted a caption on Elston because it was the first day of black history month, I was reminded of this yesterday by Billy Martin Jr.
Martin and Mantle fell in love with Elston Howard almost immediately upon meeting him. Billy knew right away that Elston might have some problems and talked to many of the players on the team. Mantle who was a brother to Martin, said that they would protect Elston and all members of the team.
During the spring of ’55, the team bus stopped late one night and the diner was not serving blacks. Mantle and Martin sat in the bus with Elston, while the traveling secretary took their order. Mantle jokingly would say that him and Billy would be Elston’s bodyguard.
Two years later, many of the Yankees were at the famed Copacabana night club celebrating a birthday. There were a group of bowlers at the next table. Sammy Davis Jr. was performing. The rowdy bowlers started making loud, racial comments. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with Billy, Hank Bauer and the rest of the Yankees. As I was told by Billy, he shoved the loud mouth at the table but Bauer knocked him out. Billy would be traded a week later for the incident. Billy once said that his heart was broken when he was traded, however he would never hesitate in protecting Elston or any true friend.
When George Steinbrenner got me to the Yankees there was a guy that worked for the boss that was not happy that the boss had hired me. He literally went out of his way to make my life miserable, especially if the boss would be out of town conducting business.
The Boss and the players knew that I loved working out with them so I was given permission to do so. (I was actually drafted in the second round by the Pirates in ’75). One day I was taking fly balls in right field when all of a sudden the person that worked for the boss literally walked out to the outfield pointed at me and pulled me off the field. As we were walking off the field the guy said, ‘When Steinbrenner is out of town you don’t need to be on the field.’ This was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I walked off the field with my head down but I could feel the eyes of the players and the fans on me. My tears streamed down my face because naturally I couldn’t fight back.
When we got into the stadium tunnel, the guy grabbed my arm and firmly took me to the visitor’s locker room. He took me to the back of the locker room where the players’ dirty shoes were and he told me to shine the shoes. He was saying some other insulting things when all of a sudden Elston crashed in and screamed at the guy to shut the fuck up. He then grabbed my arm and said come with me. The guy said, ‘What are you doing Elston?’ Elston said, ‘I’m taking him back to where Steinbrenner wants him to be, the Yankee clubhouse.’ Elston then told the guy that he would make sure to tell Mr. Steinbrenner exactly what happened. As you can imagine when the Boss came back all hell broke lose. I was called up to his office and I had to tell him what happened.
The guy didn’t get fired at that point but he never messed with me again. I was always grateful to Elston Howard for always looking out for me. However he looked out for everyone and I always understood why Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle and all the Yankees loved Elston Howard. The first African American to wear pinstripes and help open the door for all his people, he did a wonderful job for the Yankees in more ways than one.