As we think back sixty years ago to that memorable 1961 baseball season what first comes to mind is the dramatic race to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Many of us remember how Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris battled neck and neck to overcome Ruth’s mark of 60 home runs which had seemed insurmountable over the previous 34 years. If you are old enough you might even recall the primitive TV graphics posting the home run number on the television screen after each blast by the M&M boys. But what most fans don’t recall is the other dramatic and potentially historic batting competition that occurred in 1961 which was the race for the American League batting title between Detroit Tiger first baseman Norm Cash and New York Yankee catcher Elston Howard. If Howard could prevail it would be the first batting title ever for a black player in the American League.
Ellie Howard was the first black ballplayer signed by the Yankees and began his career with the club in 1955. He had several solid seasons but had his breakout season in 1961 while Mantle and Maris were grabbing all the headlines chasing Ruth. Howard got off to a torrid start leading the league with a .391 batting average at the end of May and continued to lead the league at the All-Star break with a stellar .369 average. Ellie had spent much of his big-league career as a versatile player splitting time in the outfield and behind the plate. He even played some first base. But when Ralph Houk took over the managerial reins after the firing of Casey Stengel, Houk was determined to use Howard exclusively behind the plate. Yankee legendary catcher Yogi Berra had become worn down catching for more than a decade and agreed to settle into the greener pastures of leftfield to ease the strain on his knees. Howard took full advantage of the opportunity and became the regular Yankee catcher performing brilliantly for the next four years until injuries limited his production.
It was a hot pennant campaign in 1961, and the Yankees battled the Tigers for much of the season as Cash and Howard competed for the batting title. But by late summer the Yankees had a 12-game winning streak during which Ellie was a red-hot 21-for-44 batting .477 and the Yanks pulled ahead and never looked back. At that point Howard still led the league with a .365 batting average though Cash was close behind at .360. As the Yankees coasted to the pennant Howard had his first slump going 1-for-18 in his last at bats of the season. Cash on the other hand remained consistent and won the title with at .361. Howard finished at .348. Throughout the entire 1961 season Howard’s batting average never dipped below .333. And despite his torrid hitting Howard mostly batted in the 6th or 7th position in the stacked Yankee batting order which somewhat diminished his run production that still amounted to a respectable 64 runs scored and 77 RBI’s by the season’s end.
Although Howard’s achievements may have been overlooked in 1961 his career accomplishments can never be. Ellie appeared in ten World Series (one with Boston) and was an integral part of four World Championships with New York. He was the first black Most Valuable Player in the American League and the first Black to be hired as coach in the AL. Incidentally it was not until 1964 that a black ballplayer won the American League batting title when Tony Oliva of the Minnesota Twins accomplished the feat as a rookie with a .323 average. Oliva would again win the AL batting title in 1965 and 1971.
As a footnote to that historic 1961 season Ellie Howard by the end of the season was 18 plate appearances short of what was required to qualify for the batting title. This was due primarily to the New York’s power-packed lineup and the sensational play of another under-appreciated Yankee, Johnny Blanchard who started 48 games behind the plate for the Yanks in 1961. Blanchard hit an incredible 21 home runs during his limited playing time averaging a home run almost every other game. Blanchard’s HR total matched Howard’s and together they combined for 42 home runs which is remarkable achievement for the catching position.
(Facts complied from the Baseball Almanac and Seasons of Glory.)