Elston grew up in St. Louis as an only child whose father taught in a segregated high school. At Cashon High School young Howard was a four-sport letterman who excelled at basketball, football, baseball, and track.
He declined scholarship offers from Big Ten schools, opting to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. He roomed with Ernie Banks and hit well as a catcher-outfielder for the Monarchs.
Howard expected an offer from the Cardinals after spending four days at a Cardinals tryout camp, but the club never bothered to write him. Instead, Yankee scouts Johnny Neun and Tom Greenwade, the man who brought Mickey Mantle and Bobby Murcer to New York, signed Howard for $15,000 in 1950.
After a stint with Muskegon of the Class A Central League and another in the Army, Howard went on to play for Toronto, where he was the International League’s Most Valuable Player in 1954, hitting .330 with 22 homers. By then he was primarily a catcher, and he led the circuit with 588 putouts and 16 triples. But there were still two serious obstacles to his progress—race and Berra, who had just won the second of his three AL MVP Awards behind the plate for New York.
No African-American had ever played for the Yankees, one of the last major league clubs to become integrated. Vic Power had been targeted to break the color barrier in the Bronx, but Yankee management found him too controversial, so Howard became the pioneer by default. “The Yankees claimed they were waiting for the right man,” commented Siebern. “In retrospect, you’d have to say that they couldn’t have done better.”