After starring in baseball, football, and basketball in high school and declining several college athletic scholarships, Howard began his professional baseball career with the Kansas City (Mo. ) Monarchs of the Negro League in 1949; he batted . 375 for the Monarchs in 1950.
While with the Monarchs, he roomed with Ernie Banks, later a Hall of Fame infielder with the Chicago Cubs. After two years in the army (1951 - 1953), Howard played with Muskegon (Mich. ) in the Class A Central League, the Kansas City Blues in the American Association, and Toronto in the International League, where in 1954 he batted . 330 (22 home runs and 109 runs batted in) and was named the most valuable player in the International League.
In 1955, Howard became the first African American to play for the New York Yankees. First signed as an outfielder, he had been converted to catcher in the minor leagues, a move widely criticized at the time for seeming to delay the racial integration of the Yankees. Howard's career marks were no doubt lower because, even after his promotion to the parent club, he was a second-string catcher behind Yogi Berra for six seasons. During these years, however, he was a valued utility man who proved his versatility within manager Casey Stengel's platoon system. "Thank God, I was able to play more than one position, " Howard recalled. "That's what kept me going, the ability to fill in at first base and the outfield. " He batted . 314 for the Yankees in 1958, and he received the Babe Ruth Award as the outstanding player in the World Series with the Milwaukee Braves that year. As the regular catcher for the 1961 Yankees, arguably the greatest baseball team ever assembled, Howard batted . 348, hit 21 home runs, and batted in 77 runs. In 1963 he batted . 287, had 28 home runs and 85 runs batted in, and was named the most valuable player in the American League, the first African American to receive this honor. The following season, his salary was raised to $55, 000, and in 1965 to $70, 000.
Howard received the Gold Glove Award as the outstanding defensive catcher in the American League in 1963, when he had a fielding average of . 994, and again in 1964, when he set a major league record for putouts in a season at his position. Late in 1967 he was traded to the Boston Red Sox, the team that subsequently won the pennant. He appeared with the Red Sox in all seven games of the World Series against the Cardinals that year. Howard retired as an active player at the end of the 1968 season and returned to the Yankees as an on-field coach and later a front-office assistant.
The first African-American coach in the American League, he coached the Yankees for ten seasons. He declined an offer to manage in the Yankees' minor league system, though he aspired to become a major league manager. Although he was denied the opportunity, his name was often mentioned among major league managerial candidates in the mid-1970's. The Yankees won pennants in nine of the first ten years Howard was a member of the team. He played on nine American League All-Star and four world championship teams; had a career batting average of . 274 in 1, 605 games over 14 major league seasons; and had a total of 167 home runs. In 54 World Series games, he batted . 246 and hit five home runs. Never a flamboyant player, he was a leader by example on the field and, both as a player and coach, a peacemaker in the clubhouse.
Early in his career, Howard suffered the indignities of segregation during spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. , where he lived with a family. "The camp would break at the end of the day, " he remembered, "and you had to go back across the tracks to the black section to dress while the white boys would go back to the hotel to dress. " Even after receiving the MVP award in 1963, he was unable to rent an apartment for spring training in 1964. Still, he was soft-spoken on racial issues. His teammate Jim Bouton recalled that once he was "involved in an argument about civil rights" with Howard, Howard's wife, and an elderly sportswriter: "Arlene and I were the militants. " Bill White, a black baseball player, a Yankee broadcaster, and later president of the National League, eulogized him at his funeral as "a fighter in his own quiet way. " After joining the Yankees, Howard lived with his family in Teaneck, N. J. , where he was active in charity work and community affairs. Baseball "has given me all the things I never had, and it has granted me the opportunity to give my children a nice home and send them to college, " he told a reporter in 1964. His teammate and fellow coach Dick Howser believed that Howard "epitomized the Yankee tradition. " Before his death, Howard invested in a minority-owned printing business in Manhattan. He died in New York City of myocardinitis.
He was an agile athlete who was six feet, two inches tall and weighed about 200 pounds.
On December 14, 1954, he married Arlene Henley; they had three children.