65th Anniversary of Elston Howard and Bob Cerv playing for Harry Craft with 1954-55 San Juan Senators

Elston Howard

Bill Renna, a member of the 1953 New York Yankees, was playing winter ball for the 1953-54 San Juan Senators, when Harry Craft—San Juan’s manager—informed him of the December 16, 1953 trade involving 11 players. Renna, Vic Power and others went to the Philadelphia Athletics for 1B Eddie Robinson, pitcher Harry Byrd and others. Renna’s trade to the A’s made it possible for Bob Cerv to be a reserve OF for the 1954-56 Yankees. Conversely, the Yankees sent a signal regarding Elston Howard—who played for the 1954 Toronto Maple Leafs, Class AAA International League—that Howard (not Vic Power) would eventually be their first black player. Howard was also highly regarded by Craft, who managed him with the 1953 Kansas City Blues.

Harry Craft

“Craft was a good manager with San Juan (1953-54),” said Renna. “We had a better pitching staff than a hitting attack with Jack Harshman, Bob Turley, Cot Deal on the mound.” Craft had earned praise from Lee MacPhail, Jr., Farm Director of the New York Yankees, for managing Mickey Mantle in 1949 with Class D Independence and in 1950 with Class C Joplin. Charles F. Faber’s SABR bio of Craft, at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/4601bfcd, noted “Craft was proud of being the first professional manager of a 17-year old kid (Mickey Mantle) who became one of the greatest players of his generation.” Craft was born in Ellisville, Mississippi; moved to West Texas at age 11; but returned to Mississippi to attend Mississippi College, prior to signing with the Cincinnati Reds.

Circling back to Vic Power and Elston Howard, Power had just turned 27 when the Yankees traded him to the A’s. He mentioned—to the author—he had the ability to play for the Yankees a “long time,” but was not bitter. Power won seven AL Gold Gloves (GG) at 1B, from 1958-64. Per Lee MacPhail, “Vic was an outstanding fielder at first base—I am not sure I have seen anyone any better—and a good right-handed hitter with power. He was an aggressive player with an aggressive attitude, and the latter caused a few problems in the clubhouse. [George] Weiss and [Dan] Topping wanted to be certain that the first black player to play for the Yankees would be a role model…in 1955 Elston became the first black player to play for the Yankees. He was a fine young man who handled himself very well.”

Howard joined Harry Craft’s 1954-55 San Juan Senators about halfway through the 72-game season. The 25-year old Howard played LF for San Juan, since Joe Montalvo, Danny Kravitz and Luis “King Kong” Villodas were the catchers. Nino Escalera, the RF, made his MLB debut with the 1954 Cincinnati Reds, as that franchise’s first black/Afro-Caribbean player. Nino remembered Elston Howard as serious, hard-working and determined to make the 1955 New York Yankees opening day roster. Germán Rivera, San Juan’s 3B, recalled the Yankee-San Juan connection due to Harry Craft, the Senators manager, Howard and CF Bob Cerv, both Yankee prospects. King Kong Villodas, who had played for the Baltimore Elite Giants at one time, felt that Howard had all the tools to be a successful American League player and rooted for him.

Cecilia Tan’s excellent SABR bio of Howard is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/e6884b08. It mentions that Howard lived in the same building in Puerto Rico as Willie Mays and Sam Jones, stars with arch-rival Santurce. This was in the Carmen Apartments, across from Sixto Escobar Stadium, home field shared by the Senators and arch-rival Crabbers. Coincidentally, Howard’s first roommate with the 1948 Kansas City Monarchs was Earl “Mickey” Taborn, who spent three seasons with the Crabbers. Howard joined the San Juan ballclub after his December 4, 1954 marriage, and honeymoon in San Juan.

Howard started strong with 12 hits in his first 23 at-bats, with San Juan. The Sporting News of January 5, 1955, noted—via correspondent Pito Alvarez de la Vega—that “The addition of Howard has given San Juan a murderer’s row almost equal to that of Santurce. Three other Senators—Bob Cerv (New York Yankees), Frank Kellert (Baltimore) and Gene Freese (New Orleans), are hitting over .300.” (Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Bob Thurman, Buster Clarkson and George Crowe were Santurce’s “Murderer’s Row.”)  Howard stole the show in a 1954 Christmas Day win over Santurce (3-1), with a second inning triple and game-winning two-run homer in the sixth off Sam Jones, eventual League MVP.

On January 6, 1955, Three Kings Day (an Island Holiday), Howard’s single off Sam Jones broke his seven-inning no-hit effort, A week later, he homered off Jones in a 3-2 Crabbers win. For good measure, Howard hit another long homer against Jones toward season’s end, his third round-tripper versus Jones that winter. The soon-to-be first black player on the Yankees regular season roster finished his San Juan season with a .369 AVG—second to Willie Mays’s .395 for Santurce—with seven homers and 24 RBIs, in 122 AB. This was the equivalent of 28 HR and 96 RBIs in 488 AB. Howard had clouted 22 homers and driven in 109 for 1954 Toronto in 497 AB. He was in the Military—1951 and 1952—prior to his 1953 season with the Kansas City Blues.

Bob Cerv

Bob Cerv played for third-place San Juan (38-34) in the five-team league all of 1954-55, plus four post-season games versus second-place Caguas (42-30), best-of-five semi-finals. Cerv made headlines with a three-run HR versus arch-rival Santurce, October 17, 1954. (These rivalry games were part of the City Championship Series, a rivalry which began in 1939-40.) Cerv had nine HR through games of November 23, 1954, with San Juan in first-place at 15-8. The CF was on a pace to challenge Willard Brown’s single-season HR record of 27, set in 1947-48.

On November 28, Cerv hit HR #10 versus Mayagüez, in game two of a twin-bill. Don Zimmer homered for Mayagüez. Through San Juan’s first 30 games, Cerv was hitting .375 (30-for-88), with 10 HR and 27 RBIs. Mays (.415) was ahead of him in AVG; with Clemente (.371) just behind. However, Cerv’s 3-for-24 hitting slump saw his AVG drop to .321. He started in the OF for the “North” All-Star Team of San Juan and Santurce players, on December 12, 1954, versus the “South” comprising Caguas-Mayagüez-Ponce players. Rubén Gómez got the win; Clemente hit two HR; and Mays got an inside-the-park HR at Mayagüez’s Isidoro García Stadium.

Cerv ended 1954-55 with a league-best 19 HR, outpacing Clarkson (15), Thurman (14) and teammate Gene Freese (13). Cerv’s 51 RBIs were third-best after Clarkson’s 61 and Thurman’s 60. First-place Santurce (47-25) won 10 of its 18 games with San Juan to claim the 1954-55 City Championship. San Juan’s pitching staff of Larry Jackson, Arnie Portocarrero, Eddie Blake, Noel Oquendo and others could not match Santurce’s Sam Jones, Rubén Gómez, Bill Greason and Pete Burnside. The following Table illustrates All-Time single-season HR records by position, on a mythical San Juan-Santurce team. Three of these 10 players played for San Juan: Cerv (CF), brothers’ Gene (2B) and George (3B) Freese. Seven did so for Santurce, including three Cooperstown Hall of Famers: Willard Brown (LF), Orlando Cepeda (1B) and Reggie Jackson (RF).

Santurce (San) and San Juan (SJ) All-Time Team: Single-Season^ HR by Position

Player Team Pos Season AB Hits HR RBIs AVG
Jerry Willard San C 1983-84 201 68 18 48 .338
Orlando Cepeda San 1B 1961-62 245 76 19 53 .310
Gene Freese SJ 2B 1954-55 284 76 13 40 .268
George Freese SJ 3B 1955-56 267 83 16 49 .311
Buster Clarkson San SS 1950-51 261 78 18 61 .299
Willard Brown San LF 1947-48 234 101 27 86 .432
Bob Cerv SJ CF 1954-55 204 59 19 51 .289
Reggie Jackson San RF 1970-71 221 60 20 46 .272
Bob Thurman# San P 1948-49 264 88 18 65 .333
Rubén Sierra San DH 1997-98 219 65 16 52 .297
Totals:10 players     10 2,400 754 184 551 .314

^ Seasons ranged from 60 games in 1947-48 and 1983-84 to 80 games in 1950-51 and 1961-62.

# Bob Thurman pitched and played the OF for Santurce in 1948-49 and other seasons.

Sources: Jorge Colón Delgado—beisbol101.com, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League, Héctor Barea (1997), José A Crescioni Benítez (1997) and Roberto Inclán (1983).

Cerv blasted three more HR for San Juan, against Caguas in the semis, including a walk-off HR precisely 65 years ago off LHP Roberto Vargas—in a 3-2 Game Two win at Sixto Escobar Stadium—January 30, 1955. Cerv homered off Don McMahon the night before, a 5-4 Caguas win. And Cerv’s third series homer was hit at Caguas’ Yldefonso Solá Morales Stadium, February 1, 1955, a 5-4 Caguas victory to send the Criollos to the league finals versus Santurce.

Elston Howard’s Legacy

Post-San Juan, Elston Howard had a fine 14-year AL career with the New York Yankees (1955-1967) and Boston Red Sox (1967-68). He was the first catcher—from the Negro Leagues—to win a GG, earning back-to-back AL GG, 1963 and 1964, and earned the 1963 AL MVP Award, with a .287/.342/.528 slash line, and .869 OPS. Howard’s 28 HR in 487 AB with the 1963 New York Yankees was about equal to his HR per AB with 1954-55 San Juan: seven HR in 122 AB, projected to 28 HR in 488 AB! Howard was a 12x AL All-Star, including two All-Star designations apiece, 1960-62. He played in 10 World Series, nine with the Yankees, plus 1967 with Boston. His .462/.533/.923 slash line versus the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates was superb. The Yankees missed his bat in Game Seven after Howard left Game Six after a HBP on his hand. Howard had an excellent .414 OBP in the 1964 World Series versus St. Louis, his hometown. He participated in three other World Series, 1976-77-78, as the Yankees first base coach. Howard passed away in New York City, at age 51, on December 14, 1980.

Bob Cerv’s Legacy

Cerv hit 75 of his 105 MLB HR with the Kansas City A’s, 1957-1960, where he got more playing time compared to his time with the New York Yankees. His 38 homers for the 1958 A’s were a Kansas City A’s AND Royals single-season record until Jorge Soler, a native of Cuba, clouted 48 HR for the 2019 Royals. Cerv’s best Yankees season came in 1955, just after his 1954-55 winter with San Juan. Cerv had a .341/.411/.541 slash line and .952 OPS in 55 games for the 1955 Yankees. His 29 hits in just 85 AB included four doubles, two triples and three HR.  In parts of nine seasons with the Yankees, 1951-56 and 1960-62, Cerv had a .266/.350/.444 slash line and .795 OPS. In three World Series—1955, 1956 and 1960—he hit .258 with one HR (versus Brooklyn in 1955) and one RBI. Warren Corbett’s SABR bio of Cerv is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/ccc9e510.  Cerv roomed with Roger Maris in 1960-61 (Queens), as well as with Mantle for a portion of 1961. “We (Maris and myself) were a lot alike,” Cerv said, “just small-town Midwestern guys who did our jobs and let others make the noise.” Cerv passed away in Blair, Nebraska, a month before turning 92, on April 6, 2017.

Harry Craft’s Legacy

Craft, an excellent CF, won a World Series ring with the 1940 Cincinnati Reds, after his Reds were swept by the Yankees in the 1939 Fall Classic. Lee MacPhail thought very highly of Craft’s coaching and managing skills. Craft worked with Yankee OF prospects, including Cliff Mapes, Mickey Mantle (who Craft moved to the OF from shortstop), among others. Mapes was the first Yankee OF prospect to play for San Juan, in 1947-48, thanks to efforts by José “Pepe” Seda, the Yankees scout in Puerto Rico, post-World War II until the late 1950s. Craft’s successful managing of San Juan in 1953-54 (42-38 W-L) and 1954-55 (38-34 W-L) was instrumental in the Yankees sending Ralph Houk to manage the 1956-57 San Juan ballclub. Bob Turley, who led the Puerto Rico League with 143 strikeouts in 1953-54, mentioned the following to the author:

“Harry Craft, my [1953-54] San Juan manager, later recommended that the Yankees acquire me. Harry liked the way I pitched in Puerto Rico…I was part of a huge (November 17, 1954) trade, the largest one—involving 17 players—in major-league history. Don Larsen and Billy Hunter were two of my (Baltimore) teammates who went to the Yankees…”

It is worth noting Harry Craft was managing San Juan when the New York Yankees acquired Turley—who won the 1958 Cy Young Award for the Bronx Bombers—and Don Larsen, author of the only perfect game in World Series history, October 8, 1956. Craft was also loyal to his players, encouraging Elston Howard and Bob Cerv with San Juan, 1954-55. Craft was managing the 1962 Houston Colt 45s when Cerv joined Houston at the end of his career. Craft, who passed away in Conroe, Texas, on August 3,1995 at age 80, is a member of the Mississippi College and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

Thanks to ex-San Juan players’ Bill Renna, Bob Turley, Danny Kravitz, King Kong Villodas and Nino Escalera; to Lee MacPhail Jr.—a high school and college classmate of the author’s mother; and to Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

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