The most storied franchise in baseball history, and perhaps even all of sports is the New York Yankees. Established in 1901, the Yankees have racked up more hardware than most other teams combined. With 27 World Series titles, 40 AL pennants, and 22 Most Valuable Players it is easy to see why the Yanks are one of the most beloved and most hated teams in all of sports. Although one of baseball's oldest teams, the Yankees were one of the last franchises to integrate. In 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers broke baseball's color barrier making Jackie Robinson the first black player in Major League Baseball. This was followed by the Cleveland Indians who later that year made Larry Doby the first in the American League. Other franchises began to follow suit as more black players began to get called up to the big stage.
It’s no secret that most teams were hesitant to allow African Americans to partake in Major League Baseball, and the Yanks were no exception. In their rich history, no black player had ever donned the pinstripes. But on April 14, 1955—almost eight years to the day that Robinson broke the color barrier—the Yankees called up 26-year old catcher Elston Howard who had been in the team's farm system since 1950. Howard made his debut against the Boston Red Sox. He had one at-bat in his first game, one hit, and one RBI. But while he loved catching behind the plate, Yankee skipper Casey Stengel was content with future Hall of Famer Yogi Berra calling the shots. However, Howard was so versatile he could catch and play the outfield, a quality Stengel liked. He caught nine games in ’55 and played 75 games in the outfield.
Fast forward to 1963. During that year superstars Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris missed the majority of the season with injuries. It could have been disastrous if not for Howard. With Berra out of the picture, Ellie guided the pitching staff to a stellar year with two winning more than 20 games. He would hit .287, with 28 HR and 85 RBI while also winning the Gold Glove. For all this, Elston Howard became the first American League black player to win the MVP. The vote wasn’t close. Howard got 15 of the 20 first-place votes, and won by 100 points over runner-up Al Kaline of the Tigers.
It was a huge honor as an American League player considering the award had been achieved by seven others in the National League. Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Maury Wills.
Elston Howard's career is nothing short of spectacular. Nine All-Star games, three top-10 MVP vote finishes (including winning in 1963), and two Gold Gloves. He was also part of four World Series champion teams (1956, 1958, 1961, 1962). And while he has not been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he remains one of only 17 players in Yankees history to have his #32 jersey retired.
His plaque in Yankees Stadium's Monument Park reads:
“A man of great gentleness and dignity”
One of all-time Yankee greats
American League MVP in 1963
Winner of two Golden Gloves
A fitting leader to be first black player to wear the Yankee uniform
“If, indeed, humility is a trademark of many great men – Elston Howard was one of the truly great Yankees”