Elston “Ellie” Howard was the first African American player in Yankees history. Yes, that’s a fun fact, but you probably already knew it (or at least definitely should have). His road to the Bronx was a long one. Jackie Robinson paved the way for all minorities in baseball but it took eight years before the Yankees integrated, and 12-years before the entire league did. It was a slow process.
Listen to Friday’s A Brief History podcast to learn how Elston paved the way for future minority players, his playing and coaching career, and racism in the Yankees organization in the 1950s.
Elston Howard had an amazing 14-year career filled with awards, championships, and some quirky facts. Here are five you may not know (but definitely should).
#1 – First black player to win the American League MVP
Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League in 1947, but overall the AL was behind the NL when it came to integration. Because of that, many of the best African American players were on NL clubs. The first MVP won by a black player was Jackie Robinson in 1949, but the award was won ten times by seven different African American National League players before Elston Howard won it in ’63.
1963 was obviously a great year for Howard. While it wasn’t his best offensive season (that would be 1961) it was the year he led the Yankees, who dealt with major injuries to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Ellie finished third in slugging-percentage and fifth in home runs. He won the Gold Glove and posted a 141 OPS+ — meaning he was 41% better than the league average hitter. He did all that while catching 132 games on the pennant-winning Yankees.
#2 – First black player to win the Babe Ruth Award
The Yankees advanced to the World Series each of Howard’s first four years. In 1958 they had a rematch with the Milwaukee Braves — who beat them in 7-games the year prior — and had to come back from 3-1 down to win. Ellie was given the Babe Ruth Award for his series-winning single in the 8th inning of Game 7. He was the first black player to win the award.
The Babe Ruth award was given to the most outstanding player in the World Series by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. It was a different award from the World Series MVP, now named for Willie Mays, which was first handed-out in 1955. (Side note: I always found it ironic the World Series MVP is named after Willie Mays, who hit .239 and no home runs lifetime in the Series. If it should be named after anyone, it should be Mickey Mantle, who hit a record 18 World Series home runs. But whatever.)
Pitcher Bob Turley won the series MVP for his 16.1 innings of work on the mound.
#3 – Played on a record SIX losing World Series teams
In 1965 Howard started to dip — injuries and age started to catch up with him. I found it odd that he didn’t end his career with the Yankees. He was traded to the Red Sox (of all teams) in 1967. After a decade of subpar play the Red Sox shockingly won the pennant in ‘67. They were looking for a veteran with winning experience. Howard was only hitting .196 but fit that bill. He was stunned by the trade and almost didn’t report to Boston, but eventually changed his mind. Ellie was always a pro and that wouldn’t change just because he was asked to wear red socks.
The fact that he was on that Sox team made it so he lost the World Series for a sixth time — tied for a record as a player with Pee Wee Reese.
Yogi Berra always joked he was born at the right time in order to win ten World Series as a player. Well, Elston was born at the right time to lose six.
Howard debuted with the Yankees in 1955. The Bronx Bombers were still in the middle of their dynastic run, but their air of invincibility in the World Series ended that year when the Dodgers finally beat them. From 1936-53, the Yankees were an astounding 12-1 in the World Series. From 1955-64, they went 4-5.
Elston did win four championships as a player in the ’50s and ’60s and then two more as a coach with the Yankees in the ’70s. His 54 total World Series games played placed him behind only Berra and Mantle.
#4 – Catcher fielding percentage record holder
Elston’s .993 lifetime fielding percentage as a catcher was a major league record from 1967-1973. That mark now places him tied for 45th, but the record was impressive for a couple reasons.
When the Yankees signed Elston from the Kansas City Monarchs he was an outfielder. They surprisingly moved his position after he returned from military service in 1953 and he had to work his ass off to improve his catching skills. When he was finally promoted to the majors, he wasn’t even a full-time catcher because the Yankees had Yogi in his prime and no clear holes in the lineup. Howard moved around the field, playing both corner outfield positions and first base in addition to catcher. Ellie would not become the starting catcher until the 1960 season.
#5 – Two unique baseball inventions
OK, this is a two-for-oner. Howard is credited with two pretty unique and awesome baseball inventions.
According to a few different sources, he was the first player to use the extended index and pinky finger to indicate two outs. He started this trend because it was easier for outfielders to see both fingers that way than the traditional “two-finger” method.
Howard also invented the baseball doughnut along with two entrepreneurs from New Jersey. Prior to it’s invention, batters would hold multiple bats and swing them. The “iron doughnut” as it was originally dubbed, was much more efficient.
Unfortunately Elston did not become rich off the invention because other companies made their own versions and he did not have the money to take them to court. His name was used to market the product, however.