Yankees History

On this day in Yankees history – Elston Howard the Yanks first African American player

On this day back in 1955, 8 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Elston Howard became the first African American player to don the pinstripes.

In 1948, a 19 year old Howard turned down scholarships from Big Ten universities to enter the Negro Leagues. He played for the Kansas City Monarchs for 3 years as an outfielder, and roomed with Ernie Banks.

He was purchased by the Yanks, along with Frank Barnes, and signed on July 19, 1950. The two were assigned to the Yankees Central League team, the Muskegon Clippers. Howard missed the 1951 and 1952 seasons due to his service in the Army.

In 1953, he played for the Kansas City Blues of the Triple-A American Association. The Yankees invited him to Spring Training in 1954 and began to convert him into a catcher, despite the team already having a catcher by the name of Yogi Berra. He didn’t make the team and played the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs of the Triple-A International League, leading the league in triples and winning the MVP award. The Yankees assigned Bill Dickey to work with him in order to develop his catching skills.

Howard made the big league roster in 1955 and made his debut in the second game of the season. He entered in the sixth inning as a left fielder and hit a single in his only at bat. He was a staple in the lineup for 13 years in the Bronx before signing with the Red Sox. He played two seasons with Boston and came back to the Yanks as first base coach from 1969-1979, becoming the first black coach in the American League. After his coaching career ended, he became an administrative assistant with the Yanks; however, that position did not last long due to declining health.

Number 32 was retired by the Yankees on July 21, 1984 and a plaque was erected in Monument Park in his honor. His plaque describes him as, “a man of great gentleness and dignity” and “one of the truly great Yankees.” His numbers lend support to the latter. He played in 12 All Star Games, won six World Series, two Gold Gloves and was named AL MVP during his tenure with the team.

His impact wasn’t limited to the Bronx. You know that weighted doughnut you see batters swinging with when they are on deck? Howard is credited with inventing that. Players would often swing multiple bats while on deck so that their bat felt lighter at the plate. The invention of the doughnut lead to the discontinuation of that practice and it’s still a staple in today’s game. He worked with two New Jersey entrepreneurs to market the weight and lent his name to the product.

Truly a revolutionary and one of the great Yankees, Howard changed the game in the Bronx and beyond 62 years ago today.

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