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This Week Marks the Anniversary of a Real Baseball Milestone!
“A man of great gentleness and dignity, one of the truly great Yankees.” –From the inscription on Elston Howard’s plaque in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.
Fifty-four years ago this week, on November 8, 1963, Elston Howard became the first African-American to win the American League MVP award. In doing so, he also was the third Yankee in a row to take the honor, following Roger Maris in 1961 and Mickey Mantle in 1962.
Elston Howard was also the first African-American to play for the Yankees, making his major league debut on April 14, 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson. Ellie had a 14-year baseball career (1948-1968), playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, the Yankees (1955-1966), and the Red Sox (1967-1968).
Over his career, the 12-time All-Star hit .274, with 167 home runs, and 762 RBIs. His best season was 1961 when he hit .348, with 21 home runs, 77 RBIs, a .387 on-base percentage, .549 slugging average, and a remarkable 153 OPS+. He was a member of ten pennant winners and six World Series championship teams. In 54 post-season games, he hit .246 with five home runs and 19 RBIs.
The winner of two Gold Gloves, he had his best year defensively in 1964 when he set American League records for putouts and total chances and in a season. His career fielding percentage of .993 was a major league record from 1967 to 1973, and he retired among American League career leaders in putouts (7th) and total chances (9th).
His post-season career included many highlights. In the 1955 World Series, he homered off Don Newcombe in his first World Series at-bat. The following year, he hit another off Newcombe in Game Seven, one of four Yankee round-trippers. Against the Milwaukee Braves in Game Four of the 1957 World Series, his three-run homer off Warren Spahn with two outs in the ninth inning tied the score 4-4. His best post-season performance came in the 1958 Series, again against the Braves, when he combined outstanding defensive with clutch hitting:
“Elston Howard caught Red Schoendienst‘s sinking fly ball in the sixth inning of Game Five and made a throw to catch Bill Bruton off first base for a double play, preserving a 1-0 lead. In Game Six, he threw Andy Pafko out at the plate in the second inning, and singled and scored with two out in the tenth inning for a 4-2 Yankee lead; the run proved decisive, as the Braves came back to score once in the bottom of the frame. In Game Seven, his two-out RBI single scored Berra for a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning, with the Yankees going on to a 6-2 win, completing only the second comeback by a team from a 3-1 deficit in a World Series.”
After his playing career ended, Elston coached for the Yankees from 1969-’79. He’s credited with inventing the batting “donut”, a circular lead weight placed around a bat to make it feel heavier. He passed away on December 14, 1980. His uniform #32 was retired by the Yankees, and a plaque was placed in his honor in Monument Park.
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Information: Excerpts and quote edited from the Elston Howard Wikipedia page.