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.
“Ellie” 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. However, 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 being traded to the Red Sox in 1967. He played two seasons with Boston before coming back to the Yanks as first base coach from 1969-1979, becoming the first African American coach in the American League. After his coaching career ended, he became an administrative assistant with the Yanks. Unfortunately, he would not hold that position 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, having played in 12 All Star Games, winning six World Series, two Gold Gloves and being named AL MVP during his tenure with the team.
His impact wasn’t just limited to the Bronx. Howard is credited with creating the weighted doughnuts which players use while in the on deck circle. Players would often take warmup swings with multiple bats while on deck so that their bat felt lighter at the plate. The invention of the doughnut led 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.