Yankees History: Elston Howard First Black MVP in American League

Elston Howard was the first black player for the New York Yankees. He also etched his name into the history books on this day in 1963, when he became the first black MVP award winner in the history of the American League.

During the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, the New York Yankees had an embarrassment of riches at the catcher position. Yogi Berra was one of the best catchers in the game, continuing a tradition that began with Bill Dickey and extends to the current day. That excellence at the catching position extended to Elston Howard, the Yankees backup backstop.

Even when he was Berra’s backup, Howard was considered one of the best catchers in the game. Unfortunately, that ability led to Howard being stuck behind Berra, as he was too valuable to trade. Yet, that insistence on keeping him around may have stunted his career numbers, keeping him from the Hall of Fame.

Yet, Howard still managed to put himself in the record books. The first black player in Yankees history, he was a good enough player where the team moved Berra to the outfield to take advantage of his abilities. That move worked, as Howard made nine consecutive All Star Games and won two Gold Gloves, earning respect throughout the game for hitting and defense.

Howard’s place in the record books continued on this day in 1963. For the first time, a black player won the American League MVP award, as Howard bested Detroit Tigers slugger Al Kaline by 100 votes to take home the honor. He was not the only Yankees player to receive votes, as four players on that 1963 team placed in the top eleven, with Whitey Ford finishing third.

Other black players had won the MVP award before, at least in the National League. Jackie Robinson took home the honor in 1949, while Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Maury Wills, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson all won the award before Howard. However, no black player had managed to take home that award in the American League before Howard did so.

Considering that the American League integrated only one year after the National League did so, it is surprising that it took so long for a black player to win the MVP award. Players like Larry Doby, who was a Hall of Fame player, and Minnie Minoso, were in the game at the same time or before Howard. But, as good as they were, they were unable to bring home the MVP award.

Elston Howard made history when he became the first black player in the history of the New York Yankees. He did so once again on this day in 1963, becoming the first black MVP in the history of the American League.