FEBRUARY 23, 1929
Baseball catcher Elston Howard was born in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1955, he became the first Black player to sign with the New York Yankees, signing a $70,000 contract — the highest paid baseball player at the time. By 1959, the Yankees were often playing Howard at first base so that he could remain in the lineup.
Despite lacking a regular position, he was selected to the All-Star team in 1957, the first of nine consecutive years through 1965 in which he made the squad. In 1963, he became the American League’s Most Valuable Player, the first Black player to do so, after setting a record in putouts and total chances in a season. He is credited with inventing the doughnut for batting practice, which makes the bat feel heavier so that it will feel lighter when swinging at the plate.
He won four World Series as a player and two more as a coach for the Yankees, becoming the first Black coach in the American League. After coaching, he became an administrative assistant with the Yankees and died in 1980. “The Yankees’ organization lost more class on the weekend,” New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote, “than George Steinbrenner could buy in 10 years.” The Yankees wore a black armband in memory of him in the 1981 season. Three years later, the Yankees returned his number, 32, and dedicated a plaque that honored him as “a man of great gentleness and dignity” — “one of the truly great Yankees.”