In 1963, Elston Howard was asked what had been the greatest day in his career.
By that point, the New York Yankees catcher had helped the Bronx Bombers win four World Series (1956, 1958, 1961 and 1962) and had earned seven All-Star selections (1957-63).
But Howard, a high school graduate who turned down multiple college scholarships to sign with the Yankees organization in 1950, told The New York Times that being the first African-American to receive the American League MVP trophy was the greatest thrill of his career.
“I honestly never gave much thought that I’d even win one of these,” said Howard, who integrated the all-white Yankees in April 1955. “My one ambition has been to become baseball’s No. 1 catcher and last spring, I had a feeling this could be my big year where I could put everything together. Even after I kept hearing myself mentioned as a possible candidate, I didn’t put much stock in it.
“Personally, I thought Whitey Ford, with his 23 victories, was the most valuable player in our club. One thing is for sure, without the help of my teammates, I could not have possibly won it.”
Howard appeared in 135 games that season, batting .287 with 28 home runs, 85 RBIs and 140 hits while using a 36-ounce, or sometimes 38-ounce, bat. Those bats were rarely used by hitters in that time period. He was the third catcher to win MVP, succeeding the Philadelphia Athletics’ Mickey Cochrane and the Yankees’ Yogi Berra.
Fifteen of the 20 ballots cast by Baseball Writers Association of America voters named Howard as the first-place recipient for the honor. The 33-year-old was named on every single ballot cast and received 248 total points, which was 100 points more than the Detroit Tigers’ Al Kaline in second place.
Howard was the ninth African-American to win MVP honors after Jackie Robinson (1949), Roy Campanella (1951, 1953 and 1955), Willie Mays (1954), Don Newcombe (1956), Henry “Hank” Aaron (1957), Ernie Banks (1958-59), Frank Robinson (1961) and Maury Wills (1962). Cleveland’s Larry Doby came close to winning the award in 1954 but finished third to Berra.
“This is the greatest day of my life,” Howard told the Los Angeles Times. “A lot of people have helped me get this far — Bill Dickey, probably the most.”
Said teammate Roger Maris to the Call and Post: “Ellie is a most valuable player to us even if he didn’t bat over .300 and hit over 40 home runs. He is a gentleman and grand influence on all of us.”