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This Day in Yankees History: Elston Howard breaks barriers

Howard becomes the first black player to take the field for the Yankees.

New York Yankees

With the start of the 2020 season delayed for the foreseeable future, the Pinstripe Alley team decided to revive the program in a slightly different format. These daily posts will highlight two or three key moments in Yankees history on a given date, as well as recognize players born on the day. Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane with us!

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This Day in Yankees History (April 14)

65 Years Ago

Legendary catcher Elston Howard, one of the great backstops to don pinstripes, became the first black man to play for the Yankees. After playing as a teenager for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, he joined the Yankees system. He made his MLB debut against the Red Sox, entering as a substitute in the sixth as a left fielder. He went 1-1 at the plate with an RBI single, an early indicator of his promise.

Howard would fulfill that promise, and then some. In his 13 seasons as a Yankee, the nine-time All-Star won two Gold Gloves and four World Series titles, and snagged the American League MVP in 1963. After his playing career was over, Howard joined the Yankees as first base coach in 1969, becoming the first black coach in the American League. He helped the team to two more World Series triumphs in 1977 and 1978.

In addition to his legacy with the Yankees, Howard is also credited with inventing a device that influenced how players across the league prepared for at-bats: the batting doughnut.

55 Years Ago

The career-long rivalry between Mickey Mantle and fellow center fielder Willie Mays tilted in favor of Mays, as he hit his 455th home run for the Giants off future Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning in a victory over the Phillies. The blast nudged Mays ahead of Mantle on the all-time list, and he would not relinquish his lead.

While Mays continued his excellence through his thirties, finishing his playing days with 660 home runs, injuries began to sap some of the power and production from Mantle, whose total stood at 536 long balls at the end of his career.

27 Years Ago

St. Louis Cardinal reliever and future Yankee Lee Smith broke the record for the most saves in National League history, registering his 301st save in the NL. The achievement came in the 15th inning of the Redbirds’ 2-1 victory at Dodger Stadium.

The night before, Smith had set the record for most career saves in Major League Baseball by nabbing his 358th save overall, including his time in the American League. In his 18 years as a big leaguer, Smith stretched his record to 478 saves.

Of his career 1289.1 innings, just eight of them came with the Yankees. He picked up three saves for the club during that same record-setting 1993 season, after the Cardinals shipped him to the Bronx in an August trade.

Just four years later, Mariano Rivera, the man who would eventually displace Smith as the all-time saves leader, officially became the closer for the Yankees. Rivera wrapped up his unparalleled career in pinstripes with 652 saves, a record that seems unlikely to be challenged any time soon.

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Birthdays

Happy 54th birthday to David Justice, ALCS MVP and World Series champion with the Yankees in 2000. Justice had joined the club in a deadline trade with Cleveland, and made the most of the move by striking a fatal blow against the Seattle Mariners in a battle for the American League pennant.

In the bottom of the seventh, Justice crushed an Arthur Rhodes fastball into the right field upper deck for a three-run home run, giving the Yankees a 6-4 lead and capping a relentless comeback from a 4-0 deficit.

They went on to win the game 9-7, and later emerged victorious against the Mets in the Subway Series, earning their 26th title as a franchise.

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We thank Baseball-Reference, Nationalpastime.com, and FanGraphs for providing background information for these posts.