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This Day in Yankees History: Happy birthday to trailblazer Elston Howard

The 1963 AL MVP would have turned 92 today.

Elston Howard Receiving 1963 MVP Award

Welcome to the relaunched This Day in Yankees History. Now that spring training is officially open, it’s time to get amped for the upcoming season. 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 (February 23rd)

87 Years Ago

In a surprising move just before the start of spring training, the Brooklyn Dodgers fired their manager, Max Carey, and handed the reins over to one of his coaches: Casey Stengel. It was the future Yankees skipper’s first managerial job in baseball after a productive 14-year career, mostly in New York with the Giants and Dodgers.

Although Stengel’s colorful quotes and high energy were popular with the fans and sportswriters, the Brooklyn front office didn’t exactly give him the “Boys of Summer” to manage. The offense was good at taking advantage of the friendly dimensions of Ebbets Field, but the pitching was a bust. Stengel went 208-251 over three years in Brooklyn but never topped 71 wins and was fired after 1936. He’d return to manage the Boston Braves for several years without much more success before finally finding it in the Bronx in 1949.

67 Years Ago

On February 23, 1954, the underrated career of Yankees pitcher Vic Raschi came to an abrupt end. The intimidating right-hander was one of Stengel’s favorite weapons, as after debuting with the Yankees in 1946, he went on to win six World Series in the next seven years. “The Springfield Rifle” mixed a good fastball in with a slider and changeup to flummox hitters. From 1948-53, he went 111-48 with a 3.44 ERA, 3.57 FIP, 113 ERA+, and 15.0 WAR in 1,416.1 innings of work as he made the All-Star team four times.

In 1953, the 34-year-old Raschi had been very good but not quite as healthy as the previous few years, though his performance was still strong in 28 outings (and the Yankees won their fifth World Series in a row anyway). Nonetheless, GM George Weiss sent him a contract for 1954 that cut his pay by 25 percent. Furious, Raschi held out. By the time he arrived at spring training, he was told by reporters that the Yankees had sold him to the Cardinals for $85,000. Weiss hadn’t even spoken to him. Although Raschi’s career fizzled to a close within couple years, it was a regrettable ending to an excellent Yankees career.

Seven Years Ago

The Yankees extended Brett Gardner on a four-year, $52 million deal that would kick in after the 2014 season. Thank to an option for 2019, it kept Gardner in pinstripes through the end of the decade. After the team signed Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltrán in the offseason, it seemed like the Yankees might consider moving on from their fleet-footed defensive whiz since he was due to hit free agency at the end of 2014. However, GM Brian Cashman wisely recognized that Gardner was worth keeping around.

It was a smart move, as Ellsbury and Beltrán battled injuries while Gardner stayed productive and healthy. From 2014 through 2019, he hit .255/.337/.412 with 145 doubles, 35 triples, 101 homers, 106 stolen bases, a 103 OPS+, and 22.9 WAR in 879 games. He was an All-Star in 2015, finally won a Gold Gove in 2016, and played a pivotal role on four playoff teams, two of which came just shy of reaching the World Series.

Since the end of that extension, Gardner has remained a Yankee on one-year contracts for 2020 and 2021. In the past 50 seasons of Yankees baseball, only one outfielder has amassed a higher WAR in pinstripes than Gardner (43.0): Bernie Williams.

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Today would have been Elston Howard’s 92nd birthday. He locked his place in Yankees history by integrating the team in 1955, finally shattering the color barrier in the Bronx after years of racist policies prevented an African-American from getting a real opportunity.

Howard would’ve been remembered regardless, but he was simply an incredible player, too. He was named an All-Star 12 times, won the 1963 AL MVP, and was remarkable enough defensively to not only win two Gold Gloves, but also to displace the legendary Yogi Berra from his starting catcher position. Howard split time between the outfield and catcher for most of the ‘50s, but by the ‘60s, his work behind the plate was too good to ignore. Pitchers absolutely loved throwing to “Ellie,” and he helped the team win nine pennants and four World Series titles.

After Howard’s career ended, he joined the Yankees’ coaching staff, becoming the first African-American to do so in American League history (he was also the first to win the aforementioned AL MVP). He was interested in managing, but regrettably, the Yankees weren’t ready to take that next step. Instead, the reins were handed to Bill Virdon and Billy Martin, while Howard gracefully continued coaching as the team rebuilt and won two championships at the end of the decade.

Sadly, Howard’s life was cut short by an aggressive heart disease known as myocarditis. He passed away at just 51 on December 14, 1980. Both the players he once coached and his former teammates mourned the loss of such a kind, generous, and talented player. The Yankees retired Howard’s No. 32 in 1984, and his widow, Arlene, has continued to be a welcome Old-Timers’ Day presence for decades.

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We thank Baseball Reference and SABR for providing background information for these posts.