In this inaugural year of the new Yankee Stadium, I can’t help but have my thoughts run in a more historical direction than usual. With Jorge coming back strong from his injury, it made me analyze how important he is to what the Yankees do and, more abstractedly, how important catchers have been to the Yankees, historically. Everyone knows that the most hallowed spot in all of baseball, perhaps all of sports, is the Centerfielder for the New York Yankees, but is it possible that the catcher has been even more important for the Yanks throughout their gloried past?
Look at all the great catchers the Yanks have been fortunate enough to have, and how they’ve reflected the overall success of the team. If you begin with the ’27 Yankees dynasty, certainly the CF position dominates. Earl Combs is a hall of famer who hit .356 in 1927 as a prototypical leadoff hitter. Pat Collins was the catcher of that team and nothing to write home about.
Beginning in 1929, however, a young catcher by the name of Bill Dickey hit the scene and kicked off the Yankee tradition of great catching. I knew that Dickey was considered a tremendous backstop, but was surprised, at perusing his stats, how good this guy actually was! At one point, Bill Dickey (thanks Wikipedia and Baseball Reference) hit .300 or better for 10 out of 11 seasons and hit 20+ hrs and 100+ rbi for 4 consecutive years… for a catcher! His 1936 batting average of .362 is the highest single-season average ever recorded by a catcher! He was also renowned for a great arm and tremendous ability to deal with pitchers. If that’s not enough, the man was a competitor without equal. He even “broke the jaw of an opposing player with one punch in a 1932 game after the man collided with him at home plate.” This fierce competitive streak is a trait passed down through Yankee backstops to the present day.
Yes, Dickey is competing against Joe DiMaggio in CF, which is a pretty impossible comparison, but he was an all-time great Yankee and all-time great catcher in his own right. Dickey only gave way to a 15 time all star by the name of Yogi Berra, who is part of the conversation for greatest catcher ever. According to Bill James’ win shares formula, “Berra is the greatest catcher of all time and the 52nd greatest non-pitcher in major-league history.”
While more renowned by some for his notable quotations, Berra was a phenomenal player. Yogi appeared in a record 14 World Series and won (another record) 10 of them. He retired as clearly the greatest catcher to play the position up until that point, with records not only in homers and rbi for the position, but also in putouts and chances accepted, and is one of only 4 catchers in history to go an entire season without an error. Consistency is not his only hallmark, however, the man possessed every positive trait imaginable: tough – he caught a record 148 straight games; athletic – he was renowned for his catlike quickness behind the plate; versatile – he switched to the notoriously difficult (in Yankee Stadium) left field position and became a plus outfielder there; productive: he led the team in rbi for 7 straight seasons (this on teams with Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio!); valuable – he won 3 MVP awards and finished the season with MVP votes in 15 straight seasons, second only to Hank Aaron (19 straight); bat control – despite being a free swinger, Yogi had more homers than strikeouts 5 times during his career and only struck out an amazing 12 time in 597 at bats in 1950!; clutch – was termed “‘the toughest man in the league in the last three innings,’” according to Paul Richards, a rival manager.”
You can certainly argue that Mantle and DiMaggio were better statistically than Berra and Dickey, but many would state that the heart and soul of those teams were Dickey and Berra and, in terms of all-time greats at their respective positions, they may rank higher than their counterparts.
It’s certainly tough to go against Mantle and DiMaggio in any argument about Yankee tradition, but I think, since Mantle’s retirement, the catchers clearly have an edge over centerfielders. Even before the end of the Mantle/Berra era, Yogi passed most of his catching duties to all-time Yankee, Elston Howard who was the first African-American to play in Pinstripes. Howard retired with a number of marks of his own, including the record for fielding percentage, 2 gold gloves, and AL records for putouts and total chances in a season. His lifetime slugging average of .427 ranked fourth among AL catchers when he retired.
The dynasty teams of the 70′s had Mickey Rivers in center field who was no competition for the heart of the team, and the first Yankee to be named captain since Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson. Munson was the third Yankee catcher to win an MVP award and was universally regarded as one of the top 3 catchers of the era along with Jonny Bench and Carlton Fisk. It’s impossible to guage how great he would have become if he hadn’t died tragically in 1979 at the age of only 32.
The current era pits Jorge Posada against Bernie Williams – two unquestionably valuable cogs in the 90s dynasty. While Bernie has retired (all-but) after putting up numbers that should put him just shy of hall of fame consideration, Jorge is still capable of compiling statistics that could push him into that elite company. A vocal team leader, Posada’s abilities in that realm have often led people to label him as the true leader of the team, despite Jeter’s titular status as captain.
This leadership is a trait possessed by almost all the great Yankee catchers. Many of these guys have been considered THE leader of the dynasty teams. Is it possible that the real premier Yankee all-time position is not center field at all, but catcher? According to thebaseballpage.com, the Yankees possess FIVE of the greatest catchers of all-time, with Yogi (#2), Dickey (#11), Howard (#12), Thurman (#18), and Jorge (#19) all making the top 20! In contrast, only DiMaggio (#4) and Mantle (#5) make the top 20 CF list. Maybe it’s time for young Yankee fans to dream about squats and catchers masks rather than roaming the expanses of center field in Yankee Stadium?
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