Wednesday I paid tribute to the amazing career, life and wit of Yogi Berra, who died at age 90. Today I want to honor Berra again by explaining how he anchored a team with, by far, the greatest tradition of catching excellence.
Hall of Fame catchers
Let’s start by comparing teams’ Hall of Fame catchers: Berra and Bill Dickey make the Yankees one of only four teams with two catchers in the Hall of Fame:
My baseball autographed by Yogi Berra
Setting aside other Yankee catchers who belong in the Hall of Fame (more on that later), Berra was elected to Cooperstown in his second year of eligibility. Dickey was elected in his ninth year on the ballot. They make the Yankees the only team with two catchers elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
They give the Yankees 26 seasons with Hall of Famers doing most of the catching (15 from Dickey and 11 from Berra, who was an outfielder and backup catcher his final four years). Dickey and Berra gave the Yankees Hall of Fame catchers (at least in a part-time role) for a nearly unbroken string from 1929 to 1963.
Dickey spent the 1944-5 seasons in the Navy during World War II, returning in 1946. He caught only 54 games during that season, becoming a player-manager after manager Joe McCarthy resigned, and turning the catching responsibilities over mostly to Aaron Robinson. But Berra debuted that season, catching seven games. In 1947, Robinson caught 74 games and was an All-Star, but the torch was being passed. Berra caught 51 games that season and 71 the next, splitting time that year with Gus Niarhos, then nailed down the full-time job in 1949.
Bill Dickey’s autograph on a baseball my wife’s uncle used to take to Yankee Stadium for autographs in the 1950s.
Between them, Dickey and Berra caught more than 3,400 games for the Yankees (1,708 for Dickey, 1,697 for Berra) from 1928 to 1963, a 36-season span broken only by Dickey’s Navy service. Both men also managed and coached the Yankees (Dickey, in fact, coached Berra in catching skills).
Berra, with 305 homers as a catcher, is fourth in career homers at the position, and Dickey, with 200, is 13th. Berra leads all catchers in career RBI (1,430) and Dickey is eighth at 1,209. Dickey is second to Mickey Cochrane in batting average at .313. They rank fourth and sixth in slugging at .486 (Dickey) and .482 (Berra).
Dickey had 11 All-Star seasons (the game wasn’t played his first four full seasons), Yogi 15 straight All-Star seasons. And, of course, both won strings of championships: 10 World Series titles (five in a row) for Berra and seven (four in a row) for Dickey.
Dickey played his full career for the Yankees. Berra played his last four games (two at catcher) as a player-manager for the Mets in 1965.
Let’s compare the Yankees to the other teams with two Hall of Fame catchers:
Bench was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Lombardi never got more than 16 percent of the writers’ vote and was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1986, 39 years after his career ended.
They combined for 23 years as the Reds’ primary catchers (13 for Bench, who moved to third base his final three years 10 for Lombardi, who also played for three other teams), and 18 All-Star seasons (13 for Bench) as Reds catchers. All those numbers fall short of the Berra-Dickey numbers. Bench, with 1,742 games caught, was a little ahead of the Yankees, but Lombardi played only 1,203 games for the Reds.
Bench was third all-time in homers as a catcher, with 327, and third in RBI, and Lombardi was third (behind Dickey) in batting average. But the Reds didn’t have near the combined high rankings of the Yankee pair.
The Reds won two championships in Bench’s time and one in Lombardi’s, but that’s not even half Dickey’s championship total.
Bench measured up to either of the Yankee catchers, but Lombardi didn’t, and the pair certainly lags behind Berra-Dickey duo. And that’s as close as any team’s pair of Hall of Famers comes.
Personal note: My only trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame was in 1989 for Bench’s induction, keeping a promise to my son, Mike, a huge Bench fan. Someday I’ll write a post about that trip.
Fisk was elected by the writers in his second year on the ballot, same as Berra. Ferrell never got even 1 percent of the writers’ vote and was elected to Cooperstown in 1984, 37 years after his career ended.
Fisk was the Red Sox’ primary catcher for eight seasons, seven All-Star seasons. Ferrell was the Red Sox’ primary catcher only four seasons, three of them as an All-Star. In other words, their Red Sox seasons combined nearly matched Dickey or Berra alone.
Fisk played more years with the White Sox, nine years as their primary catcher, but only four All-Star seasons. Schalk, who played before the All-Star Game, played 13 seasons as the White Sox’ primary catcher. He peaked at 45 percent of the writers’ vote and was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1955, 26 years after his career ended.
Fisk is second in career homers by a catcher and ranks high in other batting categories, but with his career split almost evenly between the two Sox teams, he didn’t do nearly as much for either team as Dickey and Berra did for the Yankees. And Schalk doesn’t rank anywhere among the best-hitting catchers.
Campy’s career was shortened on the front end by racial segregation and on the back end by an auto accident that paralyzed him. In between, he gave the Dodgers 10 years as their primary catcher, eight of them in a row as an All-Star. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his fifth year on the writers’ ballot.
Piazza played five years as the Dodgers’ primary catcher, all of them as an All-Star. He played more for the Mets. He set the record for career homers by a catcher and ranks high in other categories, but most of that hitting wasn’t for the Dodgers. He got 70 percent of the writers’ vote this year, and I expect him to be elected to the Hall of Fame in another year or two.
Campy’s and Piazza’s combined contributions perhaps exceeded Berra’s or Dickey’s but don’t approach the Yankees’ combined achievements.
Bresnahan played seven seasons for the Giants early in the 20th Century. He caught 974 career games, only once topping 100 games behind the plate in a season.
Ewing was a 19th-century player who never caught 100 games in a season. He also pitched, played the outfield and played every infield position. He caught 636 games in 14 seasons, 11 of them for the Giants.
The Giants’ Hall of Fame catchers don’t nearly compare to Berra and Dickey.
If we’re going to count Piazza as a likely Hall of Famer, we should note he’ll give the Mets two catchers in Cooperstown. Gary Carter played mostly for the Expos, but caught five years for the Mets, four of them as an All-Star. Add them to Piazza’s eight years for the Mets (six as an All-Star) and their combined Met careers don’t match Dickey or Yogi alone.
By Hall of Famers, the Yankees have a clear advantage in catching tradition over any other team.
Hall of Famer Biz Mackey succeeded Hall of Famer Louis Santop for the Negro League team known as the Hilldale Daisies in Santop’s time and Hilldale Giants in Mackey’s. While their Hall of Fame profiles list Hilldale as each catcher’s primary team, Mackey also played for the Philadelphia Stars, Newark Eagles, Indianapolis ABCs and the Baltimore/Washington Elite Giants and Santop also played for the Fort Worth Wonders, Philadelphia Giants, New York Lincoln Giants and Chicago American Giants.
Three teams got three MVP awards from their Hall of Famers:
- Berra was MVP in 1951, ’54 and ’55, giving the Yankees three. Dickey never won an MVP.
- Campy won MVP awards in 1951, ’53 and ’55. Piazza was never an MVP.
- Bench won two MVP awards and Lombardi one, to give the Reds three MVPs for their catchers.
However, the Yankees had two more MVP catchers: Elston Howard in 1963 and Thurman Munson in 1976. No Red or Dodger pitcher who isn’t in the Hall of Fame won an MVP, so the Yankees have the most MVP awards won by catchers, with five.
Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane won MVP awards for the A’s and Tigers, but neither team had another Hall of Fame or MVP catcher. Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett also won an MVP, but he’s the only Cub catcher to win either honor. (More on Cochrane and Hartnett later.)
The other catchers to win MVP awards are not yet eligible for Hall of Fame voting, Ivan Rodriguez of the Rangers in 1999, Joe Mauer of the Twins in 2009 and Buster Posey of the Giants in 2012.
Adding Posey to the Giants’ combo of Ewing and Bresnahan, they still fall further behind the Yankees’ MVP and Hall of Fame catchers: Berra, Dickey, Howard and Munson. More on the Twins’ and Rangers’ other catchers later.
I’ve already noted that Munson belongs in the Hall of Fame and will make the case in a future post for Howard. But just adding Hall of Famers and MVPs, the Yankees had either a Hall of Famer or a past or future MVP or both behind the plate, at least part-time every year from 1928 to 1979, except for 1968 (the gap between Howard and Munson) and those two years Dickey was in the Navy. Add another 16 All-Star seasons (nine for Howard, seven for Munson) to the 26 for Berra and Dickey, a total of 42 All-Star seasons by four catchers over a 52-year stretch. No team comes close to that.
Borderline Hall of Famers
Beyond the four I’ve already mentioned, Wally Schang (five prime years a Yankee) has stronger case for the Hall of Fame than Schalk from the same era (higher batting, on-base and slugging averages, more homers, hits, runs and RBI.
Jorge Posada had a better career than several Hall of Fame catchers (he hasn’t been retired five years yet, so we don’t know how he’ll do with the writers, but I’m not optimistic). Still, he added another five All-Star season to the Yankees’ total.
No other team had five catchers with five or more All-Star selections. And I can’t think of another franchise with five catchers who had 10-year (or more) runs with the team.
Russell Martin spent only two years as a Yankee, but was an All-Star in 2011. Mike Stanley was an All-Star in 1995. Aaron Robinson was an All-Star Berra’s rookie season, 1947. We’re up to 50 All-Star seasons for Yankee catchers.
Other notable Yankee catchers
Ralph Houk, one of many Yankee autographs from the 1950s my wife’s uncle collected on two baseballs that now belong to my sons.
Ralph Houk spent eight years as Berra’s backup, but is more notable for his 20-year managing career, including 11 years with the Yankees, winning the 1961-2 World Series. He had a 1,619-1,531 record, never finishing first again after losing the 1963 World Series. Still, he ranks 18th all-time in wins.
- As I mentioned in Wednesday’s post, Johnny Blanchard joined Howard and Berra in 1961 in hitting 20+ homers, all sharing time behind the plate for the Yankees.
- Joe Girardi spent four years catching for the Yankees, starting for the 1996 champions before Posada won the starting role. Of course, Girardi has been managing the Yankees since 2008.
- Rick Cerone caught seven seasons for the Yankees, just two years catching more than 100 games.
- Rick Dempsey was a Yankee backup catcher before becoming the Orioles’ starter for nearly a decade.
- Jake Gibbs was more notable as an All-America quarterback for Mississippi than his 10 years as a Yankee catcher (backing up, except for that brief gap between Howard and Munson).
- Rodriguez caught 31 games for the 2008 Yankees.
Other teams’ catching traditions
None of the teams with two Hall of Famers has enough other catching excellence to push them close to the Yankees. The Dodgers had John Roseboro starting for 10 years (three as an All-Star), Mike Scioscia for a decade and two All-Star selections and Steve Yeager for 14 years without an All-Star appearance (he caught 100 games only five times), plus Martin for five years, including his first two All-Star games. They might have the second-best tradition.
The Giants got a few All-Star seasons from Wes Westrum (two), Benito Santiago (one, plus for with the Padres), Bob Brenly (one), Dick Dietz (one) and Tom Haller (two, plus an All-Star year for the Dodgers). When you add Posey to the two Hall of Famers, the Giants could pass the Dodgers soon, if they haven’t already. But those Hall of Famers are pretty marginal, and the Giants are nowhere near the Yankees.
Other teams with two Hall of Famers had other notable catchers, but nothing approaching the Yankees’ consistency:
- Howard spent his final two seasons with the Red Sox and Jason Varitek had three All-Star seasons in his 15-year career in Boston.
- Johnny Edwards was a three-time All-Star catcher for the Reds before Bench arrived.
Other teams without two Hall of Fame catchers had decent catching traditions:
Mickey Cochrane is the only Tiger catcher in the Hall of Fame, but he’s in the argument for best catcher ever, so he deserves mention here. Add some excellent catching years from:
- Bill Freehan (13 seasons as the primary catcher, including 11 All-Star seasons).
- Lance Parrish (eight seasons starting for the Tigers, six as an All-Star).
- Four All-Star seasons by Rodriguez.
- The best four-year stretch of Mickey Tettleton‘s career, including one as an All-Star.
- Rudy York was a five-time All-Star for the Yankees, but only one year as a catcher.
The Tigers might pass some of the teams with two Hall of Famers, but not approach the Yankees’ overall greatness at catcher.
The Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves have had some excellent catchers, even if none made the Hall of Fame as a player.
Del Crandall was an eight-time All-Star behind the plate for the Milwaukee Braves.
He was followed by Joe Torre, in Cooperstown for his managing career (primarily his Yankee championships). Torre was an All-Star catcher five straight years for the Braves. (In a game at Wrigley Field in the 1960s, I saw Torre make a Charlie Brown-style error on a popup, parking under it for a seemingly easy out, only to have it bounce out of his catcher’s mitt.) Nonetheless, he won a Gold Glove.
McCann also was a six-time All-Star for the Braves before joining the Yankees.
Other notable Braves catchers include 1971 Rookie of the Year Earl Williams, three-time All-Star Javy Lopez, two-time All-Star Bruce Benedict, one-time All-Stars Ozzie Virgil (he was on my fantasy team in the 1980s), Greg Olson and Johnny Estrada.
The Braves might have a stronger tradition at catcher than some of the teams with Hall of Fame catchers, but they don’t approach the Yankees’ continued excellence at the position.
The Cardinals also have a strong catching tradition without a Hall of Famer. Walker Cooper, who peaked at 14 percent of the writers’ vote for the Hall of Fame, had his first three All-Star seasons (of 10) as a Cardinal. (Cooper also was an All-Star for the Giants, Reds and Braves.)
Tim McCarver gets overrated as a catcher because of his long broadcasting career (I couldn’t stand him) and because he was part of a Cardinals team that won two World Series and played in a third over a five-year stretch. He played 21 years and was an All-Star twice, but he was a mediocre hitter, with a .271 average and only 95 homers. Still, he’s the only catcher I can think of who led his league in triples, with 13 in 1966. He spent seven years as the Cardinals’ primary catcher, including both All-Star seasons.
Ted Simmons, who overlapped with McCarver, was a better catcher, spending a decade behind the plate for the Cardinals, including six All-Star seasons. Neither Simmons nor McCarver lasted more than a year on the writers’ Hall of Fame ballot.
Darrell Porter wasn’t an All-Star for the Cardinals (he was for the Brewers and Royals), but he was the 1982 World Series MVP. Tony Peña caught four years for the Cardinals, one as an All-Star. Yadier Molina has seven straight All-Star seasons for the Cardinals.
Like the Braves, the Cardinals could surpass some of the teams with Hall of Fame catchers, but they’re nowhere close to the Yankees.
Cochrane played longer for the A’s than for the Tigers, and Terry Steinbach was a three-time All-Star, but I can’t think of another A’s catcher worth discussing here.
The Cubs’ fall-off after Hartnett is pretty dramatic. Probably Jody Davis (six years, two as an All-Star) or Randy Hundley (one All-Star season) would be their second-best catcher.
Rodriguez was the best defensive catcher of his time and a good hitter, too. Add him to Jim Sundberg, a two-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove, and the Rangers have one of the strongest traditions of any expansion team.
Ferrell played eight seasons for the first Senators, which later moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. Mauer has given the Twins six All-Star seasons, but hasn’t caught 100 games since 2010. Butch Wynegar, an All-Star only his first two years, is the only other notable Twins or Senators catcher I can think of. Wynegar started for the Yankees in 1984-85.
The Pirates have had several good catchers: the best five-year run of Peña’s career (four seasons as an All-Star); an eight-year run (with three All-Star seasons) by Manny Sanguillen; four All-Star seasons (in six years) for Smoky Burgess; three All-Star seasons in Jason Kendall‘s nine-year run. But not a great catcher in the bunch.
Bob Boone was probably the best of a batch of good-fielding, weak-hitting Phillies catchers. He spent nine years in Philadelphia, including their first World Series title. Three time he was a an All-Star for the Phillies, and he ranks third in most games at catcher, behind Rodriguez and Fisk. But the greatest pitcher Boone caught, Steve Carlton, actually preferred pitching to McCarver, who extended his career by being Carlton’s personal catcher.
Carlos Ruiz has given the Phillies a solid decade behind the plate (a record four no-hitters caught), but only one All-Star appearance and a weak bat. Mike Lieberthal played longer (but not as long as a starter), with two All-Star appearances.
Of course, the Negro Leagues disbanded a decade or so after the “major” leagues integrated, so any Negro League catching tradition ended more than half a century ago. They are at a similar disadvantage comparing to the Yankees as any of the expansion teams. But, since I’m discussing the greatest catchers ever, I want to mention that Josh Gibson, perhaps the greatest catcher ever, played for the Homestead Grays.
No one’s close
The Orioles/Browns and Indians barely have any catchers worth mentioning here. And I’ve already mentioned the most notable expansion catching traditions. The Yankees have been the best and it’s not even close.
Yogi didn’t start the Yankees’ catching tradition. That started with Dickey, unless you want to go back to Schang. Simply put, no other team approaches that half-century of almost unbroken greatness from Dickey to Berra to Howard to Munson. The 1980s and early ’90s were a significant gap, but Posada’s decade-plus of excellence ran up the score on every other franchise when it came to catching excellence.
And of them all, Yogi was the best.
Style note: The Hall of Fame has had various committees and rules through the years to elect players who were passed over by the Baseball Writers Association of America as well as umpires, managers, executives and other baseball pioneers. I refer to them all as the Veterans Committee unless the specific context demands reference to specific committee such as the current era committees. Baseball-Reference.com has a detailed history of the various committees.
Source note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.
Correction invitation: I welcome you to point out any errors I missed in my fact-checking: stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com. Or, if you just want to argue about my opinions, that’s fine, too.
Starting pitchers: My series on Yankee starting pitchers will resume Monday with a post on Yankee pitchers who belong in the Hall of Fame. Other posts in the series: