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Yankees Catching Legends: From Dickey to Posada

The New York Yankees have had a number of legendary players in their 100+ years, some of whom rose to the highest level of the game and eventual induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.  One of the greatest satisfactions for an organization is seeing their homegrown players, whether taken in the amateur draft or signed as free agents out of places like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, achieve such success. Sometimes that includes handing the position off from one player with a great career to another.  For the Yankees, it meant players like Bill Dickey and Jorge Posada.

The catching lineage on the Yankees is one of great pride, in large part, because of the willingness of the veterans to teach and mentor the up-and-comers. With Posada’s retirement in 2011, the Yankees are trying to figure out who will succeed current starter/import Brian McCann.

Gary Sanchez is the odds on/fan favorite, but that step from Triple-A to the Majors is a huge one. One only has to take a look at rise and fall of the last catcher in the organization with high expectations, Jesus Montero, to fully understand that. But instead of trying to figure out who is next, let this tale be about the lineage itself.

It begins with the player that was number 8 before Yogi Berra was a twinkle in the Yankees’ eyes. Bill Dickey donned the Yankees uniform for 17 seasons. He played with fellow Hall of Fame members Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt. It’s no wonder that one of Dickey’s nicknames was “The Man That Nobody Knows”. Imagine breaking into the Yankees lineup as a 22-year old in 1929, just two seasons removed from the Yankees’ “Murderer’s Row” team, considered by many as the greatest baseball team of all time.

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In addition to his defensive prowess, Dickey could hold his own with the bat. From 1936-1939, the native of Bastrop, LA averaged over 25 home runs and 115 RBI. Those four seasons produced an OPS of 1.045, .987, .981, and .915. He was an 11-time All-Star and finished in the top 15 in the AL MVP vote, nine times. (He finished second in the MVP voting in 1937 when he set careers high in games played, home runs, RBI and hit .332.)

Hall of Fame Pitcher Bob Feller was quoted as saying “Bill Dickey is the best (catcher) I ever saw… He was as good as anyone behind the plate, and better with the bat. There are others I’d include right behind Dickey, but he was the best all-around catcher of them all. I believe I could have won 35 games if Bill Dickey was my catcher.”

The Yankees thought so highly of Dickey that when manager Joe McCarthy resigned after 35 games in 1946, Dickey was named Player-Manager. Despite a 57-48 record for the 105 games he managed, the Yankees reportedly would not give Dickey a new contract until after the season. Dickey then became the second Yankees manager to resign in 1946, but he remained on the active roster as a player. In doing so, he got to be a teammate with one Lawrence Peter Berra, who made his Major League catching debut on September 21, 1946. Dickey retired after the season, but returned three years later with a special mission.

By the time the 1949 season rolled around, Yogi Berra was firmly ensconced as the Yankees’ starting catcher, but his defensive work still needed some fine tuning. Who better to call on then the catcher for seven World Series champion teams? Berra was quoted as saying “I owe everything I did in baseball to Bill Dickey”. In fact, Berra switched to the number 8 as a tribute to his mentor. (The Yankees retired the number, for both players, on Old Timers Day, July 22, 1972.)

Berra’s career was one of remarkable success.  Listed at 5’7″, there was practically no pitch that was out of range for Berra’s bat, yet he never stuck out more than 38 times in a single season. In his 17 full seasons as Yankee, he captured three AL MVP Awards, was an 18-time All-Star (he participated in two games from 1959-1961), won 10 World Series rings and made just one error in 1958 and 1959 combined.

There are those fans who think Yogi is best known for his quirky anecdotes and one-liners, better known as “Yogi-isms”, or for being the lovable figure that graced Yankee Stadium special events and pitched various products on television. They don’t know just how great of a ball player he was, as well as an underrated manager and coach. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972, Berra was named to the All-Century team in 1999. New York Giants Hall of Famer, slugger Mel Ott, may have put it best, “He stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it.”

In the late 1950’s Berra began playing the outfield – he had the dubious distinction of being in left field when the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski hit his 1960 World Series winning walk-off home run – so that Elston Howard could transition to being the full-time catcher. Howard actually began his Yankees’ career playing quite a bit of outfield while Berra was the number one backstop.

“Ellie” had the distinction of being the first African-American to wear the Yankees’ uniform when he debuted in April, 1955. With Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, had George Steinbrenner been the Yankees’ owner then, there is no doubt an African-American player would have debuted for the Yankees much earlier.

Not only did Howard have Berra to help him with his catching skills, but Dickey as well. Imagine being tutored by two Hall of Fame catchers. Howard was just as effusive as Berra with his praise for Dickey. “You’ve got to have Bill work with you to understand how much he can help you… The year I came to the Yankees from Toronto, I wasn’t as good as a lot of semipro catchers. Bill took me over and he talked to me. Then he worked with me. We’d go off in a corner and practice. Without Bill, I’m nobody. Nobody at all. He made me a catcher. Now when I start to slip and get careless, there’s old Bill to give me a hand.” The payoff for Howard was nine All-Star appearances, the 1963 AL MVP Award, a pair of Gold Gloves and four World Series rings.

In his MVP season, Howard hit a career-high 28 home runs and drove in 85 runs to go along with a .282 batting average, and displayed stellar defense behind the plate. In the Yankees’ remarkable 1961 season, Howard put together a slash line of .348/.387/.549. Had Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle not been chasing the ghost of Babe Ruth, Howard might have been an even more serious MVP candidate then his 10th place finish. Howard played on nine pennant-winning Yankees teams and one more on the 1967 (“The Impossible Dream”) Boston Red Sox team. 10 pennants in a 14-year career, not too shabby for one of the classiest men in all of baseball.

Howard played one more season in Boston before he retired and returned to the Yankees as first base coach in 1969. Sadly, heart disease took his life in 1980, at just 51 years-of-age. (The Yankees posthumously retired his number 32) But during his coaching tenure, he imparted his knowledge to a short, stocky catcher by the name of Thurman Munson. The Ohio native played at Kent St. University and was selected by the Yankees with the fourth overall pick in the 1968 MLB amateur draft. Just like Howard had both Dickey and Berra to work with, Munson had Howard and then Berra, when the latter rejoined the Yankees as a coach in 1976.

Munson played the game with a controlled, rather than reckless, abandon. He had a keen eye at the plate and hit better than .300, five times. Munson’s number one priority, however, was catching. He worked closely with his pitching staff and protected home plate like it was one of his children. Unfortunately, it took a toll on his body, especially his knees. By the end of the late 1970’s, he required a lot of time in the trainer’s room before and after games.

Early in his career, Munson threw out would-be base stealers with ease (he led the league twice, including a remarkable 61% in 1971), but a thumb injury permanently altered his throwing motion and put stress on his shoulder. He recorded a 1.000 fielding pct. in 1975, but shortly thereafter the injuries started to take their toll on Munson’s defense. He made up for the shoulder problem by releasing the ball quicker. It was somewhat effective, though at times it caused the ball to tail away from the intended target.

Munson’s brain was always in fine shape though. He continued to be superb at handling pitchers and swung a clutch bat. He earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 1970 and took home the AL MVP Award in 1976, when the Yankees ended a 12-year playoff drought. He topped 100 RBI in three straight seasons, won a pair of World Series rings and was beloved by his teammates, coaches, managers, and fans. That was most evident on August 2, 1979, when the Yankees’ first team captain since Lou Gehrig, died in a fiery plane crash in his native Ohio. With some time off, Munson had flown home in his private plane to visit his wife Diane and their children, daughters Tracy and Kelly and son Michael. Playing on the Yankees was great, but Munson dearly missed his family.

No one would wear number 15 again. Billy Martin described Munson the ball player best, “Thurman was one of the things you could always count on.”

For the next couple of decades the Yankees brought in a variety of catchers – Rick Cerone, Butch Wynegar, Matt Nokes, Bob Geren to name just a few – but none of them had the offensive and defensive game that Munson had. Then the Yankees selected a second baseman in the 28th round of the 1990 draft.

Jorge Posada played 64 games at second base for the Oneonta Yankees of the NY-Penn rookie ball league. A year later, he was a full-time catcher. Posada worked hard and made his debut as a pinch-runner in 1995. Once he reached the Majors for good, he was mentored by his future manager and the team’s top catcher Joe Girardi and got tips from Berra and his manager, (and a former catcher himself), Joe Torre. He also thoroughly studied Munson’s career and spoke quite often with Munson’s widow, Diane. Perhaps no player of the last two decades took a greater interest in Munson’s legacy, than the next catcher to fill his shoes.

While his defense may have been below that of his predecessors, Posada developed into one of the best hitting catchers in the game.  Posada was a member of four World Series champion teams and six AL pennant winners. The switch-hitter belted 275 career home runs and drove in 1,065 runs. From 2001-2007, he averaged 25 home runs and 89 RBI. Normally a hitter in the .270 – .280 range, Posada hit a career .338 in 2007. A five-time All-Star and five-time Silver Slugger Award winner, Posada had his number 20 retired in 2015.

There has been a great debate as to whether Posada has had a Hall of Fame career. (He joins the ballot next year.) Those on his side point to his offensive game compared to those catchers already in the Hall, while his detractors point to his inconsistent, sometimes shaky defense. Either way, Posada will always be remembered as a team leader, a fiery competitor, a fan favorite, and a champion.

So who is the next great home grown Yankees catcher? For now at least, there is no answer.

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