The New York Yankees and a history of Great Backstops

The New York Yankees have a tradition and history of having iconic players, some great and some Hall of Famers. None is more real than the many catchers that have crouched behind home plate at Yankee Stadium.  The catcher not only catches the ball thrown by pitchers but directs the whole game from his position at the backstop and acts as a wall to keep the ball on the playing field.  Another task charged to the backstop is keeping players and spectators alike safe from errant balls and bats.

The Yankees present catcher is Gary Sanchez, who has been the Yankees primary catcher for the last few years. He is a young man with little experience compared to the catchers I will reference but can join these greats. Sanchez has the stuff; he has proven he can hit for power as he has 105 homers in only 372 games, that’s a homer in less than every four games.  Last year he significantly improved the defense of his position.   The only thing that can keep him from greatness is his inability to stay healthy.

Bill Dickey:   Bill Dickey was a Yankee catcher from 1928 to 1946.  He was an excellent game caller and defender as the backstop. He was also a great clutch hitter for the Yankees. In fact, he was so good that after he retired manager Casey Stengel asked him to coach the great hitting Yogi Berra, as Berra didn’t have a handle on the catcher’s position. He did and propelled Berra to be a Hall of Fame catcher, which Berra would acknowledge during his Hall acceptance speech. Dickey had his best hitting year in 1936 when he hit .362 with 107 RBI’s. Between 1944 and 1945, Dickey would serve during World War II. Upon his return to the Yankees, he would play in only 54 games but still be an All-Star. At the end of the season, at the age of 39 and the beating a catcher takes, he retired from baseball.

During his career, he was an All-Star eleven times and would be a candidate for the MVP nine times. He ended his career with a .313 batting average and nearly 2000 hits. He played in eight World Series, winning seven of them. Besides all of that, maybe his most fantastic stat was that he struck out only an average of 17 times during each season. Compare that to Aaron Judge’s average of 137 Strikeouts per season. Bill Dickey was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1954. His Yankee number 8 was retired by the Yankees, and a plaque hung in Monument Park in his honor in 1988. Yogi Berra would say of the honor that Bill Dickey was the most excellent catcher of all time.

Yogi Berra:  Lawrence Peter Yogi Berra was one of the most popular Yankees of all time. He was a long-time catcher, coach, and manager for the Yankees.  He caught for the Yankees between 1946 and 1965.  Yogi was a small man yet had tremendous endurance. He once caught a 22 inning game.  He caught in more than 100 games a year for the next fourteen years. During that time, the Yankees went to the World series fourteen times, winning the Fall Classic ten of those times. During that period, Berra established records for the most at-bats, 259 hits, 71 doubles, ten singles, and 457 put outs in World Series play.  He won more World Series rings than any player in baseball.  Yogi, in addition to being an excellent backstop he was also a character that was adored by Yankee fans.  Yogi, until his death, was nationally known to fans everywhere.   His “Yojiisms” have become spoken in baseball circles and daily life.

Sayings like: “It ain’t over till it’s over,” “Baseball is 90% mental.  The other half is physical”,  “You can observe a lot by just watching,” and so many more.   Yogi is featured in one of the most iconic baseball photos of all time.  Upon Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game in 1956, Yogi would jump into the arms of Larsen as he left the field.  Berra was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.  Sixty-nine years to the day after Yogi’s MLB debut, he passed away in his sleep at the age of 90. All of New York mourned.

Elston Howard:  It wasn’t until 1955 that the Yankees had a black player. That player was Elston Howard. The Yankees waited for one to come along, who was The Yankee type. Kind, quiet, and a gentleman. It gained him complete acceptance from every Yankee. Elston Howard might have been the greatest defensive catcher the New York Yankees ever had.  In 1964, he set American League records for putouts and total chances in a season. “Ellie’s” .993 fielding percentage stood as a major league record until1973.  He was the American League MVP in 1963, becoming the first black MVP in American League history. Howard helped the Yankees win ten pennants and six World Championships.  The very popular Howard was an All-Star 12 times, a Gold Glove Award winner twice, an MVP nominee five times winning the MVP award once.  Many believe that being in the shadow Berra during most of his career may have kept him from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Howard has a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.

Thurman Munson:  The story of Thurmon Munson is a story of greatness and sadness.  Munson was the catcher for the Yankees from 1970 to 1979.  He was a great defensive catcher with a putout rate better than most MLB catchers with his accurate and powerful arm.   He was Rookie of the Year in 1970 and was the American League MVP in 1976.  He was a seven-time All-Star, a seven-time MVP candidate, and a three-time Gold Glove Award winner.  Munson’s .292 lifetime batting average is higher than eight of the 13 Hall of Fame catchers.  He was known as a warrior for his ability to play through injuries.  He helped the 1977 and 1978 Yankees become World Champions.  In 1976 he was made Yankee Captain, the first Yankee Captain since Lou Gehrig retired.  The same year he scored three runs in the ALCS and batted .529 in the World Series that was lost to the Reds.  At the young age of 32 in a tragic plane crash of his own plane during August of 1979, Munson died.   Munson certainly belongs in the Hall of Fame, but many believe the reason he isn’t was due to his shortened career.

Jorge Posada:  Jorge, because he only recently retired, is known by most Yankee fans.  Posada was the backup catcher during the 1996 and 1997 seasons.  He became the Yankees primary catcher in 1998 and served in the backstop position until 2011 when Russell Martin replaced him.  Posada was a homegrown member of the “Core Four” consisting of he, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera.  The reason he is included with these great Yankee catchers is mostly because he was a double threat from both sides of the plate.  Defensively he may not stack up to the others featured, but he had an excellent put out rate and was known for his offense.  He helped the Yankees to four World Championships. In his career, he hit 275 home runs while having a .273 career batting average.  Posada was a five-time All-Star and Silver Slugger.  He was also a two-time MVP candidate.  The Yankees retired Posada’s jersey number 20 on August 22, 2015.  For the time being, Posada will not be elected to the Hall of Fame as in 2017, he fell below the 5% votes needed to remain on the ballot.  His only chance of induction is to be considered by the ERAS Committee, who decide on players no longer eligible for election by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

There have been many other great Yankees catchers that on their own don’t match up to these featured catchers but would have been stars on other teams. columnist William Parlee is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research.