The catcher position has been one that has seemingly always been a strong piece of the Yankees roster. Heading into the future, how can the legacy continue?
The catching position has been the critical success factor for 24 of the Yankees 27 titles. In their 24 championship runs post-1928 the Bombers haven’t won without an elite backstop. From the Dickey years all the way to the modern era with Jorge, it took just six different starting catchers over 80 years to win 24 World Series. Incredible.
The first three Yankee titles occurred in 1923, 1927, and 1928 under the epithet “Murderer’s Row” consisting of Ruth, Gehrig, Combs, Lazzeri, and Hoyt. With the Bombers unconventional power for the time, they relied on a catcher by committee: Wally Schang (80 games), Fred Hofmann (70 games) and Benny Bengough (19 games) in ‘23, Pat Collins (89 games), Johnny Grabowski (68 games) and Bengough (30 games) in ‘27 and Grabowski (75 games), Collins (70 games) and Bengough (58 games) in ‘28. In 1929 that all changed.
The Hall of Famers
After appearing in just 10 games during the ‘28 championship run, Dickey emerged as the Yankee starter in ‘29. He played in 130 games and placed fourth on the team with a .324 average to go along with 145 hits, 10 homers, and 65 RBIs. Between ‘29 and 1946, “The Man Nobody Knows,” won seven more titles, and finished his career with more rings than any catcher in baseball history (8). But in the words of a man by the name of Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, “I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.”
1946, Dickey’s final season and Yogi’s first was a true transition year in terms of Bomber backstops. That season they slowly eased out Dickey who appeared in just 54 games, catching in just 39. Berra started in just six games behind the plate. Aaron Robinson bridged the gap between the two Hall of Fame catchers, playing in 100 games while appearing behind the plate in 95 of those.
The winningest ballplayer of all-time, Yogi Berra burst onto the scene in 1947. In 83 games Berra split his time as the Yankees backup catcher (51 games), utility outfielder (13 LF, 12 RF), and pinch hitter. His offense was impressive as well collecting 82 hits, 11 bombs, 54 RBIs while posting a .280 average to help the Yanks win their 11th World Series, Yogi’s first.
From 1948 to 1957 the catching duties belonged almost solely to Berra. But in 1958, a man that had been more or less a utility player and infrequent catcher since 1955 was beginning to emerge. The man that broke the Yankees color barrier, Elston Howard.
The Should Be Hall of Famers
Already a three-time All-Star and two-time World Series champ as a backup between ‘57 and ‘59, the Yanks eased Howard into the equation until he took the reigns as New York’s top catcher in 1960. That year Berra took a step back and was outnumbered in catching appearances for the first time since his breakout year in ‘48.
Berra finished his nearly 20-year career with 2,150 hits, 358 home runs, 1,430 RBIs, 18-time All-Star, three-time MVP, and ten-time World Series champ. His Yogi-isms helped make him famous off the field and his selflessness when it came time for Howard showed his character was not that of a self-absorbed superstar.
Between ‘60 and the end of his Yankee career in August of 1967 “Ellie” was a nine-time All-Star (MLB played two All-Star games per year between 1959 and 1962), two-time Gold Glove winner and two-time champ. And once again, the Yanks didn’t miss a beat when it came to replacing a legendary catcher. The next in line? A man named Thurman, Thurman Munson.
The man whose plaque should be immortalized in Cooperstown spent 11 seasons in Pinstripes winning two titles, three Gold Gloves, seven All-Star appearances, the 1970 Rookie of the Year, and 1976 MVP. Although premature, Munson finished his illustrious career with a .292 average, 1,558 hits, 701 RBIs and 113 HRs. His 162 game average? .292 average, 177 hits, 80 RBIs, 13 homers, and just 65 strikeouts.
After Munson’s tragic death during the 1979 season, the Yankees found themselves in a precarious situation. For the first time since 1929, they were without a star catcher. And thus the “Dark Ages” of Yankee baseball began, only to conclude with the arrival of Jorge Posada in 1995.
The Dark Ages
Between 1980 and 1994 the Yankees had a total of 22 backstops. Some of the “big” names included Rick Cerone, Butch Wynegar, and Mike Stanley. For many of those years, it was a catcher by committee in the Bronx. During that span, the Yanks played to a .527 winning percentage and from ‘82 to ‘94 had the longest postseason drought in team history, 13 seasons. The Bronx Bombers were a rudderless franchise without a star catcher to steer them.
The Modern Era
As 1997 approached, the Yankees were still in need of a consistent, reliable catcher. In ‘95 it was the combo of Stanley and Jim Leyritz and in ‘96 Joe Girardi and Leyritz who were able to help lead the Yanks to their first title since ‘78. But it was the emergence of Jorge Posada in ‘97 that set the most recent Yankee dynasty in motion.
Jorge had an immediate impact on the pitching staff, helping lead Andy Pettitte to his best all-around season. He went 18-7 with a career-low 2.88 ERA (minimum 162 IP). His calls behind the dish also helped lower Mariano Rivera’s 1996 ERA from 2.09 to 1.88. But as much as he helped defensively, Posada was even more valuable offensively. In his 17 year career, the Puerto Rican native notched 1,664 hits, 275 homers, 1,065 RBIs, and the eighth-highest catcher OPS in baseball history at .848. The man on his tail? Gary Sanchez who since 2015 has the highest OPS of any catcher in the bigs at .847, ranking seventh all-time. On August 23rd of this season, he became the fastest catcher to hit 100 homers (355 games). The next closest? Mike Piazza in 422.
The Yankees catching legacy is as unique to their franchise as their 27 Championships. If history continues to repeat itself, the Yankees will be raising their 28th World Series banner in no time.