Born to Play Ball - Catchers
Lawrence Berra (1946-1965)
"He seemed to do everything wrong, yet everything came out right. He stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it."
- Mel Ott
He was tagged with the name Yogi as a child because the other kids thought he was funny looking, but there was nothing funny about him in a baseball uniform. By his looks, he was an unlikely star. If there is a Mr. October, it is Yogi Berra, who holds the record for most World Series games played, hits and doubles, and is in the top three in runs scored, home runs and RBIs. And his ten World Series rings surpass anyone who ever played in the Fall Classic. He won three MVP awards and was a rock for the New York Yankees behind the plate.
He could hit anything, rarely striking out. When he retired, he owned the record for most home runs hit by a catcher. He was not the greatest defensive catcher, but he threw well, caught well, and called a game flawlessly because he knew more about the game than did the managers.
Unfortunately, this great player's skills and career have been overshadowed by the "Yogisms," phrases and quotes attributed to him. In baseball, this ungainly man played the game as few ever could. He simply was never comfortable when speaking, mixing metaphors and words, resulting in some very funny aphorisms, such as "It ain't over till it's over," "If you come to a fork in the road, take it," "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore," and "Pitching always beats batting - and vice versa." Apparently it ran in the family, because when his son, Dale, was asked if he took after Yogi, the young Berra stated, "The similarities between me and my father are completely different."
Make no mistake about this: Yogi Berra was a mainstay in one of the greatest dynasties the sport has ever seen. The Yankees might not have won those championships without this Hall of Famer.
Johnny Bench (1967-1983)
"Every time Bench throws, everybody in baseball drools."
- Harry Dalton
Johnny Bench was born to be a catcher, one of the best defensive backstops the game has ever seen. He was a slow runner but behind the plate he showed catlike quickness and possessed an arm like a cannon. Bench boasted, "I can throw out any runner alive," and he often did. He redefined the position with his defensive style combined with a powerful bat that left him, when he retired, with more home runs than any catcher in history. His road to becoming a catcher began with his father, who told his son that the fastest way to the big league was at that position. The father drilled the son to throw 254 feet (twice the distance between home and second base) from a crouch and catch pitches with one hand. Upon his arrival in the majors, Bench instantly became the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. Bench became such an icon that young boys wanted to play catcher, a position that had always been viewed as less than glamorous.
He was the anchor for the "Big Red Machine" during the championship years of the Cincinnati Reds. He was a 14 time All-Star, a ten time Gold Glove winner, twice MVP , and led the Reds to post season play six times, winning the World Series twice.
In his first year of eligibility, Bench received over 96% of the votes for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame - it was the third highest total ever received at the time. In 2000, Bench was named the catcher on baseball's All-Century Team, a marvelous tribute to one of the all-time greats.
Mike Piazza (1992-Present)
"I was a last round draft pick. Nobody wanted me. I could count the amount of scouts that told me to go to school, to forget baseball."
- Mike Piazza
Mike Piazza was the last player drafted by the Dodgers in 1988 (number 1391 in the draft) - in the 62nd round - and it is rumored to have been a favor by manager Tommy Lasorda, who was a godfather to one of Mike's brothers. Looking back, it was the Dodgers who got the best of the deal.
No catcher has ever hit like Piazza, who holds almost every offensive record for the position, including most home runs. He is only one of five players to hit 400 homers, with a .300 lifetime average and never striking out more than 100 times in a season. He has been a twelve time All-Star.
With such numbers and accolades, Piazza might be considered the greatest catcher of all time. When he was drafted he switched positions to catcher, and he has worked hard on his defensive skills, but his ability to throw out runners and field errant pitches and pop fouls has been, at best, average. Even a switch to first base in 2004 was abandoned because the defense was poor.
He played for five teams in his career, but his best years were with the Dodgers and New York Mets. It was with the Mets that a noteworthy series of events occurred. During the regular season, Roger Clemens drilled Piazza with a pitch that caused a concussion, sidelining Piazza for part of the regular season. There was speculation Clemens intended to hit the Met catcher, a premise that was harped upon later when the Mets and Yankees met in the 2000 World Series. In game 2, Piazza's bat shattered on a pitch thrown by Clemens. The barrel of the bat flew towards Clemens, who picked it up and threw it at Piazza running up the first base line. Words were exchanged and the benches cleared, but no one was ejected. After the game, Clemens said he thought the bat was the ball, a ridiculous statement clearly intended to prevent Clemens from being suspended in the World Series.
Roy Campanella (1948-1957)
"You have to have a lot of little boy in you to play baseball for a living."
- Roy Campanella
Roy Campanella always radiated that "little boy" quality, loving the game like few ever have. He was always quick with a smile and friendly to all-except opponents, whose heart he would break at the plate with his bat or behind it with sterling defensive plays. Campy anchored the Dodger lineup for ten years, helping them to five World Series appearances.
It's hard to imagine that a player of his ability was held out of the majors until age 26 simply because he was black. He joined the Dodgers the year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. For ten years he played in the Negro National League and was taught the skills of catching by his coach Biz Mackey and, perhaps the game's greatest catcher, Josh Gibson. By the time he reached the big leagues, there was no more complete catcher than Campy. He won three MVPs, becoming only the second African American to win the award; Robinson had won it two years before. And along with Robinson, Don Newcombe and Larry Doby, Campanella was one of the first four blacks ever named to the All-Star game.
Playing only ten years in the majors, his career statistics might pale to some, but he is considered one of the greatest to ever crouch behind the plate.
Tragedy struck in 1958 when his car hit a patch of ice, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Despite the blow, Campy never lost his spirit or love of the game. He was a regular at Dodger spring training, mentoring the organization's catchers and catching prospects, and he worked tirelessly in the community. "As well as being a great baseball player, he was a great human being," said Tommy Lasorda upon Campanella's death in 1993.
Ivan Rodriguez (1991-present)
"I hate losing. I'm tired of losing."
- Ivan Rodriguez
A record twelve time Gold Glove winner, Ivan Rodriguez may be the best defensive catcher in history. He has led the league numerous times with the lowest stolen base percentage; in fact, I-Rod set the best mark in four decades by throwing out 48% of base stealers. He possesses a strong arm, but it's his quick release that impresses most. And his quick feet enables him to make plays few others can.
The man also known as Pudge has hardly been one-dimensional. His batting puts him among league leaders for most of his career and garnered him an MVP award in 1999 as a member of the Texas Rangers. That year he hit .332, had 199 hits, smashed 35 homers, drove in 113 and even swiped 25 bases, an impressive total for a catcher. His career numbers of over .300 in batting, RBIs and home runs put him among the best backstops of all time.
A third dimension of Rodriguez's game may be his best. His leadership on the field and in the clubhouse has paid off handsomely for the teams that signed him. After twelve years with the Texas Rangers, Rodriguez signed a one year contract with the Florida Marlins. The Marlins' investment paid off as I-Rod led a young, upstart squad to its first winning season in five years and a World Series victory over the heralded New York Yankees. The following year Rodriguez signed with the Detroit Tigers, easily the worst team in all of baseball. Within three years, that same Tiger team went to the World Series, though losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. At the center of each of these stunning turnarounds was the future Hall of Famer we know as I-Rod.
Carlton Fisk (1969-93)
"There was also a little of that thing they say about New Englanders: Being from here doesn't prevent me from doing anything, it just prevents me from enjoying it."
- Carlton Fisk on his New England heritage
Carlton Fisk will always be remembered for his famous coaxing of his long homer to stay fair in the 11th inning of Game 6 in the 1975 World Series. His Boston Red Sox won the game, one of the best ever in Series play, but lost in the 7th and deciding game. Playing the grueling position of catcher for 24 years was a remarkable achievement. When he retired he held the record for most games caught and homers for the position. He was the first ever unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year in 1972 and won his only Gold Glove that same year. Few ever protected the honor of the game as much as Fisk. He once almost came to blows with the entire Yankee team after he berated Deon Sanders for not running out a routine groundball. Later Sanders apologized for not giving his all.
Mickey Cochrane (1925-1937)
"There goes Cy Perkins' job."
- Cy Perkins after Cochrane pinch hit for him and knocked in the winning run
Given the nickname "Black Mike" because of his bad temper, Mickey Cochrane was a fierce competitor for both the Philadelphia Athletics and Detroit Tigers. He was arguably the best catcher in baseball during the 1920s and 30s, though he sometimes had difficulty throwing out would-be base stealers. Cochrane was the anchor of Connie Mack's Athletics, winning two MVP awards, leading the A's to five pennants and two World Series titles. In 13 seasons he averaged .320 but his career ended prematurely when he was struck in the head by a pitch and nearly died. Ten years after he retired he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.