Several times in New York Yankees history there have been periods of “Dynasty” teams, more than any other franchise. Most of these Yankees’ teams were carried by the big bats of “Bronx Bombers” like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Jackson, and Jeter, and pitching staffs that included aces such as Hoyt, Pennock, Gomez, Lopat, Ford, Guidry, Rivera, and Pettit.
If you study carefully the makeup of these teams throughout the years, there has been another consistent component among them. They each featured outstanding catchers, guys who helped carry the Yankees to multiple World Series championships, while also achieving individual honors such as multiple All-Star selections that further illustrated their dominance.
In the 113 years of the Yankees franchise, 60 of their seasons were manned by only six players who served as the primary catcher of the team. These six catchers were involved in 35 of the 40 World Series appearances the Yankees achieved, and they also contributed for 24 of the 27 World Championship teams in the franchise’s history. To help put those startling numbers into perspective, during the Yankees’ longest dry spell without a post-season appearance (1982-1994), they had seven different regular catchers in just those thirteen seasons.
Following is a brief rundown of these six Yankee Dynasty catchers.
Wally Schang had the shortest stint as the Yankees’ primary catcher of this group and is also the least well-known. However, from 1921 to 1924, Schang put together four solid seasons as he helped the Yankees to three World Series appearances, including their first ever championship in 1921. He had previously played in World Series contests with the Philadelphia A’s and Boston Red Sox. Noted for his defensive skills, Schang was a career .284 hitter over 19 major league seasons. He was the only one of this Yankee catching group who did not come up through the Yankees’ farm system.
Bill Dickey had the longest tenure in this group as the Yankees’ backstop. At age 22 he became the regular catcher in 1929, and he filled that role until 1943. During that stretch, the Yankees made eight World Series appearances, winning seven of them, including five consecutive titles from 1936-1939. Dickey was among the top six players in the American League MVP voting in each of those five seasons. Serving as the bridge between the Gehrig/Ruth and DiMaggio years of the Yankees, Dickey was selected to All-Star teams in ten of his seventeen career seasons. Dickey was Number 57 of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players of the 20th Century as determined by The Sporting News in 1999. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954.
Yogi Berra is the most famous of the catchers in the group. Tutored by Bill Dickey on his catching skills, he became the regular Yankees catcher in 1947 at age 22, which began a string of fourteen seasons as catcher, including thirteen as an All-Star selection. During that stretch, he was a participant in eleven World Series, winning eight of them, including five consecutive titles from 1949-1953. Berra was the American League MVP in 1951, 1954, and 1955. In 1960, he started sharing significant time with Elston Howard as the team’s catcher. Later, primarily an outfielder from 1961 to 1963, Yogi made an additional three World Series appearances. Altogether, he is the all-time leader in World Series appearances with fourteen. Over his 19-year career, he was selected to the American League All-Star team in fifteen consecutive seasons. Berra was also honored on the 100 Greatest Players roster as the Number 40 selection. He was voted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Elston Howard began his Yankee career in 1955, but since he was essentially blocked from attaining the starting catcher’s position by All-Star Berra, he did not become the primary starter until 1961. Used as an outfielder, first baseman, and part-time catcher up until then, 1960 was a turning point season when Howard and Berra largely split catching duties. Howard made the most of his time as the regular catcher beginning in 1961, when he contributed to the Yankees’ consecutive World Series appearances from 1961 to 1964, while winning in 1961 and 1962. Over his entire career, Howard played in nine of the Yankees’ World Series. He was voted the American League MVP in 1963 and was selected to All-Star teams from 1957 to 1965, during his 14-year career.
Thurman Munson became the regular catcher for the Yankees in 1970, a season in which he was named the American League Rookie of the Year. Unlike his predecessors in this elite group of catchers, it took six seasons for Munson to make his first World Series appearance in 1976. The Yankees repeated in 1977 and 1978, winning two of the three years. Munson’s career was cut short at age 32 when he was tragically killed in a private airplane crash during the 1979 season. He was named the American League MVP in 1976 and was selected to seven All-Star teams during his 11-year career.
Jorge Posada spent parts of three seasons with the Yankees before becoming the regular starting catcher in 1998. His starting role began a string of six years in which the Yankees dominated the American League with five league championships from 1998 to 2003. Although they were a perennial post-season team during the balance of Posada’s career, the Yankees made only one other World Series appearance in 2009. Posada played on World Series championship teams in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009. He was selected to the American League All-Star team five times during his 17-year career. Posada was among the top six MVP vote-getters in 2003 and 2007 and twice won the Silver Slugger Award.
It could be argued that Yankee catcher Pat Collins should be included in this group. However, he played only three seasons (1926-1928) with the Yankees during his career, although each of those seasons involved a World Series appearance. However, I decided not to include Collins since the Yankees used many part-time catchers during those seasons, with Collins starting only 93, 74, and 45 games, respectively. I don’t believe he was a dominant catcher like the other six I have presented.
Thus, I believe there is a strong correlation between the Yankees’ dominant catchers and their teams’ dominance over the years. Besides the three seasons mentioned above involving Collins, there has been only one other season (1981) in which the Yankees won an American League pennant without the presence of a dominant catcher.
In looking at some other franchises that could be classified as dynasties for a period of time, I can make a similar argument about their catchers being at the heart of their dominance. Johnny Bench was the key cog in the Big Red Machine years from 1970 to 1976, when Cincinnati went to four World Series. Mickey Cochrane helped two different teams (A’s and Tigers) get to five World Series between them during 1929-1935. Roy Campanella was a mainstay with the Dodgers from the late‘40s to the mid ‘50s, when they won the National League pennant five times in eight years.
Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals certainly makes my case from the current big league players. With Molina as the primary catcher from 2005 to 2013, the Cardinals have reached the World Series three times. Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants might eventually be considered in this category as well.
So what does this portend for the current and future New York Yankees? In 2013, their catcher position was filled with what I consider a group of “back-up” players. A few years ago, it appeared as though prospect Jesus Montero was being groomed by the Yankees to assume the catcher’s spot after Posada. However, Montero was dealt in a trade with Seattle before the 2012 season for some much-needed pitching.
There is currently a catcher from the Dominican Republic in the Yankees farm system, Gary Sanchez, who has been on numerous “top prospects” lists since he first signed professionally at age 17. However, after his fourth professional season in 2013, he has played in only 23 games above the Single-A level. Sanchez will still be only 21 years old next season, so maybe he just needs more seasoning and could possibly be ready by 2016. Will the Yankees wait that long and gamble that Sanchez will actually pan out?
Surely, they won’t want to wait too long before getting back into contention for the playoffs and beginning the next “Dynasty.”