Looking back at another time, and another catching competition

Now that it has been made official, that the Yanks plan to move Posada to DH next year and open up the catching position to the youngsters, how about a post on another catching competition?

In 2011, a 39 year old (40 in August) Posada will give up a lot of the catching chores. Soon to be 21 year old Jesus Montero is the front runner to win the position. 24 year old Francisco Cervelli, last year’s backup who got considerable playing time will have a shot, as will Austin Romine, who will be 22 when camp opens. Montero (AAA last year) and Romine (AA) have yet to play in the majors.

Soon to be 18 year old Gary Sanchez is a few years away, but already rated the #2 prospect in the Yankees system, behind Montero. 

Let’s look back at another time there was competition for the Yankees’ catching position.

In 1946 the Yankees had a 39 year old catcher in Bill Dickey. Of course, there was no DH role back then to slide Dickey into. Dickey ended his career by hitting .261-2-10, OPS + 101 in 134 AB. One reason Dickey retired, besides his age, was his new job. For in May of 1946, Joe McCarthy resigned as Yankees manager. Dickey took over. With that came added responsibility. Long story short, Dickey didn’t care for managing and resigned himself late in 1946. The Yanks closed 1946 with Johnny Neun as their manager. They then got Bucky Harris for 1947. 

But a transition needed to be made at the catching position also.

In 1946, players were coming back from WWII. Baseball was trying to get back to normal. Players were trying to shake off “baseball rust” that accumulated while they were doing something more important—winning a war. Unfortunately, Some veterans of WWII still couldn’t play in the majors no matter how good they were. 1946 was the last year of an all-white major leagues. Desegregating the majors was still a year away.

The Yanks’ main catcher in 1946 was Aaron Robinson. Robinson hit .297, with 16 HR and 64 RBI. A lefty hitter, Robinson was 31 at the time. It took him a long time to get to the majors. He got one AB in 1943 and struck out. His MLB debut came at the age of 28. In 1945 he went .281-8-24 in 160 AB, OPS+ 147. In that 1946 season, a year when the Yanks finished 3rd, Robinson finished 16th in MVP voting with the stats listed above and an OPS+ of 147. Nice numbers. Nice career ahead of him, right? Nope. In 1947, Robinson was the primary C of the champion Yankees, hitting .270-5-36. He made the All-Star team, his only appearance. The OPS+ was a respectable 118. He went 2 for 10 in the World Series. But in February 1948 the Yanks traded him to the White Sox for Eddie Lopat. It was a trade that worked out for the Yanks, since Lopat joined Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi to form the “Big Three,” a trio that led the Yanks to five consecutive WS triumphs from 1949-1953.

Robinson had ok numbers from 1948 to 1951. He hit .252-8-39, OPS+ 96 for the White Sox in 1948 before moving on to the Tigers 1949-1951. He hit 13 HR for the 1949 Tigers. He ended his career with the 1951 Red Sox. Robinson finished his career with a .260 average, 61 HR and an OPS+ of 112.

Gus Niarhos went 9 for 40 for the 1946 Yanks at the age of 25. He was out of the majors in 1947 but came back to catch 83 games in 1948 for the Yankees, hitting .268-0-19, OPS+ 99. He had 43 ABs in 1949. In 1950, after one game with the Yankees, he was selected off waivers by the White Sox. He wound up hitting .324 in 105 AB for Chicago that year. Niarhos was with the White Sox in 1951, hitting .256-1-10 in 168 AB. He spent 1952 and 1953 with Boston, and 1954 and 1955 with the Phillies. After 1951, he only had a total of 107 more at bats in the majors. Niarhos hit .252 in his MLB career with just one HR in 691 AB.

Ken Silvestri got into 13 games for the 1946 Yankees. 6 for 21 at the age of 30. He was with the White Sox 1939 and 1940, Yankees 1941, 1946-1947, and the Phils 1949-1951. He only had a total of 203 MLB at bats, though. .217-5-25, OPS+ 78.

Bill Drescher, at age 25, was 2 for 6 for the 1946 Yanks, then never played in the majors again. Drescher got 7 ABs in 1944. In 1945 he went .270-0-15 in 48 games. He had just 139 ABs in his brief career, .266-0-16. OPS+ 75.

There was one other guy who got some catching time in. A 21 year old catcher. Good bat but there was serious concerns about his defense. We’ll get to him later.

In 1947, Robinson got most of the playing time at catcher. (See his stats above). One of his backups was a 27 year old rookie, Ralph Houk. Houk hit .272-0-12 in 92 AB in 1947, OPS+ 91. Houk only got 66 more ABs in his MLB career, despite hanging on with the Yanks through 1954. He finished .272-0-20 in only 166 MLB at bats. OPS+ 79. Houk, of course, made his mark another way by managing the 1961 and 1962 Yankees to World Championships and the 1963 squad to the AL pennant. He spent all or parts of 20 years as a manager for the Yanks, Tigers and Red Sox, winning 1619 and losing 1531. From 1964-1966, he was the Yanks’ GM.

Silvestri (see above) was 2 for 10 in 1947. Another backup was Sherm Lollar.

Lollar was just 22, turning 23 in August 1947. He had played 28 games for the 1946 Indians, hitting .242-1-9. With the Yanks in 1947, he played in 11 games, going 7 for 32 with a HR and 6 RBI. He went 3 for 4 in the WS with 2 doubles. The Yanks’ catcher of the future, right (especially with the stats, lack of playing time of the others listed above, except for Robinson)? Nope. In 1948 Lollar went 8 for 38 for the Yanks. He was then traded to the Browns.

Lollar went on to have a very good career. He was with the Browns 1949 to 1951, then with the White Sox 1952-1963. He went on to become a seven-time All Star. He was the starting catcher for the 1959 AL Champion White Sox. He finished in the top 10 of MVP voting in 1958 and 1959, when he hit 20 and 22 HR. For half his career, there were no Gold Glove Awards. Now, sometimes the GG is a joke, but Lollar won three of them. Twice he had seasons of over 80 RBI. He ended his career hitting .264 with 155 HR. OPS+ 104.

Hmm, it’s something to let a future seven-time All-Star go…

Oh yeah…there was still that guy from 1946 I didn’t get to yet. The 21 year old who had a good bat but whose D was questionable. Yup, he was there in 1947 as well. I’ll get to him in a bit. Hold on. 

In 1948, Niarhos got most of the catching time for a team that came in third. You can see his stats above. Houk was there (29 AB) as was Lollar (38 AB). There was another new guy on the scene as well. A 23 year old named Charlie Silvera. He only got 14 ABs, but went 8 for 14. Bright future?

Well, Silvera stayed with the Yanks through 1956. In 1957 he ended his career with the Cubs. He did get 130 AB in 1949, hitting .315-0-13, OPS+ 95 but only had 482 AB in his ten-year career, going .282-1-52, OPS+ 86.

So you had Robinson take over for Dickey. Robinson was replaced by Niarhos. Houk was there, as was Lollar in his pre-All Star days. Silvera. Drescher. Silvestri.

…and that funny looking kid.

That funny looking kid took over as full-time catcher in 1949.

Yup. Good bat. Questionable D. 

1946. Six games at catcher. Seven total. 8 for 22, 2 HR and 4 RBI.
1947. Still shaky with the D. Bill Dickey is working with him. 51 games at catcher. The Yanks want his bat in the lineup. 24 games in the OF. 83 total games. .280-11-54, OPS+ 114. Hey, the 22 year old kid actually finished 15th in MVP voting. Hit the first PH HR in WS history, too.
1948. You know, this kid sure talks funny but boy, can he hit. Dickey is still working with him, though. 71 games at C, 50 in the OF. .305-14-98, OPS+ 120. You know what, he swings at everything but almost never strikes out. 469 AB. Just 24 strikeouts. Made the All-Star team, too. 29th in MVP voting.

1949. Hey, guess who is the full-time catcher? He got hurt and missed a month. Silvera had to catch for a while, but 116 games, 109 at catcher. No OF. .277-20-91. OPS+ 111. All Star, 15th in MVP voting.

This kid turned out all right, the one who eventually got the job. .285, 358 HR. OPS+ 125. Made the HOF. A three-time MVP. Gee, Lollar was named an All-Star in seven seasons. This guy was named a All-Star in fifteen seasons. From 1950 to 1956 this guy finished 3rd, 1st, 4th, 2nd, 1st, 1st and 2nd in MVP voting. That’s something.    

He even managed. Yanks and Mets. Took both to the WS, but lost both times. He got his number retired, #8. His mentor, Dickey, has the same number retired. 

…and this guy also became a national treasure.

By now you know who that kid is.

Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra.       

If only the winner of the competition to succeed Posada becomes half as good as Yogi was.

But, especially with Sanchez still a few years down the road, the eventual winner may not be determined for a few years. It took some years of adjustment from Dickey’s retirement in 1946 to Yogi becoming full time in 1949.

Could we be seeing the same now? A few years of adjustment from Posada sliding to DH to to eventual winner establishing himself?   

Time will tell.  

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