With the possible exception of center field, no spot on the diamond has a greater lineage in Yankee history than catcher. We've had the privilege of watching Jorge Posada over the past thirteen seasons. Fans in the seventies had Thurman Munson; the sixties had Elston Howard; the fifties and late forties had Yogi Berra. But the line of great Yankee catchers began with Bill Dickey.
Born in Louisiana and raised in Arkansas, Dickey was purchased from the Jackson Senators in early 1928. Assigned to Class A Little Rock, Dickey spent most of the season there, played three games at Class AA Buffalo, and then made his Major League debut in August. Dickey played sparingly, coming to the plate just 15 times in 10 games, and was a spectator as the Yankees captured their second consecutive World Series.
The following season Dickey took over as the starting catcher, a position he would hold for the next fifteen years. Teammate Babe Ruth had ushered in an offensive era a decade earlier, but any offense coming from up-the-middle positions was still considered icing on the cake for the most part. Dickey, as well as contemporaries Mickey Cochrane, Ernie Lombardi, and Gabby Hartnett would help change that expectation for catchers.
Through the first eleven full seasons of his career, Dickey hit better than .300 ten times, posted an OPS+ of 109 or better each year, including nine seasons of 120 or greater, six seasons greater than 130, three seasons greater than 140, and a whopping 158 in 1936, good for second in the American League. He posted four straight seasons of 20+ HR and 100+ RBI as the Yankees won an unprecedented four consecutive World Series from 1936 through 1939. In an era when catchers were valued for defense first, if not defense only, Dickey was amongst the offensive elite at any position.
Dickey began to slow starting in the 1940 season, his workload gradually being reduced to slightly more than half the schedule. While he no longer posted the same lofty numbers of his prime years, he still produced quite well for a catcher. In 1943, with the talent pool depleted by World War II, Dickey enjoyed a renaissance, posting a .351/.445/.492 line (173 OPS+) in 85 games, setting career highs in average, on base, and OPS+. All three would have been good enough to lead the AL, but the 36 year old catcher did not accrue enough plate appearances to qualify for the leader board.
Dickey enlisted in the Navy the following spring, and missed the 1944 and '45 seasons while serving in Hawaii. He returned to the Yankees for one last season in 1946, but it would be one to forget. In limited duty, Dickey posted decent numbers for a 39 year old catcher, but it were issues outside the lines that made for an unpleasant return. Longtime manager Joe McCarthy resigned 35 games into the season, plagued by off field issues and by conflict with the new Yankee front office. As the veteran leader of the club and the last tie to the Ruth years, Dickey was handed the reigns to the club as player-manager. He managed the club to a 57-48 record over the next 105 games, but didn't finish the season. He appeared in his final game on September 8th and then resigned four days later. Despite their superstars returning from World War II, the team struggled to a third place finish.
Dickey was given his release on September 20, 1946, missing the Major League debut of the next great Yankee catcher by two days. Yogi Berra, a good hitting, poor fielding catcher came up from Newark and made his debut on September 22nd. He spent the next two seasons splitting time behind the plate and in the outfield, hitting extremely well but leaving much to be desired with the glove. In 1949 Dickey rejoined the Yankees as a coach, and as Yogi said "he learned me all of his experience". Berra inherited Dickey's old number eight, and improved vastly behind the plate, going on to become arguably the greatest catcher in history.
Dickey remained on the coaching staff through 1957, scouted in '58 and '59, and rejoined the staff in 1960.
For his career, he made eleven All-Star teams, including nine straight from 1936 through 1943, and finished in the top ten in MVP voting five times. Including his brief stint on the '28 team, he played on nine AL Pennant winners and eight World Series championship teams. He went on to earn another six rings as a coach.
At the time of his retirement, amongst catchers Dickey trailed only Gabby Hartnett in home runs in slugging, was second to Mickey Cochrane in batting average and runs, was fourth in OBP, and was the leader in RBI. He remains on the catching leaderboard in most major offensive categories and still has the fourth best all time OPS+ amongst catchers. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954, and the Yankees retired number eight for both him and Berra in 1972. The pair were later given plaques in Monument Park in 1988.