Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 12, 2011
BASEBALL: Yogi

Today is Yogi Berra's 86th birthday. If you haven't read it before, I'd suggest revisiting my Hardball Times article from before the 2009 season (Part 1 of which is here) putting the top catchers of all time in context.

Physically, Yogi was basically designed to be a catcher (Bill James described him as looking like, if he was a piece of furniture, you'd sand him off some). And while he was a heckuva hitter and defensive catcher as well as handler of pitchers, his real calling card in the argument for the greatest catcher of all time - and integrally related to why his teams won so much - was his unique combination of durability and consistency (as the military saying goes, quantity has a quality all its own).

Consider: in his peak years from 1950-56, counting the World Series (which the Yankees played in six times in those seven seasons) and the All-Star Game (which Yogi started each of those years, including catching all twelve innings in 1955), Yogi's teams played 1121 games (160 games a year). Yogi caught 1035 of those (148 per year) and never had an off year - his worst year with the bat in that stretch was 1955, when he batted .272/.349/.470, drove in 108 runs, won the MVP award and hit .417/.500/.583 in a seven-game World Series. He won three MVPs, finished second twice, third once and fourth once. Did Yogi tire? He batted .274/.359/.452 in the World Series (including an OPS above 1000 in three straight Serieses from 1953-56); his career OPS was 802 in the first half, 858 in the second half, and he did his best work in the dog days of July and August (career .313/.381/.517 in July, .301/.366/.500 in August compared to .247/.312/.402 in April). He didn't tire in games either - his career line in extra innings was .355/.447/.618.

Yogi was also fired three times as a manager (Mets once, Yankees twice). All three teams then embarked on decade-long stints in the wilderness.

Did I mention he only played briefly in the minors - and thus had to learn to catch at the major league level, where he was tutored by Bill Dickey - because he spent two years in the Navy in World War II, where he served on a 36-foot "rocket boat" off Normandy supporting the D-Day landings?

I was on a rocket boat -- 36-footer, with 12 rockets on each side, five machine guns, a twin-50 and the 330s. And only 36 feet, made out of wood and a little metal...It's amazing what that little boat could do, though; that 36-footer. We could shoot out rockets. We could shoot one at a time, two at a time, or we could shoot all 24 at a time. We went in on the invasion. We were the first ones in, before the Army come in.
...[W]e stand out about 300 yards off the beach, and we see what happens. If we ran into anything, we fire.
Fortunately enough, nothing happened to us. We were lucky. But, you just get so tired, you got to say that. But then, I enjoyed it. I wasn't scared. Going into, it looked like Fourth of July. It really did. Eighteen-year-old kid, going in an invasion where we had - I've never seen so many planes in my life, we had going over there.

Dumbest fact about Yogi: like Joe DiMaggio and Whitey Ford, he was not voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Go figure.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 2:07 PM | Baseball 2011 | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

I think some of the older players were not elected on the first ballot because of confusion on who was and wasn't eligible. Not sure if it applies to the 3 you mentioned or not.

Posted by: A Tarp at May 12, 2011 5:41 PM

"Dumbest fact about Yogi: like Joe DiMaggio and Whitey Ford, he was not voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Go figure."

Well, you know, the Yankees never get a lot of press, so this sometimes happens. :)

Posted by: MVH at May 13, 2011 9:14 AM

It's tough to be remembered as a great ballplayer when the most recent two generations of Americans recognize you as that funny-looking guy who speaks in non sequiturs.....

Posted by: Notary Sojac at May 13, 2011 2:43 PM

Now while I consider DiMaggio probably the most overrated superstar around, he is a first ballot type, as was Yogi and Ford. So a quick look was in order, because I always heard that Joe didn't make it first ballot also, but he retired after the 1951 season, and was inducted in 1955, so in the end, it doesn't look like he's early. But the guys who were ahead of him were certainly not better Dickey, Maranville and Bill Terry, but they were all at least terrific ballplayers, not like the class of 1971.

For Ford, I don't have an issue with Warren Spahn going in first, and Monte Irvin is fine too. The rest (except for Clemente a special case), no Ford was better. but what a class 1974 was: Mickey and Whitey, Jocko Conlan and Cool Papa Bell.

Anyway, a last thought on the list: the Negro Leaguers. I could argue that both Oscar Charleson and Pop Lloyd belong there ahead of Bell, but that was a Committee that knew their job, and did it well.

Berra retired in 1965, and was therefore eligible after 1970, and made it in 1972. So who could possible be inducted before the person who was, at the time, the second best catcher ever (although those who though Cochran was, well, OK, maybe, but he was an amazing player himself). Satchel Paige got in in 1971, but only by the special Negro League Committee, since Satch deserved his own wing in Cooperstown otherwise, but the rest" A bunch of old old old timers, most of whose qualifications were marginal at best: Rube Marquard (a no); Joe Kelly a 19th century catcher; Harry Hooper, who was pretty damn good, but no Hall of Famer, but, well, maybe, it's closer for him and Chic Hafey, a mid .300 hitter in the 1930s. meaning he was above average; an 1890s player who was good enough to be heard of by the Beckley family; and Beauty Bancroft, who I at least heard of. And yeah, George Weiss too. He probably has the best shot after Yogi to claim a plaque.

Posted by: Daryl at May 14, 2011 9:32 PM

The eternal debate. I love it. I do remember watching some of these guys in person. Over two days - Joe, Vince and Dom DiMmagio. We were there to see Ted (Theodore Samuel) of course. Saw Warren a number of times. Saw the Bobs (Lemon and Feller) on consecutive days.

I differ from those who argue statistics. Putting fans in the seats is the be-all and end-all of performance. Yogi is one of the best known players ever - who cares why?

Posted by: Roy Lofquist at May 16, 2011 1:18 PM

DiMaggio "the most overrated superstar" around? You're kidding, right?

Posted by: DubiousD at May 16, 2011 3:52 PM

No Dubious I'm not. And that doesn't mean he isn't an immortal superstar. But his "mythos" so to speak, his bullshit in other ways make him that. He insisted on being introduces as THE GREATEST LIVING PLAYER, something he never was. He was an incredibly talented all around player, but in fact, was the best in a couple of such categories. Here ya go:

1. All those claims how Joe is everything about winning and not about numbers. Yet the biggest arguments given are:
A. 56. Yes it always starts with a number about the non-numbers guy. And let me ask you: Would the Yankees have fared any worse with two 28 game hitting streaks?
B. His home run to strike out ratio. I looked around, and he is indeed the only great player with more home runs than strikeouts.

Therefore, his biggest claim for a non-numbers guy is that his two big numbers make him curious, a statistical oddity. And yes, he was 9-1 in the World Series. I like to think some of his teammates and certainly his pitchers kind of helped. And Yogi won more.

2. Another claim I've heard was, "He was like silk." Fine he was graceful. Wonderful. He also never played hurt, never played when a hangnail would affect his grace, and he was a great fielder, but not even the best fielding DiMaggio. Vince was probably the best of those, since he couldn't hit, and they don't keep you in the bigs because you are good at making outs. Dom was better also. How do I go by that? Well my dad, who saw the Babe play in the late 20s on thought Dom was better. Call it a tie then.

3. Greatest living player. Yeah right. When he came up in 1936 that honor already went to a guy named Ruth, who took it from some big friendly Pirate named Wagner, and then in 1955 it went to Cobb. Who died in 1961. By then, Mr. Willie Howard Mays was graced with that title, and it rests on his shoulders to this day. Want more on that? Ted Williams would waver back and forth between Joe and Willie. Considering Ted played against Joe for a long time, probably head to head for close to 200 games (someone else can figure that one), and Ted saw Willie play in a couple of All Star games, well, I think we can safely say that Mays made quite the impression.

4. Was Joe really a better all around player than Stan? I will grant you the difference between left and center, but was he really better than Stan? You better be on steroids and be a superstar before you claim that one (and not just Joe. If Joe is the most overrated superstar, Stan is the most underrated).

5. At best, Joe is probably tied with Speaker and Griffey on where they stand (do any of you think that is an insult?). Ahead of him is Mays, Cobb and Mantle (and if you don't think Mickey wasn't a better hitter, and a pretty good fielder than Joe you have no clue, give it up), and I would assume Oscar Charleson, but that's sadly on reputation, we can only assume.

6. Back to Mays. Joe couldn't field like Willie. No disgrace because nobody did. Nobody could. There has never been a homo sapien who could run like Mercury and throw like Apollo until no. 24 came along. Both were clearly smart baseball players and runners. Who do you want running the bases? A smart slow runner or a smart fast runner? Duh.

7. Mantle. Mickey in his prime was a human on base machine. He struck out a lot, but then, it was about the only way he was going down. DiMaggio's double play numbers are about normal, Mantle's are sick. You come to the heart of the order, a man on first, and a DP takes you out. Something Mickey never did.

8. Character. Yes, Scooter talked of how in awe of him he was. But we talk about character, Ted serving twice, Joe Gordon, Hank Greenberg, Bob Feller were actually soldiers and sailors. Joe conned his way into the army before he was drafted, spent much of the war in Hawaii bitching and moaning over how much the army owed him for costing him money. While playing baseball in front of wounded marines and sailors. Screw him. And I referred to my dad. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor, and he never forgave DiMaggio. Guess I inherited that one.

Joe DiMaggio was a great player, a magnificent one, and he could be my starting center fielder happily, but I would take others over him. the mythos of him as the GREATEST LIVING PLAYER has, in my opinion, cheapened an objective view of a great great player. Sorry to make this such a long post, but that's where I stand.

Posted by: daryl at May 17, 2011 10:19 AM

I grew up in the Boston area and got to see a lot of Fenway Park. My dad was a fan and in a situation (owned gas stations) where he could take us to a lot of ball games.

The Sox were an exciting team but they never had any pitching. But how about Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Jackie Jensen as one of the best outfields ever?

Posted by: Roy Lofquist at May 18, 2011 1:21 PM

Someone should put together a "Well-Deserving Hall of Famers who were nonetheless seriously overrated" team. If we included players who undoubtedly *will* get to the Hall of Fame though not yet eligible, JoeD would be in CF and Jeter would be the SS--and the ace of the starting staff would be Nolan Ryan. Nominees for the other roster spots are welcome. :-)

Posted by: M. Scott Eiland at May 18, 2011 9:46 PM

Yogi, Joe and Whitey are not alone. It took Harmon Killebrew four years and his first year on the ballot he received only 59.6% of the vote.

Posted by: Magrooder at May 19, 2011 6:09 PM

I see Joe and Yogi as different, since they are, as we would think of them today, clear first ballot H of Fers. Whitey was a great great pitcher, and everyone knew he was great, but he isn't on any objective list as the greatest pitcher ever. My feelings of Joe notwithstanding, he's a first ballot all timer no matter what.

And Scott, while I can agree that Jeter is overrated as an all timer, he's a much better player than Rizzuto, who finally did get his plaque.

Posted by: Daryl at May 20, 2011 3:15 PM

Well, there's no question that guys like Ruth and Williams were better overall players than DiMaggio. I'm just saying that calling Joe the world's "most overrated superstar" comes across as a bit harsh.

To me, when someone says "most overrated superstar" I think of Darryl Strawberry.

Posted by: DubiousD at May 20, 2011 10:21 PM

Dubious, let's not go overboard now. Williams was a better hitter than DiMaggio, but he was NOT a better overall player. And Ruth can't ever be mentioned as a standard against any player, because what he did was so incredible, and frankly impossible, that it's not worth comparing him, because, well, why bother?

That's why I spoke of Stan and not Ted. The Babe set such a ridiculous standard (look at 1918 as the most impossible season in history) that it's really better to simply say he was the greatest, don't compare him to others, and start from scratch.

Posted by: Daryl at May 21, 2011 8:28 AM

Growing up a Red Sox fan, I believed Williams was the better player and Joe D the better man. After reading Summer of '49, I was convinced I was wrong. Joe D. was the better player, Ted Williams was much the better man.

Posted by: Magrooder at May 23, 2011 12:10 AM
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