Year Inducted: 1972 (BBWAA, ballot #2, 339/396)
For most teams that carry a catcher for a long period of time, the transition from one catcher to the next can be a major passing of the torch. When Mike Matheny was the catcher for the Cardinals, he helped train his eventual replacement in Spring Training, and guided him throughout most of the season at the Major League level. The Cardinals were so pleased at how well Yadier Molina did, they let Matheny (a very good defender behind the plate and someone the entire pitching staff admired) walk in free agency after the 2004 season. It was very akin to what the Yankees did in the 1940’s. Bill Dickey retired in 1946, and spent some time that season and the following years training his successor to be a good catcher. The end result was making Yogi Berra one of the greatest catchers of all-time.
Berra played for 19 seasons in the Bigs (really 18 and a few token appearances with the Mets), and became a national sensation by playing on a record 10 World Series Championship teams. Yogi, who rarely saw a ball he didn’t try to hit, slashed an impressive .285/.348/.482 with a wRC+ of 124 mostly as a catcher (he played a little outfield toward the end of his career with the Yankees). Berra collected 358 homers along with 321 doubles and 49 triples as a mainstay in the Yankee lineup, along with hitters like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Berra had the “clutch” label applied to him, but he earned it like few others. Berra’s contact ability, as well as his power, enabled him to drive in 1430 runs and score 1175. Berra’s ability to hit for power and not strike out is akin to DiMaggio, who had nearly identical numbers for homers and strikeouts. Berra struck out in fewer than 5% of his plate appearances, for a total of 414 overall. In 1956, Berra hit 30 homers and struck out 29 times. In 1950, he hit 28 homers and struck out 12 times. No one could do what Berra could.
When he first came up, Yogi was considered a risk at the catcher’s position due to his size. In fact, since his debut, there have been no shorter catchers than Berra’s 5’7″ frame. The Yanks took the chance on him, and were rewarded tremendously as Berra (after some work with Dickey) threw out roughly half the would-be base stealers against him and was worth a total of 109.7 runs defensively. Not only that, but he was one of the most consistent players of his time, being worth more than 5 fWAR every year from 1950-1956, and having a fairly graceful decline from 1957-1961 where he was still an above average player.
Berra, of course, also had the larger-than-life personality needed to be successful in New York and an icon of the game. “It ain’t over till it’s over.” “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” “90% of the game is half-mental.” The list of quotes from Yogi is seemingly endless, and helped fans enjoy the game by making himself seem like a regular person, rather than an unapproachable baseball idol.
The fact that Berra had to wait until his second ballot is entirely inexcusable for the BBWAA of the period. Upon his retirement in 1965, Berra ranked 1st in nearly every category imaginable for catchers including: fWAR, HR, RBI, Runs and Hits. And for the most part, it wasn’t even close between him and second place. The only reason, besides debuting in a year that the writers didn’t elect anyone, that he most likely didn’t receive his induction on first ballot was because Johnny Bench’s career was in full-swing at the time, and Berra’s defense, which was excellent, didn’t get compared well to Bench’s. Berra, for a brief time, was the best catcher the game had ever seen, and will forever be the best personality the game has ever had as well.
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