The best catchers in the history of baseball

26 Dec

When we talk about the best catchers in the history of baseball we are discussing a rather elite group of highly specialized players. Great offense alone doesn’t make for a great catcher, in fact it is less than half of the battle. Calling a good game is paramount along with being able to play strong defense and be physically durable. This is evidenced by the fact that when we discuss the greatest catchers in the history of baseball guys like Mike Piazza or Carlton Fisk are referred to as “great hitting catchers” by most, not great catchers as they were not known for their great work behind the plate, especially in the case of Piazza. What follows are my picks for the greatest all-time catchers in no particular order.

Johnny Bench was the force behind the Big Red Machine with his stellar defense, laser guided throws, and a bat that just would not stop. Bench took the defensive aspect of catching to a whole new level and actually changed the way future generations of catchers positioned them self behind the plate. He set low and offered a big target while protecting his throwing hand behind his back rather than behind his glove as was the norm for decades. It may seem small but countless injuries have been saved by this change.

As a Rookie of the year, two time MVP, World Series MVP, fourteen time All-Star, and two-time World Series winner Bench did everything and did it all well. With over 2,000 hits and 389 homers to complement 1,376 runs batted in and ten consecutive gold gloves Bench was the catcher of a generation. There may have guys who did a thing or two better during the era, but none was the complete package Bench Was. Bench was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee and is cited as an influence on the position by almost every modern day catcher that saw him play. Simply put Bench is the benchmark modern catchers are measured against.

Peter Lawrence “Yogi” Berra is without doubt one of the greatest catchers ever. With three MVP awards, ten world series championships, and almost every accolade you can imagine showered upon him Berra had only one true peer during his era, Roy Campanella. Berra was more than just a Yankee or even baseball great, he was an is to this day an American icon. He was Mr. October before Reggie Jackson even entered junior high school. He is the single winningest player in World Series history with his record ten championship teams likely being a record that will stand for all time. By the numbers he collected 2,150 hits, 358 homers, 1,430 ribbies, 1,175 runs, and a .285 career average and eighteen All-Star game appearances. Yogi also caught some of the best pitchers of the era and the only perfect game in World Series history. Berra did everything and he did it all exceptionally well. If you look for records held by a catcher Berra likely holds or held it at the time of his retirement. He is an undisputed legend.

Another Yankee makes the list and that man is Bill Dickey, Hall of Famer, and one of the three great catchers of his era. While Dickey had his peers behind the plate in Hartnett and Cochrane, at the plate he was far superior. Making a gaudy eight world series appearances with seven wins Dickey was a post-season winner. Individually his four consecutive seasons with 20 homers, 100 or more RBI’s, a .300 or better average and 80 or more runs scored went unmatched by any catcher until Yankee Thurman Munson matched the mark forty years later. He was also a lifetime .313 hitter with elven All-Star appearances to his credit. Dickey did more than that however as he consistently called the shots for an ever changing pitching staff that was always in the hunt for a championship run if not the championship itself. On a team chock full of legends Dickey was the all too often overlooked hero and glue that brought it all together.

Gabby Hartnett strung together a twenty year career exemplified by smart work behind the plate, a cannon arm, and offensive prowess that made him one of the three best catchers of the era. With 1,912 hits, 236 homers, 1,179 ribbies, and a .297 career average Gabby was a machine that seemingly had no off switch. He played the game one way which was all out all the time. Those above detailed statistics were all records for a catcher when he retired which demonstrates how utterly dominant he was at the dish which is a testament to his longevity. He was consistent to the point of boredom as some put it. Even so he was still considered one of if not the greatest catcher in the National League the first half of the century. His mask and Glove were the first artifacts the newly opened Baseball Hall of Fame acquired to display in 1938. A casual fan may not know his name but in baseball circles he is a legend not only among catchers but all players.

Dodgers great Roy Campanella may have even been better than Berra in some regards but a tragic auto accident which paralyzed this titan stops us from ever knowing for sure. Most people that saw “Campy” and Berra play say it was too close to call, each was a phenomenal talent with a different style. The main knock against Campy was his penchant for being a feast or famine hitter, some years he was the best, another he would barely hit his weight. Since Campanella didn’t make it to the MLB until he was over 25 years old and spent years (Since age fifteen) in the Negro and Mexican leagues he lost time which is why many analysts give Campy a big edge over Berra. Learning his trade under legendary Negro League catcher Biz Mackey Campy was a master behind the plate and a monster at it. Three MVP awards, seven seasons with a minimum of 20 homers, 1,161 hits, and 856 runs batted in during only eleven seasons are all proof enough he was elite. The only question surrounding Campanella’s game is we can only wonder what if?

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez now with the Astros but best remembered with Texas may very well go down as the best complete cacher ever, and at only 37 he has time to pad his stats even more. His hit total may just wind up over 3,000, something no catcher has ever done in the history of the game. Currently standing on 294 homers with over 1,200 runs scored and driven in even he has already established himself as one of the most offensively gifted catchers ever. With each game he plays more landmarks are on their way to falling. His arm is beyond legendary, even Johnny Bench supporters often agree Pudge may have the edge in this aspect of the game. His durability is amazing to the point of nearly being unbelievable, and his thirteen gold gloves lead all catchers in the history of the game. Add in a World Series title and fourteen All-Star appearances, Pudge is a legend playing before our eyes. When he takes off his gear for the last time don’t be surprised to see him as a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee and a holder of many of the offensive an defensive records for the position.

Josh Gibson must be given his due. Gibson’s stats will never be settled, it is all speculation as leagues kept poor records and many have been lost over time. Many that do exist are argued over as legitimacy is an issue as scoring standards weren’t always the same in foreign leagues in which Gibson played many of his games. What is known is he is a Hall of Famer, maybe the greatest hitting catcher ever, maybe one of the best hitters in baseball history ever. As my dad once told me, to see Josh Gibson hit was to see near perfection, like Babe Ruth only stronger and in better shape. His skills behind the plate were unquestioned although again we can’t really statistically measure them, we just have to accept the word of those that saw and played against him. We never have appreciated him as much as he deserves due to segregation which is our loss. Statistical proof or not Josh Gibson may have been the best catcher of them all.

There are plenty of other greats, Mickey Cochrane, Carlton Fisk (At least he hung around to hit homers for 24 years), the tragically lost Thurman Munson, and to a degree Mike Piazza although he was never a good defensive catcher he hit like no other. Of course this is my assessment of the best catchers ever and anyone is free to disagree, that is after all the beauty of baseball.

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