Before There Was Yogi Berra, There Was Bill Dickey
Though he has never been the subject of a formal biography, Bill Dickey is too often remembered solely for his ties to Yogi Berra. He was a brilliant all-around player, and according to Connie Mack, who had seem them all, he "Was the game's greatest catcher." Throughout his impressive career, his talent and leadership were integral to the Yankee's continued success.
When I got the green light to write this essay, I immediately began researching. Given his status, excellence, and tenure, I was surprised to find that a biography of Bill Dickey had never been written. Happily, I came across Pinstripe Empire, which contained important information about him, written by Marty Appel—a fine writer and TNPM colleague.
Much has been written about Dickey’s mentoring of Yogi Berra. This Berra quote punctuates his impact: “I always say I owe everything I did in baseball to Bill Dickey. He was a great man.” In a more Yogi-like statement, he said, “Bill is learnin’ me his experience.” When Berra moved to the outfield, far less acknowledged was Dickey’s tutelage of Elston Howard. Ellie said this, “When I came to the Yankees from Toronto, I wasn’t as good as a lot of semipro catchers. Bill talked to me, worked with me. Without Bill I’m nobody. He made me a catcher.” But what a career long before Berra!
The Yankees had great position players, great pitchers, a great manager in Miller Huggins, but never a great catcher. That is until August 15, 1928, when 21-year-old William Malcolm Dickey debuted at Yankee Stadium. He came highly touted. Veteran scout Johnny Nee urged Yankees General Manager Ed Barrow to sign him. When Barrow questioned Nee, he replied, “I will quit scouting if this boy doesn’t make good.” The Yanks purchased Dickey’s contract for $12,000, and Johnny Nee never had to quit.
The accolades from pitchers Dickey handled are uniform in their praise of his uncanny ability to call the game, keep hitters off balance, and exploit their weaknesses. He worked effectively with hurlers of all types: flamethrowers, curve and slider specialists, change-up artists, and knuckleballers. “I never shake Dickey off. I just let him pitch my game for me,” said Yankees pitcher Ernie Bonham. Cleveland pitcher and fellow Hall of Famer Bob Feller said of Dickey that he’s “the best I ever saw. . . . I believe I could have won 35 games a season if Bill was my catcher.” And Connie Mack, manager of the legendary Mickey Cochrane, gushed, “Dickey is the game’s greatest catcher.”
In its November 13, 1993, obituary of Dickey, the New York Times wrote: “Dickey’s knowledge of opposing hitters was legendary. After the 1943 World Series, he was in an elevator when a soldier bet that Dickey did not remember him. ‘Sure I do,’ said the catcher. ‘We used to pitch you high and inside. If we pitched you outside—Wham! It was the ball game.’ The soldier was Joe Gantenbein, a [seldom-used] infielder who played with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1939 and 1940.” Gantenbein, was a light-hitting utility player, with a total of eight homers in two years. Not only did Dickey remember how they pitched a man the Yankees hardly faced over three years before, he was also being gracious and kind.
Doing what Dickey did best, playing the backstop.
Bill Dickey was born in Bastrop, Louisiana, on June 6, 1907, one of seven children. If his father John, a railroad brakeman, and mother Laura had known of the baseball talent of their brood, they might have had another kid, fielding a team of nine. With dad, John, a semipro pitcher and catcher, older brother, Gus, a minor league second baseman and pitcher, and younger brother, George, a Major League catcher with Chicago and Boston, labeling them a “baseball family,” is an understatement.
When the Dickeys moved to Arkansas, Bill pitched and played second for Searcy High School. Like most talented young ballplayers of that era, Dickey also played for the locals, in the intense rivalry between towns. At Little Rock Junior College, he continued pitching and was a guard on the football team. One day, Bill’s buddy Jimmy Froley, a semipro catcher, couldn’t make some weekend games and asked Dickey to fill in. He not only impressed Froley’s team with his throwing arm, but, more significantly, dazzled Lena Blackburne, manager of the minor league Little Rock Travelers, who serendipitously was there scouting an outfielder. Blackburne didn’t have a contract with him at the game, but no matter; he signed Dickey on the spot, using the back of his Elks membership card. At 17, Dickey was a pro.
Bill spent four years in the minors, moving up the ladder, performing better at each level, while filling out to a muscular frame of 6 feet, 1 inch and185 pounds. In 1927, Dickey played 101 games for the Jackson Senators in the Cotton State League, and batted .297, showing some pop. Bill’s defensive skills and acumen behind the plate caught everyone’s attention, belying his 21 years of age. His fielding percentage was a sizzling .989 along with 84 assists. At the Yankee spring training camp in ’28, Dickey was given a very long look. Huggins was decidedly impressed but felt Dickey would benefit by catching every day in the minors. Dickey was reassigned to Little Rock, wherein he hit .300 and handled the staff like a veteran. After 60 games, he was promoted to Buffalo in the International League. After three games with the Bisons, Huggins and the Yankee brain trust had seen enough; next stop, Yankee Stadium.
The Yankee Years
Bill Dickey played his first full season with the Yankees in 1929. One can easily imagine looking down the bench at sluggers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel, or Tony Lazzeri and trying to compete and gain their respect. Huggins set him straight. “We pay one player here for hitting home runs and that’s Ruth. So choke up and drill the ball. That way, you’ll be around here longer.” Dickey, a lefty batter, got the message. Instead of trying to pull pitches over the inviting short porch in right, he ripped line drives all over the field. Batting seventh in the lethal Yankee lineup, he hit .324 with 10 homers and 65 RBIs—not too shabby for a rookie. He also led AL catchers with 95 assists, participating in 13 double plays. After season’s end, Huggins, a man not known for hyperbole, predicted, “Dickey’s going to be a great one.”
During his 17-year career, Dickey bridged the Murderer’s Row of Ruth in the late 1920s and early ’30s to the Bronx Bombers of DiMaggio in the mid- and late ’30s. A feared clutch hitter, he was an integral part of two remarkable teams that won seven world championships in eight appearances. He was an All-Star 11 times, who probably would have been named every year, but the first game was played in 1933. (Trivia Alert! In the 1934 All-Star Game, Carl Hubbell struck out five future Hall of Famers in succession. Who broke the streak? Bill Dickey singled.)
Bill Dickey meeting up again with Carl Hubbell during the 1937 World Series Game. This time Hubbell was trying to avoid the tag at homeplate.
For the stat-hungry: Bill Dickey hit over .300 in 11 seasons; a lifetime batting average of .313, 1,209 RBIs, and 202 homers. As important as his bat was to the Yankee juggernaut, his brilliance behind the plate was an even more pervasive contribution. Consistency? He caught over a 100 games 13 straight years—a fielding percentage of .988. Yet, there’s another dimension, perhaps on par with the potent effect of his offensive and defensive talent. Joe McCarthy was Dickey’s manager for most of his career. McCarthy not only acknowledged Dickey’s obvious ability, but emphasized, “He’s a great man to have on the ball club,” the kind of scrutiny the lords of sabermetrics can’t compute.
A fan favorite, to his teammates Dickey was known for his competiveness, spirit, loyalty, and sportsmanship. A man of quiet dignity, he handled temperamental pitchers with patience and composure, calming them down in stressful situations with his soft Ozark drawl. Star players were deflated by his modesty and respect for baseball as a team game. He was reserved but friendly, treating newcomers to the team in a professional and welcoming manner; he was the template for the Yankee persona. He let his example define leadership and never appeared angry. Well, hardly ever.
On July 4, 1932, the Yanks were in a tight game with the Washington Senators when outfielder Carl Reynolds, spikes high, blasted into Dickey, blocking the plate. Dickey got up and with one punch broke Reynolds’s jaw in two places. He was suspended for a month and fined $1,000—a serious sum when your annual salary was $14,000. While Dickey immediately and profusely expressed his regret, it is not known whether Reynolds accepted Bill’s apology—as Reynolds was unable to talk for a while.
1938 New York Yankees Joe McCarthy, Lou Gehrig, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey and Red Rolfe.
Lou Gehrig’s closest friend on the Yankees was Bill Dickey; they roomed together. In 1933, when Gehrig married, Bill was the only player invited to the wedding. He was the first Yankee aware of Lou’s terminal disease. When an uninformed press intimated Gehrig’s illness was transferable, Dickey chose to continue as Lou’s roommate, supporting him in every way. At Gehrig’s funeral, there were two attendees representing the Yankees—Joe McCarthy and Bill Dickey. A month later, at a memorial for Gehrig at Yankee Stadium, attended by over 60,000, Dickey began speaking. “This memorial to Lou is a tribute to the greatest first baseman and pal in the history of the game.” Then he broke down.
Dickey’s final tribute to Gehrig happened years later—in 1944. To promote the sale of war bonds, a newspaper had run a national poll to select an all-time favorite baseball player. Just before the voting closed, Dickey, certainly not a wealthy man, bought $8,000 worth of war bonds in Gehrig’s honor, putting Lou over the top. That amount today would be over $108,000.
Final Years: Player-Manager and Coach
During World War II, Dickey spent two years in the Pacific as a volunteer with the navy. In 1946, Lieutenant Dickey was discharged and resumed playing ball. But his return was complicated by the poor health of Yankees Manager Joe McCarthy, who had to quit in May. Bill succeeded him, the first Yankee player-manager since “Wild Bill” Donovan (1915–17). In short order, Dickey felt he had to focus on managerial duties and curtail his playing. When owner Larry MacPhail didn’t offer him a contract for ’47, Dickey resigned with 14 games left in the season. With typical Dickey candor, he told the press, “I have no hard feelings about not managing, I didn’t enjoy it.” Several years later he returned to the Yanks, a first-base coach under Casey Stengel. His primary task was working with a short, squat, crudely skilled neophyte catcher, and most unlikely looking Yankee who was also a navy vet—Lawrence Peter Berra.
Dickey was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954, proclaiming, “It was the nicest thing that ever happened to me.” I’d venture to say, his admission was one of the nicest things ever to grace the Hall. Bill retired from coaching during spring training in 1958, then did some scouting from home in Little Rock. In 1972, Dickey and Berra were honored simultaneously. The No. 8 on their uniforms was retired, never to be worn again by another Yankee. This is the only time the same number was retired for two different players on the same team.
After leaving baseball, Dickey worked as a securities dealer with his brother George. He died on November 12, 1993, survived by his second wife, Mary Jess, son, Robert, and two daughters (from his first marriage to Violet Arnold), Mary Louise and Violet Lorraine. Over the years, Dickey was asked by many: Who was greater—Yogi or himself? He never hesitated to say, “Yogi.” With all due respect, I disagree.
Coach Bill Dickey with his star pupil Yogi Berra.
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