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Few and Chosen
Defining Dodgers Greatness Across the Eras
By Duke Snider, Phil Pepe
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2006 Duke Snider Phil Pepe
All rights reserved.
1. ROY CAMPANELLA
2. JOHN ROSEBORO
3. STEVE YEAGER
4. MIKE PIAZZA
5. AL LOPEZ
Roy Campanella's place in baseball history is secure as one of only 14 catchers in the Hall of Fame. Where Campy rates among those 14 is open to debate, but imagine if the start of his major league career had not been delayed by a shameful unwritten code that excluded blacks, or if his career had not been short-circuited by the tragic automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic.
He might have been regarded as the number one catcher in baseball history.
Campy was already 26 years old and had been a star in the Negro Leagues when he joined the Dodgers in 1948. And he was only 36 years old when he had his accident in 1958. He certainly could have played another two or three seasons, and he certainly would have added to his 242 career home runs and 856 RBIs, given the Los Angeles Coliseum's short fence in left field, 250 feet away, and in left center, 320 feet away.
Campanella was born in Philadelphia. Although he was half Italian on his father's side, his mother was black, and that was enough to prevent him from playing in the major leagues prior to 1947.
When he was 15 years old, Campy started playing for a semipro team, the Bacharach Giants. He was so impressive that the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro National League offered him a contract. Because of his age, Campy could play only on weekends. The following year, he quit school and joined the team full-time.
By 1939 he was a star and was challenging the great Josh Gibson, who was getting old, as the top catcher in the Negro Leagues. Campy told me a lot about Gibson. He said Gibson was the greatest hitter he'd ever seen. Campy was not too shabby himself. He would play in the Negro National League for nine years, many of which he could have spent adding to his major league numbers had he been given the chance.
That chance finally came in 1946 when Branch Rickey signed five black players, including Robinson and Campanella. Roy was ready for the major leagues then, but the major leagues weren't ready for him, so he spent 1946 with the Dodgers' Class B team in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he roomed with Don Newcombe and was managed by Walter Alston, and then spent 1947 with their top farm team in Montreal.
Campy came to the Dodgers in 1948, played in 83 games, hit nine home runs, drove in 45 runs, and batted .258. His arrival enabled the Dodgers to move Gil Hodges, who had been a catcher, to first base, a move that would strengthen the Dodgers in two positions and help them to win five pennants in the next eight years.
Along the way Campanella would lead the league in RBIs with 142; set a single-season major league record for home runs by a catcher with 41 in 1953; hit over .300 three times; and win three National League Most Valuable Player awards, in 1951, 1953, and 1955.
I had all the respect in the world for Campanella. He was one of the guys, a delightful man, and a lot of fun to be around — and a great, great catcher. His personality was much different from Robinson's. Where Jackie was militant and played the game with a chip on his shoulder, Campy was a happy man — fun loving and outgoing with a great sense of humor. His pleasant disposition and his enthusiasm were infectious.
Campy was a jovial, roly-poly guy who used to arrive in the clubhouse wearing a Panama hat and with a big cigar in his mouth. If we had won the day before, he'd walk in and shout, "Same team that won yesterday is gonna win today."
As a catcher, Roy was durable. One day we were in Philadelphia. It was hot and humid, and we had a doubleheader scheduled, so I asked Roy if he could catch both games.
"Hell," he said, "I caught four games in one day in the Negro Leagues, so why can't I catch two in the big leagues?"
When he was at Nashua, New Hampshire, Alston had so much respect for Campy that one day, when Alston was ejected from a game, he turned the lineup card over to Roy and had him manage the game, even though Campanella was just a rookie.
Campy had a great arm, and he was very intelligent about the game. I imagine that at the time it was hard for a black man to handle a pitching staff that was all white, but Campy earned their respect and their confidence because of his ability and his knowledge.
Some people have suggested that Campanella, not Robinson, should have been the one to break the color barrier. I don't agree. Campy's easygoing, happy-go-lucky disposition would not have been right for the situation. Jackie was the right choice, as history has proved.
However, I believe Campy would have made a good major league manager, but that Robinson wouldn't have. Jackie was better suited to be a general manager.
It's no accident that so many former catchers became outstanding managers, all the way back to Connie Mack and Wilbert Robinson; to Al Lopez, Birdie Tebbetts, Ralph Houk, and Gil Hodges; right up to today with Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, and Bruce Bochy.
Without a doubt, given the chance, Campanella would have been a great manager, the first successful black manager. He probably would not have been one for the Dodgers because Alston was there for 23 years, but some other team would have given him the chance to be a manager, and he would have been a good one.
When he was at Nashua, New Hampshire, Alston had so much respect for Campy that one day, when Alston was ejected from a game, he turned the lineup card over to Roy and had him manage the game, even though Campanella was just a rookie. Let it be recorded for history that Roy Campanella was the first black man to manage a game in organized baseball, even if it was for just one game. And, by the way, Nashua won the game, so Campy's record as a manager is 1–0, and his winning percentage as a manager is a perfect 1.000.
Some people might question whether Campy, with his easy, outgoing nature, would have been tough enough as a manager. I don't think he would have had a problem. I can't imagine that any players would have taken advantage of him because they would have had a great deal of respect for him, as I did.
Put yourself in John Roseboro's place. He came to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957 as a 24-year-old kid, and Roy Campanella was the catcher, so Roseboro didn't get to play very much. He caught a few games, played a little first base.
The next year the Dodgers moved to L.A. and, during the winter, Campy had that awful automobile accident that left him paralyzed. They gave the catching job to Rube Walker, who had been Campy's backup for years, but the Los Angeles Coliseum just ate up Rube, as it did so many left-handed hitters.
The Coliseum was built for football, but it became the Dodgers' temporary home until Dodger Stadium was built. Because of the way the Coliseum was constructed — 430 to 440 feet to right center — it was deadly for us left-handed hitters. Rube would hit 400-foot outs, and we used to kid him that the Coliseum made him a manager in Atlanta.
With Walker struggling, Roseboro moved in to take over the catching duties. He became the Dodgers' number one catcher, taking the place of the great Campy. Talk about being under pressure!
But it was never really discussed around the ballclub. Campy wasn't around Los Angeles much in those days; he was still back East undergoing physical therapy. He didn't start coming around until a few years later.
I'm sure the fact that he was trying to replace a future Hall of Famer entered Roseboro's mind. It certainly was written about, but Gabby — Roseboro's nickname, which in baseball parlance means he didn't say much, but when he said something, one paid attention — handled the situation, and the pressure, beautifully. He was that kind of guy. He took over for Campy and became an outstanding catcher. He handled that great Dodgers pitching staff of Koufax, Drysdale, and Podres.
Roseboro was a very fierce competitor, and he was tough, a former football player. The way he made the tag play at home plate, you could see he liked contact. He dumped quite a few guys. He was as good as any catcher I ever saw at blocking home plate.
John made himself into an outstanding catcher. He was great at handling pitchers, and he threw very well. Very accurately. And very intelligently. He knew how to play baseball. In 1959, when we won the World Series in L.A., Roseboro was one of the big reasons for the win.
Just recently I was talking with Johnny Podres about Roseboro. Johnny said, "Roseboro was an interesting guy. I sat down with him one day and was talking with him, and he said, 'You know, Johnny, I'm catching some awful good pitchers. Koufax is the best. He's easy to catch except when he throws that overhand curve that starts head high and breaks down into the dirt. Drysdale is probably the most erratic of all the pitchers to catch because of the movement on his ball. You were the easiest to catch, Johnny, but the toughest to work with. You shook me off all the time.'"
He might not have intended to hit Marichal, but I have no doubt that the old football player mentality in John came out and he purposely threw the ball past Marichal's ear to intimidate him.
A lot of people hear the name John Roseboro and think of the brawl he had with Juan Marichal in 1965, and that's unfortunate.
Marichal was at bat, and when Roseboro threw the ball back to the pitcher, it whistled past Marichal's ear. The next thing we knew, Marichal was hitting Roseboro on top of the head with his bat, and then all hell broke loose.
Juan later claimed that the ball had nicked his ear and implied that Roseboro did it on purpose. Knowing John Roseboro as I do, I can say that he probably did do it deliberately. He might not have intended to hit Marichal, but I have no doubt that the old football player mentality in John came out and he purposely threw the ball past Marichal's ear to intimidate him. That was John Roseboro, the ultimate competitor. Anything to win a game.
Steve Yeager was the first catcher to wear the neck protector, the leather flap that hangs down from the catcher's mask and covers his throat. It all came about, as many inventions do, as the result of a near-tragic accident.
Ironically, Yeager wasn't catching at the time of his accident; he was in the on-deck circle. The Dodgers were playing in San Diego, and Bill Russell was batting. He swung at an inside pitch and broke his bat, just splintered it. A piece of the barrel went flying toward the Dodgers dugout. Somebody yelled, "Look out," and Yeager looked up to have the jagged end of the bat pierce his throat. It just stuck in his throat and stayed there.
Bill Buhler, the Dodgers trainer, went running out, and so did the San Diego trainer. I wasn't there to see it, but people who were said it was a frightening sight. Luckily, Buhler used his head and his training and reacted quickly. He probably saved Yeager's life. Bill held the bat in Yeager's throat because he was afraid it had hit an artery or a vein — if it had and they removed the bat, Yeager would have bled to death. By keeping the bat in Yeager's throat, they helped to stem the bleeding.
It must have been a strange sight when the ambulance came and they carried Yeager off the field on a stretcher, still holding the bat in his throat. It wasn't until they got him to the hospital that they removed the bat.
Fortunately, no artery or vein was ruptured, so they stitched Yeager up and he was back playing within a week. To protect the wound, Buhler devised the attachment that hangs down from the mask and covers the throat. Catchers still use the mask with the throat attachment today.
I've heard a lot of pitchers rave about how great it was to pitch to Yeager, who played on seven division winners. He called a great game. He was tough. He was a team leader. And he was practically flawless defensively. Lou Brock said he was the best-throwing catcher in the game.
Yeager wasn't a great hitter — he had only a .228 lifetime average — but he had some pop in his bat and he got a lot of big hits for the Dodgers, including a game-winning home run off Ron Guidry in Game 5 of the 1981 World Series.
I rate Mike Piazza only fourth among Dodgers catchers because he was a Dodger for only a little more than five years and because of his defensive deficiencies, which have been well documented.
His defensive liabilities are all hearsay to me, though. You'd hear that he didn't call a good game and he didn't work well with pitchers, but that was early in his career and he was still learning. No question Mike's true value has been in his bat. It is awesome to watch him hit. Not only is he the all-time leader in home runs for a catcher, but he has been a consistent .300 hitter with a career batting average well over .300. His .362 average in 1997 is the highest ever for a Dodgers catcher and the seventh highest by a Dodger at any position. Not bad for a guy who doesn't run well enough to get any leg hits.
Mike will finish his career with a lifetime batting average around .315, which is better than 12 of the 14 catchers currently in the Hall of Fame (only Mickey Cochrane's, at .320, is higher). Piazza's career average is some 45 points higher than Johnny Bench's, Carlton Fisk's, and Gary Carter's; 40 points higher than Roy Campanella's; and 30 points higher than Yogi Berra's.
One can make the case that Mike Piazza is the greatest-hitting catcher in baseball history.
The remarkable thing about Piazza is that he wasn't even considered a prospect when he was drafted. The Dodgers took him in the 62nd round and only as a favor to manager Tommy Lasorda, who was a buddy of Piazza's father's back in Pennsylvania.
When I first saw Piazza, I thought he was Hall of Fame material. One night I took my two grandsons to Dodger Stadium, and we watched the Dodgers take batting practice. Piazza stepped into the batting cage, and we were standing behind it watching him. Piazza hit one into the left-field pavilion, and my little grandson Jordan said to his brother, "Brandon, did you see how far that one went?" Mike was just smoking them.
In his five-plus seasons with the Dodgers, Piazza hit 177 home runs, drove in 563 runs, and batted .331, which is fourth on the Dodgers all-time list and is by far the highest lifetime average of any Dodger after the team moved to Los Angeles. He undoubtedly would have ended up in the top 10, or better, in every major offensive department on the Dodgers all-time list, but he was traded to Florida in 1998, which was a business decision. The Dodgers probably didn't want to pay him the millions they knew he would command. Unfortunately, they have never been able to replace his bat.
I never saw Al Lopez play, but I knew him. He was the manager of the Chicago White Sox when we played them in the 1959 World Series. A wonderful man. A good man. Everything I ever heard about him indicated that he was a top-notch catcher. He knew the game, and he handled his pitchers very well.
He wasn't much of a hitter. He had a career batting average of .261 and in 19 seasons never hit more than eight home runs or drove in more than 57 runs, but he was regarded as one of the greatest defensive catchers ever. And he was durable. When he retired, he had caught 1,918 games, the most in baseball history at the time.
Lopez made his mark, and was elected to the Hall of Fame, as a manager, another of the many former catchers who became outstanding managers. His combined record as a manager with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox was 1,410–1,004. That's a winning percentage of .584, which was ninth all-time when he retired.
His misfortune was coming up against the great Yankees teams. From 1951 to 1964, the Yankees won the American League pennant 12 times. The only times they did not win the AL pennant, they were beaten by teams managed by Lopez — Cleveland in 1954 and Chicago in 1959. In every other year of the fifties, Lopez's teams finished second to the Yanks.
In 1954 Lopez's Indians won a then — league record 111 games and then were beaten in the World Series by the Giants in a four-game sweep. This man, who was called "El Señor," passed away in 2005 at the age of 97. He had a long, wonderful, and productive life and was still very sharp mentally at that advanced age.
Until his death, he was the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame and the last White Sox manager to win a pennant — the 1959 team that lost to us in the World Series — until the Sox won in 2005.
I hope it was some consolation to Lopez that he lived long enough to see his beloved White Sox win their first World Series in 88 years.CHAPTER 2
1. GIL HODGES
2. DOLPH CAMILLI
3. STEVE GARVEY
4. WES PARKER
5. EDDIE MURRAY
So beloved was Gil Hodges in Brooklyn that instead of booing him when he was in a slump, people prayed for him. The strong, silent type, and a former Marine, Hodges exuded power, grace, and goodness.
More than any other Dodger, Brooklyn fans embraced Gil as one of their own — and he was. Born in Indiana, he married a Brooklyn girl, and they made their home in Brooklyn. When the Dodgers left for Los Angeles, Hodges went with them but returned to Brooklyn in the off-season and then came back to play for the New York Mets.
After two years with the Mets, Gil left again to manage the Washington Senators and then came back once more to manage the Miracle Mets, the team that shocked the baseball world by beating the Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series.
Excerpted from Few and Chosen by Duke Snider, Phil Pepe. Copyright © 2006 Duke Snider Phil Pepe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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