Few and Chosen Yankees: Defining Yankee Greatness Across the Erasby Whitey Ford, Phil Pepe
Whitey Ford, a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Yankees for 16 seasons, gives unique insight and takes on the challenge of selecting the five best players at each position in the franchise's history, which includes 26 World Series championships and 36 American League pennants—a legacy no other team comes close to achieving. Featured players include
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Whitey Ford, a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Yankees for 16 seasons, gives unique insight and takes on the challenge of selecting the five best players at each position in the franchise's history, which includes 26 World Series championships and 36 American League pennants—a legacy no other team comes close to achieving. Featured players include Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Johnny Mize, and Enos Slaughter.
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Few And Chosen
Defining Yankee Greatness Across The Eras
By Whitey Ford, Phil Pepe
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2001 Whitey Ford and Phil Pepe
All rights reserved.
My all-time Yankees team starts behind the plate with the catchers. Why catchers? I'll answer that question by quoting my old manager, Casey Stengel.
After he was fired by the Yankees for failing to win the 1960 World Series (although we did outscore the Pittsburgh Pirates 55–27 in the seven games), Stengel sat out a year, and then, at the age of 72, was hired as the first manager of the New York Mets in 1962.
To stock that first Mets team, the National League had an expansion pool of players; with their first pick, the Mets selected veteran catcher Hobie Landrith off the San Francisco Giants roster.
When reporters asked him why the Mets made Landrith their first pick, Stengel explained the selection as only he could: "Because you gotta have a catcher," he said. "If you don't have a catcher, you're liable to have a lot of passed balls."
So, I start my all-time Yankees team with the catchers. With this quintet of catchers, there won't be many passed balls.
In a 51-year period, from 1929 through 1979, four men did the bulk of the catching for the Yankees in 43 seasons. They are (from left): Hall of Famers Bill Dickey and Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, and Thurman Munson.
I'm sure you've heard a lot through the years about the Yankees' legacy of great center fielders, from Earle Combs to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle, all the way to the incumbent, Bernie Williams. Although it has not been as well publicized, the same is true of Yankees catchers, from Wally Schang, who was the catcher for those great Yankees teams in the early twenties, to Bill Dickey to Yogi Berra to Elston Howard to Thurman Munson.
For 33 of the 38 seasons between 1929 and 1966, the Yankees catching was, for the most part, handled by just three men: Dickey, Berra, and Howard. And in the 51-year period from 1929 through 1979, Dickey, Berra, Howard, and Munson did the bulk of the catching for the Yankees in 43 seasons. That's a pretty good run — just four men at the most demanding position on the field in 43 out of 51 years. I doubt if any other team has had that kind of continuity at the catching position.
In my own 16 years as a Yankee, with the exception of an occasional start by Charlie Silvera, Ralph Houk, Johnny Blanchard, or Jake Gibbs, I had only two catchers: Yogi Berra and Ellie Howard.
Some old-timers might question my choice of Berra over Dickey as the greatest of all Yankees catchers. Dickey had a lifetime batting average of .313, 28 points higher than Berra's, with a high of .362 in 1936. Berra's highest average was .307 in 1954. But that's the only category in which Dickey surpassed Berra.
Berra played more seasons (19 to Dickey's 17), hit more home runs (358 to Dickey's 202), and had more RBIs (1,430 to Dickey's 1,209). Berra had five 100 RBI seasons to Dickey's four, and Berra was the American League's Most Valuable Player three times.
It's possible that I lean toward Berra out of loyalty, because I saw him play so often. He was as good a clutch hitter and bad-ball hitter as I've ever seen. But I believe Berra's true value lay in how often he was a winner. In his 19 seasons, the Yankees won 14 pennants and 10 World Series. In Dickey's 17 seasons, the Yankees won 8 pennants and 7 World Series.
I'll never forget the first time I met Berra. It was late in the 1946 season, and I had just been signed by the Yankees. It turned out to be the first game Berra and Bobby Brown played for the team. They had just been called up from Newark to finish out the season with the big club.
Paul Krichell, the scout who signed me, introduced us. "Larry," he said, "I want you to meet Eddie Ford. He just signed with us. Eddie, this is Larry Berra." Yogi was still called "Larry" then, and I wouldn't be known as "Whitey" until I was in the minor leagues. Little did I know that Berra and I would share so many great times together in the future. Here it is more than 55 years later, and we're still the closest of friends.
Berra was my catcher in the first game I pitched for the Yankees in 1950, and he was my catcher for just about all my starts until 1958, when Ellie Howard came along and they began to ease him into Berra's job. Then Howard was my catcher for most of my starts until he was traded to the Red Sox in 1967, my final season.
When I was called up to the Yankees from Kansas City halfway into the 1950 season, the one guy I knew best on the team was Billy Martin. We had hung out during spring training and also in Kansas City, when Martin was sent down for a couple of weeks. But when I arrived to join the Yankees in Boston, Martin already had a roommate, so they put me with Berra, who was rooming alone.
My No. 1 Yankees center fielder, Joe DiMaggio (left), and my number one Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra, played together for five seasons, 1947 through 1951, and helped the Yankees win four World Series championships.
We were the original odd couple. Berra liked to go to bed early and wake up early. I liked to go to bed late and sleep late. As you can imagine, there were problems.
Berra was a creature of habit. He got up every morning at 6:00 and made sure he made enough noise to wake me up. He wanted to have a conversation while he got dressed, but I wanted to sleep. Then he'd finally leave the room and go downstairs to buy a newspaper and have breakfast. An hour or so later he'd come back to the room, making more noise and waking me up again, of course. Then he'd get back into bed and go to sleep, and I'd be wide-awake.
If I came back to the room late at night, the room would be dark. Berra would be in bed, and I figured he was asleep, so I wouldn't turn on the light. I would stumble around in the dark getting undressed, banging my toes. I'd get all ready for bed, go to the bathroom, then come back and quietly crawl into bed. As soon as I was in bed, Berra would turn on the light and want to start talking. He was awake the whole time.
Once, after I had been with the team for about a month, we were in Chicago and I was scheduled to pitch a day game. Berra went through his routine: getting up at 6:00, getting dressed, going down for the paper and breakfast. He wanted me to join him, but I told him no. "Let me sleep," I said. "I'm tired. But wake me up when you leave for the ballpark and I'll get up and take a cab out there."
He never called. All of a sudden, the phone rang. It was Red Patterson, our public relations director. "What the hell are you doing?" Patterson started shouting in my ear. "Don't you know you're pitching today? Casey's really mad."
I asked Patterson what time it was. "It's noon," he said. "The game is at 1:00."
I jumped out of bed and got dressed as quickly as I could. There wasn't even time for breakfast. Then I took a cab from the Del Prado Hotel to Comiskey Park. I arrived at the park at 12:30; I was supposed to start pitching at 1:00.
I ran into the clubhouse and started putting on my uniform. I finally got out on the field at 12:45 and began to warm up. My teeth were chattering, I was so scared.
To make me feel worse, a few old pros like Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling, and Allie Reynolds came over to me and said, "Hey, rookie, don't go fooling around with our money."
Fortunately, I won the game, 2–0, and everything turned out all right. When I asked Berra why he didn't wake me, he gave me one of his typical profound answers: "I forgot."
He might not have been the ideal roommate, but as a catcher Berra was the best. He was great at blocking balls in the dirt, which was a tremendous asset for a sinkerball pitcher like me. I knew I could throw the ball low and out of the strike zone trying to get the hitter to chase it, and not have to worry about it getting past Berra.
He was also brilliant at calling a game. His knowledge of the game and his ability to pick up hitters' strengths and weaknesses was uncanny. After a few weeks, we developed a pitcher-catcher rapport; we seemed to always be in sync with one another. I rarely had to shake him off, and usually when I did, it turned out Berra was right after all.
One time he wanted a fastball and I wanted a slow curve. I shook him off, threw the slow curve, and got beat on a home run. After the game, Berra came up to me and said, "Stick that slow curve up your ass." That's about the closest thing to a disagreement we have ever had in all the years we've known each other. I learned not to doubt him or his suggestions on pitch selection.
There was one time when I got beat on a pitch Berra called and Mickey Mantle got on Berra for his pitch selection. I didn't know it at the time, but after that game Mantle talked Berra into letting him call the pitches in my next start. So they worked out this system. If Mantle stood straight up, Berra would call for a fastball. If Mantle crouched with his hands on his knees, Berra would signal for a curve. If Mantle wanted me to throw a change-up, he'd waggle his glove.
This went on for seven innings. The score was 0–0 and Mantle was getting a little nervous, so he went to Berra and said, "I got you this far, you can take it the rest of the way."
I was too young when I saw Bill Dickey play to remember anything about him, but his record speaks for itself. And I've heard from many of his contemporaries about what a great catcher he was, in addition to being a dangerous left-handed hitter, especially in Yankee Stadium.
I got to know Dickey after he retired. When I joined the Yankees in 1950, he was the first-base coach and also what passed for a hitting instructor at that time. Things were different then. Stengel had only three coaches: Jim Turner, the pitching coach; Frank Crosetti, the third-base coach, who also worked with the infielders; and Dickey, who coached first base and worked with the hitters.
Back then we didn't have batting cages under the stands where players could get extra hitting practice, as they do now. We didn't have computer printouts or advance scouts or videotapes like the ones hitters now use when they're in a slump in order to see what they might be doing wrong. In fact, in my day, there wasn't a lot of batting practice like there is now. The players would take maybe 20 or 30 swings before a game, and that was it.
Dickey was a quiet man who didn't have a lot to say; he was a typical Southern gentleman from Bastrop, Louisiana. The thing that surprised me about him was his size, about 6'2", which was big for a catcher, especially in his day. Probably his most important assignment as a coach for the Yankees was to help Berra improve as a catcher, which brought about one of Yogi's famous lines: "Bill Dickey is teaching me all his experiences."
"Bill Dickey is teaching me all his experiences."
— Yogi Berra
To some degree, Berra taught Ellie Howard his "experiences" when Howard came along and was being groomed to replace Berra in 1955. Howard was traded in the middle of the 1967 season, and for a few years, Jake Gibbs did most of the catching. Then, in 1969, Thurman Munson came along. I had retired by then, but I was a coach in 1974 and 1975 and got to see Munson up close on a daily basis.
Munson didn't look very smooth, and he didn't have a great arm, but he got rid of the ball very quickly. I never saw a catcher pick runners off first and third base the way he did. And he was one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen, a guy who hated to lose and would do whatever it took to win.
The one thing Munson didn't do was hit home runs, mainly because he played in Yankee Stadium, with its deep left-center field, known as Death Valley. Only once in his career did he hit 20 homers, but in three consecutive seasons, 1975 through 1977, he drove in at least 100 runs. I believe that if he and Carlton Fisk changed places so that Fisk had to hit in Yankee Stadium and Munson played in Fenway Park, Munson would be in the Hall of Fame today instead of Fisk.
But I always thought home runs were overrated, anyway. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit all those home runs, but I'd just as soon have a couple of Paul O'Neills, Bernie Williamses, and Thurman Munsons on my team.
Ellie Howard, No. 4 on my list of all-time Yankees catchers, joined us in 1955 after a terrific season with Toronto in the International League, where he batted .330 with 22 home runs and 109 RBIs. He was the first African American ever to play for the Yankees, and he was immediately accepted by everybody because he was such a good ballplayer and an equally good fellow. He and Berra became especially close because they both came from St. Louis.
Berra was still catching 140 games a year when Howard arrived, so Howard broke in playing a little outfield, a little first base, and occasionally catching. It wasn't until 1960 that he began catching more games than Berra. He was my primary catcher when I won 25 games in 1961 and again when I won 24 games in 1963.
I liked pitching to Howard. At 6'2?, he was six inches taller than Berra and made a better target. He also set up a foot or more closer to the batter than Berra did; it made me feel like I was right on top of the batter. I threw a curve-ball that broke down sharply, and Howard would catch it a few inches off the ground; with Berra, it might hit the ground and I wouldn't get the strike call. I used to tell Berra to move up closer to the batter, but he said he was afraid of getting hit with a backswing.
And another thing: Berra used this big, old catcher's mitt that was so soft it was like throwing into cotton. I'd warm up in the bullpen and throw to our bullpen coach, Jim Hegan, a great catcher with the Cleveland Indians in his day. The ball would slam into his glove — bang, bang. Then I'd get in the game and it would go "poof" when it hit Berra's soft pillow. It didn't help my confidence or my ego.
Ellie Howard's mitt was like Hegan's. It was harder than Berra's, and the ball would bang into that glove with a crack that made me feel as if I was throwing the ball 95 miles an hour instead of my usual 85- or 87-mile-per-hour fastball.
Let me clarify one thing about Howard. He was often accused of cheating to help me win. There was a story going around the American League that he had filed down one of the clasps on his shin guard and that he rubbed the baseball against the filed-down clasp to cut the ball so that it would move a lot when I threw it. Everybody thought he was nicking the ball, but he wasn't; still, we kept the story alive by never denying it. I figured if the other teams thought he was cutting the baseball, that was one more thing the hitter had to worry about.
Howard was also the guy who gave me the nickname "Chairman of the Board." There was a disc jockey in New York at the time who pinned that name on Frank Sinatra. So Howard just adopted it and began calling me the "Chairman of the Board." I was flattered and honored to have the nickname.
As has been mentioned previously, in the almost 100-year history of the Yankees, four men did the bulk of their catching. A handful of other catchers held the job for at least three years, but none more than five seasons. Red Kleinow, Jeff Sweeney, Les Nunamaker, and Wally Schang all caught for the Yankees before I was born. In recent years, Jake Gibbs, Rick Cerone, Butch Wynegar, and Mike Stanley have each served as the Yankees regular catcher for at least three seasons. But, based on their records, it would be difficult to justify placing any of them in the No. 5 position.
Going into the 2001 season, the current Yankees catcher, Jorge Posada, had been with the team just four seasons, only three as the first stringer. But he had already done enough to make my all-time team at No. 5.
The 2000 season was a breakout one for Posada. He batted .287, drove in 86 runs, and belted 28 homers, more than any other Yankee catcher except Berra, who hit 30 home runs in 1952 and again in 1956. Posada also threw out 34 of 104 runners attempting to steal, an excellent 33 percent.
It may seem premature to rate Posada among the top five Yankees catchers in so short a time until you realize that in one season he hit more home runs than Kleinow, Sweeney, Schang, Nunamaker, Gibbs, and Wynegar did in their entire Yankees careers, and just three fewer than Cerone. And he figures to keep getting better.
When the 2001 season began, Posada was 29, just entering the prime years of his career. So there is good reason to believe that over the next few years, Posada will move up on the all-time list of Yankees catchers.
Excerpted from Few And Chosen by Whitey Ford, Phil Pepe. Copyright © 2001 Whitey Ford and Phil Pepe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Whitey Ford is a former MLB pitcher who spent his entire 18-year career with the New York Yankees. He is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Phil Pepe is the author of more than 40 books on sports, including collaborations with Yankees legends Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and Whitey Ford. He is a former Yankees beat writer for the New York Daily News and a former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Yogi Berra is a National Baseball Hall of Famer and a former MLB catcher, outfielder, and manager. He was named an All-Star player 15 times, won the American League MVP three times, played in 14 World Series games, and holds numerous World Series records including hitting the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history. As a manager, his teams won pennants in both the American and National Leagues during his career with the New York Mets and the New York Yankees. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey.
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