They have to answer to Yogi

If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else.—Yogi Berra.

The morning-after talk seemed divided evenly between two subjects. 1) The Tampa Bay Buccaneers demolished the Kansas City Chiefs so profoundly, if slightly controversially (debates about bad refereeing abounded), that the 55th Super Bowl became a stupor unless you rooted for 2) Tom Brady, the 43 year old quarterback now winning his seventh Super Bowl ring.

Subject one dissipated swiftly enough, it seems. Subject two, not so fast. Brady’s seventh Super Bowl ring provokes debate on whether he’s the greatest of all time in any team sport. Individual sports, after all, have Serena Williams and her 23 tennis Grand Slam wins, Jack Nicklaus and his eighteen major golf tournament wins, and Michael Phelps with his 23 Olympic swimming gold medals.

Some of the competition raised in the debate include Bill Russell and his eleven NBA Championship rings, Bart Starr and his six NFL Championship/Super Bowl rings, in an earlier and far less high-tech/climate-friendly football era, and Henri Richard and his membership on eleven NHL Stanley Cup winners.

Brady, Richard, Russell, and Starr are not exactly a cast of extras. But there’s one man in any team sport whose championship presence still eludes by a fair margin. Quick: Name the baseball Hall of Famer who played on fourteen American League pennant winners and won ten World Series rings while he was at it.

Hint: Ninety percent of this game is mental and the other half is physical.

It’s still somewhat difficult to believe that a little more than five years have passed since Yogi Berra was taken home to the Elysian Fields at 90. He passed on the 69th anniversary of his first game as a Yankee and two days before the birthday of his wife, Carmen, who passed over a year and a half before her husband. “Gramp wanted to be with Gram on her birthday,” their sportswriting granddaughter Lindsay has said.

There’s still something to be said that Berra’s personality and character loomed so much larger than his actual baseball greatness as the years went passing by. Making himself the nation’s friend sometimes made Berra perhaps the nation’s most underrated among the game’s genuine greats. I’ve run it down in the past, but I wish to God the underrating stopped now.

Perhaps the sobering reality that so many of our sporting greats were (and are) found wanting as people makes us forget often enough that there can be such greats who are as admirable if not more so as men and women as they were when they played their games.

So let’s forget Yogi the beloved and address Berra the arguable greatest all-around catcher who ever played in the Show, including even Johnny Bench, Berra’s extremely close second, and possibly pending the final exhumation of Josh Gibson’s actual statistics. You can pick among several points to open, but let’s open with Yogi at the plate.

He didn’t exactly look like a hitter compared to the wiry musclemen who preceded and followed him. But only two men in Show history hit 350+ home runs and struck out fewer than 500 times, and one was named Yogi. (The other was named Joe DiMaggio.) He never struck out 40 times or more in any season. In five of his seasons, his home runs outnumbered his strikeouts. He averaged 32 strikeouts per 162 games lifetime.

For any hitter, that’d be an impressive achievement. For a classic bad-ball hitter who’d swing at anything he could see and was anywhere within Yankee Stadium’s geographic coordinates, Wee Willie Keeler living  to see Yogi (who was born two years after Keeler’s death) would have re-thought his watchword about hitting ’em where they ain’t.

Berra joined the Yankees the same year Jackie Robinson broke the disgraceful old colour line in the Show. From that year until the first year of expansion (1961), only one man drove more runs home than Berra: Stan Musial. (Here’s a classic for you: Happening upon a conversation of American League All-Star pitchers talking about how to pitch Musial, Yogi cracked as if he’d been in on it all along, “Forget it. You guys are trying to figure out in fifteen minutes what nobody’s figured out in fifteen years.”)

Bench’s greatness is no questions asked, but behind the plate he led his league in putouts twice, assists once, defensive double plays once, and fielding percentage once. Berra led his league in putouts eight times, assists five, defensive double plays six, and fielding percentage twice, and Yogi played in a time when the season was eight games shorter and the opposition running game was re-born almost kicking and screaming.

Robinson’s virtuosity at baserunning as guerilla warfare would be met midway through the 1950s by Luis Aparicio restoring grand theft bases to the game. Both before and after that, Berra was probably the most adept at neutering whatever running game there was. He threw 49 percent of the would-be larcenists who did run against him out, in a time when the league average was 45 percent.

Bench’s caught-stealing average was 43 percent—eight points higher than his league average but two points lower than Berra. There’s little reason to believe Yogi wouldn’t have been just as good shutting the running game down in a more incessant atmosphere for would-be thieves. But how did they handle their pitching staffs?

The pitchers who threw to Bench posted a collective 3.52 ERA, twelve points below the league average. Those who threw to Berra posted a collective 3.41 ERA—67 points below the league average. OK, there’s a bit of a ringer in there: Yogi’s pitchers as the regular Yankee catcher included Hall of Famer Whitey Ford for the first decade of Ford’s career, not counting the two seasons Whitey missed in military service.

So let’s remove Ford from the equation. Berra wasn’t catching a band of nobodies, of course, but there’s something to factor you may not believe. Almost everyone else who pitched in Yankee pinstripes for the eleven seasons Berra was the regular Yankee catcher did better with Yogi behind the plate than a) throwing to other Yankee catchers when the main man needed a day off or was injured and b) when they weren’t Yankees.

Maybe it’s not entirely fair to compare other catchers who didn’t have Berra’s circumstances and pitching talent to work with, but the opportunities mean nothing if you don’t seize them. “They didn’t have the chance; Yogi did,” wrote a Berra biographer, Allen Barra, “and he won—seasonal games, pennants, World Series rings—more than any other catcher. In fact, he won more than any other baseball player of the (20th) century.”

Bill James’s Win Shares system (to define it properly would take a book, and James did just that in 2002), which says a Win Share is worth about a third of a team win, has Berra ahead of fellow Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk by seven (375-368) and Bench by nineteen  (375-356). That’s in terms of career value.

Berra’s great contemporary Roy Campanella didn’t make the top ten for reasons hardly his own making. Campanella wasn’t allowed to play in the Show until the colour line was broken, and his January 1958 road accident left him a quadriplegic. Campanella joined the Dodgers a year before Berra became the Yankees’ regular catcher. Using Campanella’s career from 1949-57, how do the two really compare?

Well, each of them won three Most Valuable Player awards, both in 1951, Campy in 1953, Yogi in 1954-55, and Campy also in 1955. Campanella anchored five Brooklyn pennant winners and a World Series champion. Yogi, of course, anchored eight pennant winners and six World Series champions in the same span.

How do they look according to my Real Batting Average metric? On the surface, Campanella looks a little better:

Player (1949-57) PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Yogi Berra 5,264 2332 475 54 21 37 .555
Roy Campanella 4,816 2101 533 113 18 30 .580

On the surface, that is. Campanella has a far more glaring home-road split than Berra, since Campy played in the Ebbets Field bandbox at home and Yogi played in far more cavernous Yankee Stadium. I suggest that if they’d played in home ballparks with approximately the same conditions, Campanella’s RBA would probably be within a point of Yogi either way.

Don’t go there about that yummy Yankee Stadium short porch in right field: the further blessing in Berra’s bad-ball hitting was that he wasn’t anchored to pull hitting. Their OPS+es, which adjust to all the parks in which a player hits, are still quite different: Berra’s (130) is seven points higher than Campanella’s (123).

Ralph Branca (center) in on the fun between Yogi and Campy, the friendly rivals. (The Sporting News.)

Don’t think about their strikeouts, either, because Campanella’s going to lose big. From 1949-57, Yogi struck out 215 times . . . but Campy struck out 501. And Campanella was more prone to hitting into double plays than Berra during the same span: 143 for Campy, 89 for Yogi. Neither man was particularly fast on the bases, but somehow Yogi managed to take extra bases on followup hits 49 percent of the time he reached base while Campy did it 39 percent of the time.

Handling pitchers? We’ve given a look at Berra’s Yankee pitchers. Campanella’s Dodgers had good pitchers, a couple of whom had Hall of Fame talent—Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine were probably the two top examples; Campy also got to catch Hall of Famer Don Drysdale for Big D’s first season as a regular starter—but never posted Hall of Fame numbers.

The pitchers who threw to Campanella posted a 3.78 ERA. That’s 31 points higher than the pitchers who threw to Yogi. These were the Show’s two greatest all-around catchers of their time, handling pitching staffs of roughly equivalent talent if you remove Whitey Ford from the equation. (And, in the cases of Eddie Lopat and Preacher Roe, roughly equivalent, shall we say, wile and guile—and anything else they could apply to the ball.)

Berra led his league in catching putouts seven times during Campanella’s career span, while Campanella led his league six. Berra also led in catching assists three times to Campanella’s one. He led his league in catchers’ double plays eight times during Campanella’s career span; Campanella did it only twice. Yogi also led his league in defensive runs saved above the league average (total zone runs) three times; Campy never did.

Berra’s Yankees were better teams than Campanella’s Dodgers, and Campanella’s Dodgers were the best team in the National League cumulative from the year Yogi became the regular Yankee catcher until Campy’s final season. They got to tangle in five World Series against each other in the span in question. Oops.

Yogi’s tough Yankees had to beat Campy’s tough Dodgers in four out of five World Series against each other in that span and—even with the 4-1 Yankee win in 1949—the Dodgers were no Series pushovers. The Yankees also won five straight Series—including three against the Dodgers plus one each against a fluke team (the 1950 Phillies’ Whiz Kids) and a cheating team (the 1951 Giants)—from 1949-53. Guess who was behind the plate anchoring and calling the Yankee program on the field.

“Everyone regarded me as a cocky kid when I came up,” Whitey Ford once told Barra, “and that’s the way they continued to see me throughout my career”

I acted that way ’cause I figured it gave me an edge. I didn’t throw as fast as some guys and I didn’t have as big a curve as some, but I acted as if I was confident, and that’s the way people regarded me, especially the hitters, the ones I really wanted to impress. Well, I wasn’t confident, not really. It was Yogi who was confident, and Yogi that made me feel that way. With anyone else as my catcher, I wouldn’t have been the same pitcher.

Barra has written that catching is “the toughest position to find a good player at in baseball—and maybe in all three major sports.” Assuming he meant baseball, football, and basketball, we should note that finding good goalies in professional hockey isn’t exactly ice cream, either.

Well, now. Three goalies (Jacques Plante, Charlie Hodge, Ken Dryden) are tied for playing on the most Stanley Cup winners—with six. Two (Turk Broda, Grant Fuhr) have five; seven (Clint Benedict, Terry Sawchuk, Johnny Bower, Gump Worsley, Michel Laroque, Billy Smith, Patrick Roy) have four.

Between the Red Sox and the Yankees, Babe Ruth played on ten pennant winners and won seven World Series; as a Yankee, it was seven pennants and four Series winners. Lou Gehrig played on seven pennant winners good for six Series titles. Joe DiMaggio played on ten pennant winners and won nine Series rings. Mickey Mantle played on twelve pennant winners and won seven rings.

That’s not fourteen pennant winners and ten World Series rings.

None of those men played as tough a defensive position requiring as much brain as brawn power as that squat, comical-looking fellow from St. Louis, who told you it wasn’t over until it was over, who could have seen a pitch sailing toward the press box and hit it down the line one way or the other when not hitting it over the fence one side or the other, and who out-coloneled everyone else at his position.

Love or loathe Tom Brady (it seems to be spread about evenly between the two), congratulate him for seven Super Bowl rings. But if you’re judging team sports players according to how many world championships their teams won when anchored by them,  Brady and the others have to answer to someone else before you think of them as the greatest and/or most valuable team players.

Hint: It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.


* What would have happened if Roy Campanella could have continued his career in Los Angeles.

Carl Erskine once swore that playing in the insane asylum that was a baseball field shoehorned into the Los Angeles Coliseum, with its Green Monster-like high left field fencing and short foul line, might have given Campanella a revival as a hitter. Perhaps; perhaps not. He would have been 37 in his first Coliseum season.

Campy would have been 40 and likely retired by the time the Dodgers moved into Dodger Stadium; the years of beatings he took behind the plate in the Negro Leagues and then in Brooklyn might have finished him a little sooner.

But we’ll never know.

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