Obituary: Charlie Silvera (1924-2019)

RIP to Charlie Silvera, who was the long-time backup catcher to Yogi Berra. He died on September 7 at the age of 94. Silvera played for the New York Yankees (1948-1956) and Chicago Cubs (1957).

Charlie Silvera was born in San Francisco on October 13, 1924. The New York Times obituary stated that his father was of Portuguese descent, and his mother was of Irish heritage. So of course his nickname was “Swede.” He was a catcher, pitcher and infielder for St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco and hit .640 in his senior year. Silvera was signed by the Yankees in June 1942. He hit .254 with the Wellsville Yankees in the Pony League (Pennsylvania-Ontario-New York League), with 16 doubles and a home run.

Source: The Semi-Weekly Spokesman Review, November 3, 1951.

Military service cost him three years of his professional career. I can’t see if he served overseas, but in 1943, he and future All-Star Ferris Fain were added to a stacked baseball team at McClellan Field in California. He also played for the 7th Air Force team in Hawaii that included Fain, Joe Gordon, Jerry Priddy and Mike McCormick. Even if Silvera wasn’t working in the Yankees’ minor leagues system, he was still keeping in game shape and was rumored as a possible successor to the great Bill Dickey.

Silvera made it back stateside in 1946 and spent three more seasons in the minor leagues. He hit for a fair average, but he really showed his potential in 1948 with the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League. He batted .301 with 5 homers, matching his home run total from his first three pro seasons combined. The Yankees brought him up to the majors right at the end of the season, letting him play in 4 games in late September and October. He was great, too. He went 3-for-4 in his first MLB game and had 8 hits in 14 at-bats in those 4 games, with a triple and an RBI.

There was one problem. While Silvera was playing ball in Hawaii, a kid named Berra came along and claimed that prized post-Dickey catcher role. Not at first at least. In 1948, the Yankees most-used catcher was Gus Niarhos, who caught in 82 games. Berra caught in 71 and also spent 50 games in right field.

By 1949, Berra was strictly a catcher, though he appeared in just 116 games due to a broken thumb. Silvera played in the most games of his career and hit .315 in 58 games. It was the only season in which he would get more than 100 at-bats. The Yankees won the AL pennant, and Silvera got into one postseason game, going 0-for-2 as the starting catcher of Game Two before being lifted for a pinch hitter. The Yanks beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 4 games to 1, giving Silvera his first World Series ring.

Starting in 1950, Berra would go on an incredible offensive run that saw him win three MVP awards in seven seasons, and he finished no lower than 4th place the other years. Silvera, even though he was a good hitter in his own right, averaged about 20 games a season during that same stretch. He played about once a week, warmed up pitchers in the bullpen and collected the winning share of the World Series six times and the losing share once. Aside from that one game in the 1949, he never appeared in another postseason game.

“I’m in the bullpen Hall of Fame,” he said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. “With those World Series checks, I didn’t have to work in the winter.”

Hugh Casey, Yogi Berra and Charlie Silvera check their fan mail before a World Series game. Source: Press and Sun Bulletin, October 11, 1949.

Technically speaking, Silvera was better paid than most of the top players in baseball. In 1955, Ted Williams was paid $100,000 and had 417 plate appearances. That amounted to $239.80 per appearance. The Associated Press estimated Silvera was paid $16,500 in ’55 and batted 29 times. That’s $568.97 per plate appearance.

Silvera, in spite of the very limited action, had some really good seasons. He hit .327 in 1952 (20 games) and .280 in 1953 (42 games). He was a pretty good defensive catcher as well. He was the subject of occasional trade rumors, but nothing ever materialized. Judging by his later comments, Silvera seemed pretty content to be an occasional catcher on a championship team than a starting catcher on a second-division team. At least it was financially rewarding. If opponents tried to get under his skin by calling him “Yogi’s caddie,” he had a ready response.

“I told them, ‘Yogi tipped me more than you make,'” he said to The Chronicle in 2011.

“Silvera would be first string with at least 10 of the other big league clubs,” said his manager, Casey Stengel, in 1955. “He’s smart, knows how to handle pitchers and is a timely hitter.”

Silvera hit his only MLB home run on July 4, 1951 off of former teammate Fred Sanford, who was pitching for the Senators. It tied the game at 4, though the Senators would rally for a 9-6 win.

Silvera’s batting average started to slip in 1955, when he hit .192 in 14 games. The following season, he had just 11 plate appearances in 11 games, as Elston Howard took over the role of Berra’s backup. In December 1956, he was traded for the Cubs for a player to be named later (which was Harry Chiti). He and Jim Fanning served as backup catchers to starter Cal Neeman; Silvera hit .208 in 26 games in 1957 before being released after the season. He spent three more seasons in the minors, including two with the Yankees, but he never reached the major leagues again.

In his 10 seasons in the big leagues, Silvera played in 227 games, with a .282/.356/.328 slash line. He had 136 hits, including 15 doubles, 2 triples and that one home run. He knocked in 52 runs and walked 53 times.

Charlie Silvera successfully breaks up a double play against the White Sox but gets sat on by Nellie Fox. Source: Warren Times Mirror, June 21, 1951.

Silvera was friends with Yankees teammate-turned-manager Billy Martin and followed him to three different teams as part of his coaching staff. He coached with the Twins (1969), Tigers (1971-73) and Rangers (1973-75) before being dismissed with Martin. He also scouted for several teams, including the Cubs and, more recently, the Marlins. Then-scouting director Gary Hughes hired Silvera as one of the team’s “master scouts,” who served as mentors to the younger staff members, Hughes told the Chronicle.

“Charlie was perfect for the job, and the Marlins also took advantage of his experience when in their fifth year, they ended up in the postseason and needed to scout the playoff teams. His work was invaluable in helping the Florida Marlins win the 1997 World Series.,” he said.

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