Grave Story: Bill Dickey (1907-1993)

The New York Yankees have a fine tradition of excellence in their catching corps. Of course, there is Yogi Berra, who’s one of the top two catchers to ever play in the American or National League. Then there is a string of very good-to-excellent catchers with Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada. But the catcher who started that tradition of excellence is Bill Dickey, a top catcher in in the American League for close to two decades. Dickey played for the New York Yankees from 1928 to 1946, missing two years for service during World War II.

William Malcolm Dickey was born in Bastrop, La., on June 6, 1907. He was the first Dickey to reach the major leagues, but not the last. Younger brother George, born in 1915, joined the Red Sox in 1935 and spent 6 years with Boston and the Chicago White Sox. Their parents, John and Laura, were born in Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively. John Dickey was listed as a telegraph lineman in the 1900 Census, a railroad lineman in 1910, an electric plant lineman in 1920, and a railroad brakeman in 1930. John Dickey was also an amateur pitcher and catcher, most notably with a team in Memphis, according to one report. His work took the family to Arkansas, first to Kensett and eventually to Little Rock. His sons picked up his love of baseball and his talent for catching.

Bill Dickey played amateur ball in Arkansas. After he graduated from Searcy High School, he reached the professional level briefly with the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association in 1925. He was retained to be a backup catcher to Walter Mayer for the following season. “Bill Dickey, a native son who was picked up off the sand lots just before the close of last year, will be Mayer’s first lieutenant,” reported The Birmingham News in April of 1926. “Dickey is a big fellow with a remarkable throwing arm, and is considered a great prospect.” Mayer was good behind the plate but was weak offensively. Dickey, still a raw rookie, hit .391 in 17 games and then moved to the Muskogee Athletics of the Western Association, where he batted .283 with 7 home runs. Still under contract to the Travelers, Dickey spent all of 1927 with the Jackson Senators of the Cotton States League and hit .297. He also demonstrated his defensive excellence, with a .984 fielding percentage.

Little Rock sold Dickey’s contract to the New York Yankees on September 10, 1927. This is, of course, the Murderers’ Row Yankees, one of the most potent offenses ever assembled – but not at catcher. The Yankees used a revolving door of catchers during their first great dynasty, including Johnny Grabowski, Pat Collins and Benny Bengough. Dickey impressed enough in spring training in 1928 that manager Miller Huggins briefly toyed with the idea of carrying four catchers. Instead, the Yankees kept Dickey in the minors for most of 1928. He hit .301 in Little Rock and was brought to the majors in August. But the rookie catcher didn’t get much use. Dickey made it into 10 games, all as a pinch-hitter, though he frequently stayed in the game to get some work behind the plate, too. He was 0-for-2 in his first game on August 15 against Chicago. On August 24, he got his first major-league hit, a triple off St. Louis Browns pitcher George Blaeholder. Dickey had 3 hits in 15 at-bats for a .200 average. He didn’t appear in the World Series as the 101-win Yankees trounced the Cardinals in four games.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dickey set an ambitious goal of catching in 100 games for the Yankees in 1929, an opportunity rarely given to rookie catchers. He beat the goal easily, appearing in 130 games in ’29, with 120 coming as a catcher. He earned every opportunity, as he slashed .324/.346/.485, with 30 doubles, 10 homers, and 60 runs scored and runs driven in each. His rifle-like throwing arm gave baserunners second thoughts about testing the rookie. The Yankees had found their star catcher.

Dickey didn’t buy into the hype, though. Praised for his knack of calling ballgames as a rookie, he said that Bengough and Grabowski had been telling him the pitches to call. “I picked it up from listening to them.” When a reporter pointed out that he had a knack of knowing just when to call pitchouts, Dickey pointed out, “And a lot of ‘em have been getting there on me, too. Don’t forget to mention that.” That same reporter praised him for his improved speed in running to first base, and he muttered, “And I need speed, because I’m not hitting the size of my hat.” (He was batting .323 on June 16, the day the article ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.)

The Yankees failed to reach the postseason in 1929, and the season took a dark turn with the untimely death of Huggins. It would take a few more years before the Yankees reached the Series again under new skipper Joe McCarthy. In the interim, Dickey blossomed into one of the best catchers in all of baseball. He batted .339 in 1930, albeit in 109 games. He drove in 6 runs against Washington in a 10-7 win on September 3, with a home run and two triples. A year later, on September 17, 1931, he drove in 7 runs against the Browns with two home runs – a grand slam and a 3-run blast. The slow-footed Dickey managed 10 triples in 1931 on the way to a .327 batting average. He had an even more impressive feat in the field, as he went the entire year – 125 games behind the plate – without committing a single passed ball!

Dickey appeared in just 108 games in 1932, thanks to an out-of-character incident and a month-long suspension. It took place in the first game of a July 4 doubleheader against the Senators. Dickey had just come back after being knocked out of action for a few days after a collision with Boston’s Roy Johnson, so perhaps he was feeling a little skittish. In the seventh inning, Carl Reynolds was on third base when pinch-hitter John Kerr attempted a squeeze bunt. Reynolds charged home, and when Kerr missed the pitch, he dashed back to third. Dickey threw down to third base to try and pick him off, but the ball bounced off the baserunner, and Reynolds raced home, scoring standing up. He walked toward the dugout before turning back to home plate, to make sure he touched it. Dickey later said that he thought that Reynolds was looking to fight over getting hit with the throw, so the catcher unleashed a punch that broke Reynolds’ jaw. Dickey was suspended for one month and fined $1,000.

The incident marred a good season for Dickey, who slashed .310/.361/.482. It was a memorable year anyway, as the Yankees won 107 games in the regular season and swept the Cubs in the World Series – the Series of Ruth’s Called Shot. Dickey had a good postseason, hitting .438 with 7 singles, 4 RBIs and 2 runs scored.

Baseball held its inaugural All-Star Game in 1933, and Dickey was selected as the backup to starting catcher Rick Farrell – though he received the most fan votes at catcher. He didn’t play in the game; aside from replacing Babe Ruth in the ninth inning, AL manager Connie Mack treated it like a regular contest and kept his starting lineup in the entire game. That snub aside, Dickey batted .318 with 14 home runs and 97 RBIs, and he did it while suffering from stomach problems for most of the season that necessitated an offseason appendectomy. Dickey did get the starting nod in the 1934 All-Star Game, and he had a remarkable accomplishment – he didn’t strike out against Carl Hubbell. In fact, he singled off the pitcher in the midst of his six straight strikeouts against future Hall of Famers. He did whiff in his next at-bat against Lon Warneke, though.

Dickey hit .320 before the All-Star break, and he homered twice against Cleveland in the first game of the second half. A broken knuckle on his throwing hand ended his season in late August with a .322 average, 24 doubles and a dozen home runs. He recovered from that injury but suffered others in 1935, including a “slight concussion” from a beaning in June and a knee injury shortly after he returned. He hit just .279 in his age 28 season and failed to make the All-Star Team.

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 11, 1983.

If there were fears that the job of catching was taking its toll on Dickey’s abilities, he quickly dashed them by going on one of the greatest four-year stretches of any catcher. And as Dickey went, so went the Yankees. The team won four straight World Series, eclipsing even the heroics of the Ruth-era teams. This Yankees dynasty was anchored by Dickey, Gehrig, Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez and Joe DiMaggio.

Dickey slashed .362/.428/.617 for an OPS of 1.045 in 1936. He topped the century mark in RBIs fir the first time, driving in 107 runs and scoring 99 times as well. He also hit 22 homers, topping 20 for the first time in his career. Dickey racked up those numbers even though he missed two weeks’ worth of games in May and June after a particularly brutal home plate collision with Boston’s Eric McNair. Dickey struggled in the World Series but was one of the offensive heroes of Game 2, an 18-4 slaughter of the New York Giants. He and Tony Lazzeri tied a Series record with 5 RBIs in the game. Lazzeri hit a grand slam, and Dickey added a 3-run shot off the Giants’ Harry Gumbert. Typically humble, Dickey didn’t even realize what he had done until a reporter asked him about it after the game. “Guess I did send in five at that, one a single, another on that fly and three with the home run,” he remarked. “But I didn’t know it was a record, and I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it.” Dickey had just one other hit during the Series, but the Yankees knocked off the crosstown Giants in six games.

To that point in his career, Dickey never appeared in more than 130 games, as little injuries took their toll. He showed what he could do if he stayed healthy all year long in 1937, when he set career highs in most offensive categories. In 140 games, he had 176 hits, 35 doubles, 29 home runs and 133 RBIs, all personal records. His batting average dropped to .332, but he didn’t mind it. “I’d rather drive in runs any day than have a high batting average,” he said. “I get more kick out of driving in a run than getting several hits that mean nothing.”

Washington’s manager Bucky Harris called Dickey the toughest hitter on the team – high praise considering his teammates at the time. “I know any time the game’s close and a situation comes up where we have to choose between walking Gehrig and Dickey, we’ll pitch to Gehrig nearly every time and walk Dickey if a base is open,” Harris said. “Dickey’s a smart hitter, who’s to be feared doubly in a tight spot.”

One unnamed New York writer said that fans still had the perception that Dickey was tough and aggressive because of the incident with Carl Reynolds. “That’s probably the only fight he ever had in his life,” the scribe said. “Dickey is one of the nicest boys on the team. He’s soft spoken and meek and nothing like a lot of fans think he is.”

From 1936 to 1939, the Yankees averaged 102 wins a season and beat the New York Giants twice and the Cubs and Reds once to win their four championships. During that time, Dickey’s average season was .326/.415/.565, with 26 homers and 115 RBIs. He became the first catcher to ever drive in more than 100 runs in a season four times. He contributed on defense as well, throwing out 53% of base-stealers in 1936 and a league-leading 49% the following year. Over those four seasons, Dickey finished in the Top 6 in MVP voting every year. He was runner-up to Jimmie Foxx in 1938, when Foxx hit 50 home runs and drove in 175 runs.

Dickey watches his daughter, Lorraine. Source: The Province, December 1, 1939.

After a dozen full seasons with the Yankees, the 33-year-old Dickey struggled through the 1940 season. Appearing in 106 games, he hit only .247, and his power was largely absent. At times, the left-handed hitting Dickey was moved down in the lineup or benched against lefty pitchers in favor of backup Buddy Rosar. The Yankees fell to third place, and it was rumored in some circles (i.e., The Daily News) that the illness that had ended Gehrig’s career in 1939 had spread to the rest of the team, including his former roommate, Dickey. Obviously, Gehrig’s battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis had no physical affect on Dickey. It’s understandable if Dickey’s mind was elsewhere as a result of his good friend’s illness, though.

The panic turned out to be overstated. Dickey improved his batting average to .284 in 1941, and the Yankees once again won the AL pennant and beat Brooklyn in the World Series. But something had changed. Dickey was aging and no longer able to sustain the workload he had in his 20s. Manager McCarthy used Dickey and Rosar wisely, getting good production out of both of them. Though neither one contributed much power, the Yankees still got more than 100 RBIs from the catching position.

Dickey never played in more than 100 games in a season again. He still performed well in a platoon role, batting .295 in 1942 and .351 in ’43. He also continued to receive MVP votes and All-Star selections, a testament to how much he meant to the Yankees, part-time role or not.

Consider this case: With the Yankees comfortably out in front of the rest of the AL in June of 1942, Dickey was allowed some extra time to rest up from an injured foot following a foul tip. He didn’t even dress for a game against the Tigers. Then Rosar, the capable backup, injured his leg when he got caught in a run-down, leaving only Ed Kearse, a rookie who had yet to catch in a major-league game, as the only substitute. But as Rosar was getting helped to the locker room, there was Dickey, gamely putting on his uniform even though he had been promised a day off. “I figured they’d need me out there with Buddy hurt,” he said. The Associated Press called the gesture “amateurish,” but in the best possible context. As in, you may see that level of devotion to a team in a college or high school athlete, but seldom at the professional level.

The Yankees reached the World Series in ’42 and ’43, with a rare loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1942. It was the only time in Dickey’s tenure with New York that they lost in the postseason. Counting his debut season of 1928, they won eight World Series against the one defeat in his playing career. Dickey hit .255 in his eight postseason series, with 5 home runs and 24 RBIs.

It was that World Series loss to the Cardinals that almost brought Dickey’s career to an ignominious end. He didn’t hit particularly well and made some costly misplays in the field. Rather than retire, Dickey elected to come back in 1943, and for a season, he was his dangerous old self again. Injuries kept him off the field from time to time, but he could still rip. Days before he turned 36 years old, Dickey turned in a 5-for-5 performance against the White Sox on May 31, falling a home run shy of a cycle. He also had a stretch in September when he racked up 13 hits, including 4 doubles, in five games. Dickey finished off his World Series career with a flourish, too. He broke a scoreless tie in the sixth inning of Game 5 with a 2-run homer off the Cardinals’ Mort Cooper. That was all the damage the Yankees could muster off the Cardinals, but it was enough to win the game 2-0 and take the World Series in five games.

Dickey entered the U.S. Navy in 1944 and spent two years in the service. He was discharged in 1946 and, at the age of 39, decided to give baseball one more year. He refused a managing job with the Yankees affiliate in Newark to rejoin the Yankees as an active player. Unsurprisingly, he was still a backup to starter Aaron Robinson. He hit .261 in 54 games and was awarded a final All-Star nod as a tribute to his career. When longtime Yankees manager McCarthy was forced to resign on May 24, citing health reasons, Dickey was given the job.

Dickey’s plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

“It’s going to be a pretty tough task for me to try to fill the shoes of the greatest manager in the history of baseball,” Dickey said. “And while I am trying to do it, I’ll continue catching as long as I feel that my playing services will help the club.”

The Yankees weren’t nearly the offensive juggernaut they used to be, but Dickey guided them to a 57-48 record as manager. It was only good enough for a third-place finish in the AL. Dickey resigned in mid-September, stating that he’d “had enough.” Johnny Neun managed the team for the final 14 games. Dickey’s final plate appearance came on September 8 against the Senators, and he hit a pinch-hit single off Sid Hudson.

Dickey played for parts of 17 seasons. He had a lifetime .313/.382/.486 slash line, with 1,969 hits and 1,209 RBIs. His extra-base totals included 343 doubles, 72 triples and 202 home runs. He struck out just 289 times in 7,065 plate appearances – or 66 more strikeouts than Mark Reynolds had in 665 plate appearances in 2009. Baseball credits him with 56.4 Wins Above Replacement. He was named to 11 All-Star teams. Oddly, the only black ink in his offensive statistics came in 1933, when he led the American League with 9 intentional walks. He did lead all AL catchers in caught stealing percentage three times and routinely was a leader among games caught, putouts and assists.

Dickey received 6.9% of the votes for the Hall of Fame in 1945, back when everyone assumed he was retired. That gives him the rare distinction of receiving votes for the Hall of Fame as an active player. Though he was considered the greatest catcher in baseball history to that point in time (Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett also had their advocates), he wasn’t inducted into the Hall until 1954, when he received 80.2% of the votes.

Dickey, as a Mets instructor, gives some tips to Norm Sherry, left. Source: The Daily Tribune, March 20, 1963.

Dickey served as a player-manager for the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association in 1947. The team wasn’t very good, but Dickey was able to stay close to his Arkansas home. He spent the next year out of baseball but joined the Yankees coaching staff for 1949, under manager Casey Stengel. One of his primary tasks was coaching his heir apparent, Yogi Berra. Berra was an All-Star for his hitting, but his defense needed some work. Dickey worked with Berra to improve his throwing accuracy. “Yogi will surprise you,” he said of his pupil. “He has a fine arm but he’s been throwing off balance. This is easy to correct.”

Or as Yogi put it, “Bill Dickey learned me all his experiences.”

Within a couple of years, Berra was the best catcher in baseball and beginning to break all of Dickey’s old records. Dickey missed the 1957 season after an “attack of nervous exhaustion” led to a lengthy hospital stay. He then spent a year as a Yankees scout, based in Little Rock. He came back as a hitting coach for a time, but it only lasted for a year or so. Dickey coached Mets catchers in spring training in 1963, as Mets manager Casey Stengel undoubtedly asked for a favor, but he seemed more comfortable at home in Arkansas. His brother George had become an executive at an investment firm in Little Rock, per his SABR bio. Bill worked for him, selling securities, until his retirement in 1977.

Dickey married Violet Arnold, a New York Ziegfield showgirl and singer, in 1932. They had a daughter, Violet Lorraine, and were married until her death in 1992. Bill Dickey died at Rose Care Nursing Center in Little Rock on November 12, 1993, after a lengthy illness. He was 86 years old. Dickey is buried in Roselawn Memorial Park in Little Rock, Ark., just a row away from George.

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