Friday, July 26, 2019

This Day in Baseball History (Yanks’ Bill Dickey Clubs 3 HRs)

July 26, 1939—In perhaps the greatest offensive performance of his career, catcher Bill Dickey belted three home runs, leading the New York Yankees to a 14-1 run of the St. Louis Browns, continuing a turnaround for the Bronx Bombers that would lead to victory that fall in the World Series.

When I mentioned to a friend that I would be blogging about Dickey, he laughed and said, “Oh, you mean the OTHER Number 8!” It was Dickey’s misfortune to be overshadowed by another catcher who surpassed him in career home runs, World Series rings, and hold on the popular imagination: Yogi Berra. The two wore the same uniform number, and with both going to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the team eventually retired the number as a way of honoring each.

As it happened, Berra might not have developed into what he became without Dickey. But more on that shortly…

The first half of July 1939 had been rough for the Yankees in general and Dickey in particular, marked by the devastating medical diagnosis that ended the career of the catcher’s road roommate and best friend, Lou Gehrig, and the team’s tribute to the slugger on July 4—“the most emotional day I’ve had in my life,” Dickey would remember. 

After a five-game losing streak just before the All-Star Game, the Yanks lost a July 13 game they led 4-1 going into the bottom of the eighth inning, then saw their pennant lead over the Boston Red Sox shrink to just 5½ games. Then they righted the ship, winning seven straight away games against the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns.

Back in New York on the 26th, traps set through Yankee Stadium caught 5,000 Japanese beetles that had mysteriously invaded the ballpark. Maybe the Browns were nettled by what had gotten into the field that afternoon, because they were utterly powerless to stop a Yankee onslaught that included at least one run in every inning.

Leading the way was Dickey—but then again, nobody was particularly surprised. At 32, Dickey was, like Gehrig, mature in age and manner—a necessity on a team with its share of brash young players—and, thus, a model on how to comport one’s self.

At the same time, he was still in the prime of his career. Dickey was probably only surpassed at his position in the 1930s by Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett. He may have taken special satisfaction in his offensive explosion on this day because he’d been advised by his first manager, Miller Huggins, to concentrate on making contact rather than hitting the long ball, as the team already had someone who specialized in the latter department (Babe Ruth).

Dickey would finish the 1939 campaign by batting .302—the last time his average would be over .300—with 24 homers and 105 runs batted in. That fall, he would cap it all by clubbing two home runs and 5 RBIs in the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

Moreover, he remained sterling on defense. He had mastered the art of adapting to conserve his physical skills as long as possible (notably, adopting a one-handed catching technique, saving his right arm from wear and tear), while the years had only deepened his savvy in the linked arts of knowing how to get opposing batters out and how to get the best out of his own pitching staff, a lineup ranging from strong, silent Red Ruffing to ebullient but erratic Lefty Gomez. 

(Once, facing muscular slugger Jimmie Foxx, Gomez shook off all Dickey’s called pitches till the catcher walked to the mound to ask what he did want to throw Foxx. “Nothing,” Gomez responded: “Let’s wait a while. Maybe he’ll get a phone call.”)

The last link to the Ruth-Gehrig team of the late 1920s, Dickey served as the bridge to the Joe DiMaggio-led dynasty of the late 1930s and 1940s. Remarkably, though, his influence extended into the mid-Sixties. It happened like this:

In 1946, with his own playing days winding down, Dickey took over as manager from Joe McCarthy, who, after clashing with new general manager Larry MacPhail, parted ways with the team. But Dickey had his own differences with MacPhail and quit with 14 games left in the season.

Before the 1949 season, however, a new GM, George Weiss, asked Dickey to serve as a coach under new manager Casey Stengel, with one special assignment: take young catching prospect Yogi Berra under his wing. The team had no doubt about his ability to hit, but his defense was suspect. 

So Dickey got to work—as Berra put it, “learning me all his experience.”  It involved fouls, pop-ups, plays at the plate, controlling the pitcher and the game, knowing everything on the diamond—in effect, acting as the on-field stand-in for the manager. Dickey would do the same for Elston Howard, the 1963 American League MVP.

"Bill Dickey isn't just a catcher,” wrote sportswriter Dan Daniel. “He's a ball club."

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