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Yankees History: Bill Dickey’s strange final season

Bill Dickey had a Hall of Fame playing career, but his brief managerial career came about strangely.

Chicago White Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

If you’re ranking the most underrated Yankees of all time, there’s a decent argument that Bill Dickey comes in at number one. Between the contemporaries he played with (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at the beginning of his career, Joe DiMaggio at the end) and the fact that a more legendary catcher (Yogi Berra, who even ended up wearing the same number) came along not long after Dickey, he’s often overshadowed in Yankees’ history.

However, Dickey’s peak from 1933-39 was genuinely incredible. In those seven seasons, he hit .318/.396/.530 (137 OPS+) with 142 home runs and three top-five MVP finishes. That’s a great peak for any hitter, never mind someone who was also catching. He is absolutely a deserving Hall of Famer.

In the final season of that legendary career, he had what had to have been one of the weirdest experiences for any player ever.

In 1943, Dickey was nearing the end of his career. He was still putting up numbers at the plate, but the 36-year-old split playing time with two others, appearing in only 85 games. During that offseason, he was called to serve in the military during World War II.

Dickey wouldn’t play in any of the next two seasons while he was serving. He returned for 1946, but some things had changed in the meantime. While Dickey was away, the family of the deceased Jacob Ruppert sold the Yankees to Del Webb, Dan Topping, and Larry MacPhail.

MacPhail in particular was tasked with the baseball side of things as general manager. Rumors began to persist that he and Yankees’ manager Joe McCarthy weren’t a great fit together. Things came to a head after MacPhail castigated McCarthy after a confrontation the manager had with pitcher Joe Page. A couple days after that, McCarthy penned a letter of resignation. He cited his health, which was likely partially true, but articles at the time also pointed to the personality clash with MacPhail.

Ahead of the May 25th game against the Red Sox, the Yankees elevated Dickey to the manager’s role. The soon to be 39-year-old had been the regular catcher for most of the season up to that point. After a hot start, he had slowed down and was hitting just .239/.333/.370 when he was handed the managerial reigns. While he still played a decent amount, Dickey handed off the regular starter spot to Aaron Robinson once he took over as manager.

Dickey’s reign started with two losses before getting his first win in the second game of a doubleheader on May 26th. The Yankees went 10-4 in his first 14 games on the job, but the failed to gain any ground on an on-fire Red Sox team. After a decent but not great June and July, Dickey’s team won games on a 102-win pace and were in second place. Unfortunately, they, and the rest of the AL, just couldn’t get close to Boston.

Dickey had gone 57-48 as the season neared it’s conclusion. With a couple weeks left in the season, he went to MacPhail and Yankees’ management asking about his status as manager for future seasons. They did not commit to giving him the full-time gig. So naturally, with just 14 games left in the season, he resigned.

Now, while he reduced his playing time while manager, he was still technically a player-manager. Once he left the managerial job, he stuck around as a player. Interim manager Johnny Neun did not play Dickey in any game after his resignation, but he was around. That had to have been a strange situation for pretty much everyone on the roster.

The next season, Dickey went and managed in the minor leagues. His Little Rock Travelers struggled and that was the end of his managerial career. He later reflected that he did not enjoy managing. However, it wasn’t the end of his coaching career. MacPhail left the Yankees organization after 1947. New general manager George Weiss brought Dickey back into the fold as a coach, where he helped tutor Yankees’ catching legends Berra and Elston Howard.

I’m not sure how Dickey thought his career would’ve ended. I’m guessing he didn’t think it would be by not playing after being replaced as manager after himself replacing a seven-time World Series champion.