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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #9 Bill Dickey

Arguably the most underrated Yankee ever, Bill Dickey was the backbone of one of the most successful eras in franchise history.

Bill Dickey After Popup

Name: William Malcolm “Bill” Dickey
Position: Catcher
Born: June 6, 1907 (Bastrop, LA)
Died: November 12, 1993 (Little Rock, AR)
Yankee Years: 1928-43, 1946
Primary Number: 8
Yankee Statistics: 1,789 G, 7,065 PA, .313/.382/.486, 126 wRC+, 1,969 H, 202 HR, 343 2B, 72 3B, 1,209 RBI, 678 BB, 465 CS, 47 CS%, 56.3 rWAR, 56.1 fWAR

Biography

There may be no more underrated Yankee than Bill Dickey. Despite being one of the best players in baseball in his era, his tenure was often overshadowed by the legendary performances of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on his own team. After his playing career, the Yankees did retire his No. 8, but not before also giving to another catcher who became an even bigger franchise icon in Yogi Berra.

Dickey got the nickname “The Man Nobody Knows” more for his quiet and reserved personality, although it’s also somewhat apt for his status among other Yankee legends. However in almost any other any and on almost any other team, he would be considered among the inner circle of franchise icons. He may not always get the recognition among the Yankees’ greats, but Bill Dickey absolutely deserves his place among them.

Arkansas Boy in a Baseball Family

One of seven children of John and Laura Dickey, William Dickey was born in Louisiana in 1906. However, he primarily grew up in Arkansas, where the family moved to so John could work as a railroad brakeman.

From a young age, Bill was involved in baseball. His father had played semi-professional baseball, as did his older brother, Gus. Bill wouldn’t even be the only major leaguer to come out of his family, as a younger brother, George, would play six MLB seasons for the Red Sox and White Sox.

Dickey got involved playing second base for his town team as a youngster, and went on to pitch in high school. At Little Rock College, he both pitched and played on the football team. His big break truly came when a friend suggested he fill in at catcher for a semipro team in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Despite some initial hesitancy, Dickey quickly took to it, and soon caught the eye of the minor league Little Rock Travelers, who inked a deal with the 18-year old in 1925.

Over 20 games across the 1925 and ‘26 seasons, Dickey impressed in Little Rock, earning promotions to the Muskogee Athletics and the Jackson Senators. With Jackson in 1927, Dickey put in a solid season at catcher both offensively and defensively. Despite that, Jackson waived their rights to him after that season, which would up being very fortuitous for a certain franchise coming off a year so famous that it earned a nickname.

Portrait of Bill Dickey Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Jackson, along with Little Rock where he started out, had an agreement with the White Sox. Yet, Jackson declining Dickey allowed Yankee scout Johnny Nee to swoop in. Nee told GM Ed Barrow that he would “quit scouting if (Dickey) did not make good.” That review saw the Yankees make the bet and signed the catcher for $12,000.

After starting the 1928 season back in Little Rock, the Yankees moved Dickey to a brief pit stop with the Buffalo Bisons before calling him up in August. He made his MLB debut as a late inning replacement for Benny Bengough, going 0-for-2. He stayed in a bench role for the remainder of that season, recording his first hit on August 24th against the St. Louis Browns. While he didn’t appear in the Yankees’ sweep of the Cardinals in the 1928 World Series, Dickey was on the roster for the first of his many championships.

Becoming a Star

After initially opening the 1929 season in a similar bench role, Dickey recorded an RBI single in his first appearance of the year as a pinch hitter on April 26th. Two days after that, he got his first major league start, recording two hits. Even though the Yankees had some great times prior to Dickey’s arrival, the catcher’s spot was very much there for the taking, and Dickey took it.

In his first full season in the major leagues, Dickey recorded a .324/.346/.485 line in 130 games as he quickly cemented himself as the Yankees’ regular catcher. He also put up a nice defensive season behind the plate, earning Miller Huggins’ trust, before the manager’s passing and the team’s eventual second-place finish.

Without Huggins, the Yankees were again stuck in second place in 1930 under the guidance of former Yankee pitcher Bob Shawkey. That was through no fault of Dickey, who put up another big season. The catcher hit .339/.375/.486 (120 OPS+) in 109 games.

The 1931 season saw Joe McCarthy take over as Yankee skipper, although they wouldn’t ascend back to the AL pennant just yet. Dickey’s .327 batting average and 119 OPS+, along with catching 46 percent of runners on stolen base attempts saw the backstop named by the Sporting News as a catcher on their All-Star team.

New York Yankees Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images

The Yankees returned to the World Series in 1932, despite Dickey missing some time for, uh, reasons. On July 4th, he was involved in a collision at the plate with the Washington Senators’ Carl Reynolds. Thinking that Reynolds had attempted to deliberately injury him, Dickey wound back and punched him, breaking Reynolds’ jaw. The typically cool Dickey regretted the action, but was suspended for as long as Reynolds was out.

Despite that, Dickey still put up a big season, recording a 121 OPS+ in 108 games, and finishing 14th in MVP voting. He also got to take the field in postseason baseball for the first time that season, as the Yankees faced the Cubs in the World Series. He went 7-for-16 with four RBI in the series sweep, winning a second ring.

As a team, the Yankees missed out on the pennant every year from 1933-35, as the Babe Ruth era came to end and while Lou Gehrig continued to dominate, he needed more help beyond Dickey and a handful of other contributors. The catcher still continued to produce in that time, putting up a 125 OPS+ across those three years. He also was named a member of the first ever AL All-Star Game team in 1933, and started behind the plate in the second-ever Midsummer Classic the following year.

Peak Dynasty Years

With Joe DiMaggio now in the fold for 1936, the Yankees rebounded and returned to the top of the AL. While DiMaggio’s addition certainly played a part of that, a large part of that was also due to Dickey going from great to even greater.

The 1936 season saw Dickey arguably put up the best hitting season of his career. He cracked the 20+ home run mark for the first time with 22. His .362 batting average and 158 OPS+ were the best of his career in a full season, and .362 mark actually set a single-season record for catchers that lasted 73 years until new Hall of Famer Joe Mauer broke it during his historic 2009. Dickey finished in the top 10 in the league in BA, OBP, SLG, and home runs, and finished fifth in MVP voting.

After cruising to the pennant, the Yankees were matched up against the Giants in the World Series. Dickey was held in check, going just 3-for-25 in the series, but he became a champion for a third time as the Yankees won in six games.

After a big 1936, Dickey followed that up with another big year in ‘37. According to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs WAR, it went down as the best season of his career, as he put up 6.5 and 6.7 totals respectively.

Yankee Sluggers
Dickey, DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, George Selkirk

By several metrics, 1937 was his best defensive season as he also had another massive year at the plate. Dickey slugged a career high 29 home runs and put up a 144 OPS+ en route to another fifth place MVP finish. He was also starting to gain a reputation as McCarthy’s trusted deputy and a manager on the field. He was again held somewhat down by Giants pitching in the World Series, although he again was behind the dish as the team won a title.

The 1938 season was another excellent one from Dickey, as he would finish second in MVP voting behind only Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx. He hit another 27 home runs and put up a 143 OPS+ in 128 games, as the Yankees won a third consecutive pennant. This time around in the World Series, Dickey put up good numbers, going 6-for-15. The biggest of those six came on an RBI single in Game 1, which gave the Yankees a 3-1 cushion, as they eventually won the game and series.

Change was on the horizon for the Yankees in 1939. It wound up being the last one for Gehrig, who was Dickey’s longtime close friend and travel roommate, as he was diagnosed with ALS and retired. Despite that massive loss, the Yankees managed to band together and win another AL pennant.

In the World Series, the Yankees swept the Reds. Dickey hit well in the sweep, going 4-for-15 with two home runs. That also included one of the biggest hits of the series. In the ninth inning of Game 1, he drove home Charlie Keller with a walk-off single, getting the series off to a perfect start.

The win saw the Yankees complete a four-peat. Over the course of those four years, Dickey hit .326/.415/.565 with 102 home runs, a 144 OPS+, and 22.7 fWAR. Those are truly astounding numbers when you also consider that he was doing that while catching at least 107 games every year.

Decline, Military Service, and a Managerial Stint

All the years of wear and tear started to catch up with Dickey a bit in 1940. He was limited to just 106 games and put up the worst offensive season of his career, hitting just .247/.336/.355. McCarthy even started to platoon him a bit, using backup Buddy Rosar when the Yankees faced left-handed pitching. As a team, the Yankees’ runs of pennants was also stopped as they came up two games short of the Tigers after a tight, three-way race with them and Cleveland.

Although again being used in more of a reduced role, Dickey bounced back in 1941, putting up a 109 OPS+ in part thanks to a 21-game hitting streak. The Yankees also returned to the World Series, and beat the Dodgers in five games. On a personal note, 1941 was also a sad year for Dickey. In June, Gehrig sadly passed away at just 37 years old. Dickey was tasked with giving a speech in honor of his close friend at a Yankee Stadium memorial, and couldn’t get through it without breaking down.

The Yankees acquired Rollie Hemsley in 1942, further lightening Dickey’s load behind the plate. Dickey put up solid numbers in 82 games, helping the Yankees to another pennant. However, they were defeated by the Cardinals in the World Series.

Going off rate stats, 1943 would be one of Dickey’s best ever hitting seasons. While he only played in 85 games, he hit .351/.445/.492. His 173 OPS+ was the best of any year of his career. That was good enough to finish eighth in MVP voting, even with the reduced workload.

The Yankees again won the AL, and Dickey came up with another big postseason moment. The Yankees were up 3-1 on the Cardinals in the series, but were in a scoreless game in the sixth inning of Game 5. With two outs and a runner on, Dickey took St. Louis pitcher Mort Cooper deep for a two-run home run.

Those ended up being the only runs of the game, as the Yankees won the game and the series. That ended up being Dickey’s eighth and final World Series title, and he ended his postseason career on quite a high note.

After the ‘43 season, Dickey was drafted into the military and spent the next two seasons away from the Yankees serving. He even showed off some baseball and managing chops there, leading a team he coached to the Service World Series in 1944.

In 1946, Dickey returned to the Yankees and quickly ended up being cast into a big role. After a series of incidents and disagreements with ownership, McCarthy resigned from the Yankees’ manager role in May. In his place, Dickey, who had been seen as a leader on the field, was elevated into a player-manager role.

The Yankees went a perfectly fine 57-48 under Dickey, but that wasn’t enough to get close to the pennant-winning Red Sox. Near the end of the season, Yankees owner Larry MacPhail wouldn’t guarantee that Dickey would continue on in the manager role, so Dickey resigned from the role, and returned to a player-only role for the final couple weeks of the season. Amusingly, he had an impressive season at the plate anyway as a whole, as he notched a 101 OPS+ in 54 games at age 39 after two full years away from MLB pitching.

Post-Playing Career

After the failed Yankees’ managerial stint, Dickey’s playing career also came to an end. For 1947, he returned to Arkansas to manage the Little Rock Travelers team that he had played for coming up. That also didn’t go great, but a return to the Yankees was on the horizon.

With MacPhail out of the fold, the Yankees brought back Dickey to serve as first-base coach on Casey Stengel’s staff. However, his more important role in that time was mentoring a young catcher named Yogi Berra. While Berra had obvious talent offensively, he himself credited much of his defensive development to the tutoring of Dickey, with whom he would share the No. 8.

Yogi Berra Speaking with Manager
Two legendary Yankees catchers, Yogi & Dickey

After Berra, Dickey would serve a similar role in the development of Elston Howard, who also heaped an immense amount of praise on Dickey’s tutelage. Dickey would also later briefly work with Stengel in his tenure with the Mets.

Following a handful of election-cycle snubs, Dickey was finally elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954. Even in the year he was voted in, 50 BBWAA voters somehow still didn’t recognize his no-doubt Cooperstown-worthy talent. In 1972, the Yankees jointly retired the No. 8 for both Dickey and his protégé Berra. The team added a Monument Park plaque to his honors in 1988.

Following his long career in baseball, Dickey returned to his native Arkansas. He passed away in 1993 at 86 years old. He was survived by his wife and three children.

With 11 All-Star appearances and eight World Series titles, Bill Dickey is one of the most decorated players in Yankees’ history. He doesn’t get as many historical headlines as most franchise icons and in fact is the only Yankee with a retired number who has never been featured on a YES Network “Yankeeography.” But Dickey set the standard for other legendary catchers to follow him in Bronx lore, and the franchise could have never reached their remarkable heights without him.

Yankee Coach Bill Dickey In Uniform

Staff Rank: 11
Community Rank: 8
Stats Rank: 7
2013 Rank: 7

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

Baseball Egg

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

BR Bullpen

National Baseball Hall of Fame

SABR, Wancho, Joseph.

SABR, McMurray, John.

Previously on the Top 100

10. Andy Pettitte
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