SABR

Steve Yeager

This article was written by Michael Fallon.

Ever since the award was established in 1955, there have been two types of World Series MVPs. On the one hand, there are the guys you’d expect to win the trophy: baseball superstars and future Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Mike Schmidt, and Johnny Bench, who simply do in the Series what they did over the course of their careers. On the other hand, there are the Bucky Dents, David Ecksteins, Pat Borderses, and Bobby Richardsons—surprise winners who, over the course of four to seven games, momentarily overshadow their better- known teammates by outplaying themselves. And then there is Steve Yeager. A co-winner—along with Ron Cey and Pedro Guerrero—of the 1981 World Series MVP Award, Yeager was one of the most unlikely winners ever. At the same time, his win was a perfect distillation of all that was wonderful over the embattled catcher’s 15-year career.

Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1967 as an 18-year-old out of Meadow Dale High School in Dayton, Ohio, Stephen Wayne Yeager (born on November 24, 1948, in Huntington, West Virginia) became part of the franchise’s great youth movement of the late 1960s. For a stretch of four or five years, Yeager moved through the farm system alongside teammates like Ron Cey, Bill Buckner, Steve Garvey, Joe Ferguson, and Davey Lopes from the Dodgers’ famed 1968 draft class. As a sign of the type of player he would become, in 1969, while playing with the Dodgers’ Class A team in Bakersfield in June, Yeager suffered a fractured leg in a first-inning collision at home plate with a baserunner. Unaware of the nature of the injury, he finished the game.i It was the first of many injuries that would add to Yeager’s reputation for toughness and solid defensive skills at the catcher position. It was also the first of many injuries that would cut into his playing time and allowed other players to leapfrog over him in the Dodgers’ system.

Over his career, Yeager was fortunate to possess as much perseverance as he did toughness. After managing to play only 23 games while batting just .151 in 1969, he returned in 1970 and slowly emerged out of a reserve role. On May 21, after going hitless in his first five at-bats as a pinch-hitter for the Dodgers’ Double-A team in Albuquerque, Yeager smacked a grand slam to lead the team to an 8-5 victory over Dallas-Fort Worth. He wound up hitting .278. Yeager returned to the team in 1971 and was named to the Texas League All Star team. By 1972, the Dodgers, who were carefully managing the major-league emergence of a large crop of developing players, had a particularly complex situation at the catcher position. Before the start of the season, the team considered a corps of backstops that included veterans Duke Sims and Chris Cannizzaro and highly regarded minor leaguers Joe Ferguson, Bill Sudakis, Terry McDermott, and Yeager. No doubt seeking to protect the development of its young catchers, the team signed yet another veteran, Dick Dietz, off waivers in April. Yeager, who had made an impressive showing with his defensive abilities during spring training and won the writers’ Dearie Mulvey Memorial Trophy as the best rookie of the spring, was on the plane to Los Angeles, having been told he made the team, when news came of the Dietz signing. He was forthwith optioned to Albuquerque, a move that turned out to be a crucial moment in his career. There Yeager connected with manager Tom Lasorda, who had been moving up through the Dodger system along with the 1968 draft class. Lasorda and the Dodgers recognized in Yeager several traits they considered important to major-league success: his toughness and desire to succeed, as well as a hunger to play. “We’d like every one of our players to have the fire, the determination—and the all-round hustle that Steve has,” said Bill Schweppe, the Dodgers’ farm director, who was a chief architect of the 1968 draft. Tom Lasorda said Yeager was in the same league with Johnny Bench. “You won’t beat that arm of his,” Lasorda said in 1972. “You can’t ask anything of a catcher that Yeager can’t do,” said Monty Basgall, who had been Yeager’s manager at the Double-A level in 1971. “He did a tremendous job in developing our young pitchers.” Yeager said his improving skills behind the plate had to do with learning the mental side of the game. “The mental part is important,” he said. “You’ve got to work a pitcher so that the best pitch he has going on a particular day will be used effectively to get the batter out. … Setting up the hitter is as important as throwing a man out trying to steal.”ii

In 1972, as Lasorda led the Albuquerque Dukes to the Pacific Coast League championship, Yeager batted a solid .280 and recorded a slugging average of .502, the highest of his career. Around this time a sportswriter, perhaps anticipating the arrival of Yeager at the big-league level, pointed out in a profile of the minor leagueriii that he wore eyeglasses—a fact often perceived as a handicap for the catcher position because of the need to rip off the catcher’s mask in the midst of play. The article noted that Yeager somewhat defensively said he planned to switch to contact lenses. Yeager did so twice, in 1975 and before the 1978 season, and both times his switch to contacts was be short-lived. Yeager could never get comfortable playing with them. By the time of his heroic performance in the 1981 World Series, Yeager had all but given up trying to replace his glasses. (Starting in the second half of the 20th century, several catchers have worn eyeglasses, including Clint Courtney, Darrell Porter, and Rich Gedman.)

Meanwhile, the future was quickly approaching for the Dodgers. Struggling through its third of four straight second-place finishes in the National League West when veteran catcher Dick Dietz broke his hand, the Dodgers brought Yeager up to the majors in August. It was not an immediate success for the highly regarded rookie. In his first 22 at-bats, he managed just one hit, and after his first 13 games he had an .059 batting average. On September 2 Dodgers manager Walt Alston suggested that the rookie catcher try a more open batting stance to compensate for a hitch in his swing. In his final 72 at-bats, Yeager batted .375 and ended with a respectable .274 batting average and .406 slugging average.

Before the 1973 season Dodger hopes were high. Four of the team’s rising young players—pitcher Doug Rau, outfielder Von Joshua, infielder Steve Garvey, and Yeager—had been named to the Dominican League All Star team in the offseason. Despite his defensive abilities, however, Alston preferred using Joe Ferguson, who had more power at bat, as his starting catcher. Yeager played just 54 games in a reserve role, and Ferguson’s 25 home runs in 1973 meant that the backup Yeager was dangled in trade talks during the offseason. Yeager gave his blessings to the talks and was disappointed that a deal was not made. “Sure I was hoping to be traded,” he said during spring training in 1974. … I want to play and think I should be playing regularly. I know I could be playing with another organization.”iv

All would change for Yeager in 1974. Ferguson began the season in a deep slump, and by mid-May Yeager was hitting .375 with 10 RBIs. More importantly, the Dodgers, who had jumped out to a surprisingly solid lead in their division, had not lost a game that Yeager started—a streak that extended to 22 games, a feat that some suggested was a record. “If anyone ever deserves his chance, it was Yeager,” said Alston. “He was out every day when he wasn’t starting. He never stopped hustling or lost his enthusiasm.”v Yeager kept the starter role, playing 94 games as the Dodgers’ catcher in 1974 and batting .266 while slugging 12 home runs. The Dodgers were buoyed by his stellar defense—he threw out the great basestealer Lou Brock three times during the season, and the future Hall of Famer called Yeager “the best-throwing catcher in the game.” The team appreciated his confident handling of its pitching staff. Los Angeles lost the World Series to Oakland in five games. One of the few highlights for the Dodgers in the Series came when Ferguson, playing in right field in a close Game One, threw a strike to Yeager to catch Sal Bando was trying to score on a sacrifice fly. While Ferguson’s throw was an accurate bullet, it was Yeager’s ability to hold onto the ball after Bando plowed over him that clinched the play.

Yeager established himself over the next several seasons as the Dodgers’ main option as starting catcher. Though at times his hitting was spotty—his average dipped to .228 in 1975 and .214 in 1976 before rebounding to .258 in 1977—he remained an acknowledged master at handling the diverse Dodgers pitching staff. “A catcher has to get along with the pitcher,” Yeager said in 1975. “The worst thing you can do is rile him, upset him. And if you don’t know him, you can easily upset him when you think you’re helping him.”vi Yeager’s defense was so solid that it drew regular comparisons to perennial All Star and Gold Glove backstop Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds. Yeager was sensitive about this link. “When I’m the All-Star catcher and have won an MVP award and have led the league in home runs and RBIs like Johnny has, then maybe I can compare myself with him,” he told a reporter in 1975.vii

Then there was Yeager’s tendency to play harder than anyone else on the field. He played so hard, in fact, that he was often injured. In the first weeks of 1975, he bruised his leg badly in a collision at home plate with Houston’s Wilbur Howard. Still, Yeager rebounded quickly enough to appear in 135 games, and, after Joe Ferguson, by then the backup, broke his wrist on July 1 in a brawl with the San Diego Padres, Yeager was the Dodgers’ catcher in 737 of the team’s final 760 innings. In 1976 he suffered a concussion in a home-plate collision with Houston’s Cesar Cedeno but sat out just two games. Then, famously, on September 6, he nearly lost his life in a freak accident in San Diego. While Yeager waited in the on-deck circle, batter Bill Russell shattered his bat hitting a ground ball to third base. Shards of the heavy end of the bat slammed into Yeager’s throat, lodging nine large splinters. One of the splinters, according to the doctor who removed them, missed piercing a major artery by just millimeters. Amazingly, Yeager was back playing with the team just three weeks later. (The injury inspired Yeager to suggest to his equipment manager an innovation to his “tools of ignorance”—the catcher’s throat protector.)

By the middle of the 1976 season, before the punctured esophagus, Yeager had cemented his position as the Dodgers’ field marshal by earning a vote of confidence from manager Alston. “There’s no question Yeager has become a better hitter,” Alston said. “He used to hit a lot of long fly balls. They might have looked good, but they were always caught. Now he’s driving the ball better and he’s capable of hitting it out once in a while.”viii In fact, Yeager’s emergence had made Joe Ferguson expendable, and on June 15 his former rival was traded along with several minor leaguers to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Reggie Smith. Also, by 1976, Yeager had emerged as a major social figure on the team, well known for late-night carousing at the bars and music clubs of his adopted city. So notorious had his exploits become that a divorce from Brenda, his wife of eight years, was followed by a marquee wedding to local rock musician Gloria Giaone on the steps of City Hall (with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley serving as the best man).

By 1977, the first year of Tom Lasorda’s stint as Dodger manager, there was no question that Yeager would be the team’s starting catcher, though Lasorda could not keep from tinkering with his swing. After working with a hitting coach throughout spring training, Yeager started the season fast, batting .373 with a .600 slugging percentage in the first month of the season. (Nearly the entire team started the season on a torrid pace, rushing to a 22-5 record in the first month.) Despite Yeager’s inevitable fade as a result of the usual procession of bruises and other injuries, he recorded career highs in home runs (16) and slugging percentage (.444), handled pitchers—including the team’s unconventional knuckleballing closer Charlie Hough—with care, and played good enough defense to finish a close second to Johnny Bench in voting for the Gold Glove Award. In the World Series, which the Dodgers lost to the Yankees in six games, Yeager, though handicapped by strained ligaments in his right leg, started all six games, slugged two home runs, knocked in five runs, and batted .316.

If 1977 was arguably the best year of his career, Yeager was perhaps due for a comeuppance in 1978. By early June, after a 1-for-26 slump dropped his average to.198, he found himself stuck back on the bench in favor of backup catcher Johnny Oates. Yeager struggled to get over the Mendoza line for the entire season, ending with a .193 average and forcing the Dodgers in July to bring back Joe Ferguson from the Astros. In August, after both Yeager and backup Oates went down with injuries, the Dodgers traded with the Mets for veteran backstop Jerry Grote. When Oates and Yeager returned, the Dodgers had an unusual roster configuration. “It’s a unique situation,” said Oates. “It’s the first major-league club I’ve ever seen with four experienced catchers.”ix Remarkably, all four of the catchers were on the roster for the 1978 World Series, and all four made at least one appearance, though manager Lasorda still favored Yeager’s defensive skills above all else, starting him in five of the six Series games as the Dodgers again lost to the Yankees.

Yeager continued struggling at the plate for the next three seasons, forcing Lasorda to give some of his playing time to Ferguson and other catchers. After a disappointing season in 1979 (.216 in 105 games), Yeager’s name came up repeatedly in Dodger trade rumors—though no actual trade materialized. In 1980 Yeager started the season as Lasorda’s primary starting catcher, but, with his hitting as anemic as ever and with his elbow flaring up from an injury, the manager was forced to give significant playing time to Ferguson and an up-and-coming young catcher named Mike Scioscia. In 1981 the Dodgers kept Yeager as their backup catcher but gave the primary starting role to Scioscia. Yeager batted only 84 times in the strike-shortened season, and as a result he flatly asked the Dodgers to move him to another club. “I didn’t want to leave the Dodgers organization, or Los Angeles or the LA fans,” he said after the season. “I just want to play.”x

In the World Series in 1981, which once again pitted the Dodgers against the Yankees, Lasorda gave Yeager and Scioscia nearly even amounts of playing time, despite the fact that Yeager’s on-base percentage was 100 points below Scioscia’s. This was mostly due to the Yanks’ left-handed-heavy pitching staff. The ploy worked, giving Yeager a chance to remind fans that he was an important member of the Dodger teams of this era. In Game Four he knocked in the winning run in the eighth inning with a pinch-hit sacrifice fly. Yeager started Game Five, went 2- for-3, and, just moments after slugger Pedro Guerrero had tied the game, 1-1, with a home run off Yankee ace Ron Guidry in the seventh inning, belted the game-winning homer. Yeager’s World Series MVP award was unlikely not only because his stature as a player on the Dodgers had been so diminished, or because he had survived so long as a marginal batter and had gathered so many bruises and battle scars in his career, but also because Yeager’s season in 1981 had been so distinctly miserable (only 92 plate appearances with a .209 batting average; his two home runs in the Series were one less than his total for the entire regular season.)

After 1981 the 33-year-old Yeager was content to be the Dodgers’ backup catcher behind Scioscia, except in 1983, when Scioscia sat out with a significant injury and Yeager got into 113 games. He broke up the monotony of the backup seasons by, among other things, posing nude—with the blessing of his wife, Gloria, and much to the amusement of his teammates—in Playgirl magazine. He watched as each of his longtime teammates—Garvey, Cey, Lopes, Reggie Smith, Dusty Baker—left for greener pastures. In 1983, in fact, Yeager belonged to an elite club of just 11 players with ten or more years of major-league experience at that point who had played their entire careers with one team.

Yeager suffered through season-ending injuries in 1983 (broken wrist) and 1984 (broken leg) and stayed with the Dodgers through the 1985 season. Before his last season with the Dodgers, he mused over X-ray negatives with a reporter from The Sporting News. “Do you believe that?” Yeager said, holding up a picture of the two large screws that held his knee to his tibia. “Boomer is a throwback to the old days,” Tom Lasorda told the reporter, using Yeager’s late-career nickname. “When someone is squawking about his arm hurting, he’ll yell at the guy. ‘Ah, spit some tobacco juice on it and play the game.’ ” The reporter went on to compare the long-suffering, long-surviving Yeager to his famously macho uncle, Chuck Yeager, an Air Force general who, as a young test pilot, was the first man to break the sound barrier.xi

Whatever the source of Yeager’s toughness, he managed to survive through two more seasons as a gimpy, diminished veteran catcher. As backup in 1985, he batted just .207 in 53 games. Before the 1986 season the Dodgers traded Yeager to the Seattle Mariners, where a young pitching staff needed the guidance of a veteran backstop. In Seattle Yeager batted .208 in 50 games while playing behind catcher Bob Kearney, and the team finished in last place with a 67-95 record. After the season Yeager was granted free agency, and he chose to retire from major-league baseball. Even then, Yeager did not exactly fade from public view, spending time after his playing days most famously as a consultant for (and actor in) the Major League franchise of baseball movie comedies. Yeager also spent time playing in the Senior League of the early 1990s and worked for several years as a coach inside and outside the Dodgers’ farm system.

 

Sources

Mark Langill, Game of My Life Dodgers: Memorable Stories of Dodgers Baseball (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2007).

Rick Monday with Ken Gurnick, Rick Monday’s Tales From the Dodger Dugout (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, 2006).

Bill Plaschke with Tommy Lasorda, I Live for This: Baseball’s Last True Believer (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1907).

Baseball Digest, May 1975

Los Angeles Times

The Sporting News


i “Class A Leagues report,” The Sporting News, June 21, 1969.

ii Carlos Salazar, “Yeager Licks Injury Jinx, Sets Sights on Dodger Job,” The Sporting News, July 1, 1972.

iii Carlos Salazar, “Yeager Licks Injury Jinx.”

iv Ross, Newhan, “ ‘Best Catcher’ Steve Only No. 2 for Dodgers,” The Sporting News, March 23, 1974.

v Ross Newhan, ”Enemies Take Cover as Toy Cannon Explodes,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1974.

vi Bob Oates, “The Catcher Who Says He’s Better Than Bench,” Baseball Digest, May 1975, 46-49.

vii Gordon Verrell, “Yeager Confident of Catching Value to Dodgers,” The Sporting News, April 26, 1975.

viii Gordon Verrell, “Hitting Up Storm, Yeager Wants Home-Plate Wedding,” The Sporting News, June 5, 1976.

ix Gordon Verrell. “Four! Dodgers Topheavy in Catching Corps,” The Sporting News, September 2, 1978.

x World Series report, The Sporting News, November 7, 1981.

xi Gordon Verrell, “Yeager Simply Ignores Scars,” The Sporting News, March 18, 1985.

 

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