This article was written by Cort Vitty
This article was published in the Spring 2013 Baseball Research Journal
Until the emergence of Hall of Famer Bill Dickey, Miller Huggins and the New York Yankees deftly utilized a patchwork of mostly journeyman catchers on very successful teams. His accomplishments ultimately earned him Hall of Fame honors in 1964.
Yankees owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston realized early in their partnership that New York wouldn’t tolerate anything less than a championship team. Ruppert had a championship in mind when he hired Miller Huggins to manage the club in 1918. According to Ruppert: “Huggins had vision. Getting him was the first and most important step we took toward making the Yankees champions. Huggins had constructive ideas and far-seeing judgment. He planned on a big scale.”[fn]Jacob Ruppert, “The Ten Million Dollar Toy,” The Saturday Evening Post, March 28, 1931.[/fn] Huggins understood the importance of fielding a high-quality team and recommended improving the talent pool via key acquisitions and signings
Upon assuming the managerial reins, Huggins inherited two starting receivers, Les Nunamaker, who was traded to St. Louis before spring training began, and James Harrison Hannah (1889–1982). Although “Truck” certainly fit Hannah’s 6-foot-1, 190-pound bulk, the nickname was actually derived from his offseason job as a deliveryman. The North Dakota native came to New York from the Pacific Coast League, where he had established himself as a fine defensive catcher. Adept at the art of chatter, Truck’s booming voice, laced with sarcasm, both distracted opposing hitters and entertained fans. A light bat (.235 overall with the Yankees) shortened his stay in New York and ultimately hastened his return to the West Coast after the 1920 season. Hannah’s minor-league career, encompassing over 2,275 games in more than 20 seasons, earned him PCL Hall of Fame honors.1 As a somewhat spry 51-year-old minor-league manager, he’d again don “the tools” with the Memphis Chicks in 1940, catching both ends of a doubleheader after injuries sidelined his regular receivers.[fn]Two seasons of Hannah’s career are still missing from the Minor League Statistics database.[/fn]
St. Louis native Herold “Muddy” Ruel was purchased in 1918 to back up Nunamaker, but he spent most of the year in the army. The polar opposite of “Truck” in size, 24-year-old Muddy packed a strong arm, good defensive skills, and a decent bat into his 5-foot-9, 150-pound frame. To Huggins, “a good catcher [is] the carburetor, the lead dog, the pulse taker, the traffic cop and sometimes a lot of unprintable things, but no team gets very far without one.”[fn]The Kingsport (Tenn.) Times, May 20, 1940.[/fn] Huggins liked Ruel’s potential and considered him a candidate to ultimately become the regular backstop. But the skipper knew a more experienced backstop would be needed to pursue that initial pennant. On December 15, 1920, Ruel was shuttled to the Boston Red Sox as part of a larger deal that brought veteran Wally Schang to the Yankees. Ruel (1896–1963) would later move from Boston to Washington, and admirably handle the catching duties for the Nats’ 1924–25 pennant-winning seasons. Along the way, he earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the smartest catchers in the league.
Schang (1889–1965) may have been a farm boy from New York State, but he was a city slicker behind the plate. His acquisition placed a premier catcher onto the Yankees roster, with a resume that included World Championships on the 1913 Philadelphia Athletics and 1918 Boston Red Sox. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, the strong-armed Schang was one of the finest defensive catchers in the game. A formidable switch-hitter, he was instrumental in helping the Yankees win their first American League flag in 1921. Schang more than adequately filled the starting role when the Yanks repeated as league champs in 1922 and ultimately won their first World Series in 1923. “The catcher is the jockey,” Schang remarked. “The pitcher is the horse. … A good horse will lose with a bad rider. The catcher must not let the pitcher lose his courage, confidence or control.”[fn]Harvey Frommer, Five O’Clock Lightning (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007).[/fn]
The team fell to second place in 1924—then spiraled out of control to a dismal seventh place in 1925. Huggins thought rebuilding was in order and started housecleaning on a wholesale level. By then Schang was 36 years old and Huggins felt age, injuries, and possibly diminished eyesight had caught up with Wally. On the same day (June 2) that Lou Gehrig famously replaced Wally Pipp at first base, Benny Bengough replaced Wally Schang as the regular catcher.
Bernard Oliver Bengough was born on July 27, 1898, in Niagara Falls. He stood 5-foot-7 and went from studying for the priesthood to warming the pines for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. His mother proactively contacted manager Patsy Donovan and belittled the skipper for not playing her son. Taking the advice of Mrs. Bengough, Donovan penciled Benny in, and the young backstop hit well enough to secure the regular spot. Promoted to the Yankees in 1923, Benny quickly demonstrated a strong throwing arm and fine defensive skills. He further impressed Huggins with aggressive leadership, skillfully taking charge and directing veteran pitchers Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, and Joe Bush.
Benny hit a workmanlike .258 in 1925 as the regular receiver. Schang assumed the back-up role and subsequently was dealt to the St. Louis Browns prior to the 1926 season. Regrettably, the move proved to be a rare mistake on the part of Huggins. Schang would outhit his Yankees replacements in each of the next three seasons, posting averages of .330, .318 and .286.[fn]Harry Grayson, “He Played the Game.” The Bismarck Tribune, June 28, 1943.[/fn]
The Yankees supplemented their receiving corps with 5-foot-9, 178-pound Pat Collins from the St. Louis Browns. Tharon Patrick Collins was born in Sweet Springs, Missouri, on September 13, 1896. He debuted professionally in 1917 with the Joplin Miners of the Western League, later earning a promotion to the major league St. Louis Browns, where he primarily served as a backup to Hank Severeid. The Browns waived Collins to the AA St. Paul Saints in 1925, where he hit .316 in 132 games. He was traded to the Yankees on August 30, 1925 in exchange for $25,000 and player Pee Wee Wanninger. Had the Yankees noticed and claimed Collins off the waiver list, he would’ve been available at the bargain price of $4,000.[fn]Lyle Spatz, Yankees Coming, Yankees Going (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999).[/fn] Once in the fold, Collins was considered a suitable backup for Bengough, who by now was one of the finest defensive catchers in the league.
The 1926 club sported a rebuilt look, including talented rookies Tony Lazzeri and Mark Koenig. During spring training, Bengough’s playing time was limited by a sore arm, providing Collins the opportunity to take on more duties. The increased workload eventually took its toll on Pat, who developed a sore elbow during the season. Bengough improved, but with essentially two lame-arm catchers—and the club surprisingly in the thick of a pennant race—Huggins scurried to find experienced help. Learning from his earlier mistake, Huggins studied the waiver list and found durable veteran Hank Severeid (1891–1968) available from Washington. An Iowa native, the six-foot, 175-pound Severeid had been one of the top offensive and defensive catchers in the American League during his tenure with the St. Louis Browns. An “old-school” style catcher, Hank was adept at guiding pitchers through difficult situations. Plucked off the waiver list on July 22, 1926, Severeid immediately shouldered the majority of the catching duties, making every start until August 11. After that Bengough returned to the lineup on August 29 and Severied, Bengough, and Collins split the catching duties.
The plan worked until disaster struck on September 18, via a pitch served up by Cleveland right-hander George Uhle. Uhle developed a trick pitch seldom seen in the 1920s—today it’s called a slider. This unorthodox offering resulted in a league-leading 13 hit batsmen in 1926. The pitch broke Benny’s right wrist. Bengough described the incident: “I put my arm up to protect myself. [The ball] hit my arm and poked the bone right through and hit my forehead.”[fn]The Emporia (Kansas) Daily Gazette, September 9, 1925.[/fn] Benny was lost for the balance of the season; he was hitting .381 at the time and would never be the same ballplayer. For the balance of the season, Severeid shared catching duties with a still-not-100-percent Collins. Although going 25–29 down the stretch, the Yankees hung on to capture the 1926 flag. New York ultimately lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, with Severeid catching all seven games.
As the fall of 1926 turned to winter, Huggins knew he had a major problem behind the plate. An exhaustive search for help culminated on January 13, 1927, when the Yankees acquired John Grabowski and left-handed hitting utility infielder Ray Morehart from the Chicago White Sox for second baseman Aaron Ward. To make room for Grabowski, the Yanks released Severeid, ending his major league career. Hank’s lifetime .289 mark ranks him high among catchers of the era.
Speculation about the 1927 season started before spring training. Even though the Yankees were defending American League champs, scribes seriously doubted the club had enough depth to repeat. Although the team would be led by six future Hall of Famers (Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Combs, Hoyt, and Pennock), the Yankees weren’t considered shoo-in contenders. Early predictions had Philadelphia, Washington, and Cleveland vying for the flag. “In a preseason poll of 42 baseball experts, only nine picked the Yankees to repeat as American League Champions.”[fn]Fred Gluckstein, The ’27 Yankees (Bloomington Indiana: Xlibris Corp, 2005).[/fn]
Some cited the team’s “lack of depth” as the weakness. As Harvey Frommer writes, “A chess master, Huggins always found depth.”9 In light of Bengough’s sore arm, Huggins decided that he would have to catch Pat Collins one day and Grabowski the next, rotating them as much as possible throughout the season. Neither ever worked two days in a row except for illness, injury, or doubleheaders. The three right-handed hitters deftly handled the catching chores and combined to hit a respectable .271, with 7 home runs and 71 runs batted in.
The Yankees won on Opening Day, with the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Johnny Grabowski behind the plate. John was born in Ware, Massachusetts, on January 7, 1900. He started his professional career in the Western League with the St. Joseph Saints in 1922, hitting .289 in 100 games. Switching to the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association, the strong-armed Grabowski hit .316 in 1923 and .319 in 1924. Obtained by the Chicago White Sox, he settled in as Ray Schalk’s backup before the trade to New York. Huggins commented that Grabowski, “has been a lifesaver to this team, what with Benny Bengough’s arm not being so good and Pat Collins continuing to harbor the delusion he can’t throw to second. He handles his pitchers well. He has a good arm and an accurate throw. The Yankees got something valuable when they got him.”[fn]Harvey Frommer, Five O’Clock Lightning (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007).[/fn]
The 1927 Yankees went on to dominate the league, finishing a full 19 games ahead of the second-place Philadelphia A’s, before sweeping the Pirates in the Series. Using the same formula that proved successful during the season, Huggins opened the World Series with Collins, used Bengough in the second game, switched to Grabowski in the third, and repeated Collins in the fourth and final contest. All three catchers wore the collar in the first three games; Collins went 3-for-3 in the final, providing the only offense from the receiving corps.
A mere two days after New York swept the Pirates to win the 1927 World Series, speculation started: “For any number of good reasons the Yankees of 1927 should be ranked with the great teams of all time.”[fn]John Mosedale, The Greatest of All: The 1927 New York Yankees (New York: Warner, 1975).[/fn] After all, the club jumped into first place on Opening Day and held the lead all season—finishing 110-44, a .714 winning percentage—to secure the AL flag by 19 games.
The 1927 trio of catchers were retained for 1928. This time, Grabowski saw most of the action, followed by Bengough and Collins. As reported in the New York American: “Grabowski thrives on more work behind the plate. Collins works better when not asked to do all the work.” Collins had a strong but erratic throwing arm; he also had difficulty fielding pop-ups behind the plate.[fn]John Kiernan, “Sports of the Times,” The New York Times, October 10, 1927.[/fn]His hitting tailed off significantly, posting a season average of only .221. The Yankees again capped the flag, finishing two and a half games ahead of the hard-charging Philadelphia A’s. Bengough caught all four games as the Yankees swept the St.Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Collins was the first of the 1927–28 triumvirate to depart New York. Pat became expendable when the highly touted Bill Dickey moved up to the parent club late in 1928, allowing the sale of Pat to the Boston Braves. Ultimately, Collins would drift back to the minor leagues before retiring in 1932. He succumbed to heart failure in Kansas City, Missouri, on May 20, 1960, at the age of 63.
In the case of Louisiana native Bill Dickey (1907–1993), luck was better than hard work when it came to making him a Yankee. Playing for Jackson in the Cotton States League, it was generally assumed he was the property of the White Sox, since Chicago had a working agreement with the club. After a little detective work, the Yankees discovered the Jackson Senators owned Dickey’s contract outright; the team waived their rights and he was quickly purchased by New York.
In 1929 the highly-touted Dickey stepped right into the starting slot, catching 127 games and hitting a solid .324. Early on, Huggins influenced the talented youngster by advising Dickey to “stop unbuttoning your shirt on every pitch.” He told him, “We pay a player here for hitting home runs and that’s Babe Ruth, so choke up and drill the ball, that way you’ll be around here longer.”[fn]John Mosedale, The Greatest of All: The 1927 New York Yankees (New York: Warner, 1975).[/fn] Huggins knew talent and in Dickey he saw the makings of a first-rate receiver to complement the star-studded lineup that had won three consecutive pennants and two World Series.
Huggins desperately wanted to win a fourth consecutive American League flag, but despite the addition of Dickey, the 1929 club didn’t have the spark. Although he tried hard to motivate the team, the Bombers were in a tailspin and motivation by Huggins failed to ignite the club. The mounting stress took its toll on the diminutive manager. Huggins was run-down, didn’t eat properly, or get sufficient rest. A growing sore on his left cheek caused concern. His deteriorating condition led to a hospital stay, where it was determined he was suffering from Erysipelas Sepsis, a form of blood poisoning.[fn]“Bill Dickey,” Joseph Wancho, SABR BioProject.[/fn] On September 25, 1929, the players were at Fenway Park in the midst of a game against the Red Sox when they received the news about the untimely passing of their manager. Though they rallied for a win in extra innings that day, the disheartened club would ultimately finish in second place, a full 18 games behind an extremely talented Philadelphia Athletics team.
Dickey’s emergence made Johnny Grabowski expendable; he was shipped to the American Association St. Paul Saints in 1930.[fn]Mark Gallagher, The Yankee Encyclopedia (New York: Leisure Press, 1982).[/fn] He returned to the AL as a backup with the Detroit Tigers in 1931 before being sent to the IL Montreal Royals for 1932 and 1933. Upon retiring as an active player, Grabowski became a minor league umpire in the Canadian-American League in 1936, Eastern League 1938–39, and the IL 1940–41. After baseball, Johnny worked as a toolmaker in Schenectady. Sadly, he passed away on May 23, 1946, at the age of 46, after suffering burns in a fire that destroyed his family residence.[fn] The New York Times, May 24, 1946.[/fn]
Benny Bengough was relegated to backing up Bill Dickey until he left the Yankees after the 1930 season. Moving on to the St. Louis Browns, he eventually became a minor-league player-manager, before embarking on a long coaching career with the Browns, Nationals, Red Sox, and Phillies. Benny left the Washington coaching staff in 1943, picking up offseason work at a war plant in Indiana and ironically being replaced by George Uhle.
As a member of the Philadelphia Phillies public relations staff, Benny addressed a B’nai B’rith chapter in suburban Philadelphia on Sunday morning December 22, 1968. After the presentation, he walked across the street and attended Mass at Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church. After Mass, Benny collapsed on the church steps and died of a heart attack; he was 70 years old.[fn] The New York Times, December 23, 1968.[/fn]
Bill Dickey bridged the end of the Huggins era to become an integral part of the 1932 championship team. He continued as the mainstay behind the plate during the 1936–39 dynasty managed by Joe McCarthy. Offensively and defensively, Dickey would prove to be the most dominant catcher in the league right up until WWII. A big man at 6-foot-1, Dickey led league catchers four years in fielding average, while guiding pitchers with his extensive knowledge of opposing hitters. Dickey would also help build a future Yankees dynasty by assuming the responsibility of teaching a young Lawrence Peter Berra the necessary skills to become a formidable major-league catcher. A lifetime .313 hitter, Dickey was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954.
Under the leadership of Huggins, the Yankees blossomed into a championship team. As a testament to his memory, a monument honoring the late Yankees skipper was placed in center field and dedicated on May 30, 1932. Miller Huggins became the first in a long line of Yankees greats honored in what became Monument Park.[fn]Mark Gallagher, The Yankee Encyclopedia (New York: Leisure Press, 1982).[/fn]
Throughout the Huggins era, Col. Ruppert kept his word and provided his manager with high caliber players at nearly every position. The notable exception was staffing behind the plate, where Huggins deftly utilized a patchwork of mostly journeyman catchers on very successful teams. His accomplishments ultimately earned him Hall of Fame honors in 1964.
CORT VITTY is a native of New Jersey and a graduate of Seton Hall University. A lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, Vitty has been a SABR member (Bob Davids Chapter) since 1999. Vitty’s work has appeared in “The National Pastime,” “Go-Go to Glory: The 1959 White Sox,” and “Bridging Two Dynasties: The 1947 New York Yankees.” His web articles are posted at PhiladelphiaAthletics.org and Seamheads.com. Vitty has authored SABR biographies of Buzz Arlett, Lu Blue, Mickey Grasso, Goose Goslin, Billy Johnson, Babe Phelps, Dave Philley, and Harry “Suitcase” Simpson. He resides in Maryland with his wife Mary Anne.