Classic Yankees: Bill Dickey

Is it possible for someone who is a Hall of Famer and who has his number retired by the team he labored for to be overlooked and underrated?

It may be, if that individual was overshadowed by more flamboyant teammates such as Babe Ruth. Or if that individual had teammates like Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in addition to Ruth.

It may be, if that individual’s retired number was also the retired number of Yogi Berra, someone who is one of the most recognized and beloved individuals of at least one generation, maybe two.

It may be, if that person spent his career behind a mask, and who was as quiet and steady as could be.

I often wonder how many people recognize no. 8 as retired for Yogi, but forget about the other no. 8, Bill Dickey.

Dickey, quite simply, was one of the greatest catchers ever. Not only that, he tutored Yogi.

When you hear of the greatest Yankees ever, the names of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle obviously come up. You hear of Reggie and Thurman, of Jeter and Mo. You hear of Yogi.

How often do you hear of William Malcolm Dickey?

Bill Dickey came up to the Yankees at the age of 21 in 1928. In ten games, he went 3 for 15.

From 1929-1941, he played in at least 100 games a year. In 1942 and 1943, he didn’t play in 100 games, but his leadership was important in that wartime era. He even managed the Yanks for a short time in 1946.

In 1929, Dickey hit .324-10-65 in his first full season in the majors. OPS+ 117. Surely not bad for someone who turned 22 in June of that year.

1930 saw .339-5-65, OPS+ 120. 1931 saw .327-6-78, OPS+ 119.

As the 1930s went on, Dickey became best friends with Lou Gehrig. After Gehrig’s illness, Dickey went to great lengths to help Gehrig, and was one of the first to recognize the seriousness of Gehrig’s illness and one of the last to see Gehrig alive. Dickey played himself in The Pride of the Yankees.

Dickey had a strong competitive nature. In a famous incident, Dickey in 1932 took offense at Carl Reynolds of Washington after a hard slide and collision at home plate, and broke Reynolds’ jaw with one punch. Dickey got a 30-day suspension and a $1000 fine.

Dickey still hit .310-15-84 in that 1932 season despite missing a month. OPS+ 120, 14th in MVP voting. He was 7 for 16, 4 RBI in the World Series. In 1933, Dickey hit .318-14-97 with an OPS+ of 134. He was an All-Star and finished 12th in the MVP voting. 1934 and .322-12-72, OPS+ 131 and an All-Star. 1935 saw .279-14-81, OPS+ 109.

From 1936-1939, when the Yankees won four consecutive WS championships, Dickey was at the top of his game. In 1936, Dickey hit .362-22-107, OPS+ 158. Once again, he was All-Star and this time he finished 5th in the MVP voting. Dickey’s B.A. of .362 stood as the MLB record for catchers until Joe Mauer of the Twins hit .365 in 2009 (In 1997, Mike Piazza hit .362 for the Dodgers, but Dickey’s .362 was a sliver higher than Piazza’s). Dickey went 3 for 25, 1 HR, and 5 rbi in the WS that year. In 1937, Dickey hit .332-29-133, OPS+ 144. Once again an AS, and once again 5th in the MVP voting. 4 for 19, 3 RBI in the WS. 1938 and another WS title. Dickey went .313-27-115, OPS+ 143, AS, and 2nd in the MVP voting behind Jimmie Foxx. In the WS, 6 for 15, HR, 2 RBI. In 1939, Dickey hit .302-24-105, OPS+ 133, AS, 6th in MVP voting. It was his last great year at the age of 32. The Yanks won their fourth straight title, and Dickey was 4 for 15, 2 HR, 5 rbi in the WS.

In 1940, Dickey started to see less playing time. He hit .247-9-54, OPS+ 82. He was still an All-Star, but the declined production led some to think that Gehrig’s illness was contagious and had spread to the team. Dickey, among others, won a lawsuit against that kind of misinformation. Although his playing time had diminished, Dickey had a great 1941, .284-7-71, OPS+ 109, AS, MVP 13th. 3 for 18, 1 RBI in the WS. 1942 brought a pennant, but a WS loss. Dickey was .295-2-37 that year. OPS+ 108, WS, 17th in MVP voting. 5 for 19 in the WS.

In 1943 Dickey played on his seventh and last WS winner (not counting his brief 1928 stint), and his eighth pennant-winner (also not counting 1928). Despite limited time, he played wonderfully at the age of 36 since most stars were off fighting the war. Dickey went .351-4-33 in 85 games and had an OPS+ of 173. He was an All-Star and finished 8th in the MVP balloting. He went 5 for 18, 1 HR, 4 rbi in the WS.

Dickey missed all of 1944 and 1945 due to military service. He came back in 1946 to post a .261-2-10, OPS+ 101. Not only did Dickey turn 39, but he had new obligations.

In May 1946, Joe McCarthy resigned as Yankees manager. Dickey took over, and went 57-48. He didn’t like the job, and Johnny Neun took over for Dickey late in 1946. The Yanks finished 3rd.

For his career, Dickey hit .313 with 202 HR. His OPS+ was a 127. While DiMaggio’s power stats were hurt by Yankee Stadium, Dickey’s were enhanced. 135 of his 202 HR were hit at Yankee Stadium.
Dickey’s postseason marks were .255-5-24 in 38 WS games.

Dickey came back as a coach in 1949 and stayed through 1960, all under Stengel. As such, he tutored Yogi Berra and turned an unpolished ballplayer into a gem. As Yogi stated in his strange way, “Mr. Dickey is learning me all his experiences.”

Dickey wore #10 in 1929, #8 thereafter. In 1972, the number 8 was retired for both Dickey and Berra. As a coach, Dickey wore #33 while Yogi had #8.

It was said that Dickey was an excellent dancer. His excellent feet helped him in moving his feet to throw out runners trying to steal second and also in getting out from behind the plate to field bunts. He could sure call a game. One famous story has Dickey meeting someone at a banquet. He could not remember the player’s name, but said “I don’t recall your name but you sure were a sucker for a high inside curve.”

Dickey’s younger brother George played in 226 MLB games in his own right. Bill Dickey was inducted into the HOF in 1954. He died in 1993 at the age of 86.

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