The position of catcher is not a glamorous one. It is, arguably, the most underappreciated position in all of sports. The catcher is the quarterback of his team yet, unlike in football, he is rarely afforded similar adulation.
The stereotype associated with the position is not complimentary either. When many people think of a prototypical catcher, they think of a rather non-athletic player. In fact, in Little League, the prevailing thought during my youth was to often place the slow, heavyset kid there. As youngsters, we didn't know why, it was just the way it was.
Yes, there are some MLB catchers who fit that description, at least in the looks department, but the irony is that most of the great ones were built nothing like that. Many of them were very athletic, nimble guys. Don't get me wrong, most catchers would never be mistaken for Rickey Henderson on the bases, but many of them are athletic.
Every game, the catcher must make well over 100 decisions in the form of calling pitches, setting up defensive plays and directing traffic. The position can be as mentally grueling as it is physically draining but that aspect of the game goes largely unnoticed by the fans, as does blocking pitches in the dirt, which often prevents a run from scoring with a runner on third base.
Constantly dealing with bumps, bruises and pain from all of the hazards associated with the role, the catcher is NEVER 100% healthy yet, he understands it comes with the territory and must continue to perform.
As a former college catcher myself, I know this all too well. Before I made the transition to catcher, I too had very little appreciation for those donned the tools of ignorance. I learned, very quickly, just how challenging the position was but it was that challenge that made playing behind the plate so easy to love... at least for me.
Since my appreciation for the position grew as a player, so did it as a collector. The position became the core of my collection. I began to focus on the greatest players to ever put on the gear.
Like any position in any sport, debates will rage on about who ranks at the top of the list. I am a firm believer that it is virtually impossible to accurately compare athletes from different eras. For example, how do you begin to compare Deacon White to Lance Parrish or Ray Schalk to Ted Simmons? That said; it certainly is fun to make their cases.
In the following article, I rank the top 12 catchers in baseball history and discuss their most desirable collectibles. I used a variety of criteria including, but not limited to, defensive prowess, throwing arm, offensive prowess, leadership, durability and team success. How good were they are their best? How long did each catcher sustain their level of excellence? Finally, context is very important, especially as it relates to the era each catcher played in. Numbers are great, because they don't lie, but they are also relative.
I also want to address the issue of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Two men on this list have been "linked" to substances like steroids and human growth hormone (HGH), Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, but – to be fair and accurate – neither one has tested positive or ever been disciplined by MLB. That said, if they did use, there is no question that it would have helped them achieve some of the success, especially their strong offensive numbers. The bottom line is - I don't know - so I am assembling this list with the assumption that they did not use.
There are several great catchers that didn't even make the list like Elston Howard, a 9-time All-Star and 1963 American League MVP, Bill Freehan, an 11-time All-Star and 5-time Gold Glove winner, and Joe Torre, arguably one of the best catchers in the National League during the 1960s. In addition, I didn't automatically place catchers who are current Hall of Famers on the list like Roger Bresnahan, Rick Ferrell and Buck Ewing, a man that was quite possibly the greatest player of the 19th century.
As we all know, there are some players in the Hall of Fame who simply don't measure up statistically to some who are not enshrined. As the saying goes, it is what it is.
Let's take a look at The Dirty Dozen.
Lombardi, an imposing figure during his day at 6'3, 230-plus pounds, was a key figure on the Cincinnati Reds during the 1930s and early-1940s. In fact, the 1938 NL MVP was named to 8 All-Star teams during his career, including five consecutive from 1936-1940. Lombardi also helped the Reds win a World Series title in 1940.
Despite being considered one of the slowest men is baseball, Lombardi was an outstanding hitter, twice leading the league in 1938 (.342) and 1942 (.330), finishing his career with a .306 average. He also had good power, launching 190 career home runs and slugging .460. In 1986, Lombardi was elected to the Hall of Fame. Known as a gentle giant and affectionately called Schnozz for his rather prodigious nose, Lombardi was very popular amongst Reds fans.
As for his collectibles, Lombardi's 1934 Goudey #35 might be his most popular card but his 1934-36 Diamond Star #105 may be his most important. As part of the very difficult high-number run (#s 97-108), this Lombardi card is one of the keys to the colorful set and very tough to locate in high grade. PSA NM-MT 8 examples, when found, sell for around $2,500-$3,000.
Lombardi's autograph, while not very scarce (he died in 1977), is highly desirable on single-signed baseballs. Most signed items, such as photos, can be obtained for under $250; but don't be surprised if a high-grade Lombardi ball costs you $2,000-$3,000 or more.
In addition, Lombardi game-used equipment is incredibly scarce. In fact, there are only a handful Lombardi professional model bats known at this time. Lombardi would occasionally enhance the grip on his bats by adding a spiral taping pattern, with slight gaps in between the tape, starting at the base of the handle.
The fiery Posada, a member of New York's Core Four along with Derek Jeter, Andy Petitte and Mariano Rivera, is often overlooked as a result of playing alongside so many stars. This five-time All-Star has posted one of the highest career OPS ratings (on-base average + slugging average) for a catcher in the history of the game (about .848). Posada is still playing as a DH in 2011 and currently has 275 career home runs, 379 doubles and 1,065 RBI in addition to a .273 career average.
Consider this: Posada didn't become the full-time, starting catcher for the Yankees until he was 28 years old. Joe Mauer, a catcher that many people believe is an elite backstop, is already showing signs of breaking down during the last two seasons and he is the same age right now (28) as Posada was when he started getting 500 or more player appearances per year. From 2000-2010, no catcher had more home runs and RBI than Posada – not even Mauer.
Posada, a key member of a team that has reached the playoffs every year except one (2008) since 1997, has a few key collectibles. Posada's most popular rookie card is, arguably, his 1994 Bowman's Best #29, which can be acquired in PSA Gem Mint 10 for around $70. This is very reasonable considering he has an excellent shot at the HOF.
As a member of the Yankees, Posada has signed numerous autographs for Steiner Sports, a company that obtains autographs and memorabilia direct from the team. This also includes game-used equipment. In fact, well-used Posada bats are very popular due to their eye appeal and gamers sell for around $400 or higher. Posada, arguably the greatest switch-hitting catcher of all time, is known for using heavy amounts of pine tar on the upper handle along with a criss-cross taping method to enhance the grip, which gives well-used Posada gamers the appearance of a war club.
When Carter became eligible for the HOF, he didn't get in right away. In fact, it took six years. It was perplexing because Carlton Fisk, a fellow HOF catcher, was inducted in his second year of eligibility and Carter's career numbers were nearly identical to Fisk's. This 11-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner ended his career with a .262 batting average, 324 home runs and 1,225 RBI.
Carter, who was named MVP of the All-Star Game twice (1981 and 1984), was inducted into the HOF in 2003. Despite winning a World Series title with the New York Mets in 1986 and having some of his biggest years in The Big Apple, including three consecutive seasons of 100 or more RBI, Carter decided to enter the HOF as a member of the Montreal Expos. This was the team he started with and played most of his career for.
Carter's 1975 Topps rookie (#620) is, by far, his most popular and important card. The colored borders make this card fairly tough to locate in PSA Mint 9 or better condition for a modern-era issue. PSA 9 examples sell for about $150-$175 each. When it comes to autographs, Carter has always been a gracious signer. Single-signed baseballs can be acquired in the $50-$75 range.
Carter game-used bats can be obtained in the $400 and up range. Carter, one of the better offensive catchers in baseball history, would occasionally tape the handles of his bats near the beginning of his career. Carter gamers from the 1970s are much tougher to find than ones used during the 1980s to the end of his career. As a general rule, Carter game-used equipment from his Mets days in the mid-to-late 1980s is considered the most desirable.
Fisk's game-winning 1975 World Series home run in Game 6 is one of the greatest moments in baseball history and the images from that moment are forever etched into sports lore. That said; Fisk was much more than one glorious moment. This 11-time All-Star won his lone Gold Glove in 1972 as a rookie for the Boston Red Sox. After hitting .293 with 22 home runs and a league-leading 9 triples (hard to believe, I know), Fisk was named the 1972 AL Rookie of the Year (ROY).
Besides the 12th-inning, arm-waving home run in 1975, Fisk is known for two things, his durability and competitive spirit. He played for 24 years, a record for a catcher, and had a special presence on the field that was noticeable from his first full season in 1972. Fisk also spoke his mind. Who can forget Fisk yelling at Deion Sanders, on the opposing team, for not running out a fly ball? Fisk believed in playing the game right and finished with a .269 batting average, 376 home runs and 1,330 RBI.
Fisk's 1972 Topps rookie card (#79) is one of the keys to the set and his most popular card. PSA 9 examples sell for around $400-$450 each and are fairly hard to find for a modern-era card due to centering issues. When it comes to autographs, Fisk has been an active and accommodating signer. Single-signed baseballs run about $50-$75.
Fisk game-used equipment is also desirable with Boston-period items selling for premium over Chicago White Sox equipment. Fisk was known to use Adirondack, Louisville Slugger and Worth bats during his career. Despite playing for almost the entire decade, 1970s gamers are much tougher to locate than those from the 1980s to the end of his career. Fisk was known, at times, for placing a circle around the edge of the knob with his uniform number within.
Hartnett was considered the best catcher in the National League history until Johnny Bench came along. Nonetheless, he is still regarded as one of the best all-around catchers to ever play. Hartnett, the 1935 NL MVP, was named to six All-Star teams (1933-1938) during his career. He also led the Chicago Cubs to four World Series, although they never won the title. Harnett was inducted into the HOF in 1955.
Possessing one of the game's strongest arms, Hartnett was excellent at throwing out runners attempting to steal. Hartnett was also great at the plate as well, finishing his career with a .297 batting average, 236 home runs and 1,179 RBI. He also slugged .489 for his career. While he won the MVP in 1935, Hartnett's greatest season may have been 1930, when he hit .339 with 37 home runs and 122 RBI.
As a player-manager, Hartnett experienced the most memorable moment of his career. In 1938, during a hotly-contested battle for the pennant, the Cubs faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in a 3-game series at Wrigley Field. After winning game one, the Cubs and Pirates were tied at five in the bottom of the ninth inning in game two. Before the inning started, the umpires let it be known that this was the last inning to be played and, if a winner wasn't decided, they would have to play the game over in its entirety the next day.
With two outs in the bottom of the inning, the count 0-2 and virtually zero daylight left (remember... there were no lights back then), Hartnett crushed the next pitch into the left-centerfield bleachers to win the game and put the Cubs ahead of the Pirates for good in the pennant chase. It became known as The Homer in the Gloamin'.
Hartnett is featured in a few key issues but his most popular card is, arguably, the 1933 Goudey #202. This card sells for around $1,500 in PSA 8 and is tough to locate in high grade. As a result of being a Hall of Famer and a Chicago Cub legend, Hartnett's autograph is quite valuable. A single-signed baseball would cost you about $2,000 or more if found in nice shape.
Hartnett game-used equipment is virtually impossible to find. In fact, there are fewer than six professional model bats known at this time.
Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 amateur draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers and is certainly considered one of the greatest late-round picks to ever play baseball or any other sport for that matter. Possessing freakish power to the opposite field, Piazza became the greatest offensive catcher in MLB history. Piazza finished with a .308 career batting average, 427 total home runs (a record 396 as a catcher) and 1,335 RBI.
This 12-time All-Star was often criticized for his defense, which I find largely unfair. The importance of defense at the catching position is so important that, no matter how good a player is offensively, if they are not at least adequate behind the plate... the team will find a new position for them. Piazza may have not been great defensively but he was, at minimum, adequate.
Piazza, like most of the men of this list, was also intense and durable. The 1993 NL ROY was at his best in 1997 when he hit .362 (the highest single-season batting average for a National League catcher in history) with 40 home runs and 124 RBI. Piazza's career slugging average of .545 and OPS of .922 are the best ever for a backstop.
Piazza's most popular card is his 1992 Fleer Update #92 rookie. This card can be obtained for around $100 in PSA 10. In context, Piazza is a fairly tough autograph by modern-era standards. Single-signed baseballs sell in the $75-$100 range and signed, game-used bats are very desirable. Speaking of professional model bats, Piazza's bat brand of choice was Mizuno for most of his career.
If I had to pick the most underrated catcher on this list, it might just be this man. Dickey was one of the best ever, just as good offensively as he was defensively, and he was also considered one of the most intelligent players in the game. In fact, Dickey had such a deep understanding of the craft that the Yankees brought him back for the sole purpose of mentoring Yogi Berra in the late-1940s.
This 11-time All-Star won 8 World Series championships as a player, all with the New York Yankees. In addition to finishing his career with a .313 batting average, Dickey slammed 202 home runs and drove in 1,209 runs. His best stretch was from 1936-1939 when Dickey had four consecutive seasons of 20 or more homers and 100 or more RBI. His career-high in batting was .362 in 1936 and, for RBI, it was 133 in 1937. Dickey was also known for being a fantastic handler of pitchers.
Bill Dickey was a part of several key sets during and after his playing days including, but not limited to, 1932 U.S. Caramel (#6), 1933 Goudey (#19), 1941 Play Ball (#70) and 1952 Topps (#400). Dickey's most important card may be, however, his 1934-36 Diamond Star #103. Part of the extremely tough high-number series, the high-number Dickey card (there is also a #11 Dickey card) is the second most valuable card in the set behind the #1 card of Lefty Grove.
Dickey signed for a long period of time, living through the hobby boom of the 1980s (he died in 1993 at the age of 86). As a result, Dickey autographs can be obtained for a relatively reasonable price. Single-signed baseballs will cost you around $250 or so, which is fairly inexpensive for a player of that magnitude and era. Like other catchers from the 1920s to 1940s era, Dickey game-used bats are very scarce and carry a hefty price tag. The last Dickey gamer sold at auction for $19,278 in 2007.
If there were ever a player that looked like a stereotypical catcher, Campanella would be the man. The barrel-chested, stocky backstop was the NL's answer to Yogi Berra during the 1940s and 1950s. This 8-time All-Star and member of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers had his career cut short on both ends. Campanella started his MLB career late after playing many years in the Negro Leagues and had it end early with a tragic auto accident, which left him paralyzed in 1958.
Despite his limited time in the big leagues, Campanella did plenty of damage. Winner of three NL MVPs (1951, 1953 and 1955), Campanella put up outstanding numbers in a short period of time (1948-1957). He finished his career with a .276 batting average, 242 home runs and a slugging average of .500. Campanella's finest individual season came in 1953 when he hit .312 with 41 home runs and 142 RBI.
Campanella, one of the most likable players in baseball history, has several key cards to choose from. They include his 1949 Bowman rookie (#84), 1953 Bowman Color (#46) and perhaps his toughest card, the 1954 Wilson Franks issue. His most popular card, however, might be his 1952 Topps #314. With its striking yellow background, it is one of the most eye-appealing cards in the set. This card usually sells for about $4,000-$5,000 in PSA 8.
Due to his debilitating accident, autographs from Campanella's playing days are in far greater demand than those signed post accident. Don't be surprised if high-quality single-signed baseballs cost north of $5,000 and photos in the $1,500-$2,000 range or more. Campanella autographs from after his playing days sell for a considerable discount due to the higher population and lack of eye appeal.
All Campanella game-used equipment is considered scarce with only a handful of jerseys known and a relatively low number of bats for players of the era. In fact, a 1954 home jersey sold for $92,000 in 2004 and a PSA/DNA GU 9 Campanella bat sold for $21,330 in 2010.
Cochrane is another example of a catcher whose career was cut short by tragedy. On May 25, 1937, Cochrane was struck in the head by a pitch from Bump Hadley of the Yankees and it nearly killed him. The ultra-competitive Cochrane tried to return but it obvious that he was not the same man, so he was forced to retire at only 34 years old. Before then, Cochrane clearly established himself as a premier catcher and, ultimately, he was inducted into the HOF in 1947.
Cochrane, the leader of Connie Mack's legendary Philadelphia Athletics from 1925-1933, won back-to-back World Series titles in 1929/1930 and then added another one as a player/manager of the Detroit Tigers in 1935. This two-time AL MVP (1928 and 1934) finished his career with a .320 batting average and an OPS of .897, second only to Mike Piazza. Cochrane's career OBP of .419 is the highest ever for a catcher. His career-highs for batting (.357), home runs (23), runs scored (118) and RBI (112) were all reached with the A's.
Cochrane was featured in several key sets during his playing days such as the 1932 U.S. Caramel (#12), 1933 Delong (36), 1933 Goudey (#76) and 1934-36 Diamond Star (#9) issues but his most desirable card is, perhaps, the colorful 1934 Goudey #2 card. Following his teammate Jimmie Foxx (#1), the Cochrane card is challenging to find in high grade, with PSA 8 copies selling for approximately $2,000 or more.
Having died in 1962, Cochrane autographs are tougher than most on the list and very desirable. Single-signed baseballs, in nice condition, will cost you about $2,500-$3,500 or more and photos usually sell in the $600-$800 range. In addition to his performance, as a member of the storied A's clubs of the 1920s and 30s, Cochrane's appeal is strong with autograph collectors.
Like Hartnett and Lombardi, professional model Cochrane bats are extremely rare. In fact, there are only a handful of authentic examples known at this time.
Rodriguez looks like one of those guys who was born to be a catcher and, judging by his illustrious career, he was. The numbers are quite remarkable. This future Hall of Famer earned 13 Gold Gloves (a record for catchers) and has been named to 14 All-Star teams, during his still-active career. Currently, Rodriguez has a career batting average of .296, 311 home runs and 1,332 RBI.
His greatest individual season came in 1999, a year he was named AL MVP. Rodriguez hit .332 with 35 homers, 113 RBI, 116 runs scored and he even stole 25 bases. With the exception of batting average, the figures were all career-highs for Rodriguez. In 2003, as a member of the Florida Marlins, Rodriguez helped lead them to a World Series title with a strong postseason performance.
That year, Rodriguez had a very strong NLDS and NLCS. He hit .353 in the NLDS and .321 in the NLCS, which helped earn him NLCS MVP honors. He followed with a solid World Series. He drove in 17 runs in 17 games that postseason and was excellent defensively as well, which resulted in his lone World Series ring.
Considering his place amongst the greatest catchers, Rodriguez collectibles are relatively affordable. Never playing long for a big market team, Rodriguez's accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed. His most popular rookie card is, arguably, either his 1991 Bowman #272 or his 1991 Ultra Update #58 issue. Both cards can be obtained in PSA Gem Mint 10 for around $30-$40.
When it comes to memorabilia, Rodriguez has produced a good quantity of authentic items through different companies over the years. This includes everything from autographs to game-used equipment. Single-signed baseballs usually run about $60-$75 and game-used bats start around $250. Keep in mind that Rodriguez has used several different bat brands during his career.
My runner-up for the top spot on the list is a man that won more World Series championships (10) than any player in baseball history. In other words, this Yankee legend has a ring for every finger and twice as many as Derek Jeter, which is remarkable. Berra was so loved for his personality and so underestimated based on his physical appearance (he stood a mere 5'7") that many people overlooked Berra as a player.
So, how good was he? Berra won three AL MVPs (1951, 1954 and 1955), which is the most of any catcher in history (tied with Campanella). Ironically, his best individual season may have been 1950 (a non-MVP year) when he hit .322 with 28 homers and 124 RBI. Berra finished his career with a .285 batting average, 358 home runs and 1,430 RBI. Berra had five 100-RBI seasons and 9 with 90 or more RBI. A 15-time All-Star, Berra was inducted into the HOF in 1972.
When you look at all of his accomplishments, it is hard to believe that Berra is more known for his famous and quotes like "It ain't over till it's over" than his performance. It seems as if almost everything about Berra is a study in contrast. Berra was known to be a wild swinger at the plate, a great bad-ball hitter. That said; he rarely struck out. In fact, Berra had five seasons where he had more home runs than strikeouts. In addition, Berra never attended high school and was known for his numerous, nonsensical quotes. On the other hand, Berra was praised for his baseball intelligence on the field.
As a result of his overwhelming popularity, Berra collectibles are seemingly always in demand. Berra can be found in countless key card issues such as 1948 Bowman (#6 - rookie), 1952 Bowman (#1), 1953 Bowman (#121) and 1953 Topps (#104) but his most important card just might be his 1952 Topps #191, which is challenging in PSA 8 or better. Copies found at that grade level will cost the collector about $5,500-$6,000.
Since Berra has signed a large number of autographs during his lifetime, primarily through a family-owned company called LTD Enterprises, his autograph can be obtained for shockingly little money. Single-signed baseballs can be acquired for only $50 or so. On the other hand, Berra game-used equipment is highly sought after and can be pricey. For example, the jersey Berra wore during Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956 sold for $564,930 in 2010 and a 1951 All-Star bat sold for $32,312 in 2011.
Bench, a man who always seemed to rise to the occasion, is the catcher that most baseball historians and fans feel is the greatest in baseball history and I couldn't agree more. When you consider all of the things that Bench could do and how well he could do them, it is hard to argue that anyone was better than Bench.
Let's start with the accomplishments and accolades on paper. Bench was a 14-time All-Star, the 1968 NL ROY and a 2-time NL MVP (1970 and 1972). In that first MVP season, Bench hit .293 with 45 home runs and 148 RBI. He finished his career with a .267 batting average, 389 home runs and 1,376 RBI. Bench was inducted into the HOF in 1989.
Now, let's look at the criteria described earlier in this article and see how Bench measures up.
Defense. Simply put, Bench was the best defensive catcher in baseball during his era. He won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves (1968-1977), was very agile and had one of the strongest and most accurate throwing arms in the history of the game. Bench was also an excellent field general (in fact, his nickname was Little General) and was fantastic at handling pitchers. Defensive prowess is crucial to the position and no one was better during his prime.
Offense. Beyond the raw data, you really have to dig into the numbers to appreciate just how special Bench was at the plate. My favorite Bench statistic, offensively, is the fact that he led the decade (1970s) in RBI (1,013). Let me repeat that... no MLB player, at any position, drove in more runs during the 1970s than Bench and he was a catcher. Moreover, Bench was only six homers away from leading the decade in both home runs and RBI.
Leading the decade, as a catcher, in either category has never been done before and it hasn't been done since. In fact, I have a hard time imagining this ever being done again. This is a perfect example of why numbers, even if they are already impressive on the surface, need to be analyzed in context. To illustrate the point, Joe Mauer has been considered an offensive force at the catcher position in recent times but he didn't even lead catchers in RBI or home runs for the 2000s. That distinction went to Jorge Posada.
Team success. As the quarterback of The Big Red Machine, Bench led the Cincinnati Reds to six division titles, four NL pennants and two World Series championships, back-to-back in 1975/1976. The 1975 World Series is thought of as one of the best battles in baseball history and, in 1976, Bench earned MVP honors by hitting .533 after sweeping the Yankees. As Sparky Anderson pointed out during the 1976 World Series (after being asked to compare Thurman Munson to Bench), "I don't want to embarrass any other catcher by comparing them to Johnny Bench."
What often gets overlooked is, despite putting up fantastic numbers and having such a great career, it could have been greater. After the 1972 season, Bench underwent lung surgery after a ominous spot was discovered during a routine physical. Luckily, the spot turned out to be benign. That said, after undergoing such an invasive procedure, Bench continued to be very good, but he was never quite the same.
There are a lot of great catchers on this list and others who put on the tools of ignorance over the years but, in my opinion, Bench was the best.
The good news for collectors is, despite Bench's status as a player, most of his collectibles are relatively affordable. His most popular card is, of course, the 1968 Topps rookie #247, which can be obtained in PSA 8 for about $225 and approximately $850 in PSA 9 condition. Bench's rookie issue is not an extremely condition-sensitive card but its popularity remains strong.
Bench has signed quite a bit over the years, making many public appearances at collector conventions and participating in a number of private signings as well. As a result, Bench autographs can be purchased for a reasonable price. As an example, for about $50, you can acquire a single-signed baseball. Game-used equipment is another story. High-end Bench bats usually start around $2,500 and some regular season gamers have reached as high as $7,312 (2009) in auction.
Bench knit jerseys used between 1972 and 1983 have brought in excess of $10,000, with a 1975 example reaching $14,220 in 2010. Rare vintage flannels used prior to 1972 are another story. Like most jerseys, Bench flannels would garner a major premium versus knits but no recent sales of authentic, game-used flannel jerseys can be found, at least publicly.
I know some of the people reading this article were probably wondering why Gibson's name was not on the list. Since Gibson was never allowed to showcase his skills in the big leagues and the numbers he compiled in the Negro Leagues are in dispute due to shoddy record keeping, there is almost no way to compare this man with any of the players on this list. That said; it would be a travesty to not recognize Gibson in some manner.
Known as the Black Babe Ruth and built like Bo Jackson, Gibson was the most powerful hitter in Negro League history, playing for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1930s and 40s. If he were given the chance, Gibson would have certainly been one of the best in MLB as well. Gibson hit some of the longest home runs ever witnessed, which includes some unrivaled blasts at MLB parks like Yankee Stadium and Griffith Park.
There are claims that Gibson may have hit more than 800 home runs against various levels of competition in his day and that he hit north of .350 but what may be most telling about Gibson's talents were the eye-witness accounts from other MLB players.
"There is a catcher that any big league club would love. His name is Gibson... he can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. And he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow."
– HOF pitcher Walter Johnson
Despite never having the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, Gibson was inducted in the HOF in 1972, one year after a fellow legend - Satchel Paige. With Paige, there are at least a few trading cards as a result of his brief stint in the big leagues but, unfortunately for collectors, there are no Gibson trading cards from his playing days. The closest thing the hobby has is the scarce 1950-51 Toleteros card from his post-playing days. Even in low grades, this card has sold for more than $10,000.
Other Gibson collectibles, such as autographs and original photographs, exist in miniscule numbers, resulting in very strong prices. For example, a double-signed postcard sold for $81,200 several years ago. In addition, a Type I Gibson photograph sold for $14,400 in 2010.
Munson's baseball career and life were tragically cut short when he perished in a plane crash on August 2, 1979 at the age of 32. While he was alive, Munson became a fan-favorite in New York. The first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig, Munson's fierce competitiveness on the field helped the Yankees win back-to-back World Series titles in 1977/1978. Sparky Anderson believed Munson was no "Johnny Bench" but he was the premier catcher in the American League at that time.
The 1970 AL ROY finished his career with a .292 batting average, 113 home runs and 701 RBI in 1,423 games. Munson was a 7-time All-Star and won three consecutive Gold Gloves (1973-1975). Munson enjoyed his best individual season, arguably, in 1976 when he was named AL MVP. He hit .302 with 17 homers and 105 RBI that year, leading the Yankees to the World Series. Despite hitting .529 in the Fall Classic, Munson and the Yankees fell to The Big Red Machine in four games.
While not a Hall of Fame-caliber player, Munson was, at minimum, a very good one and he remains one of the most popular Yankees of all-time... and that, by itself, is noteworthy. Munson was featured in many key issues during his career, including the tough, black-bordered 1971 Topps (#5) and 1971 Topps Greatest Moments (#1) sets. His rookie card can be found in the 1970 Topps set (#189) and PSA 8s sell for around $200 each.
In the autograph world, items signed by Munson remain a hot commodity, especially scarce single-signed baseballs. In fact, a PSA 8 Munson ball sold for $13,649 in 2007. Munson memorabilia is also very desirable. For example, several high-end Munson game-used bats have sold in excess of $10,000 the last few years. Furthermore, the following Munson items sold in 2008: 1970s game-used bat ($19,550), 1979 game-used home uniform ($86,250), 1976 AL MVP Award ($126,500) and 1977 World Series ring ($143,750). In 2011, a Munson batting helmet sold for $28,851.
That brings us to the end of my list. Of course, this is just one opinion so let the debates rage on. I am sure that if I look at this list long enough, even I may change my mind about the rankings! The bottom line is that each of these men played a highly-demanding position, one that is overlooked most of the time by the average fan, but each one made their mark as one of the best backstops in baseball history.
In the end, I hope you had fun looking at the accomplishments and collectibles of The Dirty Dozen.
There were various image contributors for this article including, but not limited to, Heritage Auctions (ha.com) and Arthur Miller (artofthegame.com).