It’s that time of year when we start hearing four words that signal the winding down of winter: “Pitchers and catchers report.” With that in mind, we devote this column to one half of that equation, with a promise to deliver the other half in an upcoming issue.
In football, quarterbacks get the glory, while the 300-pound immovable slabs of beef on the offensive line go underappreciated, despite all that heavy lifting. In basketball, the high-scoring acrobats of the world get the glory, while the rebounding specialists who might get a few token shots a game are usually overlooked.
And in baseball? Well, sluggers, fire-balling pitchers, graceful centerfielders and ultra-slick shortstops get their share of headlines and adulation.
Conversely, those who wear the so-called tools of ignorance, catchers, toil behind their
masks, performing the game’s toughest job while the spotlight usually shines on others. Their careers, of course, are often curtailed, because most tend to wear out their knees many years ahead of time.
It doesn’t help that catchers traditionally aren’t the best hitters on their teams. For every Johnny Bench, there are legions of guys known for calling great games and gunning down enemy base-stealers but whose .220 batting averages kept them at the bottom of the lineup. When was the last time you thought, “Hey, why don’t people talk about John Boccabella anymore?” Or, “It’s about time I started that collection of Andy Etchebarren cards.”
On the other hand, when a catcher is a threat with the bat, you’ve really got something: A headline-grabber who can even get collectors worked up. With that in mind, I set out to put together a list of the 10 most collectible catchers of all time. Enjoy.
1. YOGI BERRA
This Hall of Famer was a key cog on Yankee teams that spanned the DiMaggio and Mantle eras, playing for 18 seasons in pinstripes and – for you trivia buffs – a partial season with the Mets, for whom he had nine at-bats and two hits in 1965. Berra was a beloved figure during his playing days, entertaining fans and media alike with a steady stream of Yogi-isms (typified by the title of his 1998 book I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said) and, more so, with his performance on the field.
Berra was no slouch behind the dish, throwing out nearly 50 percent of the runners who attempted to steal on him during his career, but it was his stick that made him a hero. He batted a solid .285 and showed almost unbelievable power for a 5-foot-7, 185-pound man, hitting 358 homers. Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch certainly helped, but regardless, he hit the ball with enough authority to win three American League MVP awards and earn 15 All-Star berths.
Because Berra’s Yankee teams won 15 World Series titles, he was regularly in the public eye during crunch time. His lifetime numbers in the Fall Classic: .274, 12 home runs and 39 RBI in 259 at-bats. And, of course, he went on to spend many years as a coach and manager. He won pennants in both leagues – with the Yankees in 1964 and the Mets in 1973.
Berra’s popularity extended naturally into the collectibles marketplace. While overshadowed by DiMaggio and Mantle, he is by now the most popular living Yankee. His rookie card, a 1948 Bowman, has a book value of $800 and can sell for hundreds more – even thousands more – if graded at the 8 or 9 level. At SCP Auctions in 2008, a PSA 9 Berra fetched $8,230. A recent eBay sale of a PSA 6 Berra rookie drew a price closer to book value at $750.
Yogi’s autograph is in fairly plentiful supply because he’s been accessible for years. So in my humble opinion, it’s one of the best buys in the hobby. Pick up a Berra-signed ball for $75-$125 and a Berra-signed photo for around $50.
A nice rarity: An autographed game glove from the 1950s that sold for $28,750 at Hunt Auctions in November 2010. Berra had autographed the catcher’s mitt (“Larry Yogi Berra”) on its interior and also wrote “It ain’t over til it’s over” on the webbing. It came with a letter of authenticity written by Berra.
2. JOSH GIBSON
He was known as the “Babe Ruth of the Negro leagues” or the “black Babe Ruth.” Unfortunately, the power-hitting catcher never got to show his stuff in the major leagues. By all accounts, Gibson would have been a superstar. In Negro league play, he attracted crowds wherever he went; people wanted to see his prodigious home runs and screaming line drives. And, playing for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, he usually delivered, hitting as many as 69 home runs in a season (1934), as some records will attest, and 55 in 1933. In the latter season, his batting has been recorded as an unreal .467.
Gibson honed his skills – and continued attracting crowds – by playing ball in Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico in between stints with the Grays and Crawfords. But in January 1947, it all caught up with him. Gibson, at age 35, died unexpectedly after having a stroke in a movie theater. A few months later, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, so Gibson may have finally had a shot at playing major league ball. As it is, he made such an impact that baseball writers voted him into the Hall of Fame in 1972. And in 2000, he ranked 18th on The Sporting News’ list of 100 Greatest Baseball Players. He’s also been honored with a U.S. postage stamp, and in 2009, a statue in his honor went up inside the center field gate of the Washington Nationals’ home park.
Collecting truly worthwhile Gibson memorabilia can be a chore because there’s not a huge supply of cards, autographs or memorabilia. When you look him up in price guides, you’ll see values like $15,000 put on a signed Gibson baseball, but they’re so rare it’s hard to tell what would happen if one were to come up. A Gibson signature on anything is rare, which is why his 1941 signed Puerto Rican League contract commanded $95,600 at Heritage Auctions in 2009.
When a vintage Gibson rarity does come up, we see aggressive bidding – such as the case on Dec. 16, 2011 at Leland’s. A 1950-51 Toleteros card of “Joshua Gibson” – slabbed by PSA and graded NM/7 – went on the block with a reserve of $3,000. After 24 bids, the price had risen to $32,101. Fewer than a dozen of these cards (issued a few years after his death) are known to exist. In fact, the Leland’s catalog notes that a previous auction offered an SGC-88 of the same card and sold for $70,000. At Heritage Galleries in 2007, an SGC 80 brought $20,315 and an SGC 60 brought $17,925. Clearly, this is a card you’d love to find buried in a box lot at a card show or antique shop.
3. JOHNNY BENCH
The Big Red Machine of the 1970s was loaded with talent, but who was more valuable than strapping Johnny Bench? The muscular Oklahoma boy was a much-heralded minor leaguer who delivered on all the advance hype right from the start. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1968, batting .275 with 15 homers and 82 RBI, and he only got better. He hit at least 20 homers in a season 11 times (and twice hit at least 40), and he drove in more than 100 runs six times, leading the league three times. In all, Bench hit 389 homers in 17 seasons and batted .267 with 1,376 RBI. He even stole 68 bases, including 11 in 1975 and 13 the following season.
Bench led his Reds to the World Series four times, winning two of them (1975 and 1976) and batting .266 with 10 homers in 45 postseason games. He also won two regular season MVP awards, a World Series MVP and 14 All-Star berths. And he had a lock on the Gold Glove Award, winning 10 times between 1968-77. Was there a more impressive sight on the diamond than watching Bench’s missiles cut down would-be base-stealers? He eliminated 43 percent of those who dared to run on him.
With Bench’s exploits still fresh (relatively speaking) in the minds of baby boomers, it’s no wonder that his game-used items can sell for four and five-figure prices. A prime example showed up at Hunt Auctions in 2010: Bench’s bright red 1970s batting helmet. It bears plenty of battle scars but showed up in overall impressive condition, prompting a winning bid of $13,800. The size 7½ lid bears Bench’s name tagged on the back and his uniform number (5) inked on the inside.
He also has a well-liked rookie card: His 1968 Topps issue, where we see that baby face with the hat on backward, ready to get behind the plate. Bench shared the card with pitcher Ron Tompkins. Its value has softened over the past 10 or 15 years to the point where you can get a decent-condition, ungraded example for $40-$80. That said, a Bench rookie graded in top condition can push and exceed four figures. On eBay last month, two separate PSA 9 Bench rookies brought $780. At Heritage Auctions in 2009, a Bench rookie with an SGC 98 Gem 10 grade fetched $3,346.
4. ROY CAMPANELLA
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947; the following season, Roy Campanella followed in his footsteps. The two would play together for nine years, combining with shortstop Pee Wee Reese and center fielder Duke Snider to make the Dodgers a perennial power. Campanella was known for his prodigious power; he hit 242 homers in 10 seasons while batting .276. Along the way, he snagged three MVP awards, including one for his peak season, 1953, when he hit 41 home runs with 142 RBI and a .276 average.
A car accident in 1958, sadly, left Campanella paralyzed and ended his career at age 35. He was able to eventually gain substantial use of his hands but remained in a wheelchair the rest of his life. In 1959, he wrote the aptly titled book It’s Good to Be Alive, which inspired a 1974 movie directed by Michael Landon. Campy died at age 71 in 1993.
In the hobby, Campanella items have had a ready audience for a long time. Check out these prime pieces offered at a 2004 Hunt’s Auctions sale:
- 1951 MVP award: $178,250
- 1953 MVP award: $110,925
- 1955 MVP award: $103,500
- Campanella home jersey: $92,000
- Game-worn Rawlings catcher’s mitt: $43,700.
A year later, the 1951 MVP hit the block again, this time selling for the lower but still hefty price of $149,500.
Campanella autographs – especially those signed before his accident – are prized in the hobby. In fact, longtime collectors know that price guides list pre and post-accident values for Campanella signatures. Baseballs signed by the catcher before Jan. 28, 1958, have a book value of $3,500 (vs. $500 for later ones). Photos signed prior to his paralysis are valued at $1,500 (vs. $250 for later examples). Cut sigs can sell for hundreds or upward of $1,000 if authenticated.
Most of Thurman Munson’s offensive numbers, of course, pale in comparison to those of Fisk, who enjoyed remarkable longevity (he played until he was 45). But in the hobby, the nod goes to the Yankee legend.
Munson’s career lasted 11 seasons before a tragic plane crash took his life at age 32 on Aug. 2, 1979. He made the most of his time, though, batting .292 (vs. .269 for Fisk) with 113 homers. He won the AL’s Most Valuable Player award in 1976, the middle year in a three-season span in which he batted over .300 and drove in at least 100 runs. He was a clutch hitter, too; his postseason batting average was .357 with 22 RBI in 30 games. He led the Yankees, as captain, to World Series titles in 1977 and 1978. Fisk batted .259 in 14 postseason games and finished without a ring.
Defensively, Munson was tougher on baserunners, gunning down 44 percent of those who tried to steal on him vs. 34 percent for Fisk. In fact, he was surprisingly quick behind the plate and remarkably sure-handed. In 1971, he committed just one error all season – and it came on a play when a runner knocked him unconscious in a collision at home plate. Munson won three consecutive Gold Glove awards starting in 1973.
Fisk made a splash from the time he took over the catcher’s job in Boston. He earned AL Rookie of the Year honors in 1972 (two years after Munson had won it) by hitting .293 with 22 HRs. Fisk went on to play 24 seasons in all – without much deterioration of his hitting skills. Overall, Fisk clubbed 376 home runs, with 207 of them coming after the age of 33. His career average was .269, he drove in 1,330 runs and even stole 128 bases, twice stealing 17 bases in a season.
In the hobby, Munson’s autograph is a rare and desirable item, and game-used and personal items are even more desirable. In 1998, his wife Diana consigned more than 150 Munson treasures to Hunt Auctions and found the response “overwhelming.” Among the one-of-a-kind keepsakes: Munson’s 1977 World Series ring ($143,750), his 1976 AL MVP award ($126,500), 1978 World Series ring ($97,750) and 1976 AL Championship Series ring ($86,250). A game-worn home uniform from his final season brought $86,250, while his Rookie of the Year award brought $46,000.
Both Munson and Fisk rookie cards can be had for sub-$100 prices if you find an ungraded example. Graded versions leap in price; a PSA 9 Munson card from 1970 sold on eBay recently for $766 while a PSA 8 sold for $200. A PSA 9 Fisk rookie (1972 Topps) recently brought $410.
7. MICKEY COCHRANE
Cochrane was a two-time MVP who played for nine years for the Philadelphia Athletics and four years for Detroit. The Tigers acquired Cochrane before the 1934 season with the idea of making him a player/manager. So they sent the then-lofty sum of $100,000 and catcher Johnny Pasek to the Athletics (who quickly shipped Pasek to the White Sox).
The move put Cochrane, then 31 years old, in charge of a team that had gone 75-79 the season before. It worked. As a player, Cochrane had an off year in terms of power, compiling only two homers and 72 RBI, but he did bat .320. More important, he showed his mettle as manager, clearly having absorbed a lot from Connie Mack during his time with the Athletics. The Tigers logged a 101-53 record and a trip to the World Series (albeit a losing one). Because of his impact, Cochrane won his second MVP award that year, barely outpolling teammate Charlie Gehringer (.356, 11 HRs, 127 RBI) and, remarkably, the Yankees’ Lou Gehrig, who won the Triple Crown in 1934 with 49 HRs, 165 RBI and a .363 average.
Today, Cochrane ranks as a worthy subject for collectors. A November 2011 sale at SCP Auctions offered a number of one-of-a-kind items that drew a crowd. The big headliner was Cochrane’s 1934 MVP trophy. Consigned by the Cochrane family, the award – “among the most visually impressive and historically important baseball trophies we have had the pleasure to offer,” according to the SCP catalog – fetched $125,330. In the same sale was Cochrane’s personal team-signed Philadelphia A’s photo; the rare panoramic view brought $12,150.
Cochrane’s autograph is a valuable piece, too. A baseball bearing his signature is worth around $3,500, while a signed photo is in the $700-$800 range. As for cardboard, his 1933 Goudey is worth a look; you can find it in the $125-$175 range.
8. BILL DICKEY
Dickey played amid some very large shadows with the Yankees – Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri and, later, DiMaggio. Early in his career (he made it to the bigs in 1928), he got good advice from manager Miller Huggins. As legend has it, Huggins told him, “Stop unbuttoning your shirt on every pitch. We pay one 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.”
It worked, as the lefty-hitting catcher held his own during his career, which lasted 17 seasons. He finished with a .313 average, 202 homers (including 102 in a four-year span from 1936-39) and 1,209 RBI (including 460 in that same span). He was a rock behind the plate, too, throwing out 48 percent of base runners attempting to steal and leading the AL in fielding percent four times. He was an 11-time All-Star and played in eight World Series, winning seven.
Dickey later served as a key in Yogi Berra’s development, mentoring his protégé in the late 1940s. Berra would later attest, “I always say I owe everything I did in baseball to Bill Dickey. He was a great man.”
Collectors pay $75-$125 for Dickey’s autograph on a photo and around $400-$600 on a baseball. Two Dickey cards to chase are his 1932 U.S. Caramel and his 1933 Goudey. The former would cost around $600 and the latter around $400 if in ungraded, Excellent condition. Among his later cards, his 1952 Topps (No. 400 in the set) is a highly desired piece, booking at $1,400.
9. ERNIE LOMBARDI
The stocky Lombardi was your prototypical big, lumbering, slow-footed catcher, but the man could hit. Between 1931-47, he was one of baseball’s more productive catchers, amassing a career average of .306 (and with very few infield hits!) and 190 home runs.
Lombardi came up with the Dodgers and played one season in Brooklyn, then spent 10 seasons with the Reds. He went on to play one year with the Boston and five with the New York Giants.
Lombardi led the NL in hitting twice. He hit .342 in 1938 – when he won the circuit’s MVP award – and a .330 average in 1942. He was a seven-time All-Star who was known for his adept handling of pitchers; in fact, he caught Johnny Vander Meer’s two consecutive no-hitters in 1938. He also was known for his rifle throws – sidearm, from a crouch position. In his career, he gunned down 47 percent of potential base stealers.
Lombardi died at age 69 in 1977. It took a Veteran’s Committee vote to get him into the Hall of Fame, but his induction gave his memorabilia some cachet. Today, his autograph sells for $1,000-$1,250 on a baseball and $150-$300 on a photo, and his 1934 Goudey goes for $125 to $150.
10. GABBY HARTNETT
Leo “Gabby” Hartnett played 20 years, finally retiring at age 41. He batted .297 with 236 homers. He spent most of his career with the Cubs, playing in at least 100 games in 12 of his 19 seasons with Chicago. (He finished his career with the Giants in 1941.) Hartnett’s best season was in 1930, when he hit .339 with 37 homers and 122 RBI.
Hartnett-signed baseballs can bring four-figure prices, as illustrated by a top example sold recently at Heritage. In April 2011, a single-signed ball bearing his given name and nickname fetched $2,870. The Hartnett trading card to get is his 1933 Goudey, which often sells for $100-$125 if graded a 5 or 6. If in the 8-9 range, it jumps up several hundred dollars.
For a good look at this Hall of Famer, look for his 1928 Exhibit card, which can be had for $25-$100, depending on condition.
AND WHAT ABOUT?
It was difficult to leave off a number of names – players who put up huge numbers and who have built a following in the collecting market. Gary Carter, for example, enjoyed several years in the spotlight of New York with the Mets and overall had an amazing career, hitting 324 homers and driving in 1,225 runs while making 10 straight All-Star teams.
Ditto on all counts – even more so – for Mike Piazza (.308, 427 homers and 1,335 RBI). And Ivan Rodriguez, whose estimable career is winding down, currently shows a .296 average with 311 HRs and 127 SBs.
Joe Torre and Jorge Posada, too, belong in the mix. Torre’s catching days were spent in the National League with the Braves. He moved to third base and first base in later years, but overall is worthy of discussion because of his hitting (.292, 252 HRs, 1,185 RBI) and managing (four World Series titles with the Yankees). And if we’ve seen the last of Posada, he’s leaving some impressive numbers behind: .273, 275 home runs and 1,065 RBI.
Larry Canale is author of the book “Mickey Mantle: Memories & Memorabilia” (Krause, 2011) and editor-in-chief of “Antiques Roadshow Insider.” He also spent six years editing Tuff Stuff magazine and has authored two books with photographer Ozzie Sweet: “Mickey Mantle/The Yankee Years” (1998) and “The Boys of Spring” (2005). He can be reached at email@example.com.