My favorite personal memory of this great Yankee took place during a game I attended at Yankee Stadium sometime during the early 1960s, probably 1962. My Uncle always got us field box seats when he took us to the Stadium, somewhere between first base and the right field foul pole. Berra came to the plate and I vividly remember several things about the at bat. The pitch he hit was very high, especially for the short 5’8″ Berra. He hit the ball on a line. It went by me, my Uncle and my older brother like a comet, right at our eye level but still rising. When it hit the drab green painted metal facing of the Stadium’s mezzanine level in right field, it hit it so hard that the clang it made actually echoed throughout the Stadium. I did not see anyone hit a ball as hard as that one until over thirty years later when Jose Canseco hit one out of Fenway that may still have not landed. Of course Jose used steroids and the only juice a urine test might have discovered in Berra’s body was the kind you squeezed out of oranges.
Yogi Berra was a marvelous Yankee catcher who won ten championship rings. He had supreme offensive and defensive skills and his teammates loved him. He was also under appreciated as a manager, being the only field boss to win pennants for both the Yankees and Mets.
There are so many things I cherish about the game of baseball and having had the opportunity to watch number 8 play the game is high on that list. Happy 90th birthday Yogi.
Berra’s Yankee career record as a player:
|NYY (18 yrs)||2116||8350||7546||1174||2148||321||49||358||1430||30||704||411||.285||.348||.483||.830|
|NYM (1 yr)||4||9||9||1||2||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||.222||.222||.222||.444|
|1||1964||39||New York Yankees||AL||164||99||63||.611||1||AL Pennant|
|6||1984||59||New York Yankees||AL||162||87||75||.537||3|
|7||1985||60||New York Yankees||AL||1st of 2||16||6||10||.375||2|
|New York Mets||4 years||588||292||296||.497||3.0||1 Pennant|
|New York Yankees||3 years||342||192||148||.565||2.0||1 Pennant|
|7 years||930||484||444||.522||2.6||2 Pennants|
They called this Chicago native “the Hawk” and he was signed as a catcher by his hometown White Sox in 1936, after attending Purdue University for two years. He got to the big leagues by 1939 and played two seasons as a backup catcher to Chicago’s Mike Tresh, who was the father of future Yankee shortstop, Tom Tresh. The White Sox then traded the switch-hitting Silvestri to the Yankees, where he became the third string receiver behind Hall of Famer Bill Dickey and Buddy Rosar during the 1941 season and won his first World Series ring. When World War II came, Silvestri spent the next four seasons in the U.S. Army. When he returned to the Yankees in 1946, Aaron Robinson was New York’s starting catcher, an aging Dickey was his backup and Sylvestri, Gus Niarhos, Bill Drescher and a youngster named Yogi Berra all battled for the third string job. The following year Dickey retired, Berra became Robinson’s backup and Silvestri found himself back in the minor leagues. He spent the entire 1948 season playing for the Yankee’s Newark farm team. Though he was a switch-hitter, Silvestri’s problem was that he couldn’t hit very well from either side of the plate. Unable to win even a third string job with the loaded Yankees, Silvestri was probably happy when the Phillies grabbed him in the 1948 Rule 5 draft. But Philadelphia already had Andy Seminick and Stan Lopata doing the catching. The Hawk would appear in a total of just 19 games during his three seasons in the City of Brotherly Love and get just 42 plate appearances. He also got his first-ever World Series at bat as a member of the 1950 Whiz Kids team that lost to the Yankees. The fact of the matter was that Mr. Silvestri spent almost his entire eight season big league career in his teams’ bullpens, warming up relievers. His career totals included 102 games played, 203 lifetime at bats, 44 hits and a lifetime batting average of .217. He would rejoin the Yankee organization in 1954 and spend the rest of his playing days on Yankee farm teams. He then became a Manager in the Yankee farm system and eventually a long-time big league coach in the Braves organization. He passed away in 1992 at the age of 75. Silvestri shares his May 3rd birthday with the winningest right-hander in Yankee history and also this much less successful former Yankee hurler.
|PHI (3 yrs)||19||44||33||5||7||0||1||0||5||0||9||6||.212||.395||.273||.668|
|NYY (3 yrs)||33||83||71||10||18||6||0||1||5||0||12||15||.254||.361||.380||.742|
|CHW (2 yrs)||50||111||99||11||19||5||0||4||15||0||10||20||.192||.273||.364||.636|
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was a back up catcher during his days in pinstripes. Many have served in that role through the ages. The current guy in that position, Chris Stewart, was a surprise choice at the very end of the 2012 spring training season, a move that ended the popular Francisco Cervelli’s two-year hold on the same job. The first backup catcher in franchise history was Jack O’Connor. Known as Rowdy Jack, he was already 37 years old when he spent the 1903 season backing up Monte Beville behind home plate. O’Connor batted just .203 that season but that was nine points better than Beville hit. Benny Bengough was the Yankees’ first long-term second catcher. He started his pinstripe career in 1923 behind Wally Schang on the depth chart and finished it eight seasons later behind Hall-of-Famer, Bill Dickey. Dickey’s longtime backup was the Norwegian receiver, Arndt Jorgens, who spent all eleven of his big league seasons in that role. Yogi Berra’s backup during the first half of his Yankee careeer was Charley Silvera. Elston Howard took over from him and gradually took over the starting catcher’s job from Berra. During the fabled 1961 Yankee season, the Yankees had three catchers, Howard, Berra and Johnny Blanchard all hit more than 20 home runs in the same season. Former Yankee Manager, Ralph Houk had been a backup catcher for New York during his playing days and the team’s current Manager, Joe Girardi, ended his Yankee playing days in that supporting role behind Jorge Posada. Some of the better known Yankee backup catchers included Rick Dempsey, Fran Healy, and Ivan Rodriguez.
I can clearly recall when today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant took over as the Yankee backup receiver. It was during the 1967 season. Elston Howard had broke completely down physically that year and the Yankees inserted his backup, Jake Gibbs as starting catcher and brought up Frank Fernandez from their farm system to become the new number two receiver. The native of Staten Island held onto that backup role for three seasons until Thurman Munson arrived in the Bronx in 1969. Fernandez was then traded to the A’s. He was decent defensively and had some power in his bat, hitting 12 home runs for New York in 1969 and then 15 for the A’s a season later. He also had a keen batting eye. His biggest problem was that when he did swing the bat he usually missed the ball. Frank averaged about one strikeout every three times at bat during his Yankee career and averaged just .199 during the six seasons he played in the big leagues.
|OAK (2 yrs)||98||304||261||31||55||6||0||15||45||1||0||41||79||.211||.322||.406||.728|
|NYY (3 yrs)||149||501||392||50||80||14||2||20||63||3||4||102||125||.204||.372||.403||.775|
|CHC (2 yrs)||20||61||44||11||7||1||0||4||4||0||0||17||17||.159||.393||.455||.848|
|WSA (1 yr)||18||37||30||0||3||0||0||0||4||0||0||4||10||.100||.194||.100||.294|
In 1985, a 24-year-old rookie from Montebello, California named Mark Salas surprised just about everyone by hitting .300 as the starting catcher of the Minnesota Twins. Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner, always looking for a good left-hand-hitting catcher who could take advantage of his home Stadium’s short right field porch, took notice of the kid. Two seasons later, he approved a mid-season deal that brought Salas to the Bronx in exchange for the Yankees disgruntled veteran knuckleballer, Joe Niekro.
The Boss ignored the fact that Salas had followed up his stellar rookie performance by hitting just .233 in his sophomore season with the Twins. He also didn’t pay attention to Salas’s below average defensive skills behind the plate. After all, even though Salas had lost Minnesota’s starting catching job to Mark Laudner, he was hitting a robust .379 in his back-up role at the time of the trade and he was a much better hitter than Joel Skinner, who had been serving as the Yankees second string catcher that year.
So Salas came to New York and was forced upon Lou Piniella, who was not a thrilled recipient. The Yankee skipper was struggling to keep his 1987 club in first place at the time and growing increasingly frustrated by having every decision he made as manager second guessed by “the Boss.” When it became apparent that Salas was not very good defensively and he stopped hitting too, Piniella wanted Skinner brought back up from Triple A, where he had been sent to make roster room for Salas. Steinbrenner refused to approve the move. So Piniella decided to refuse to accept any more of Steinbrenner’s phone calls, which served as perfect fodder for some creative back-page headlining in the New York City tabloids.
Eventually, Skinner was recalled and Salas was sent down to Columbus. The Yankees finished that ’87 season in fourth place in the AL East race with an 89-73 record. Salas finished his only half-season as a Yankee with a .200 batting average and then got traded to the White Sox with Dan Pasqua for pitcher Rich Dotson. His big league career would end after the 1991 season. He finished with 319 lifetime hits and a .247 batting average. He then went into coaching.
|MIN (3 yrs)||233||718||663||87||185||29||9||20||83||3||41||75||.279||.320||.440||.760|
|DET (2 yrs)||107||247||221||20||43||4||0||10||31||0||21||38||.195||.272||.348||.621|
|CLE (1 yr)||30||83||77||4||17||4||1||2||7||0||5||13||.221||.277||.377||.654|
|NYY (1 yr)||50||130||115||13||23||4||0||3||12||0||10||17||.200||.279||.313||.592|
|STL (1 yr)||14||21||20||1||2||1||0||0||1||0||0||3||.100||.100||.150||.250|
|CHW (1 yr)||75||211||196||17||49||7||0||3||9||0||12||17||.250||.303||.332||.635|
This native Venezuelan emerged from the Yankee farm system when catchers Jorge Posada and Jose Molina both were hurt during the 2009 season. Cervelli did a surprisingly terrific job, hitting .298 in 42 games and earning the praise of the Yankee pitching staff for his work behind the plate. I use the word surprisingly because at the time, Cervelli seemed to handle big league pitching better than he did minor league stuff. That’s what I most liked about him. He seemed to step up when the pressure got more intense and that caused the expectations I had for the kid to rise up as the 2010 season approached.
Francisco got off to a rough start in 2010 when he was beaned on his birthday in spring training and suffered a concussion. When he returned he was wearing a new bulkier batting helmet that protected him better but also made it look like his head had shrunk. The new oversized lid also seemed to be making him a better hitter. When Posada got hurt early in the year, Cervelli took over as starter and had his batting average in the high .300’s well into May. I still remember blinking my eyes a couple of times when I checked a box score of a Yankee Red Sox game I missed that month and saw five RBI’s next to Cervelli’s name.
But the bat cooled off and more disappointingly, so did Francisco’s work behind the plate. The passed balls, errors and horrible throws started appearing in bunches and it convinced me that the kid was not yet ready to be a full-time catcher.
Give him credit though. Cervelli refused to give up on the notion that he and not Russell Martin, Jesus Montero or Austin Romine would be the next great Yankee behind home plate and he spent the winter of 2010 working like mad to get in the better physical shape he knew it would take to compete against that trio. But the injury bug hit him again during the 2011 exhibition season when a foul ball off his own bat fractured his foot. By the time he got back into action, Martin had not only solidified his hold on New York’s starting catching position, he proved to be an iron man back there and did not take many games off. As a result Cervelli played in just 43 games in 2011 and his season ended in early September when he suffered yet another concussion and missed the rest of the regular season and the Yankees’ two postseason series.
He arrived at New York’s 2012 spring camp knowing he was not going to push Martin out of his starting role and that he was going to have to compete with Austin Romine to keep his job as Martin’s backup. Everyone including Cervelli and me was shocked when Yankee GM Brian Cashman traded for San Francisco Giant back-up catcher, Chris Stewart just before Opening Day 2012 and Cervelli ended up getting sent back to Triple A for almost the entire regular season. Francisco actually broke into tears when Manager Joe Girardi gave him the news of his sudden demotion.
But Francisco hung in there. Even though he had a bad 2012 season down on the farm, he came to the 2013 Yankee spring training camp knowing Russell Martin was gone, Hal Steinbrenner was trying to cut the team’s payroll and he’d have his best opportunity ever to win New York’s starting catcher’s job. He actually did beat out Stewart and Romine for the position and was off to a decent regular season start, when a tipped foul ball broke his hand in a late-April game against the Blue Jays. Compounding his inability to stay injury free was his involvement in the now infamous Miami-based PEDs dispensing clinic investigation and subsequent 50-game suspension.
With New York’s off-season signing of Brian McCann emphatically disintegrating any shot Cervelli had of becoming the team’s starting catcher, the just-completed Yankee 2014 spring training season was most certainly his one-last opportunity to prove to New York’s management that he could play a valuable role as the ball club’s back-up catcher. He was certainly up to the challenge. Despite constant questioning about his role in the Biogenesis scandal and incessant rumors that the team had him on the trading block, Cervelli put together one of the best exhibition season performances of any of his teammates and started the regular season as McCann’s back-up.
But the injury bug that has plagued this guy forever bit him again during the second week of the 2014 regular season when he severely pulled a hamstring. Though he returned from that DL stay in late June and put together a solid half season as McCann’s backup, I could sense the Yankee front office was ready to turn the page on this guy and bring up some of their young catching talent. In November of 2014, Cervelli was traded to the Pirates for reliever Justin Wilson. He will once again be given the opportunity to replace Russell Martin (who left the Pirates to sign as a free agent with Toronto over the winter) as a team’s starting catcher. I wish him well.
Cervelli shares his birthday with this former Yankee outfielder.
Joel Skinner came to the Yankees in a trade with the White Sox during the 1986 season. New York was hoping he could take over the starting catcher slot from a disappointing Butch Wynegar, who was hitting in the low .200s at the time. Skinner did OK for Manager Lou Piniella’s team the rest of that season but not good enough to stop New York from re-acquiring Rick Cerone in 1988 and then Don Slaught from Texas in 1989. Skinner remained in pinstripes both years as the backup catcher, hitting just .214 as a Yankee. He was born in La Jolla, CA on this date in 1961. After his playing days were through in 1991, Skinner got into coaching and managing and in 2002, he was hired to replace Charley Manuel as the Indians’ field boss for the second half of that season. Skinner shares his February 21st birthday with this starting left-fielder for the 1990 Yankees and the first 34th round draft pick in Yankee history.
Can anybody out there tell me what the following Yankee lineup has in common?
Here are Joel Skinner’s Yankee regular season and MLB career stats:
|CHW (4 yrs)||131||311||284||32||65||11||2||5||29||2||21||76||.229||.282||.335||.617|
|CLE (3 yrs)||227||640||601||49||145||28||1||4||53||1||30||153||.241||.279||.311||.590|
|NYY (3 yrs)||206||600||556||38||119||23||0||8||54||0||29||158||.214||.253||.299||.551|
Yankee teams don’t win World Championships without good solid starting catchers. I’ve been a Bronx Bomber fan for over 50 years and during that time its been names like Berra, Howard, Munson, Girardi and Posada, who have been behind the plate when my favorite team won a ring. Most of these guys could hit, most of them were strong defensively as well and each and everyone of them were tough, strong leaders who weren’t afraid to take control of their pitching staffs.
Russell Martin was that type of player for the Yankees. Certainly not a superstar but most definitely a leader behind the plate and a guy who craved at bats with the game on the line. He had no fear and the Yankees could have got to a World Series with him as their starting catcher, which is why it distressed me, when they let him walk away to Pittsburgh last offseason and decided they’d try instead to go cheap by staffing such a critical position with Cervelli, Stewart, and eventually Austin Romine. It was that single front office decision that convinced me that this current Yankee brain trust actually believed they could be clever money-ball practitioners when I knew they were not. More importantly, I knew that trying to win with less money took away the franchise’s biggest advantage over its competition, which is HAVING MORE MONEY to spend!
We all saw the results. The offensive performance of the Yankee catching staff was as bad as I knew it would be last season and the co-catcher model hurt the stability of the pitching staff. There were also more empty seats in Yankee Stadium and fewer viewers watching those commercials on the YES Network.
Brian McCann had to be signed by New York, this offseason. He’s exactly the kind of catcher the Yankees must have to get back to Fall Ball. He’s also the signal I needed to see that this Yankee brain trust fully realized the error of their penny-pinching ways last winter. I’m once again officially excited about Opening Day!