Dickey, William Malcolm ("Bill")

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DICKEY, William Malcolm ("Bill")

(b. 6 June 1907 in Bastrop, Louisiana; d. 12 November 1993 in Little Rock, Arkansas), National Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinee who posted a lifetime batting average of .313, was voted to the All-Star team eleven times, and served as a coach under New York Yankee manager Casey Stengel.

Dickey was one of six children born into the working-class family of John Dickey, a railroad worker, and Laura Dickey, a homemaker. Dickey graduated from Searcy High School in 1925 with an academic diploma. He attended Little Rock Junior College in Arkansas but dropped out after one year. In 1928 he married Violet Ann Arnold of Passaic, New Jersey; they had one daughter. While in college Dickey played semiprofessional baseball in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he was signed in 1926 by the Little Rock team in the Southern Association. A number of major league teams displayed interest in the young catcher, who signed a contract with the New York Yankees in 1928, with the condition that he start the season with Little Rock. After hitting .300 in sixty games for the minor league team, Dickey was promoted to the Yankees, where he finished the season hitting .200 in ten games.

Dickey became the Yankees' regular catcher in 1929 and went on to catch at least 100 games a year in each of thirteen consecutive seasons (1929–1941), an enduring major league record. He was an integral part of the great Yankee teams managed by Joe McCarthy during the 1930s and early 1940s that included such stars as Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon, and Charlie Keller. In 1936 Dickey hit .362, his highest single-season batting average, and in 1943, his last full season, he batted .353 in eighty-five games. He spent the 1944 and 1945 seasons as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, and in this capacity organized recreational activities in the Pacific.

After the war Dickey returned to the Yankees in 1946 as an active player, but when McCarthy resigned as manager because of ill health, Dickey was named to replace him. He served in that capacity until September, when he resigned due to illness, and when it became obvious that the Yankees could not overtake the Boston Red Sox, who won the pennant that year. His record as interim manager was 57–48. He was succeeded for the remainder of the year by Johnny Neun.

Dickey returned to the Yankees in 1949 as a coach under Casey Stengel and served in that capacity until 1957. He is credited with tutoring Larry "Yogi" Berra in the basic skills of catching as well teaching Elston Howard, the Yankees' first African-American player, the ropes as a catcher. In 1954 Dickey was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He scouted for the Yankees from 1959 to 1960, then retired from baseball to sell securities as a representative for Stephens, Inc., a brokerage firm in Little Rock, an occupation he pursued until 1977, when he retired.

Dickey, who batted left-handed but threw right-handed, was the premier catcher of the 1930s and early 1940s. He was a lifetime .313 hitter who played in 1,789 games and made 1,969 hits, including 343 doubles, 72 triples, 202 home runs, 930 runs scored, and 1,209 runs batted in. He played in every inning of the 1938 World Series contest, in which the Yankees won. Dickey bridged the Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio eras as a player and the early Mickey Mantle years as a coach. His quiet demeanor belied his fiery approach to his job as catcher. For example, on 4 July 1932 he was suspended for thirty days and fined $1,000 for breaking the jaw of Washington Senator Carl Reynolds with a punch after a collision at home plate.

Dickey's career was filled with singular highlights. He hit three home runs in one game on 6 July 1939; he caught 125 games without a passed ball during the 1931 season; he was the first player to catch 100 or more games for thirteen seasons; and he was selected for eleven All-Star games. A close friend of Lou Gehrig and his roommate on the road, he was the first Yankee player to find out about Gehrig's illness and was the only active player to play himself in the movie Pride of the Yankees (1942). Asked by the sportswriter John P. Carmichael to recall his greatest day in baseball, Dickey chose game five of the 1943 World Series, when he hit a two-run home run off St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Mort Cooper in a 2–0 series-winning Yankee victory.

Dickey's Yankee jersey number 8, was retired in 1972 in honor of both him and Yogi Berra, who had worn the same number. In 1980 the Yankee foundation gave Dickey the Pride of the Yankees Award as well. Dickey died at age eighty-six of complications from a stroke in Little Rock. He is buried there in Roselawn Cemetery.

Dickey was unquestionably one of the baseball's greatest catchers. An expert handler of pitchers and the owner of a deadly accurate arm, in his day Dickey rivaled outstanding catchers such as Mickey Cochrane of the Philadelphia Athletics and Gabby Hartnett of the Chicago Cubs as baseball's best defensive receiver. Adding his extraordinary batting achievements to his top-notch defensive skills, Dickey must be rated among the best all-around catchers in the history of baseball.

There is no biography of Bill Dickey, but a great deal of information about him is included in books and anthologies on baseball. See Ray Robinson, Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time (1990); Lee Allen and Tom Meany, King of the Diamond (1965); and My Greatest Day in Baseball, As Told to John P. Carmichael, Sports Editor of the Chicago Daily News, and Other Noted Sports Writers (1945). An obituary is in the New York Times (14 Nov. 1993).

Jack Fischel

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