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), baseball player, manager, and coach and member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame who bridged the New York Yankees dynasty eras of Babe Ruth through Mickey Mantle.

One of seven children born to John Dickey, a railroad worker, and his wife, Laura, Dickey received his first baseball instruction from his father, a former minor league catcher. As a youngster Dickey dreamed of becoming a major league catcher and in a twenty-year professional career never played any other position. He grew up in Kensett, Arkansas, and was the star high school catcher in nearby Searcy until his family moved to Little Rock when he was sixteen. He spent one year at Little Rock Junior College in 1924 and played semipro baseball for one year before signing a professional contract in 1925 when he was seventeen. He then spent four seasons as a minor league catcher in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Buffalo, New York.

The New York Yankees purchased the contract of the six-foot, one-inch, 185-pound catcher, who threw right-handed and batted left, in 1927, and he was promoted to the big league club at the end of the 1928 season. The following year Dickey began a string of catching more than 100 games a season for thirteen consecutive years (1929–1941), a major league record. Although he played in lineups that featured such great hitters as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio, Dickey was one of the most feared clutch hitters on the team. Dickey had unusually high batting averages for a catcher, beginning with .324 in his rookie year, and he hit over .300 in ten of his first eleven seasons. His .362 batting average in 1936 established a record for catchers. In 1943 he hit .351 in his final season as a starting catcher.

During his first seven seasons he hit seventy-six home runs and was not considered a long-ball threat, but from 1936 to 1939 he blossomed into a slugger, and in that four-year period he drove in more than 100 runs each season and slammed 102 home runs, more than half his career total, while guiding his team to four consecutive world championships. In 1937 his twenty-nine home runs established an American League record for catchers, and he tied a major league record by slugging grand-slam home runs in two consecutive games. Dickey played in eight World Series (1932, 1936–1939,1941–1943), and his team was victorious seven times. Although the All-Star Game was not created until his fifth year as a starting catcher, he was selected to the American League team eleven times.

As a defensive player Dickey had an uncanny memory for hitters’ weaknesses, possessed a strong, accurate throwing arm, and was a masterful handler of all types of pitchers: fireballers, spitballers, and curveballers. In 1931 he set an American League fielding record by not allowing a single passed ball in 125 games. He led the league in putouts six times, fielding average four times, assists three times, and once in double plays. In 1929 he became one of only four American League catchers ever to record three assists in one inning and made a rare catcher’s unassisted double play in 1941. The legendary Connie Mack said Dickey was the game’s greatest catcher.

Dickey was celebrated for his modesty, dignity, and composure. Although quiet and reserved off the field, he was fiercely competitive once the game started and said, “If you haven’t got that competitive fire, you may stay in the big leagues for a few years, but you’re not going too far. The competitive spirit means the difference between great and mediocre.” Only once did Dickey display explosive anger on the field. During a close game on 4 July 1932, the Washington Senators outfielder Carl Reynolds came barreling with spikes high into Dickey, who was blocking home plate. Dickey picked himself up off the ground and with one punch broke Reynolds’s jaw. The American League fined him $1,000 (his salary was only $14,000), and he was suspended for one month. In his first game back he blasted a grand-slam home run and smacked three singles. Later that year, on 5 October 1932, he married Violet Arnold. Their daughter, Lorraine, was born in 1935.

Dickey’s even temperament was much like that of his roommate and closest friend with the club, Lou Gehrig. He was the only teammate invited to Gehrig’s wedding in 1933 and was the first on the ball club to learn of Gehrig’s terminal illness. Dickey was also the only active player to play himself in the 1942 film biography of Gehrig, Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper.

After batting .351 in 1943 and hitting a two-run home run in the fifth game of the 1943 World Series to give the Yankees another world championship, Dickey enlisted in the navy and served during 1944 and 1945. In 1946 he returned to the Yankees and played his final season as a backup catcher. He became the Yankees interim manager that May after Joe McCarthy became ill. Dickey then guided the Yankees to a 57–48 record before resigning in September. He claimed that he did not have the proper temperament for managing a team. In 1949 he returned to the Yankees as a coach under manager Casey Stengel and was instrumental in turning young Yogi Berra into an outstanding catcher. He coached the club until 1957 and was a Yankees scout in 1959.

In 1954 Dickey was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Over his career he batted .313 in 1,789 games, stroking 1,969 hits, including 202 home runs while scoring 930 times and driving in 1,209 runs. Dickey was voted the game’s greatest living catcher during major league baseball’s centenary celebration in 1969. He died in Little Rock and is buried there at Roselawn Cemetery.

Dickey’s brilliance as a ballplayer is easily documented by his statistics, but on the most famous and successful baseball team in history he was especially beloved for his team spirit, loyalty, and sportsmanship. In 1939 after Lou Gehrig’s illness was made public, Dickey insisted on rooming the entire year with his best friend despite the growing hysteria fueled by ignorant newspaper accounts that claimed Gehrig’s rare disease was contagious. When his protégé Yogi Berra hit his thirtieth home run in 1952 to break Dickey’s American League record for catchers, Dickey was in the first base coaching box jumping for joy as Berra rounded the bases.

An in-depth evaluation of Dickey’s career comparing him to Berra is found in The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (1985); Larry Klein’s insightful chapter about Dickey, “Bill Dickey: Baseball’s Immortal Catcher,” is in Sports Magazine’s All Time All Stars, edited by Tim Murray (1977); also see Lowell Reidenbaugh, Cooperstown: Where Baseball’s Legends Live Forever (1983); Christy Walsh, Baseball’s Greatest Lineup (1952); and Ray Robinson, “Dickey: Calm but Combative,” in the New York Times (14 Nov. 1993). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Nov. 1993).

Mark A. Blickley

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