Dodgers' Top 5 catchers: Gurnick's take

March 24th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is our ranking of the top five catchers in Dodgers history. Next week: First basemen.

1. Roy Campanella, 1948-57
Key fact: His 57.4-percent mark for throwing out potential basestealers still stands as the all-time record.

Somehow, a Hall of Famer and three-time Most Valuable Player is often overlooked as one of the game’s greats. He was overshadowed as a trailblazer by Jackie Robinson, even though Campanella was Major League Baseball's first African-American catcher. Only Yogi Berra matched him for three MVPs as a catcher, but Campanella played with the Boys of Summer, surrounded by Hall of Famers. And his career was shortened on both ends, as he first played 10 years in the Negro Leagues, later being robbed of his sunset years by the catastrophic auto accident in 1958 that left him a quadriplegic.

Once allowed to play in MLB, though, Campanella excelled both at the plate and behind it. He played in eight consecutive All-Star Games. In 1951, he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award while hitting .325 with 33 home runs and 108 RBIs. He won his second MVP in 1953, driving in a then-record 142 runs as a catcher, then a third MVP in 1955 while leading the Dodgers to their first World Series title.

"Campanella will be remembered longer than any catcher in baseball history," Hall of Famer Ty Cobb once said.

Campanella was the second African-American inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1969.

"This completes my baseball career," he said then. "All my disappointments are behind me. There is nothing more I could ask for in baseball."

2. Mike Piazza, 1992-98
Key fact: MVP runner-up in 1996 and '97

The Dodgers let future Hall of Famers like Roberto Clemente and Pedro Martinez get away, but the 1998 trade of Piazza after a contract squabble remains the greatest miscalculation in franchise history. Piazza was already headed toward the Hall of Fame at the time, with five of his 12 All-Star appearances, five of his 10 Silver Sluggers and a Rookie of the Year Award coming during his Dodgers tenure.

Drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 Draft as a favor to a family friend, Dodgers Hall of Fame manager Tom Lasorda, Piazza was a self-made slugger who briefly quit as a Minor Leaguer because of a lack of playing time. He also was willing to go to the club’s Dominican Republic camp in the winter to refine his defensive skills, having transitioned to catcher after being a first baseman in college.

He burst onto the baseball scene in 1993 with 35 home runs, 112 RBIs and a .318 batting average en route to a unanimous selection as the NL Rookie of the Year. From '93-97, Piazza averaged 33 homers and 105 RBIs per season -- along with a .337 batting average -- despite two shortened seasons due to the '94-95 strike. In '97, Piazza recorded 201 hits -- the first player whose primary position was catcher to record 200 hits in a single season.

"He’s certainly the best hitting catcher of our era. And arguably the best hitting catcher of all time," said Hall of Famer Tom Glavine.

3. Mike Scioscia, 1980-92
Key fact: Played in more games (1,441) than any Dodgers catcher

Long before he was a fixture as manager of the Angels, Scioscia was a mainstay of the Dodgers through the 1980s and the primary catcher on two World Series-winning teams. He probably deserves to make this list simply for his courage and willingness to absorb the most punishing collisions imaginable as a plate-blocking barricade. More subtly, he was a consummate quarterback and coach behind the plate, working thoughtfully with veterans like Jerry Reuss and Burt Hooton, as well as the unknown teenage left-hander from Mexico, Fernando Valenzuela, and later, Orel Hershiser.

Scioscia was a two-time All-Star known more for his defense than offense, having never hit more than 12 home runs in any of his 13 seasons with the Dodgers. But the most clutch home run of 1988 was not hit by Kirk Gibson. It was hit by Scioscia, off Mets ace Doc Gooden, in the top of the ninth inning to tie Game 4 of the NLCS, which the Dodgers went on to win.

“The last person you'd expect to hit a home run there was Scioscia,” said Mets manager Davey Johnson, who would later manage the Dodgers.

4. John Roseboro, 1957-67
Key fact: Played in 5 All-Star Games as a Dodger

The offensive numbers don’t jump off the stats page. To many, his most famous moment was getting smashed on the head with a bat by Juan Marichal, in the most violent melee of baseball’s most heated rivalry.

But Roseboro also was the primary catcher for three championship teams and two Hall of Fame pitchers, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. “With him out there, I felt like I was never alone,” Koufax told the Los Angeles Times. He was groomed to succeed Campanella, who mentored Roseboro before and after his tragic accident in 1958, and he lasted more than a decade.

“Roseboro was the conscience of our club,” teammate Dick Tracewski told author Steve Delsohn. “He was a steadying influence. He was a bright guy who knew the game and how to handle pitchers. He was fair to everyone. He was a quiet leader. If he had something to say, you listened. And like Maury [Wills], he would do anything to win.”

5. Steve Yeager, 1972-85
Key fact: Twice led NL in caught-stealing percentage

Lou Brock, the best base-stealing threat of his time, called Yeager “the best-throwing catcher in the game.” Yeager was known for a handful of oddities -- nephew of test pilot Chuck Yeager, co-inventor of a throat protector used by catchers and umpires, even posing semi-nude in Playgirl Magazine. But most of all, he was a defensive mainstay back in the day when catchers were primarily known for defense.

He played in four World Series, winning in 1981, when he shared MVP honors with Ron Cey and Pedro Guerrero, living up to his reputation as one of the better clutch hitters in a lineup filled with them. He was tough enough to endure some of the most violent plate collisions of his era, but he was overshadowed at the position playing during the Johnny Bench years. The throat protector, which he developed with trainer Bill Buhler, followed Yeager’s brush with death, when a shard of teammate Bill Russell’s bat punctured Yeager’s esophagus as he stood in the on-deck circle.

Honorable mentions
• Mickey Owen is known for a legendary passed ball, but he also played in four consecutive All-Star Games.

• After eight Minor League seasons, Paul Lo Duca was given a big league chance by manager Jim Tracy and turned it into an eight-year career, the first four with the Dodgers.

• A converted infielder, Russell Martin has caught in 14 MLB seasons. During his six Dodgers seasons, he was twice an All-Star with a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award.

• Yasmani Grandal has been the Dodgers’ best slugging catcher since Mike Piazza.