Dark days behind the plate

Yanks sign Russell Branyan to minor league deal
Yanks rank tenth in Keith Law's organizational rankings
The Yanks had a bit of trouble replacing Munson (AP Photo)

While the Yankees teams of the 80s weren’t all bad — they did win more games than any other franchise that decade — they were flawed at many positions. One position they continually struggled to fill was catcher. It all started, unsurprisingly, with Thurman Munson’s death during the 1979 season. His replacements, Jerry Narron and Brad Gulden, couldn’t have performed much worse. From there the Yankees did better at the position, but it took nearly two decades to find a stable presence.

Knowing that their current options would not hack it for a full season, or even part of a season, the Yankees made a move after the ’79 season. They traded ALCS hero Chris Chambliss and two others to the Blue Jays for 26-year-old catcher Rick Cerone. In 1979 Cerone got his first taste of a starting gig, and while he was nothing special, he was light years better than Narron and Gulden. He stepped right in and caught 147 games for the Yanks in 1980, producing a career-best 107 OPS+ in 575 PA. Yet, as with most things Yankees in the 80s, the rest of the journey was downhill.

Injuries and ineffectiveness limited Cerone during the next four seasons, during which he started 278 games and hit .227/.271/.304 (63 OPS+) in 981 PA. That meant the Yankees would have to find other solutions during those years. While they wouldn’t find much in 1981 — their catchers produced a 79 OPS+, which was 12th out of the 14 AL teams — they did swing a trade early in the 1982 season that worked out fairly well. On May 12th they acquired Butch Wynegar from the Twins for three players whose names I do not recognize (Pete Filson, Larry Mulbourne, John Pacella). That’s probably because I was a month old at the time.

Totally had this card

Wynegar exploded upon joining the Yankees, hitting .293/.413/.393 in 242 PA. In 1983 he played in 94 games and hit .296/.399/.429 in 357 PA. Injuries cost him some time in May and then again in early September, and those definitely hurt the Yanks. Cerone was still the backup, and he had a putrid season at age 29, a 52 OPS+ in 266 PA. Wynegar started for the Yanks in the next two seasons, and while they were good, especially for a catcher, they weren’t standout. By 1986 his production had faded, and after the season they traded him to the Angels for 20-year-old Alan Mills.

The Yanks didn’t let Wynegar’s fading production get them down in 86, though. The 90-win team also featured a spectacular half-season from the oft-traded Ron Hassey. The Yanks originally acquired him before the 1985 season, but then traded him to the White Sox in December, 1985. Strangely enough, the White Sox traded him back to the Yankees two months later, in February, 1986. After getting a superb half season out of him, the Yanks dished him at the 1986 trade deadline, back to the White Sox. They got in return Joel Skinner, a defensive specialist behind the plate. With the way he hit, he damn well better have been a defensive specialist.

This brings us back to 1987 and the Wynegar-less Yankees. After the 1984 season the Yankees had traded Cerone to the Braves, but in February, 1987, they re-signed him. He was coming off a halfway decent 1986 season for the Brewers, but he wouldn’t be quite so good for the Yankees in 87. He caught 113 games, which made it hurt even more. Still, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as Skinner’s OPS+ of 11 in 154 PA. To stanch the bleeding the Yankees swung a trade that June, sending 42-year-old Joe Niekro to the Twins for Mark Salas. That didn’t help much, as Salas produced a 58 OPS+. The Yanks would then send him to the White Sox after the season. The Yankees, apparently, had become the White Sox catching pipeline.

That was it for Cerone, at least that time around. The Yankees released him after spring training in 1988. Of course, he caught on the with the Red Sox and had two halfway decent seasons for them. At this point we reach my level of Yankees consciousness. I don’t remember the trade wherein the Yankees acquired Don Slaught for Brad Anrsberg, but I sure remember having Slaught’s baseball card that year. For the past few seasons Slaught had produced average numbers behind the plate while catching around 100 games per year. For a catcher that’s pretty solid production. He did pretty much the same for the Yankees in ’88 and ’89, adding offense where Skinner could not. That year we also saw the debut of Bob Geren.

Before the ’89 season the Yankees traded Skinner to the Indians in exchange for Mel Hall. With Slaught producing well behind the plate, the Yanks could afford to ditch their no-hit catcher and give a bigger shot to Geren. The latter responded in 1989, hitting .288/.329/.454 in 225 PA. The Slaught-Geren combo produced the fourth-best offensive numbers for catchers in the AL. Apparently satisfied with the 27-year-old Geren, the Yankees traded Slaught after the season. That might have been a mistake. Slaught went on to produce a string of four more solid seasons for Pittsburgh, while the Yanks were stuck with nothing much at catcher.

To back up Geren in 1990, the Yankees signed — you guessed it — Rick Cerone. This time around it actually worked out decently; he produced a 99 OPS+ in 146 PA as the backup. But he was 36 years old at the time and couldn’t handle more playing time. Meanwhile, Geren was hitting terribly. That prompted a mid-season trade with the Tigers, wherein the Yankees acquired Matt Nokes. While Nokes had shown great promise as a 23-year-old in 1987, producing a 133 OPS+ in 508 PA, he had become a merely average hitter by the time of the trade. But, again, from the catcher position that’s valuable. Nokes hit well enough for the Yanks in 1990, but the best was yet to come.

Nokes took over the starting gig from Geren, and in 1991 he 112 games behind the plate for the Yankees, a big deal at the time. His average and OBP were nothing to write home about, .268 and .308, but he did sock 24 homers, leading to a 113 OPS+. As a 9-year-old Little League catcher, I loved Nokes. It helped that he bashed a long homer to right field, as I was sitting down the first base line, during one of the games I attended with my dad in 1991. Nokes followed up his ’91 performance with an average one in ’92, producing an OPS+ of exactly 100. After another average, if injury plagued, season in ’93, he ended up socking seven homers in 85 PA for the 1994 team. That, however, would end his time in pinstripes.

Nokes was something of a sensation for young Yankees fans at the time. My only memories of Yankees catchers were Slaught, Geren, and a little Cerone, and none of them had any power. Nokes, on the other hand, simply mashed the ball. He hit more homers in 1991 than Geren hit in his entire career. Slaught hit 14 in his two years with the Yankees and topped 10 homer only twice in his career. Nokes? He led the Yankees in homers in 91 and finished just three behind team-leading Danny Tartabull in 92. All told he knocked 71 homers in 1510 PA for the Yanks from 1990 through 94.

That's Tim Naehring, for those wondering. And he is out. (JOHN MOTTERN/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1992 the Yankees had acquired another big bat catcher. Despite Nokes’ team-leading production, they signed Mike Stanley as a free agent. The two split time at catcher in ’92 — Stanley had never really handled the position full-time, and he responded by producing a 125 OPS+ in 207 PA. His role expanded in 1993, and he hit even better: a 150 OPS+ in 491 PA. That year the Yankees’ catchers were outhit only by Baltimore’s. That’s what happens when your starting catcher puts up a 1.001 OPS. Seriously.

Stanley served as the Yanks’ backstop during the strike-shortened 1994 season, again producing monster numbers. He was less awesome, but still solid, in 1995, his final season with the Yanks (that time around). After the season the Yankees let him go as a free agent, opting to go with a more defensive-minded, at least by reputation, catcher in 1996. Stanley signed on with the Red Sox, though he’d make his way back to New York in 1997. In what seems to be the last trade between the two clubs, the Yankees acquired Stanley from the Sox for Tony Armas. This is somewhat significant, because the Red Sox used Armas that off-season as part of a package to acquire Pedro Martinez.

It’s no surprise that the Yankees had a revolving door at the catcher position throughout the 80s and 90s. Catchers don’t typically last long, and when they do their teams tend to hang onto them. It’s not easy to acquire a good catcher, and even if you do it 1) costs a lot in a trade or free agency, and 2) might not work out, since catchers can break down at any time. Still, the Yanks particularly struggled when seeking stability at the position. They found a few bright spots along the way, but it wasn’t until Jorge Posada started breaking into the league in 1997 that they found their true replacement for Munson. All told, 20 years between star catchers isn’t that long a stretch.

Yanks sign Russell Branyan to minor league deal
Yanks rank tenth in Keith Law's organizational rankings
  • JJ

    A bit of trouble replacing Munson was putting it mildly. I grew up rooting for Munson and admired the way he handled the staff behind the plate as well as his presence in the lineup. It was a sad day on the ballfield when I learned of his passing a mere hour before we were to play – and I still miss him to this day. I really think he would have been one heck of a manager for the Yankees if he had survived. Luv ya Thurman!

    • Yankee68

      Amen! He was the best. Posada never came close his greatness. A true leader with no ego.

      • JJ

        Very true Yankee68! Whenever at the stadium, I make it a point to go to the museum to see his locker and Monument Park for his Plaque and Retired #.

        This summed it all up for me – last of Gallo’s pics in the gallery:


      • CMP

        That’s a lot of BS. Posada had more career WAR and his peak seasons were very comparable to Munson’s.

        When Munson was killed in the plane crash, he had already deteriorated significantly and it was doubtful his career was going to have much of an upswing after catching almost 1500 games.

        • JJ

          What BS? I admired his offense and his handling of pitchers as well as being the first Captain since Gehrig. Btw – Munson in 11 seasons was a 2 Time World Champion, 7 time All-Star, 3 time Gold Glover, 1970 Rookie of the Year, AND 1976 AL MVP – not bad for such a short career. No one here knocked Posada, I was celebrating what Munson meant to me.

          • CMP

            I was responding to Yankee 68 who posted Posada “never came close his greatness”

            Posada was a 5 time All-Star, a 5 time world champion and won 5 silver sluggers

            Munson was great but if he was better than Posada, it wasn’t by much.

            • Yankee68

              Posada NEVER was able to call a game or defend it. All Star game is a popularity contest. He also played on outstanding teams which leads to rings. Posada was much better then all the other catchers named, but Munson was better handling the pitching staff and other players. He even got along with Mr Steinbrenner. He was the first Captian since LG for a reason. Munson was a team player who was the glue on those crazy 70’s teams.

              • CMP

                Of course All star games are a popularity contest but they’re no more useless defining a players greatness than winning an MVP.

                The ability to call games is a nebulous concept which I’ve never seen proven to amount to anything significant and is based upon reputation, justly or unjustly.

                For their careers according to baseball reference, Munson was worth 2.4 WAR defensively over 11 years and Posada -2.9 over 17 years so basically the difference between them over 28 years of baseball is insignificant.

                • Yankee68

                  Really, nebulous concept! You clearly are missing a large part of the game. Stats are great but are effected by outside factors. Repay an old Munson game and watch as he directed everything like a field general. Posada not so much.

      • Urban

        Calm down folks. The Yankees are lucky to have had both, and I saw the both. The darkness in between was not pleasant and I am sure hoping it’s not another twenty years. My fear is Russell Martin is like Rick Cerone, a nice first year and down from there.

        Rooting hard for Gary Sanchez.

        • CMP


          I can’t stand having a catcher who’s like an automatic out in the lineup.

          It reminds me too much of national league baseball with the pitcher batting.

    • Pat D

      What’s great is that Cerone’s 1980 season was considered so “valuable” by someone that they gave him a first place MVP vote that year.

      Probably the most inexplicable first place MVP vote ever (I say this without strenuously examining the history of all voting years).

      • Urban

        You’re right, but I bet there’s been worse. Can’t imagine who, though!

      • G

        He got more than one vote. Actually he got a pretty big share of votes and finished in 7th. 3.9 WAR is nothing to write home about but ‘m sure there have been worse votes.

        • Plank

          Shannon Stewart 2003 is particularly egregious.

        • Pat D

          I was only referring to first-place votes, not total votes.

          And I’ve already found a few more that were pretty terrible:
          Michael Young, 2011
          Francisco Rodriguez & Brad Lidge, 2008
          Jose Mesa, 1995

  • Paul VuvuZuvella

    A couple of paragraphs on Slaught and no mention of his nickname…Sluggo!
    Nokes had one of the prettiest Left Handed swings I have ever seen.

  • Guy

    Interesting article. Especially highlights how difficult it is to find a quality catcher that can also produce offense consistently. Quick note: I do recognize the name John Pacella. Back in the early to mid 70’s I worked at a boat yard in Oakdale, NY (on Long Island). John’s Dad came in occasionally and was especially proud to let us know that his son had been drafted by the Mets. He was sure he would be a star which of course never materialized but it must have been a great moment for him, his son and their family.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    It kills me that you continued to spell his came “Cerrone,” like the disco group, and not “Cerone.”

    Damn you, Axisa.

    I guess the catching situation didn’t seem as bad because we were still conditioned, at the time, that catchers not named Carlton Fisk or Johnny Bench weren’t supposed to hit for much. I could tolerate a guy like Joel Skinner back then.

    That being said, my dad always thought Cerone sucked.

    • I Live In My Mom’s Basement

      Not to mention Larry Milbourne.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      This is kind of an hilarious comment. First, because I wrote it, not Mike. Second, I had spelled it Cerone when I wrote it, but Mike went and changed it in every instance.

      Dam you, Axisa indeed.

      • Robinson Tilapia

        When RAB memes become reality.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

      The Cerone/Cerrone this is my bad.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      Also, Rick Cerrone was the Yankees media relations director in the late 90s and early 00s. Yes, with two Rs.

      • Pat D

        Which always led to its own ball of confusion, especially when Rick Cerone (the former catcher) was a broadcaster for a few years around the same time!

      • http://www.twitter.com/JoeRo23 The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

        He probably shouldn’t have pointed out to the HR Department in 2006 that they had his name spelled wrong in his file.

      • Steve (different one)

        Wait, this wasn’t the same guy? I always just assumed it was.

  • J.R.

    Great article, it really makes you wonder about the future of the position for the Yankees in the next 20 years. Could Martin only be a 2 year stopgap after Posada? Could Montero end up being a great success behind the plate?

  • JoeyA

    In regards to catching potential….who remembers Matt Wieters?

    He would be so frustrating to watch if he were a Yankee C prospect. Dude was supposed to be the next big thing behind the plate and, in reality, thats all he is. just a big thing behind the plate

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joe Pawlikowski

      He had a pretty damn good offensive season in 2011. Not superstar, but well above average. Only 6 catchers in all of baseball had better offensive numbers.

    • Ed

      Wieters had a 4.3 fWAR and 4.0 bWAR last year in 139 games. 110 wRC+, 113 OPS+. It’s not amazing, but it’s still very good for a catcher.

    • Pat D

      I get what you’re saying. I remember ESPN making a big deal of Wieters when he was first recalled. I seem to remember them referencing some Orioles blog which had already produced a mock HOF plaque for him.

      So, yea, in terms of potential, he was certainly regarded as the next can’t miss, and he hasn’t hit that level yet.

  • CMP

    This article makes you appreciate Posada a lot more.

    People bitched about his suspect defense and game calling but the majority of catchers in those dark years couldn’t catch or hit worth a damn.

  • Robert The Bruce

    The Yankees had the services of Barry Foote and his incredible mustache in the early 1980s. I recall that he had, at one point only five hits, but everyone of them was a solo homer.

    John Pacella used to have a freakish pitching delivery that resulted in him losing his cap after every pitch.

    Yankees sure did trade away a lot of their minor league pitching in the 1980s for these adventures in backstops.

    • JayJay

      I was at a game in late July 1983, won in xtra innings when Don Baylor followed a Steve Kemp with a walkoff homer. Foote was the catcher and threw out an attempted base-stealer. The old Diamond Vision thin (or whatever it was called) put up ‘Our By A Foote’

      • JayJay

        sorry about the typos. It was a Kemp double and the message said ‘Out By A Foote’

  • Don W

    I was surprised there was no mention of WHY Wynegar was traded to the Angels. If memory serves Wynegar battled anxiety issues and having Billy Martin as your manager couldn’t have helped that. Wynegar demanded to be traded in the middle of the season and refused to play until he was. He got his wish during the winter meetings.

    • Pat D

      My dad has always told me this story that the reason for Wynegar’s issues was that Dave Winfield had an affair with his wife.

      I have never seen this mentioned anywhere, however, so I have a hard time determining if it’s true.

      • Alex A

        I had heard the same thing about Wynegar and Winfield.

  • Rainbow Connection

    Speaking of ‘dark days behind the plate’, have the Yankees ever had a black catcher?

    • Rainbow Connection

      Elston Howard.

      • Karlovau

        You remembered while I was typing!

    • Karlovau


      How young they are – one of the best black catchers ever, Elston Howard (1955-1967)! The first black to play for the Yankees. Even has a plaque in Monument Park.

    • JohnC

      Cliff Johnson

  • Mariano’s Pimp Hand

    I always get a kick out of these Yankee retrospectives. I remember all the 70s Yankees like yesterday but the 80s are a bit of a blur as girls, cars etc. had pushed the Yanks on to the back burner for a while.

  • Lincoln’s Beard

    Matt Nokes was responsible for one of my fondest childhood memories


  • JohnC

    I remember after Munson’s death, Yanks tried Jerry Narron and Brad Gulden first. Neither panned out and Rick Cerone was obtained the following Winter