Italians in Baseball – The Catchers (Part 2)
Last week The Italian Tribune celebrated the opening of the major leagues baseball season. This week, we are featuring four all-time great catchers. We present four outstanding Italian American catchers. Three are in Baseball’s Hall of Fame and the other will be inducted on Sunday, July 24 of this year. Each was not only a reliable backstop, but a great hitter. All had excellent arms and durability. Who would you select for your All Italian All Star Team?
Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra (May 12, 1925 – September 22, 2015)
Born Lorenzo Pietro Berra, Yogi was a catcher, manager and coach who played 19 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) (1946–63, 1965), all but the last for the New York Yankees. Making his major-league debut in 1946, he was a mainstay in the Yankees’ lineup during the team’s championship years in the 1940s and 1950s. Despite his short stature, Berra was a power hitter and strong defensive catcher. He was a clutch hitter, renowned for his ability to hit balls in or out of the strike zone. He rarely struck out. As a catcher, Berra was outstanding – quick, mobile and a great handler of pitchers. Berra led all American League catchers eight times in games caught, six times in double plays (a major-league record) and eight times in putouts. Yogi left the game with the AL records for catcher putouts (8,723) and chances accepted (9,520). He was also one of only four catchers ever to field 1.000 in a season, playing 88 errorless games in 1958. An 18-time All-Star and 10-time World Series champion as a player, Berra had a career batting average of .285, while hitting 358 home runs and 1,430 runs batted in. He is one of only five players to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award three times. He was named to the MLB All-Century Team in a vote by fans in 1999. For the remainder of his life, he was closely involved with the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center, which he opened on the campus of Montclair State University in 1998. Famous for his witty malapropisms such as “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” he simultaneously denied and confirmed his reputation by stating, “I really didn’t say everything I said.” One of the greatest catchers in baseball history, Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
Roy Campanella (November 19, 1921 – June 26, 1993)
Nicknamed “Campy,” this Philadelphia native’s father, John, was the son of Sicilian immigrants. His mother, Ida, was African American. Campy was effectively prohibited from MLB play before 1947. He played for the Negro Leagues and Mexican League for several seasons before moving into the minor leagues in 1946. He made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut in 1948. Campanella played in the All-Star Game every year from 1949 through 1956. He received the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in the National League three times – in 1951, 1953 and 1955. In each of his MVP seasons, he batted more than .300, hit more than 30 home runs and had more than 100 runs batted in. In 1955, Campanella’s final MVP season helped Brooklyn to win its first-ever World Series championship. Tragically, his playing career ended in 1958 when he was paralyzed by an automobile accident.
Campanella is widely considered to have been one of the greatest catchers in the history of the game. After his playing career, he held positions in scouting and community relations with the Dodgers. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. Campy died of heart failure on June 26, 1993, at his home in Woodland Hills, California.
Ernesto Natali “Ernie” Lombardi (April 6, 1908 – September 26, 1977)
Ernie’s career in major league baseball spanned 17 years, from 1931 through 1947. He had several nicknames, including “Schnozz,” “Lumbago,” “Bocci,” “The Cyrano of the Iron Mask” and “Lom.” He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.
Baseball writer Bill James called Lombardi “the slowest man to ever play major league baseball well.” The fact that he was so slow spoke to what an outstanding hitter he was. Lombardi was an All-Star for seven seasons. He hit over .300 for ten seasons and finished his major league career with a .306 batting average, despite infielders playing very deep for the sloth-like baserunner. He is listed at 6’3″ and 230 lbs, but he probably approached 300 lbs towards the end of his career. He was also known as a gentle giant and this made him hugely popular among Cincinnati fans.
Michael Joseph Piazza (born September 4, 1968)
Piazza is one of the best hitting catchers to ever play the game. He played 16 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB), from 1992–2007. He played most notably for the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, while also having brief stints with the Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres and Oakland Athletics. A 12-time All-Star and 10-time Silver Slugger Award winner at catcher, Piazza produced strong offensive numbers at his position. In his career, he recorded 427 home runs – a record 396 of which were hit as catcher- along with a .308 batting average and 1,335 runs at bat. He made his major league debut in 1992 and the following year was named the National League (NL) Rookie of the Year and was an All-Star for the first of ten consecutive seasons. His best year as a Dodger came in 1997 when he batted .362, hit 40 home runs and had 124 runs batted in (RBIs), leading to a runner-up finish in voting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award. In 1998, he was traded to the Marlins and then a week later to the Mets, with whom he spent most of the remainder of his career. He helped the Mets reach the 2000 World Series, the only World Series appearance of his career. Piazza is regarded as one of the best offensive catchers in baseball history. In 2016, Piazza was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.