Catchers: apples and oranges

It’s been more than a week now since the great Yogi Berra passed away, and I wanted to hold off a bit before posting a few thoughts on Yogi and his place in the pantheon of legendary backstoppers.

The saddening news of Berra’s death last week spurred commentators and pundits of all stripes to pontificate about whether he was the greatest catcher of all time, especially offensively. It reminded me a little of a similar debate that cropped up several years ago when Mike Piazza retired from the game.

I bring this discussion up now also because last week — Sept. 22, to be precise — marked the 50th anniversary of the death of another Hall of Fame catcher, Negro Leaguer Raleigh “Biz” Mackey.

To me, the timing of Yogi’s death so close to the half-century mark of Mackey’s passing was, perhaps at the very least, eerily coincidental. It also once again snaps into focus the debate of whether Negro Leaguers and their accomplishments continue to get short shrift compared to their major league counterparts, including ones from both pre- and post-1947.

When Piazza retired, many pundits touted him as the greatest offensive catcher in history, even better than Berra or Johnny Bench. But very few of those expert commentators even raised the names of Mackey, Josh Gibson and other legendary, segregation-era backstops who could pound the cover off the ball, reflecting a vaguely racist historical hardball myopia that still exists

Surely Gibson, at the very least, was better with the stick than Piazza or Bench or, dare I say, even Berra or the Dodgers’ Campy. And that’s not to mention Biz or any other number of Negro League legends.

And that’s certainly no disrespect to Yogi or any other major-league catcher to come along after the advent of integration.

To a point, thus, we may be talking the proverbial apples and oranges, lacking any viable algorithm to fairly and accurately compare Josh Gibson or Biz with Yogi Berra — or, for that matter, segregation-era white Hall of Famers like Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane, etc.

So where does that leave us? I’m really not sure. Maybe we’ll have to be content with this comparing apples to apples, oranges to oranges, and bananas to bananas. It’s virtually impossible to mix-n-match players from different eras and situations.

But it’s still a fun debate. So, was Josh better than Yogi? Was Bench as good as Biz? Let the debate begin. Or, rather, let it continue …


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