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Positional Talent Clusters: Johnny Bench and Friends

This Ron Tompkins rookie card is awesome.

This Ron Tompkins rookie card is awesome.

What happened in the late 60s and early 70s? I mean besides the acid rock, the acid itself, the grass, the hippies, the protests, Watts, the moonshot, Vietnam, Nixon, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate. Where did all the awesome catchers come from anyway?

Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson, Ted Simmons, and Gene Tenace all debuted from 1967–1969. A league of 20–24 teams generated five long-term catcher stars within 24 months. (And you can toss in Manny Sanguillen for good measure.) It sounds impressive, let’s see if it actually is.

If you pay close attention to Hall of Fame/Merit/Stats/Miller & Eric discussions, you know that two of those five catchers are honorees in every Hall out there. Simmons has a seat in Merit and Stats. Munson in Stats and Miller & Eric, Tenace in Stats. I looked for any two-year period that coughed up more than its share of great catchers. Let’s go backwards in time:

The early 1990s
Ivan Rodriguez (1991), Mike Piazza (1992), Javy Lopez (1992)

Wow. If Lopez had been a better defensive player, he could have had some skin in the Hall game. Still spitting out two top-10-ever catchers in two years, that’s pretty impressive. Until you look at Bench and Fisk, see the other three guys from the late 1960s lined up behind them, and realize that MLB expanded again in the late 1970s.

The early-mid 1970s
Jim Sundberg (1974), Bob Boone (1972), Gary Carter (1974)

Good group. I grew up watching Gary Carter on WWOR, and I didn’t appreciate the heights of his excellence, and no one appreciated Jim Sundberg except for Bill James. But it’s not nearly enough, unless we get magical pitch-framing data for the 1970s and 1980s that show Boone and Sunny saved a skillion runs a year.

The mid 1940s
Yogi Berra (1946), Roy Campanella (1948), Sherm Lollar (1946)

One all-time great, one damn-near all-time great, and one seven-time All-Star developed within a 16-team league. Nice. Very nice. Still not quite enough.

The late 1920s
Bill Dickey (1928), Rick Ferrell (1929)

There’s one Hall-worthy catcher between them.

The late 1870s
Charlie Bennett (1878), Buck Ewing (1880)

These two sprung out of leagues with only six to eight teams in them. Ewing is a catcher by plurality, though he started at catcher for years. Bennett was the grinder and a real catcher all the way. Given how few teams were in the league, this group can rival the 1960s gang. In fact, King Kelly also got his start in 1879. Though he wasn’t a starting catcher until later in his career, he always played a lot behind the plate. Call him a third of a Hall catcher if you want, and he’s worth about the same to the discussion as Sanguillen is to the hippie-era guys.

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I’d still take the modern guys, myself. They caught more games, more often, though in fairness, the olde tyme fellows had it a lot tougher and moonlighted around the diamond to stay fresh.

So what did they put in the water in the 1960s? Why did athletic kids flock to catching of all things? Who knows. Maybe this proto-Moneyball? Ya notice anything about the teams that Bench, Fisk, Munson, Simmons, Tenance, and even Sanguillen played for? They won. A lot. Three dynasties plus excellent Red Sox and Pirates squads. Only Simmons’ Cardinals weren’t great teams at some point in the 1970s, yet they still had five seasons over .500 in that stretch.

Maybe some smart teams decided to let their big-bodied, mobile, athletic youngsters stay behind the plate where managers and farm directors might have thought twice about it before? I don’t know. That’s for someone more knowledgeable than me answer. But whatever happened it was one hell of a time for catchers.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Positional Talent Clusters: Johnny Bench and Friends

  1. Nice article. I actually hadn’t noticed the confluence.
    I always thought that catchers, when they aged, went to other positions. King Kelly did it the other way around. Strange.
    Again, good job.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | July 28, 2014, 8:29 am

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