Steve YeagerJune 4, 2008
Steve Yeager was known for a greater number of things than the usual good major league catcher. For comparison, consider Jim Sundberg, Yeager’s contemporaneous counterpart in defensive excellence in the American League. Sundberg stuck to the usual catcher script: catch games, blend into background. On the other hand, the mention of Yeager’s name conjures many things beyond the usual realm of the anonymous receiver. Here are some of those things, not including his role as Duke Temple in Major League, Major League II, and Major League: Back to the Minors:
1. Being Chuck Yeager’s cousin. Imagine being a longtime starter on one of the marquee teams in major league baseball and still being second banana at the family reunions. “Hey, Chuck, check out my World Series MVP award.” “Hey, that’s great, Steve (even if you did share the award with two other guys). Oh, by the way, here’s a picture of me after I became the first human being to break the sound barrier.”
2. Almost dying in the on-deck circle. A shard from Bill Russell’s broken bat hit him in the neck, puncturing his esophagus. (You know you’re an injury pioneer when your esophagus gets involved.) To protect Yeager’s beleaguered body part the Dodgers trainer created the first throat protector, which soon became part of every catcher’s protective armor. I’m pretty sure Yeager never wore the throat protector in the on-deck circle, which casts an odd light on the invention. It’s kind of like getting hit by a car and then inventing something that protects you from getting hit by trains.
3. Posing in Playgirl. For some reason on the rare occasions when the subject of Playgirl comes up, I always think of a line uttered by Paul Newman’s grizzled player-coach in Slapshot about the relative pulchritude of the male body: “Dicks. They ain’t petunias.”
4. Converting to Judaism. You could make the case that Steve Yeager deserves the starting spot on the all-time Jewish baseball player all-star team. There haven’t been that many nice Jewish boys willing to don the tools of ignorance. There was the colorful, defensively apt but offensively inept Moe Berg, early 1960s Dodger backup Norm Sherry, and current longtime weak-hitting, good fielding catcher Brad Ausmus. Mike Lieberthal is often also mentioned in discussions of Jewish ballplayers, but he seems to be pretty vehement about not wanting to be identified as a Jew. (I believe that, like me, Lieberthal’s father was Jewish. I proudly consider myself a half-breed, embracing neither Lieberthal’s apparent denial of his roots on his father’s side nor the orthodox Jewish belief that if a person’s mother isn’t Jewish that person is not at all Jewish.) I’d say all things considered Yeager tops all those guys, so if you’re willing to overlook the fact that he wasn’t actually Jewish while he was playing and instead concentrate on his willful post-career embrace of Judaism, he gets the starting nod, catching Sandy Koufax and taking his place in the following batting order: Benny Kauff (CF), Rod Carew (2B) (I follow Jonah Keri in including Carew), Hank Greenberg (1B), Sid Gordon (LF), Al Rosen (3B), Sean Shawn Green (RF), Yeager (C), Buddy Myer (SS), and Koufax (P).
5. Being one in a long line of good, if not excellent, Dodgers catchers. A couple days ago, hard on the heels of Manny Ramirez’s 500th home run, Batter’s Box wondered if Red Sox left fielders comprise the single best position of any franchise in baseball history, mentioning Ramirez, Duffy Lewis, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Mike Greenwell. The ensuing conversation there and on the Baseball Think Factory turned up several contenders for the honor, including among many others Yankees centerfielders and first basemen, Cardinals first basemen, Browns/Orioles shortstops, and Giants first basemen. The first thought that came to my mind when I saw the topic was Yankees catchers. I wasn’t the only one to think of this. But no one mentioned the same position for the Dodgers. But consider all the Dodgers catchers named by Bill James as among the 100 best of all time (their ranking follows their names): Roy Campanella (3), Mike Piazza (5) (when the rating came out it was based almost entirely on his time with the Dodgers), Johnny Roseboro (27), Mike Scioscia (36), Steve Yeager (78), Joe Ferguson (79) (the journeyman had a few career-representative seasons with the team in question), and Mickey Owen (88). The Yankees’ list is probably a bit stronger–Yogi Berra (1), Bill Dickey (7), Thurman Munson (14), Elston Howard (15), Wally Schang (20) (see note for Ferguson), and Butch Wynegar (65) (see note for Ferguson)–especially considering that Jorge Posada deserves to be added somewhere pretty near the top, but the Dodgers’ backstops, current star Russell Martin included, are certainly no slouches. You could do a lot worse than a future Jew-embracing thespian willing to injure his esophagus and bare his petunia.