The art of catching a bullet.
If it’s true (and it is) that the best pitching in baseball history could be found in the 1960s, then an integral part of that excellence were the guys behind the plate, calling and catching those games.
While the 1960s may have been thin on Hall of Fame catchers, there were several receivers who consistently delivered, both offensively and defensively, to their teams’ success. Here’s my rundown of the top 10 catchers of the 1960s, based on a combination of their hitting prowess and their handling of pitchers.
1. Elston Howard – A masterful handler of pitchers with a potent bat, Elston Howard was a fixture at catcher for the Yankees in the early 1960s and one of the most under-appreciated members of those powerhouse squads. Howard hit a combined .284 as the Yankees’ everyday catcher from 1960 to 1966, batting .348 in 1961, the second-highest batting average in the American League to Detroit’s Norm Cash (.361). Howard hit .287 during his MVP season of 1963, catching 132 games and winning the first of his 2 Gold Glove awards.
2. Joe Torre – Though his best years came with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 1970s (including a batting title and Most Valuable Player award in 1971), Joe Torre was probably the best all-around catcher in the National League during the 1960s. Playing for the Braves from 1960 to 1968, Torre hit a combined .294 over that period, twice driving in more than 100 runs and hitting a career-high 36 home runs in 1966. Traded to the Cardinals before the 1969 season, Torre eclipsed 100 RBIs in each of his first 3 seasons with St. Louis, leading the major leagues with 137 RBIs in 1971.
3. Bill Freehan – This durable Detroit Tigers backstop caught more than 100 games per year from 1964 through 1972, winning consecutive Gold Gloves from 1965 to 1969. A career-long Tiger (signed off the campus of the University of Michigan), Bill Freehan hit .300 in 1964 while catching 141 games. He hit .262 over a 15-year career, and ranks ninth all-time in career putouts by a catcher. His .993 fielding percentage is tied for third all-time among catchers.
4. Earl Battey – The “heart” of the Minnesota Twins 1965 American League championship team, Earl Battey was in the powerful Twins lineup for his defense, but had plenty of pop in his bat. Signed by the White Sox, Battey was traded to the Washington Senators in 1960 and migrated with the franchise to Minnesota, where he became the Twins’ everyday catcher through the 1966 season. Battey hit .277 during the 1960s (.270 for his career). His best offensive season was 1962, with 26 home runs and 84 RBIs while batting .285. Battey won 3 Gold Glove awards at the catcher position.
5. John Roseboro – Handling the likes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Johnny Podres and Claude Osteen, it could be argued that the Dodgers’ John Roseboro caught the best starting rotation of the 1960s. He was the Dodgers’ starting catcher from 1961 until he was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 1967 season. A 3-time All-Star and winner of a pair of Gold Gloves, Roseboro was a .240 career hitter who best single-season average was .287 in 1964.
6. Tim McCarver – Before his long career as a sports broadcaster, Tim McCarver’s 21-year major league career was distinguished by 2 accomplishments. As a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, he was the regular catcher for one of the best pitchers of the 1960s (or, for that matter, any era): Bob Gibson. And in 1966, he became the last (thus far) catcher to lead the major leagues in triples, with 13 that season. Except for short stints in Boston and Montreal, McCarver spent nearly his entire career with the Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies, hitting .271. Twice an All Star, he ranks twentieth among all-time for career putouts by catchers.
7. John Romano – John Romano was twice a 2-year member of the Chicago White Sox, first in 1958 and 1959 and then again in 1965 and 1966. His most productive seasons came during the 5 years in-between, when he hit a combined .263 over that period as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Romano’s best year was 1962, when he hit 25 home runs and knocked in 81 runs as the Tribe’s starting catcher. Romano returned to the White Sox in 1965 in a 3-team deal that brought Rocky Colavito back to Cleveland.
8. Randy Hundley – After 5 years in the San Francisco Giants organization, Randy Hundley was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1965 and immediately established himself as baseball’s most durable catcher, and one of the best defensively. He caught over 600 games from 1966 to 1969, averaging 63 RBIs per season during that period.
9. Johnny Edwards – For most of the 1960s, Johnny Edwards was the everyday catcher for the Cincinnati Reds. Signed by the Reds off The Ohio State University campus, Edwards made the big-league club in 1962 and averaged 130 games per year at catcher through 1965, with an average of 10 home runs and 55 RBIs per year. His offensive production for the Red dropped dramatically in 1966 and 1967. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968 and to the Houston Astros a year later. He spent his last 6 years with Houston until he retired in 1974.
10. John Blanchard – John Blanchard was good enough to rate among the top 10 catchers of his day, but wasn’t good enough to be a Yankee starter behind the plate. First he was the back-up to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, and then played the last half of his career behind Elston Howard. Throughout his career, Blanchard was a powerful hitter that pitchers feared. He was one of 6 Yankees to hit 20 home runs or more in 1961. During that season, Blanchard hit .305 with 21 home runs and 54 RBIs in only 243 at-bats. He also hit 4 pinch home runs that season, the fourth highest total in major league history.