BILL DICKEY: Pride of Arkansas

March 5th, 2018

Anyone who is proud to call themselves an Arkansan should know the story of Bill Dickey. Born in Louisiana in 1907, he moved to Kensett, Arkansas as a child, and remained a citizen of the Natural State for the rest of his life.

William Malcolm Dickey was raised as one of seven children. His dad supported the large family by working as a brakeman for the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and young Bill did his part by learning the value of honest labor as a boy. Dickey attended Searcy High School, and played pitcher and second base for his baseball team. He also played guard for the football team while briefly attending Little Rock College.

At that point in Bill Dickey’s life, no one could have predicted that he would become a Hall of Fame Major League catcher. Then, in 1925, a series of events dramatically changed the course of Dickey’s life. The Lawson-Buicks team, located in Hot Springs, needed a replacement catcher, and Bill was asked to fill the void. He agreed to do so, and took to his relatively new position as if born for it.

Dickey already possessed a rocket throwing arm and exceptional overall athleticism, but, when he combined those gifts with his natural competiveness and intelligence as a baseball backstop, a truly transcendent catcher was born.

Playing each Sunday at Whittington Park from June through October, Bill quickly distinguished himself. His best game occurred on July 26, 1925 versus the Stuttgart Rice Growers. He drove in all his team’s runs in a 5-1 victory, including a tremendous double off the top of the center field fence with the bases loaded.

On August 23, 1925 against Prescott’s Bruce Lumber squad, it was Dickey’s remarkable throwing ability that most impressed three representatives from the Little Rock Travelers. Reportedly, they were there to scout someone else, but, when they watched Bill throwing out opposition runners, Dickey became an instant priority. Manager Russell “Lena” Blackburne was so enthralled that he summoned the young prospect under the grandstand during the seventh inning, producing an “agreement to sign a contract” from his pocket. Bill Dickey affixed his signature on the spot, and his career rocketed upward.

Bill moved quickly through the Minor League system, and his contract was acquired by the New York Yankees after the 1927 season. In 1928, he split time at both Little Rock and Buffalo (Double-A level), but, by then, his talent, unmistakably, belonged in the Major Leagues.

Accordingly, Bill Dickey was summoned by the Yankees, and made his Big League debut on August 15, 1928. As soon as the next year, Bill Dickey was doing most of the catching for the legendary Bronx Bombers (led by Babe Ruth). He caught in 127 games that season which was the start of a record thirteen consecutive years in which he caught in over one-hundred contests.

During that entire time, Dickey was also establishing himself as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball history. In that first full season in 1929, Bill batted .324 which was the first of six straight years of .300-plus batting averages. Two of his best offensive games took place in 1931. In Detroit on May 17 of that season, the big backstop ripped five straight singles. Then on September 17 at Yankee Stadium, he led the way in a 17-0 shellacking of the St. Louis Browns by belting two lusty homers and driving in seven runs.

Dickey stood six-feet-one, and weighed 190 muscular pounds. He threw right-handed, but batted from the left side. Just as important as his physical attributes, Bill Dickey possessed one of the game’s most efficient baseball minds.

Behind the plate, he took charge of games, especially in the toughest situations, and earned the respect and trust of every pitcher with whom he ever worked. With Dickey calling for pitches, hurlers seemed completely confident in his judgment and were able to focus on the physical execution of their jobs. The results were unmistakable. The Yankee pitching staff improved significantly after Bill arrived on the roster.

Bill Dickey won his first World Series as an active player in 1932; it was the start of one of the most impressive winning resumes that the athletic world has ever seen. Yet, it was a bitter-sweet season. During the first game of a highly competitive double-header in Washington, D.C. on July 4, Dickey was involved in a particularly rough tag play at home plate. Senator runner Carl Reynolds had come barreling into Bill who had tagged him out, thereby sending both players sprawling to the ground. Neither man knew exactly what had happened in that moment.

Reynolds, still not aware that he had been called out, scrambled back toward home plate since he wasn’t sure if he had touched the plate during the collision. Dickey saw him coming out of the corner of his eye, and assumed that he (Reynolds) was returning to start a fight. Trying to protect himself, Bill swung his fist, and broke Reynolds’ jaw.

Bill Dickey was a truly tough guy, but he was never a trouble-maker. He was also an honorable fellow. When he was accused by folks, who didn’t know him, of “sucker punching” Reynolds, he was devastated. Naturally, more than anything, he was deeply upset that he had injured Carl Reynolds. Dickey was fined $1,000, and suspended for thirty days. That hurt a lot, but it was nothing compared to the pain he felt over the way that he was being perceived by much of the public. I interviewed Bill Dickey in the 1980s, and he referred to those events as the low-point of his athletic career. I could hear the pain that still resonated in his voice a half century after the fact.

Happily, Dickey and his teammates got to celebrate their World Series triumph soon after the Reynolds incident, and, moving forward, Bill enjoyed considerably more ups than downs. Babe Ruth left the Yankees at the conclusion of the 1934 season, but, in 1936, Joe DiMaggio put on the pinstripes. Somehow, the Yanks kept stockpiling talent, and they just kept on winning…and winning. They claimed World Series titles consecutively from 1936 through 1939 as Bill Dickey seemed to improve with each passing year.

During those four straight championships, Dickey batted over .300, slugged over twenty home runs, and drove in over 100 runs each year. That was (and still is) a remarkable output for an outstanding defensive catcher. In 1936, Bill batted a career-high .362 while slugging at the rate of.617. By the end of 1939, the only debate about the quality of Dickey’s game was whether he was a better offensive or defensive performer. As an historian, I can confidently state that he was great in both categories.

During that same period, Bill Dickey was quietly coming to Hot Springs to engage in so-called pre-spring training. In other words, before joining his New York mates in Florida for formal spring workouts, he would come to the Valley to get into playing condition. He did this without much fanfare or publicity. As a result, it is hard to know precisely how often these visits took place. However, according to local historian and author, Don Duren, we know for sure that Dickey trained in Hot Springs in early 1937, 1939, and 1940. This data can be found in Don’s definitive book on Hot Springs baseball history, titled Boiling Out At The Springs (Hodge Printing Company, 2015).

In an entertaining twist of local lore, fellow 2018 Historical Trail honoree Lefty Grove also trained at Hot Springs in early 1940. Even though they were intense rivals during the regular season, Dickey and Grove happily appeared together at the annual Boys Club “homecoming” in Little Rock on February 21, 1940. They were two tough hombres, but, when it came to helping needy boys, they were willing partners.

It was also in 1940, that there was a significant change in Bill Dickey’s baseball life. It was the first time that Bill began a season with the Yankees without his good friend Lou Gehrig. It was during the 1939 campaign when the great “Iron Horse” had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease which would end his life within two years. Bill and Lou had become roommates for many years, and had forged a very close relationship.

Although Dickey was a Southerner and Gehrig had been born and raised in New York City, the two men looked at the world through a similar lens. They both thought and acted with restraint, preferring to live quietly and conservatively. When traveling with the team, they talked about baseball, ate a healthy diet, went to the movies, and retired early. It had worked well for both of them, so when Lou left the scene, Bill felt a huge void in his life. Predictably, he soldiered forward.

Contrasted to Lou Gehrig’s early and tragic death, Bill Dickey was still in the early stages of his overall odyssey as a baseball legend in 1940. He was nearing the end of his physical prime, but his contributions to the game were still on the ascendency.

In both 1941 and 1943, although Dickey’s statistical output diminished, the Yankees again won the World Series. Bill won the final game of that latter series by blasting a mighty home run to the back of the right field pavilion roof at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.  The drive sailed so high and far that young Cardinals’ right fielder Stan Musial never moved as it flew over his head. That two run blow was the only scoring in a thrilling climax to that year’s Fall Classic. By then, Bill was the leader of the team. Joe DiMaggio had become the star player, but Dickey’s quiet leadership was the team’s anchor.

In 1944 and 1945, Bill served for the United States Navy in the Pacific theatre during World War II. As was the case with most Major League players, Uncle Sam chose to keep Dickey out of harm’s way. Against his wishes, he stayed in Hawaii to oversee baseball operations there. At war’s end, Bill was thirty-eight years old, and decided to return to the Yankees one last time.

He was no longer the same athletic juggernaut, but he did get the chance to do something that he had never anticipated. When iconic Yankee manager Joe McCarthy suddenly resigned early in the 1946 season, Bill Dickey became the new team skipper. He did a commendable job while guiding the team to a respectable 57 & 48 record over the next few months. However, true to his nature, when it became apparent to Dickey that he would need to play team politics to keep his job, he simply stepped aside. Bill finished that campaign as a player, and quietly retired.

When it was over, Bill Dickey had batted .313 for his career while blasting 202 home runs and driving in 1,209 runs. He had won seven World Series as a player, and been chosen eleven times to represent the American League in the annual All-Star game. That last total would have been even higher if that mid-summer classic had begun before 1933.

As a catcher and handler of pitchers, Bill Dickey had few peers in the history of the game. Bob Feller, who played his entire career for the rival Cleveland Indians as one of the game’s greatest hurlers, once said:

Bill Dickey is the best (catcher) I ever saw. He was as good as anyone behind the plate, and better with the bat. There are others I’d include right behind Dickey, but he was the best all-around catcher of them all. I believe I could have won 35 games if Dickey was my catcher.

Bill Dickey returned to Arkansas upon the conclusion of his Big League career. In 1947, he managed the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association. It was not a successful season, and Dickey became convinced that managing was not what he wanted to do. However, baseball was not through with the man. After working for a year in the Little Rock business world, the phone rang in early 1949 with the Yankees asking Bill to return as a coach. Specifically, they recognized the considerable raw talent of young Yogi Berra, but felt that only Dickey could help him to fulfill his potential. That marriage of coach and player turned into an extraordinarily compelling story.

As most everyone knows, Yogi Berra and his Yankee teammates went on to do great things under Bill Dickey’s tutelage. In fact, with Dickey at the side of manager Casey Stengel, the New York Yankees reached new heights of athletic grandeur. From 1949 through 1953, they won five consecutive World Series, a feat that is unlikely to ever be equaled. With Dickey still coaching them, the Yanks won it all again in 1956. All the while, the star players on that historic roster (Berra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford et al) sang the praises of their quiet but forceful coach from Arkansas.

One of the most intriguing subplots during that time was Yogi Berra’s wearing of Bill Dickey’s old number 8. When Dickey returned in 1949, Berra had already been assigned that number in an effort to induce him to pattern himself after his esteemed predecessor. Accordingly, Dickey wore number 33 until he retired from the field after the 1957 season.

Meanwhile, Bill had been elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954. Yogi, after winning three American League Most Valuable Player Awards, followed him into baseball immortality in 1972. That was the same year in which their shared uniform number was permanently retired by the Yankees. The dramatic synchronicity in the relationship between the two Hall of Fame backstops was beautifully verbalized by the usually inarticulate Yogi. Berra said in later years, “I always say I owe everything I did in baseball to Bill Dickey. He was a great man.”

Just to emphasize the relevance of Berra’s sentiments, it should be noted that Dickey was asked to reprise his coaching magic with Elston Howard who succeeded Yogi as Yankee catcher. Capitalizing on Dickey’s tutoring, Howard enjoyed his own significant success as a Big League catcher, winning the American League MVP Award in 1963. Elston put it this way:

The year I came to the Yankees from Toronto, I wasn’t as good as a lot of semipro catchers. Bill took me over and talked to me. Then he worked with me. We’d go off in a corner and practice. Without Bill, I’m nobody. Nobody at all. He made me a catcher.

To further understand the role of Bill Dickey as a maker of men and professor of catching science, it should be noted that Elston Howard went on to set multiple defensive records as a Major League backstop.

Dickey made occasional appearances at Yankee Stadium after retirement, but mostly stayed in Arkansas where he worked for a large Little Rock investment company. Once Bill became an Arkansan, he remained one for life. Dickey relaxed during his golden years by spending time as an outdoorsman, especially enjoying himself as a quail hunter. He died in Little Rock in 1993 at age eighty-six.

The story of Bill Dickey’s life is a powerful tale indeed. He had the good fortune to be signed by the New York Yankees. Beyond that bit of good luck, his success was based on hard work, perseverance, and talent more than anything else.

As long as his body permitted, Bill used his natural gifts to compete as an historically great baseball player. Then, when his playing days were over, Dickey became as good a coach as he had been a player. He was not only a Hall of Fame athlete. Bill Dickey was a teacher of the game whose expertise has not been surpassed. Just look at the final record: thirteen world championships while wearing the uniform as player and coach.

Is there anyone more deserving of athletic recognition in his home state than Bill Dickey? He clearly deserves a place in the Hot Springs Historical Baseball Trail. Bill was discovered while playing in the Valley of the Vapors, and returned in later years to get in shape. Bill Dickey was a man of quiet dignity, intense determination, intellectual acumen, and genuine class. He was also one of the greatest baseball players in the history of our National Pastime.