Tom Lohr has eaten a hot dog at all 30 MLB ballparks and is the author of "Gone to the Dogs: In Search of the Best Ballpark Hot Dog."
Do you remember the 1970s fondly? Then you never had to listen to disco dominating the airwaves, or wear a leisure suit to your prom. Forget about keeping all of that hair in check. The 70s was one weird decade. It was the period where we bridged the old analog years with the new digital age. But at least you didn't have to have cable to watch baseball.
Major League Baseball during the 1970s fielded some of its finest players, and due to free agency, it also offered the last of the dynasty teams made up of a group of core players. It was the last era in which most baseball was listened to on the radio instead of watched on television.
Despite sporting some funky uniforms (I'm looking at you Houston), some of the best games in the history of the sport were played in the 70s. Wearing those uniforms were some pretty awesome ballplayers, and no ballplayer impacts a team's success like a catcher. A catcher is as important to pitching a good game as the guy on the mound, and they are the most important defensive position on the diamond. If a team's catcher was a good hitter, that was icing on the cake....and several were.
If you remember or just love baseball from the 1970s, you undoubtedly heard the names of the catchers of the teams of that era. In case you don't remember or weren't around, here are the 10 best that worked behind the plate.
1. Johnny Bench
Cincinnati Reds 1970-79
Let's start with the easiest first. I think Pete Rose said it best, I'll paraphrase him; “Johnny Bench was not the best offensive catcher of all-time, and he was not the best defensive catcher of all-time. He was the best all-around catcher of all-time.” Bench makes most people's list of their 1970s dream team. He was a key player in the mid-70s Big Red Machine team that dominated the sport for years.
Bench was an all-star every year of the decade and part of two World Series winning teams (75-76). He was the National League MVP in 70 and 72, World Series MVP in 76, won the Gold Glove for his position from 70 thru 77. During the 70s we was twice the league home run leader and the RBI leader three times. He was deservedly elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986.
2. Thurman Munson
New York Yankees 1970-79
A natural leader, Thurman Munson was named the first Yankees captain since Lou Gehrig. Like Sanguillen, Munson was also a good hit-for-average batter and is also in the top 10 for all-time catchers' batting average.
He broke into the 70s by being named the American League Rookie of the Year, starting off a decade in which he would receive numerous accolades. He was a seven-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner, American League MVP in 1976 and contributed to two World Series Championship teams.
Thurman could have had several good years in the 1980s, but tragically, he perished when the plane he was piloting crashed while landing during the 1979 season.
3. Carlton Fisk
Boston Red Sox 1971-79
If you have never heard of Carlton Fisk, you have seen him on TV. He is the batter in the iconic video clip that hits a ball and attempts to wave and will it fair instead of foul for a home run as he side skips down the first base line during Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. It is such a well-known video clip that is has appeared in several movies.
Fisk was the first player to be unanimously voted as American League Rookie of the Year (1972) and still holds he record for most seasons behind the plate (24). He was also a workhorse. He is one of only 7 catchers to play in 150 or more games for multiple seasons.
During the 70s, he was voted to six All-Star teams, won a Gold Glove in 1972. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
4. Ted Simmons
St Louis Cardinals 1970-79
Ted played for three teams during a career that spanned 21 years, but he was a Cardinal for all of the 1970s. When he finally retired, he had more hits and doubles than any catcher in MLB history. His longevity allowed him to play in 2,456 games in which he garnered 2,472 hits, 1,389 RBIs (second all-time for catchers) and a .285 batting average.
He prowess at the plate earned him a Silver Slugger award in (albeit in 1980) and a spot on 6 all-star rosters during the 70s. In 2020, he was finally rewarded for his exemplary career by being elected the the Baseball Hall of Fame.
5. Manny Sanguillen
Pittsburgh Pirates 1970-76, 78-79
Oakland A's 1977
Another catcher that was behind the plate for most of the decade for one team, Sanguillen was part of both the '71 and '79 Pirates World Series champion teams. Known for his gregarious personality, Manny was not a notable power hitter, clearing the fence just 65 times during his career. Where he excelled was contact hitting. Manny is in the top ten of highest lifetime batting average of catchers in MLB history, clocking in at .296. His batting average earned him a spot on three 1970s All-Star teams.
He is perhaps also one of the luckiest catchers to play the game. In 1972, while playing winter ball in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Manny misplaced his car keys and therefore missed a relief flight to help the victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. That flight crashed shortly after takeoff and claimed the life of teammate Roberto Clemente.
6. Steve Yeager
Los Angeles Dodgers 1972-79
While outstanding offensive performance and numbers will get any player noticed, their defense is equally important. The catcher position is unquestionably the top position where defense matters most. Yeager was never known as a power or average hitter, but he did have a reputation as a clutch hitter. It is Steve's defense that gets him on the best of the 70s list. That and the fact he was the Dodger's catcher for most of the decade, on team that went to the World Series in '74, '77 and '78. In 1976, he led catchers in assists and placed second in voting for the Gold Glove in 1977.
So how good was Steve's defense? Base stealing legend Lou Brock called Yeager the “best throwing arm in the game.” Coming from Lou, that's a pretty solid compliment. And Steve gets extra points for playing coach Duke Temple in all three of the Major League movies.
7. Bob Boone
Philadelphia Phillies 1972-79
Bob Boone is the middle child in a baseball dynasty. He is the son of a major leaguer, and two of his sons were major leaguers; them's some pretty good genes. Bob was also one of the star catchers of the 70s whose plate performance was lackluster, but had spectacular defensive skills. During the 1970s, Bob was a three time all-star and won 2 Gold Glove Awards. Following a 19-year career in the majors, Boone went on to manage in the big leagues for 6 years.
8. Jim Sundberg
Texas Rangers 1974-79
You don't hear much about Jim Sundberg in best catchers conversations. He was never a flashy hitter, rather a quiet professional that excelled behind the plate. His defense earned him two trips to the All-Star game during the 70s as well as winning four Gold Gloves. Jim was a steady workhorse for the Rangers. In 1975, he set an American League record (that still stands) for the most games caught in a season (155). During his career, he hit an unimpressive but respectable .248, and has a plaque in the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame.
9. Ray Fosse
Cleveland Indians 1970-72, 1976-77
Oakland A's 1973-75
Seattle Mariners 1977
Milwaukee Brewers 1979
If Carlton Fisk is famous for a brief baseball video clip of offense, Ray Fosse is probably best known for the video of him being plowed over by Pete Rose during the 1970 All-Star Game while trying to block home plate. Remembered mostly as an Indian where where was chosen for the all-star squad twice, the apex of his injury laden career was catching for the A's in '73 and '74, with Oakland winning the World Series both years. More of a defensive asset than an offensive threat, Ray won two Gold Gloves during his stint behind the plate.
10. Gene Tenace
Oakland A's 1970-76
San Diego Padres 1977-79
Gene could be known was one of those guys that is in the right place at the right time all the time. During his career he was on six World Series championship teams, with four of those in the 1970s during the Oakland A's dynasty (two of the six was as a coach for the Toronto Blue Jays). In addition to being able to wear those cool, sleeveless A's jerseys, he was the 1972 World Series MVP and a 1975 All-Star. He was also the league leader in walks in 1974 and '77. When not running up the pitch count of opposing pitchers, he managed to smack 201 homers as well, hitting 20 or more dingers five times during the 70s.
Where Is Gary Carter?
I know what you are thinking, “Where the hell is Gary Carter.” Hey, we all liked Gary Carter. His enthusiasm for the game was unparalleled. Gary did play in the 70s, but a lot of that was not as a catcher, and as much as you like to remember him as a great 70s Expo, his best years were in the 1980s. He would undoubtedly be on my list of best catchers of the 1980s.
The Tools of Ignorance
Yogi Berra once called the catcher's gear the “tools of ignorance.” It takes a special kind of ballplayer to spend most of their career behind the plate. It wears on the body more than any other position and is the most taxing spot on the field. Due to the rigors of being a major league catcher, only the best can do it for most of a decade and excel at it. You just read about the 10 best in the 1970s.
Who Was the Best?
Angel Guzman from Joliet, Illinois on September 09, 2020:
Enjoyed the article Tom. I voted for Carlton Fisk. Such an iconic moment him hitting that home run in the World Series.