The New York Yankees have had plenty of iconic catchers, but these guys worked behind the plate in between significant eras.
The New York Yankees have fielded some great catchers.
Yogi Berra‘s quirky persona paired with his work in the batter’s box made for a great career. Elston Howard broke down barriers. It was impossible not to love Thurman Munson, who was taken from us way too soon.
ESNY’s own Leen Amin discussed each of these men and more in detail in a recent article. With baseball season postponed until further notice, it’s fun to reminisce on great players of years past. In times like these, our favorite team’s history is practically all we have until live sports return.
But we remember the great players all the time. Remember, successful as the Yankees have been across all positions, they’ve had their fair share of struggles. For every great backstop, there’s been more than a few journeymen.
Well, dear readers, today is their day. Let’s take a look at five forgotten Yankees catchers and what they accomplished in the Bronx.
No. 5: Don Slaught (Yankees tenure: 1988-89)
The late 1980s were a rough time for the Yankees. Owner George Steinbrenner‘s impatience defined the organization all decade, as he made trades left and right trying to improve the ballclub. This led to the minor league system drying up and the front office often relying on journeymen, such as Don Slaught.
The Yanks acquired Slaught from the Texas Rangers after the 1987 season for a player to be named later. He spent two years in pinstripes and though he hit a light .266, Slaught had a knack for catching base-stealers. In 1989, his caught-stealing percentage was 39% compared to the league average of 31%.
The Yankees eventually traded Slaught to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he spent six seasons. He retired in 1997 and now owns a video analysis firm named RightView Pro, which helps players with their mechanics.
No. 4: Butch Wynegar (Yankees tenure: 1982-86)
Butch Wynegar wasn’t a great player but was reliable for many years. He debuted for the Minnesota Twins as a switch-hitting 20-year-old in 1976 and finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting. Wynegar was also a two-time All-Star with Minnesota and signed a five-year, $2 million deal in 1981.
A year later, the Yankees acquired him for three players. Though not a great hitter, he lived up to his reputation as one of baseball’s elite defensive catchers. Wynegar only hit .259 with New York, but his fielding percentage exceeded the league average in every single one of his years in the Bronx.
Unfortunately, Wynegar’s Yankees tenure included some issues. Though he re-signed with the team for the 1986 season, the stress of playing under Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin overwhelmed him. Wynegar was also dealing with arthritis in his toe, which affected his overall performance at the plate.
Baseball just wasn’t fun for him anymore and, after leaving the team in July 1986, Wynegar never returned. He asked for a trade and was dealt to the then-California Angels in December 1986. Wynegar was a backup for the Angels before his toe forced him to retire in 1988.
The good news is after he retired, Wynegar became a successful minor league coach and manager. From 2007-14, he was the hitting coach for the Yankees Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Oh, and let’s not forget, he was behind the plate for Hall of Famer Phil Niekro’s 300th win.
No 3: Matt Nokes (Yankees tenure: 1990-94)
With Matt Nokes, it looked like the Yankees finally found their post-Munson franchise catcher. He hit .289 with 32 home runs for the Detroit Tigers in 1987 and finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Injuries slowed him down in the years after, but the Yanks liked his powerful lefty swing.
Nokes arrived in New York via a 1990 trade, with Detroit receiving two pitchers in return. He never captured the lightning of his rookie year, but still hit a respectable 24 home runs in 1991. Unfortunately for Nokes, his .249 batting average and 71 home runs with the Bombers were overshadowed by a .304 on-base percentage.
Paired with injuries, Nokes’ ineffectiveness made him fall out of favor in New York. His contract expired in 1994 and he was out of the majors a year later. He finished his career playing independent ball and also played in Mexico. Today, like the aforementioned Don Slaught, he has a YouTube channel that features instructional videos.
He wasn’t the greatest Yankee and didn’t live up to early hype, but Nokes’ lefty swing was made for Yankee Stadium. Even as a transitional guy, he was fun to watch.
No. 2: Mike Stanley (Yankees tenure: 1992-95, 1997)
For the first six years of his career, Mike Stanley was a light-hitting catcher for the Texas Rangers. He wasn’t doing much for them already, and future Hall of Famer Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez’s debut made him expendable. He signed with the Yankees for the 1992 season and hit .249 in 68 games.
Then, in 1993, something clicked. Maybe Stanley adjusted his approach. Perhaps steroids had something to do with it. Either way, the 30-year-old veteran backstop suddenly looked like a star and hit .305 with 26 home runs and 84 RBIs, all then-career-highs (minimum 65 games).
All in all, Stanley hit .285 with 72 home runs while with the Yanks. His defining moment with the team came on Aug. 10, 1995, when he hit three home runs with seven RBIs in a 10-9 loss to the Cleveland Indians. Stanley later hit .313 with a home run in that year’s American League Division Series.
Stanley left the following year to sign with the rival Boston Red Sox, who traded him back to the Yankees late in 1997. He spent time with the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston again, and the Oakland Athletics before retiring in 2000.
Was Stanley the best Yankees catcher? Not by a longshot. Still, he did enough in pinstripes and also experienced his sole All-Star season in the Bronx, so he deserves some recognition.
No. 1: Russell Martin (Yankees tenure: 2011-12)
By 2011, Yankees great Jorge Posada simply couldn’t catch anymore at 39 years old. He was relegated to the designated hitter spot when the team signed Russell Martin, a then-two-time All-Star who had recently hit a wall playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Playing on a one-year deal, Martin did his best Buzz Lightyear and came to the rescue. He only hit .237, but possessed reliable power and hit 18 home runs with 65 RBIs. Martin inked another one-year contract with the Yankees for 2012, and despite a .211 batting average, hit a then-career-high 21 homers. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in free agency thereafter.
Martin was a streaky hitter and overall average defensive catcher but stepped up for the Yankees when they needed him. Throw in his clutch factor, not to mention the fact that he remained active in the majors through 2019, and he tops this list.