Bill Dickey – Kensett’s Greatest Catcher


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 13, 1999


as a baseball player who grew up in Kensett the best catcher in baseball history?  The answer is a possible – even probable – yes.  Bill Dickey, a New York Yankee star from 1929 into the ‘40s, may have indeed been the best catcher ever.  The History of Baseball says he’s rated by many as the number one catcher of all time.  His career batting average was .313.  He hit 202 home runs and batted in 1,209 runs.  And he had such a strong and accurate throwing arm that few base runners tried to steal on him.  He played in eight World Series for the Yankees and coached them in another eight.

          Dickey was born in Bastrop, La., in 1907.  His family moved to Kensett when he was 7 and from then on he was an Arkansan.       Roger Mills of Kensett remembers when the Dickey family moved from Louisiana.  “Mr. Dickey had a dray [for hauling] with big gray horses,” Mills said.  “That was before he went to work for the railroad.”  Mills remembers playing marbles one day and Bill Dickey, who was older, wanted to shoot for him.  “There were about 25 or 30 marbles in the ring and he knocked them all out,” Mills said.  He also remembers Dickey coming by his father’s general store to barter for shotgun shells.  “He’d say, ‘Give me a box of shells and I’ll bring you some quail,” Mills said.  “He was so good at shooting quail that some folks wouldn’t let him hunt on their places.  He was a fine fellow, but they thought he would kill all the birds.”

          Dickey and Wilbur Mills, Roger’s brother, were good friends; Roger was closer to Skeeter Dickey, who was younger than Bill.  Skeeter was a good catcher who played for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.  But he wasn’t the hitter that his brother was, Mills said.  An older Dickey brother, Gus, was also a gifted athlete.  Jim Frazer, a Dickey nephew, recalled that Bill and Skeeter said Gus was the best player in the family, but he threw his arm away before he could advance very far in baseball.

          Bill Dickey played on the Kensett town team as a teenager.  It was a good team, Mills said, with several solid players who worked at the depot.  Dickey also played for Searcy High School, where he was a pitcher and infielder.  “The Kensett school just had 10 grades,” Mills said, “and you had to go to Searcy for the last two years.”

          Dickey began college in Little Rock and continued to play baseball.  The book Baseball’s Best says he was subbing for a college teammate on a Hot Springs town team when he was spotted by Lena Blackburn, the manager of the Arkansas Travelers.  Dickey was 18 when he caught his first three professional games at the end of the 1925 season.  He played for Little Rock and Muskogee in 1926 and for Jackson, Miss., in 1927.  In 1928, he was hitting .300 for the Travelers and seemed headed for the Chicago White Sox, the Travelers’ parent team.  But the Yankees sent a scout to watch Dickey and they bought him.  The price was probably around $10,000.  Gene Williams, a Searcian who grew up in a Greenbrier family that produced three professional baseball players, said that was the going price for a good young player back then.

          The Yankees sent Dickey to Buffalo for three games and brought him up for the last 10 games of the season.  He joined a team with stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and he fit in from the first.  Dickey hit .324 in 130 games in 1929, his rookie season.  He would go on to establish a record by catching more than 100 games a season for 13 consecutive years.  Dickey’s first World Series came in 1932 when the Yankees swept the Chicago Cubs.  He hit .438 in the Series after batting .310 in the regular season.  He had been suspended for 30 days that summer for a one-punch battle at home plate.  His punch broke the jaw of the Washington Senators’ Carl Reynolds.  The fight didn’t seem to damage Dickey’s reputation for being quiet-spoken and even-tempered.  He peaked as a batter in 1936 when he hit .362 and drove in 107 runs and in 1937, when he hit .332 and knocked in 133 runs. He hit 29 home runs that year.  By 1940, his 12th full season with the Yankees, he was showing the effects of catching so many games. He hit only .247, but bounced back in 1941 with a respectable .284.  As a part-time catcher in 1942 and 1943, he had good averages of .295 and .351.  He hit a two-run home run in the 1943 World Series to help win a game against the Cardinals.  After the Series, he joined the Navy and was in the Pacific in 1944 and 1945.  He rejoined the Yankees in 1946 as a back-up catcher.  When Joe McCarthy resigned as manager in May, Dickey was picked to fill the spot temporarily.  The Yankees were 57-48 during his brief tenure.

          In 1947, Dickey managed the Arkansas Travelers.  Searcian Durward McGaha remembers Dickey bringing his Southern League team to Conway to play State Teachers College.   McGaha, who later played in the Detroit Tigers farm system, was the Bears’ center fielder.  He said that Dickey played and hit four home runs.  “Two hit on top of the gym,” he said.  “They went more than 400 feet.” 

          Dickey began working for Stephens, Inc., the Little Rock investment firm, in 1948.  Skeeter was already working there, and the two did well selling securities.  Bill was with the company until 1972.   He combined that job with coaching.  In 1949, Casey Stengel, the new manager of the Yankees, asked Dickey to come work with a talented but green young catcher named Yogi Berra.  When the Yankees won the pennant on the last day of the season, Dickey, in celebrating, bumped his head on the dugout and needed medical attention.  Dickey coached for the Yankees through 1957, then scouted for them in 1957 and ’58.  He also coached part of 1960.  He likely holds a record for participating in 16 World Series as player and coach.  He was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1954.  Earlier, he had been named catcher on famed sportswriter Grantland Rice’s all-time team.  Dickey was six feet, one and one-half inches and weighed 185 pounds.  He was taller and lankier than most catchers, but he was agile and had a great baseball sense.  Grantland Rice put him on his smartest all-team.

          With all the recognition, Dickey’s salary contracts seem small by today’s standards.  “The most he made was $25,000 a year,” Roger Mills said.  Gene Williams says if Dickey were playing today he would be making at least $10 million a year.  “That would be conservative,” he said.

          Dickey died in 1993.  Toward the end of his life, he had Alzheimer’s, Jim Frazer said.

          Roger Mills said that three or four years before Dickey died, there was a Bill Dickey Night at Little Rock’s Ray Winder Field.  Roger took his wife and grandsons, and Dickey signed baseballs for them.

          In 1986, 40 years after Dickey had played his last game for the Yankees, Jim Frazer, who lives in Little Rock, went to see the team play in New York.  He said that owner George Steinbrenner invited him to sit in the owner’s box with him – because he was Bill Dickey’s nephew.

          “After the game, he introduced me to the players,” Frazer said.  mmm