Chuck Yeager was given the moniker “Fastest Man Alive” for breaking the sound barrier in 1947. I bet his cousin Steve could’ve thrown him out.
Steve Yeager was the Los Angeles Dodgers’ backstop for 14 seasons. From 1972-1985, Yeager could be found in Chavez Ravine commanding the pitches of Don Sutton, Tommy John, and Fernando Valenzuela. He had such a presence behind the plate that the Daytona Times quoted him as saying, “I’m as good as Johnny Bench.”
That’s a bold and brazen statement from a player that Dodger fans know, but an incredible statement for a player that most baseball fans today may only have heard of, if that. The Johnny Bench is an icon, inner-circle, team-of-the-century type of player. Steve Yeager got two votes in his only Hall of Fame ballot.
I’ll fully admit I was in the group that only knew of Steve Yeager. I knew he was a Dodger in the same way I loosely remember Jorge Cantú existed. That was until last week when his cousin and aerospace legend Chuck Yeager passed away. You know that drawl all pilots seem to have? They’re imitating Steve’s cousin. This is a guy who broke the sound barrier with cracked ribs forcing him to famously use a broken broom handle to lock his cockpit door. And you know what? That may have only been the second or even third toughest feat the Yeager family accomplished.
That Johnny Bench statement is making a little more sense.
While it’s a shame more people don’t know Steve Yeager, it’s understandable on the surface since his career stats don’t exactly glitter with grandeur. 816 hits scattered across 3,500 at-bats. 102 home runs over 15 seasons. A career OPS+ of 83. His career WAR doesn’t even crack the top 1000 all-time. So I asked around, even finding courage to talk with a Dodger fan, and realized I fell into an easy pitfall as a fantasy player: I forgot those numbers represented a real person. And what a player Yeager was.
Take a moment and imagine you’re a grizzled major league manager. You spent years cutting your chops in the minors as a player and rode in the front seat of a 1950s bus traveling 423 miles overnight as the manager of a small-town team. You’ve got a fat pouch in your cheek despite complaints from your wife and are convinced there’s no crying in baseball. Now imagine your ideal ballplayer.
I bet they look like Steve Yeager. He’s got the moxie to win co-MVP of a World Series, both the sense and humor to advise on and act in Major League (remember those dazzling catches by Willie Mays Hays? Thrown by Yeager) and the looks to pose in Playgirl Magazine (a safe click, don’t worry). He’s got it all. That’s what Dodger embodiment Tommy Lasorda thought when he called Yeager the finest defensive catcher he ever saw. For seven seasons, he threw out over 40% of all would-be base stealers – nailing Lou Brock three times in 1976 – and was consistently in contention for a Gold Glove, though that Bench fellow in Cincinnati took home most of them. In fact, Yeager was only three-thousandths of a percent from Bench’s fielding percentage as a catcher: .987 versus .990.
The only position he ever played was catcher, not one rest day for the legs at first or a tryout in right field. For nearly 9,500 innings, Yeager was a catcher. He was also the epicenter for one of those under-the-radar historic moments (not a read for the squeamish).
On Labor Day 1976 – that same year he got Brock three times – Don Sutton and Dodgers were nine games behind the Big Red Machine and faced off against San Diego ace Randy Jones. For six innings, it was just another game in the dog days of summer.
That all changed in the top of the seventh. Steve Yeager was kneeling on-deck sizing up Jones, who at that point in his career had only allowed Yeager a handful of hits, when hitter Bill Russel swung and shattered his bat, sending the splintered crack echoing through the stadium. The ball shot down the third base line; the spear-like barrel of the bat rocketed towards the on-deck circle.
Yeager went down.
Dodger manager Walter Alston later said he thought Yeager had been shot by a bullet and heard him cry out, “My shoulder’s broken!” Teammates rushed over to Yeager, who was already covered in blood, multiple shards implanted into his throat. “It was sickening,” Steve Garvey would tell the LA Times. Trainer Bill Bueller removed the largest pieces of shrapnel that had punctured the catcher’s esophagus, and teammates covered the gruesome wound with towels. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery. The broken bat narrowly missed a major artery, and his windpipe by mere millimeters.
Later that month, Steve Yeager would catch nine innings against the Astros.
That was the kind of ballplayer Yeager was. In 1969, he fractured his leg in a first-inning collision at the plate and still finished out the game. He embodied those intangibles that Theo Epstein wants to bring back – hitting behind the runner, getting the bunt down, sacrificing your at-bat and your body, putting the ball in play, and making sure defense never slumps. They called him “Boomer” because his commanding voice could be heard across an entire ballpark littered with 40,000 fans. Lou Brock, he of 938 stolen bases, said Yeager had the “best throwing arm in the game.” Even the Johnny Bench called him a great catcher.
That’s not to say Yeager wasn’t a hitter. During his time with the Dodgers he had the fourth-most home runs by a catcher in the majors, the ninth-most hits, and eighth-most runs batted in. The co-MVP of the 1981 World Series also had magnificent moments that series: two home runs, including a go-ahead winner in Game 5 that helped give LA the Commissioner’s Trophy.
Yeager would later work with the guy who removed the shards of broken bat from his neck, team trainer Bill Bueller, to create the throat guard that all catchers and umpires now wear. As the catcher said of the invention, “It looks kind of ugly. But once it saves your throat from getting hit by a ball, you’re all right.”
All in all, you gotta say that Steve Yeager had The Right Stuff.
(I had to do it.)
Featured Image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)