Mickey Mantle sat in front of his locker reading a newspaper. Bob Turley was writing a letter. Roger Maris, his belt buckle loosened and his large muscles rippling through his undershirt, read a pocket book. It was raining outside, and the Yankees were waiting for it to stop or for the game with Cleveland to be called off.
The four Yankee catchers were in the clubhouse. Yogi Berra sat at a large table in the center of the room autographing pictures. Elston Howard took a soft drink from a cooler and leaned against the wall. John Blanchard beat his large hand into a stiff, new mitt. Jesse Gonder walked around the room, talked leisurely to a writer and puffed on a cigarette.
Only in the Yankee clubhouse, of all the clubhouses in baseball, could one find four catchers trying to keep themselves busy while rain held up play. Berra was the catcher named on Manager Ralph Houk's lineup card posted in the dugout. Howard would spend the night on the bench, waiting for a chance to pinch-hit if a left-handed pitcher came into the game. Blanchard and Gonder would be in the bullpen in right center field, 400 feet from the game, warming up the possible reliefers, waiting for a possible call to pinch-hit—"The toughest job in baseball," says Blanchard.
("We're lucky to have four good catchers," says Coach Jim Hegan, who was one of baseball's finest defensive catchers for 20 seasons.)
June 4, 1961
"Good catchers seem to last pretty long," Howard said. "Del Rice of Los Angeles is 38. Sherm Lollar of the White Sox is 36. Yogi's still going pretty good, and he's no boy."
Gonder, who is 25, broke in with the Cincinnati organization and has been catching only two years.
"I don't care how many games I play, I just want to stay up here," he said. 'That's the big thing. If you're in the big leagues, you can show what you can do. Somebody gets hurt, or you get a couple of hits. They can always find a spot for a good hitter. I've never had too much trouble hitting. Yogi and Ellie and Jim Hegan have been working on my catching. I'm getting better."
("He's quick behind the plate," Hegan says of Gonder. "And he has a fine arm.")
Howard, at 32 and in his seventh major league season, is finally regarded as the Yankees' first-string catcher now that the years and 1,864 big league games are catching up with Berra. He said, "I like catching. I like it better than any other position. I hit better when I catch and I like being a part of the game."
Blanchard, handsome and tall, said Bill Dickey was responsible for making him a catcher. "He saw I was big and strong at a Yankee rookie camp. He worked with me every day for two weeks. I'm in the big leagues. It paid off."
(Blanchard is also a good left-handed hitter—which helps. Of the four catchers, only Howard swings right-handed.)
"I went to a baseball clinic where 400 kids turned out," said Howard. "There were two catchers, just two."
"Most of the kids are afraid of catching. They're scared of getting hurt. It's their mothers, really," said Blanchard. "With Little League and all that other kid baseball, the mothers go to a lot of games. They-sit in the stands and watch their kids get smacked with a foul ball. 'No more catching for my kid,' the mother says. The kid's lucky if she lets him play at all."
"You would think every kid would want to be a catcher," said Gonder. "It's the fastest way to the top. Least amount of competition. Except on this club, maybe. But the money's good and the World Series checks help out. I'm not complaining."
"A lot of kids don't like to work hard," Berra said. "And they blink when a ball comes." He walked to a mirror to comb his hair. "Heck, I even blink sometimes. My kid likes catching. He's 11 now. When he told me he blinks I told him I blink, too. He's a strong boy."
"There could be one solution to the shortage," Hegan said. "We ought to make catchers out of some of these lefties." He said it half-jokingly, then continued: "I don't really see why not."
Howard and Blanchard disagreed. "A lefty could never throw to third with a right-handed batter," Blanchard said.
"He'd have just as much trouble throwing to first," Howard said.
Berra thought about the question. "Gee, I don't know," he said, rubbing his chin. "If he could hit, I don't think it would matter."
A few minutes later the game was called off. Berra dressed rapidly and walked out of the clubhouse, heading for his New Jersey estate.
"Some catchers make a pretty good living," said Gonder. "Look at the fancy shirt Yogi is wearing."