They used to call the equipment used to play catcher the “tools of ignorance,” a term credited to catcher Harold “Muddy” Ruel, who played from1915 to 1934, including seven years with the Washington Senators.
The term is meant to point out the irony that a player with the intelligence needed to be a good baseball catcher “would be foolish enough to play a position that required so much safety equipment,” according to mlb.com.
In the first half of the 1950s, though, that equipment could have easily been referred to as the “tools of excellence.”
Those were the years of New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra and Brooklyn Dodgers backstop Roy Campanella. Over those remarkable five seasons, 1951 to 1955, the two Hall of Famers hauled in an astounding six most valuable player awards.
Playing in the same city — one in the National League, the other in the American League — Berra and Campanella each won three league most valuable player awards. It was a five-year run of unprecedented excellence recognized for the position.
“The fact that you could win three MVPs is extraordinary,” said Peter Golenbock, author of “Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” as well as “Dynasty: The New York Yankees,” among other works. “These were two remarkably amazing people and were so well-liked. They were smart. And they sure were talented.”
They wrote songs about the three great Hall of Fame center fielders in New York — the Giants’ Willie Mays, the Yankees‘ Mickey Mantle and the Dodgers‘ Duke Snider — but combined they didn’t match the MVP resumes of Berra and Campanella. Mantle won the award in 1956 and 1957 and again in 1962, five years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles.
Mays won two of them, and only one was in New York, in 1954. His second came in 1965, after the Giants had moved to San Francisco.
Snider? He never won an MVP, beaten out several times by his teammate Campanella, including a controversial vote in 1955, where there has been much debate about the impact of the ballot submitted by a sportswriter who was hospitalized at the time who left Snider off his ballot.
Campanella won the award that year by five points, 226 to 221. Both had eight first-place votes.
What makes these MVP awards unique for each catcher during this five-year span is how rare the honor has been given to players at that position. There have only been nine other catchers who won MVP honors in the history of baseball, with Johnny Bench winning two of them.
In 1951, both Berra and Campanella won the MVP in their respective leagues. Berra hit 27 home droves, drove in 108 runs and batted .322. Campanella hammered 33 home runs, brought home 108 runs and hit .325.
They would also both win the award in 1955, when Berra hit 27 home runs, drove in 108 runs and batted .272, while Campanella blasted 32 home runs, 107 RBI and a .318 average. Campanella would win the NL award in 1953 with one of the all-time seasons – 41 home runs, 142 RBI and batting .312. Berra won the AL prize in 1954 with 22 home runs, 125 RBI and a .307 average.
How well did the two standout backstops know each other? They only competed in spring training, All-Star games and World Series, but there were many World Series between the two teams. They met five times in the Fall Classic.
“There was a mutual respect between the two because they played the same position,” said Berra’s son Larry. “Years later, whenever they saw each other, they seemed very close. On the Ed Sullivan Show, my father asked Ed if he could wish Roy Campanella a quick recovery from his accident.”
Campanella’s career ended in January 1958 when he was paralyzed from an auto accident, but he remained a presence in the Dodgers organization when they moved to Los Angeles and Berra, when he coached and managed in the National League, would see Campanella often at Dodger Stadium.
“The press and fans liked to debate who was the better catcher,” said Neil Lanctot, author, the 2011 book, “Campy — The Two Lives of Roy Campanella.”
In 1955, The Sporting News invited fans to vote which one was the better receiver. Campanella beat Berra by a 161 to 117 vote.
“Campy and Berra both respected each other a great deal and were always friendly to one another,” Lanctot said.
Berra played 19 seasons, with 358 home runs, 1,430 RBI and a .285 batting average. He was an 18-time All-Star and won 10 World Series, more than any player in major league history. Berra was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. He went on to manage the Yankees and Mets to pennants and coached for both teams, as well as the Houston Astros. He died in 2015.
Berra, just received another well-deserved honor last week when he received a “Forever” stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. In 2006, Campanella was honored with a stamp.
Campanella played eight years in the Negro Leagues before he followed Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn in 1948. In 10 major league seasons, Campanella was an eight-time All-Star and won a World Series championship in 1955. He slugged 242 home runs, drove in 856 runs and batted .272. Campanella was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. He passed away in 1993.
The unmatched hardware that celebrated their greatness stands as a testament not only to their individual talents but to the glory of their era.
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.