Cleveland has seen exactly one Hall of Fame catcher play for them, Buck Ewing. And he played for the Cleveland Spiders in the 19th century. So this group of seven backstops doesn’t quite have the luster as other positions will. But there’s still some interesting players, including two players (Ray Fosse and Sandy Alomar) who had their careers curtailed because of injuries, a defensive specialist (Jim Hegan), and one catcher (Luke Sewell) who probably made the list because they needed a seventh man.
Now determining the worth of a catcher is probably the most difficult of any position on the diamond. What’s more valuable, a great defensive catcher, or a slugging backstop? While this ranking won’t answer that question, mainly because there aren’t a lot of power-hitting catchers on this list, it was interesting to see who actually came out ahead in this exercise.
In reverse order:
Brother of Hall of Famer Joe Sewell, Luke took over for Steve O’Neill in 1926, and was the Indians’ starter for the next seven seasons. After the 1932 season, he was dealt to the Washington Senators for catcher Roy Spencer. After retiring as a player, he guided the St. Louis Browns to their one and only World Series appearance in 1944. As a player, Sewell’s resume doesn’t look that impressive; he was an All-Star once (1937), but that was as a member of the Chicago White Sox. If Victor Martinez has two more good seasons, he should pass Sewell.
(6) Ray Fosse (1967-1972, 1976-1977)
Cleveland BRAR: 71
Cleveland FRAR: 105
Cleveland WARP3: 20.5
How Acquired: Selected (1st Round) in 1965 Amateur Draft
Most fans associate Fosse with the 1970 All-Star Game and Pete Rose. Fosse had been enjoying a breakout season with the Indians, making the All-Star Team in his first full year with the club. But after Rose slammed into him, he never was the same player again; the 18 home runs he hit in 1970 was his high-water mark. He eventually had to retire in 1979 due a multitude of injuries, but I still wonder how good he’d have been if he’d have been relatively healthy in his mid-to-late 20s. But thanks to Charlie Hustle, we’ll never know.
Azcue was acquired from the KC Athletics on May 25, 1963, in a deal which saw Doc Edwards (future Indians manager) and Dick Howser (future Royals manager) also included. Azcue got into the starting lineup after the Indians’ starting catcher, Johnny Romano broke his hand. Romano was dealt the following season to Chicago, and Azcue platooned with Duke Sims until he was dealt to Boston in 1969.
The best hitting catcher in Indians’ history, Romano slugged .475, .483, and .493 in his first three seasons with the Indians. He fractured his hand in 1963, and after losing his job to Joe Azcue was dealt in a blockbuster that saw the return of Rocky Colavito, and the losses of Tommie Agee and Tommy John. Romano battled weight problems early in his career, but was a valuable player after getting his break with the Indians. His FRAR ranks as the lowest among the seven Indians catchers.
After winning the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1990, Sandy suffered through one injury after another. Alomar came in the watershed Joe Carter trade in 1989, with Carlos Baerga coming to Cleveland with Sandy. In 1990, he delivered on his huge promise by winning the AL Rookie of the Year and a Gold Glove. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay healthy throughout his career in Cleveland with rare exceptions. In 1997, he had his best season, and we saw a glimpse of what he was capable of. He hit in 30 straight games, one short of a franchise record. He was the MVP when the All-Star game was played in Cleveland. He also hit a memorable home run off Mariano Rivera in the ALDS. But that season was mostly the exception, not the rule. His height (6’5″) may have been a factor as to why he broke down so much, but regardless, he was an excellent defensive catcher, a very good game-caller, and a midle-of-the-order offensive player. It’s just too bad that his potential could never be truly realized.
Although O’Neill bested Hegan in both BRAR and FRAR, he lost out because of some bad offensive years early in his career. O’Neill, later in his tenure with the Indians, was one of the best offensive catchers in the game; he finished 6th in the 1922 MVP vote, and in 1920, hit .321/.408/.440 and was one of the key cogs of the World Series champs. As a manager, he led the Detroit Tigers to a championship in 1945, and as the Indians’ manager from 1935-37 was instrumental in the careers of Lou Boudreau and Bob Feller.
(1) Jim Hegan (1941-1957)
Cleveland BRAR: 37
Cleveland FRAR: 313
Cleveland WARP3: 48.5
How Acquired: Signed as a free agent
Hegan’s defense was so good it almost single-handedly made him the best catcher in Indians history. His defensive reputation earned him four All-Star appearances, and he was a large part of the team’s run of success in the 1940s and 1950s, including the 1948 and 1954 AL pennants. Bob Feller let Hegan call his pitches, which was a fairly new concept at the time, and Hegan also caught three no-hitters (Feller, Bob Lemon, and Don Black). He was also known for controlling basestealers and his remarkable durability; he caught well into his late 30s, which even today isn’t common. For all his offensive shortcomings, his durability and defense is good enough to make him the franchise’s best catcher.