When it comes to the Negro Leagues and the position of catcher the first name that pops into most folks’ heads is Josh Gibson. That’s understandable, Gibson is the only player who I feel gives Bullet Rogan an actual run for his money as the greatest player of all time. After Gibson, the next name that people will blurt out on the subject of catchers in the Negro Leagues is Roy Campanella. Though nowhere near the level of Gibson, Campy is an all-time great and worthy of all the praise he ever receives. For those not steeped in Negro Leagues lore that’s about where the list of great catchers ends. That leaves the rest of us shaking our heads and asking, “what about Biz Mackey?”
Chances are that Mackey’s name is familiar to you, but not a name that jumps out at you. Most likely you know Mackey from his 2006 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and through the positive word of mouth that Campanella and others passed down about the Negro Leagues legend. The truth of the matter is that Mackey is a great example of why baseball fans need to spend more time digging into the history of the Negro Leagues. There was only one Biz Mackey and when all was said and done the only catcher in the history of baseball who stands above him is the aforementioned Gibson.
That may seem like high praise and it most definitely is that. It may also seem like an exaggeration of his stature within the game. That couldn’t be further from the truth because when I think of the epitome of the modern catcher it is Mackey who first springs to my mind and no one else. The product of Los Angeles didn’t reinvent the wheel when it came to catching, he simply did everything better than any catcher that came before him and most who came after. There are countless stories about Mackey’s defensive prowess and his ability to call a game. Unfortunately, defensive accolades in the Negro Leagues are strictly word of mouth for the most part.
It’s a good thing then that we have ample evidence of how great Mackey was with a bat in his hands. His 162 game average taking his career numbers into account comes to a slash line of .330/.393/.473 with a 133 OPS+ and twice as many walks as strikeouts. Sure, you may say to yourself, those are pretty good numbers for a 162 game average but they don’t really seem all that special. In response, I’d ask you to keep a few things in mind. Mackey played in the 1920s and 1930s where Negro Leagues sluggers were far outweighed by contact hitters. In addition, his amazing defense isn’t included in those statistics. Lastly, Mackey was incredibly consistent, putting up numbers similar to those for the entirety of his career.
If we were to distill Mackey’s career down to one season it would have to be 1923. He had been gobbled up by the Hilldale Club for the Eastern Colored League’s inaugural season. Mackey then proceeded to have, arguably, the best year of his career. In 219 plate appearances, he slashed .412/.448/.573 with a 183 OPS+ and a .451 wOBA. He was the best player in the league from the first pitch to the very last and the main driving force behind Hilldale taking home the very first ECL championship.
In a lot of ways, Mackey’s sWAR in 1923 is a summation of why he never seems to get the respect he deserves among baseball’s greatest catchers. He put up monstrous stats but because he played a shorter schedule and his defense could not be quantified he ended up with a relatively low total of 2.6. That’s just one number though and for as much as I use the statistic, WAR is not the end-all and be-all of gauging a baseball player. Mackey’s accompanying black ink in 1923 combined with the consistency of great numbers throughout his career and the word of mouth present Mackey just as he was, one of the best to ever catch a baseball game.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – National Baseball Hall of Fame Library