In probably the best pose demonstrating the Yankee Stadium 50th Anniversary patch, Rick Dempsey shows his batting stance with a stick that probably wouldn’t pass the pine tar threshold. Rick barely had any playing time in NY because Gerry Moses was the number two guy to Thurman Munson. So Rick spent most of his time at Triple A Syracuse where his numbers weren’t too bad for a guy who was a defensive specialist: .248 with six homers, 47 RBI’s and a .338 OBA in his 387 at bats. He would get up to back-up status the next two years in NY, though he had to literally fight Bill Sudakis for it – see the details on that guy’s post – but it would be a big trade in ’76 that would finally get him to the role for which he would earn his renown. This is also Rick's final card pre-mustache.
Rick Dempsey had two parents who were stage stars in NYC, his dad in vaudeville, and his mom on Broadway. Somehow he was born in Tennessee and then relocated to the LA area when he was a kid so his parents could find work in show business. Rick went to a small Catholic high school there where he played football but didn’t start catching until his senior year. He must have made a pretty quick impression because he was drafted by the Twins that June and as a 17-year old Rookie baller hit .206 but with excellent defense at both catcher and in the outfield, where he played about a third of his games. In A ball in ’68 he showed some decent pop, hitting a combined .285 for a couple teams, with eight homers and 61 RBI’s. In ’69 came some military time, a big show in A ball with a .364 average, six homers, and 31 RBI’s in 151 at bats, and his debut in Minnesota in September. '70 was pretty much a repeat, with some late season relief work up top after hitting .245 in Double A with a contraction in his power. He hit a tad better at that level in ’71 with a big reduction in his strikeouts and then batted .236 in Triple A in ’72 in his 161 at bats after spending the first half of the season on the Minnesota roster behind George Mitterwald and Phil Roof. Following that season he was sent to the Yankees for outfielder Danny Walton.
In more recent interviews, Dempsey has indicated he was a big fan of Thurman Munson’s and that Thurm was actually pretty sweet to him, though that would have been a surprise when they were playing together. I remember one time shortly after the trade away from NY Rick claimed he was the superior catcher which I thought absurd. But for two-plus seasons they worked well together. In ’74 Rick busted the 100 at bat barrier for the first time, hit .239, and threw out 16 of the 22 guys that tried to run on him. In ’75 he upped his average to .262 with an OBA above .350, and also got some work as DH. Then in ’76 he’d barely been used when at the June trading deadline he, Tippy Martinez, Dave Pagan, Rudy May, and Scott McGregor went to Baltimore for Doyle Alexander, Ken Holtzman, Elrod Hendricks, and Grant Jackson.
Once Dempsey made it to Baltimore he became the number one guy behind the plate, that season starting 53 games in the second half. Good thing too, because he threw out 53% of attempted base stealers, leading the majors. He would repeat that status in ’77 when he caught 58% and during his time in Baltimore he would put up a considerable premium in that stat to the rest of the league. His hitting wouldn’t be anything too special – at least not in the regular season – but it wasn’t crazy bad as he averaged .239/7/34 seasons during his ten-plus years there. But he would do an excellent job continuing the tradition of catching a premium pitching staff during most of his run there and he would be half of a battery of 16 Cy Young winners during his career. Twice during his Baltimore run he led the AL in fielding percentage, once in assists, and once in double plays. He sort of famously would often be at odds with manager Earl Weaver though he was certainly Earl’s type of player. And he would generally step things up in the post-season: he hit .400 in the ’79 playoffs and .286 in that year’s Series and then had his best run in the ’83 Series when every one of his five hits went for extra bases and he won the Series MVP. In ’85 and ’86 Rick’s strikeout totals ratcheted up a bunch in part due to bone chips floating around in his elbow. By that second season the O’s were in decline mode and at 36 Rick departed Baltimore as a free agent and got surgery to repair the elbow damage.
For the ’87 season Dempsey signed with Cleveland to provide some veteran support and locker room wisdom for a young club that was generally viewed as on the rise (SI picked them to win their division). But that team crashed and burned right away and in the midst of it Rick was having a tough time negotiating his return from surgery. After hitting .177 with zero power in his 141 at bats he was released by the Tribe the following winter. A few months later he was picked up by the Dodgers to pretty much perform the same role, mostly in support of Mike Sciosia. That first year Tommy Lasorda did his best Earl Weaver impersonation, riding a super pitching staff and a well-thought platooning system to the post-season. Rick played an integral part, posting a .255/7/30 season in his 167 at bats and then stroked the ball at a .300 clip as LA surprised first the Mets and then Oakland in winning the whole thing. He would then spend two more seasons in LA in back-up mode, his hitting discounted a bit, but still nailing runners at a significant premium to his peers. In ’91 he signed with Milwaukee as a free agent in the same role and then in ’92 he returned to Baltimore for a few games before he retired as an Oriole at 42. Rick hit .233 for his career with 96 homers and 471 RBI’s and a not too bad .319 OBA. In the post-season he hit .303 with eleven doubles, a homer, and seven RBI’s in 25 games.
Dempsey was a productive guy both on and off the field. During his career he ran a gym on the left coast with his wife a few years and did some color commentary work for sports events. It was during one of those that he threw a bat at Weaver after the manager chewed him out on air. When he was done playing he became a manager in the minors, first for LA (’93-’95) and then for the Mets (’97-’98), going a combined 345-358 and winning a title. He then moved up top to coach for the Dodgers (’99-2000) and Baltimore (2002-’06). In 2001 he was a broadcaster for Baltimore, a role he has also taken since 2007 for the local cable affiliate, MASN. He also designs his own ties and has an eponymous food court entry at Camden Yards. He has some good YouTube videos, including his rain delay activities, and a three-part interview from 2008 when he was inducted into his high school’s hall of fame.
Rick gets the star bullets for his minors work though that second one seems redundant. His relationship to Jack Dempsey was also mentioned on his ’75 card though I have been unable to verify it away from these instances. I guess several Yankees trying to break up that Sudakis fight wouldn’t contest it. If you do check out the YouTube vid for his high school – Rick is good but the interviewer is super lame – the final installment ends with him signing a few baseballs, all with his left hand. I wonder why he became a righty for baseball.
These two were ships in the night, missing each other a couple years in both NY and Baltimore:
1. Dempsey and Lee May ’76 to ’80 Orioles;
2. May and Mike Torrez ’75 Orioles.