A variety of incredibly talented African American catchers have played in the MLB since baseball was integrated back in 1947.
This article investigates the careers of these men, and it identifies the greatest black catchers in MLB history based on career Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.
Keep scrolling to learn more...
Brief History of Black Ballplayers in the Major Leagues
Moses Fleetwood Walker
No discussion about African American ballplayers in professional baseball can begin without talking about Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Walker was not only the first pro black catcher in the game, he was the first black player at any position to play major league baseball.
He played just one season, in 1884, for the Toledo Blue Stockings, a professional team at the time in the American Association. Walker endured racism throughout his season in Toledo, and this was compounded by injuries he sustained playing behind the plate.
In a total of 42 games played with the Blue Stockings, Walker hit safely 40 times and compiled a .263 average.
After 1884, Walker played a few more seasons in the minor leagues. He would be the last African American baseball player to play in the majors until Jackie Robinson did so in 1947.
Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball
Approximately 63 years after Moses Fleetwood Walker appeared in a big league game, Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is credited with breaking baseball's color barrier in the modern era of the game.
Jackie paved the way for African American ballplayers to enter the majors. Roughly three months after his debut, another black player named Larry Doby took the field for the Cleveland Indians, becoming the second black player in the MLB.
Over time, the rest of the major league clubs integrated as well. Soon, multiple African American ballplayers were gracing TV screens across America on a regular basis.
Measuring Greatness Using WAR
Conversations about "the best" player at any position are always subjective. In light of this, we think the most helpful and simplest approach at ranking players is to use Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.
WAR is a baseball metric that measures an individual player’s overall contributions to his team. According to Fangraphs, WAR “summarizes a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic... WAR is all-inclusive and provides a useful reference point for comparing players” [source].
The formula for WAR varies by outlet (such as Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs). For this article, I researched all African American MLB catchers and ranked them by career WAR, utilizing Baseball Reference as the source.
Best Black MLB Catchers in History, Ranked by WAR
#1. Roy Campanella, 41.7 career WAR
Roy Campanella was the first black MLB catcher in the modern era. He broke into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948 after spending eight seasons in the negro leagues.
What followed was one of the most productive ten year spans of any catcher in MLB history.
Campanella was named NL MVP three times, in 1951, 1953 and 1955. The only other MLB catcher to win three MVPs is Yogi Berra.
Roy Campanella's MLB career slash line is .276/.360/.500 with 242 home runs and 856 RBIs. His career fielding percentage as a catcher is .988 and Campanella had an amazing 57% caught stealing average - the highest all time among catchers.
Campanella's career was cut short when he suffered a tragic car accident in the winter of 1958 that caused paralysis from the shoulders down.
The eight-time all star and Dodgers legend was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.
#2. Elston Howard, 27.0 career WAR
Elston Howard began his professional career at the age of 19 with the Kansas City Monarchs in the negro leagues.
A few years later, Howard was signed by the New York Yankees and became the first African American to play for the club.
The Yankees got a heck of a ballplayer in Elston Howard. He would go on to be the successor to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra and he became the rock behind the plate for four World Series championship teams.
Howard was a 12-time AL all star and won the AL MVP award in 1963, beating out Al Kaline and his Yankees teammate, Whitey Ford. Howard also won two gold glove awards, in 1963 and 1964.
Over his 15 years in the MLB, Howard hit .274/.321/.427 and collected 1,490 hits and 168 home runs. He had a strong lifetime fielding percentage of .993 as a catcher, and he threw out 44% of runners attempting to steal.
#3. Charles Johnson, 22.6 career WAR
Charles Johnson has the distinction of being selected in the first round of the MLB draft not once, but twice.
He was drafted in 1989 by the Expos out of High School, but Johnson went to the University of Miami instead. Three years later, the Florida Marlins took Johnson with their first overall pick.
Johnson made his MLB debut with the Marlins two years later and he quickly became Florida’s primary catcher. Between 1995 - 1998, Johnson won four straight Gold Glove awards, was named an NL all star, and won a World Series ring with the Marlins (1997).
He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998, and for the next few years he bounced around to a few other teams.
All total, Johnson spent 12 years in the big leagues. He had a career .245/.330/.433 slash line with 167 home runs and 570 RBIs.
His defense, however, was what stood out. Johnson’s career fielding percentage as a catcher all-time is .993. He even had one season (1997) with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage.
Johnson also had a strong arm, and he threw out an impressive 39% of runners attempting to steal on him over the course of his career.
#4. John Roseboro, 22.4 career WAR
John Roseboro made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957. At the time, he was Roy Campanella's backup catcher, but was made the Dodgers primary catcher after Campanella's car accident in 1958.
Roseboro spent 11 years with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. In that time, he won three World Series, two Gold Gloves, and was named an NL all star six times.
Roseboro spent the final three years of his big league career between the Minnesota Twins and the Washington Senators.
Over 14 MLB seasons, Roseboro hit .249/.326/.371 with 104 home runs and 548 RBIs. He caught nearly 1,500 games, had a .989 fielding percentage, and gunned down 42% of runners trying to steal.
#5. Earl Battey, 18.8 career WAR
Earl Battey began his major league career in 1955 with the Chicago White Sox. He never got much traction in his career with the Sox, and after the 1959 season he was traded to the Washington Senators.
The trade was just what Battey needed. He became the Senators starting catcher and had the best season of his young career in 1960, which included winning his first Gold Glove.
The following season, the Senators became the Minnesota Twins and Battey moved with his team to Minneapolis.
Battey would have a great run with the Twins, where he would spend the next seven seasons of his career. While with the Twins, Battey earned two more Gold Glove awards, five all star game selections, and he was a member of the famed 1965 Twins team that won the AL pennant.
In total, Earl Battey collected 969 career hits, 104 home runs and 449 RBIs. He had a lifetime.270/.349/.409 slash line.
Defensively, Battey threw out 44% of runners that tried stealing on him and he maintained a .990 fielding percentage as a catcher.
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