A baseball lifer, Birdie Tebbetts was a four-time All-Star catcher, a big league manager and a military recruiter during his days in the game. A master of psychology, it was once printed that during World War II, when Birdie was serving with the Army Air Corps as a recruiter, that executives of Major League ballclubs tried to keep him out of their respective cities for fear that Tebbetts had come to get their entire rosters to enlist. Tebbetts used his mastery of psychology to sign up boys for the war as well as lead a roster of ballplayers during a season of fun and baseball.
Birdie had the misfortune of debuting with the Detroit Tigers when they owned the contract of one Mickey Cochrane–arguably the greatest catcher of all-time. However, when Mick was beaned in 1937, and nearly died, his career as a player was over and the door was open for a successor. Tebbetts tried to make the most of his situation but with power hitter Rudy York in town and Hank Greenberg blocking York at first base, Detroit used the brawny York as their catcher even though his reserve, Tebbetts, was a far superior defender.
Birdie began to see more playing time in 1939 and by 1940 he paced American League catchers in doubles while hitting .296. The Tigers needed Birdie behind the plate but also needed York’s big bat in the lineup, so skipper Del Baker moved Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg to left field, thus opening the door for regular playing time for both Tebbetts and York. The result was an AL flag.
In 1941, Birdie hit .284 but with the loss of Greenberg to the military, the Tigers fell in the standings. The following year, Birdie finished as Hall of Famer Bill Dickey’s runner-up in batting average among American League backstops. After the 1942 season, Birdie entered the military and served three years at the height of his career. No other catcher was hurt more than Tebbetts by the war. Bill Dickey and Harry Danning were both at the end of their careers when they served and Yogi Berra had yet to make his debut. Birdie on the other hand had just hit his prime and made the All-Star team the two years before his military induction.
Stationed at the Waco Airfield, Tebbetts stayed in shape by playing and managing a service club that boasted the likes of Sid Hudson and Bruce Campbell. When the war was over, Birdie returned to Detroit in 1946 and struggled at the plate, despite his typically exceptional defense–he gunned down 44% of would-be basestealers. During his career, Birdie averaged a fine 44%.
When the Red Sox needed a catcher in 1947 they made a deal for Birdie. At the time of the trade, Tebbetts was hitting an extremely poor .094 for the Tigers but rebounded to hit .299 with Boston. He continued his fine hitting in 1948 by leading AL catchers in batting average, hits, doubles, walks and RBI. An All-Star in 1948, Birdie received the same honor again in 1949 when he led catchers in stolen bases. In 1950, Birdie and Hall of Famer Yogi Berra were the only .300 hitting catchers in the American League.
The Cleveland Indians bought the aging Birdie’s contract in 1951 and he served as Jim Hegan’s backup for two years before retiring. Although retired as a player, Tebbetts wasn’t out of the game long. His first managerial assignment came with the Reds in 1954. The Reds of 1953 had a poor .442 winning percentage and Birdie elevated the club to a modest .481 percentage. He guided his Reds to another fifth place finish in ’55 as his club was the only team in the Majors with two 40 homerun hitters. His Reds also paced the league in hits.
The Reds caught fire under Tebbetts in 1956 when he led his charges to a fine 91-63 record; two games behind the NL champs. His Cincy club was the NL’s top slugging club in ’56 as Birdie had a powerful lineup with the likes of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, slugging first baseman Ted Kluszewski, power hitting outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post and 40 homers out of his catching duo of Ed Bailey and Smoky Burgess. He brought the Reds in fourth in 1957 and was replaced late in the 1958 season.
The Milwaukee Braves brought Birdie in late in the 1961 season to finish out the campaign. He led the Braves to a winning season in 1962 (86-76) but when he was offered the Indians managerial job in ’63, Birdie left Wisconsin and managed the last team he played for. The Indians roster had little talent outside flame throwing left-hander Sudden Sam McDowell and Tebbetts never brought the Indians in any higher than fifth place. Despite the punchless offense, the Indians had a dominant pitching staff. Tebbetts managed the AL’s top strikeout staff in 1963 and 1964. Although the Indians finished in the second division Birdie’s four years at the helm, he only had one losing season. He was replaced by the Indians late in 1966–his last managerial assignment.
G 1,162/R 357/H 1,000/2B 169/3B 22/HR 38/RBI 469/BB 389/SO 261/SB 29/BA .270/SA .358
W 748/L 705/PCT .515