#CardCorner: 1978 Topps Rick Cerone

Written by: Craig Muder

He stepped into the role of one of the most beloved Yankees of the 1970s, and Rick Cerone initially seemed poised to add to the legacy of championship catchers in the Bronx.

But while his New York career fell short of a title, Cerone spent a total of 18 years in the big leagues as a durable catcher whose skills were often in demand.

Richard Aldo Cerone was born May 19, 1954, in Newark, N.J. An all-round athlete during his youth, Cerone starred in baseball, football and fencing at Essex Catholic High School before initially committing to the University of Rhode Island. 

“I had 60 football scholarship (offers) and none for baseball,” Cerone, who played quarterback for Essex Catholic, told the Asbury Park Press. “I wanted to play football and baseball in college and nobody in the big schools would let you.”

Rhode Island promised Cerone a chance to play both sports, but before enrolling Cerone was talked into playing American Legion baseball that summer by a coach named Mike Sheppard. Later that summer, Sheppard was hired as the new head coach at Seton Hall University – and Cerone changed his mind and decided to stay closer to home and play for Sheppard again.

Rick Cerone caught 251 games for the Blue Jays from 1977-79, hitting .229 with 56 extra-base hits. (Topps baseball card photographed by Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“That decision,” Cerone told the Asbury Park Press, “changed my entire life.”

With the Pirates, Cerone began seeing regular playing time as a freshman and batted .339. He followed that up with seasons hitting .326 and .410, finishing his career with 26 home runs and 102 RBI in 114 games while winning All-American honors and being named an academic All-American. He led the Pirates to the College World Series in both 1974 ad 1975.

Enamored with his bat and his top-shelf throwing arm, the Cleveland Indians took Cerone with the No. 7 overall pick in the 1975 MLB Draft. 

“I was so impressed with him that I thought he could play in the major leagues right then,” said Jeff Torborg, who was a coach with the Indians when Cerone was drafted. 

The Indians sent Cerone to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he batted .250 with two homers and 13 RBI in 46 games before being called up to the majors on Aug. 15 when catcher John Ellis was sidelined with a hamstring injury.

Two days later, Cerone made his big league debut when he entered a game against the Twins in the seventh inning. He came to bat in the ninth and lined out against Bill Campbell.

“It’s tough to get up for games every day in Oklahoma City, but up here it’s been pretty easy,” Cerone told the Associated Press. “I think it’s a little too soon for me to be producing up here. What I mean is that it took me four weeks at Oklahoma City to get used to the pitching.”

Cerone finished the season batting .250 in seven games for Cleveland, then returned to Seton Hall and earned his degree in the spring of 1976.

“I wanted to be a college graduate,” Cerone told the Asbury Park Press. “To me, it was very important.”

The Indians’ Triple-A team was relocated to Toledo in 1976, and Cerone played 96 games with the Mud Hens that year, hitting .254 with 11 homers and 49 RBI before once again appearing in seven games with the Indians late in the season.

Rick Cerone was drafted by Cleveland in 1975 and made his big league debut that year, but he'd ultimately play just 14 games for the Indians before being shipped to Toronto. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

On Dec. 6, 1976, Cleveland traded Cerone and outfielder John Lowenstein to the Blue Jays for 37-year-old Rico Carty, who had been selected by Toronto from the Indians one month earlier in the Expansion Draft. Carty had become a fan-favorite with Cleveland during the previous two-and-a-half years, hitting .310 with 13 homers and 83 RBI as the team’s primary DH in 1976. But Carty had no role on an expansion team like the Blue Jays, and the trade brought Toronto a player who many considered one of the top catching prospects in the game.

 “We think we made a very good trade for Carty, because catcher’s like Cerone are very valuable,” Blue Jays director of player personnel Pat Gillick told the AP

And those some talent evaluators still had reservations about whether Cerone would hit, Gillick knew that his defensive ability would stabilize the young Toronto pitching staff.

Cerone made the Blue Jays’ Opening Day roster and was the starting catcher in the first game in franchise history, going 2-for-4 with a double in Toronto’s 9-5 win over the White Sox on April 7. But Cerone broke his right thumb in the season’s second week, sidelining him for all but one game for about five weeks before the Blue Jays sent him to Triple-A Charleston in late May. He would return to Toronto in mid-August and hit .200 in 31 games with the Blue Jays that year.

Cerone and Alan Ashby, another former Cleveland prospect, shared the catching duties for Toronto in 1978, with Cerone hitting .223 in 88 games while finishing third among AL catchers with a .992 fielding percentage. The Blue Jays then dealt Ashby to the Astros following the season, giving Cerone the chance to seize the moment and the playing time. 

He did not disappoint, raising his batting average to .239 while driving in 61 runs over 136 games. He also threw out 47 runners on the basepaths, fifth overall in the league. It cemented Cerone’s reputation as having one of the best arms in baseball – an arm that ended Mitchell Page’s streak of 26 straight steals in 1977 and Ron LeFlore’s skein of 27 straight successful stolen bases in 1978.

All this drew the attention of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose team had been dealt an unthinkable tragedy when All-Star catcher Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash on Aug. 2, 1979. Looking to fill the captain-sized hole in his team’s lineup, Steinbrenner engineered a trade that brought Cerone, Tom Underwood and Ted Wilborn to New York in exchange for Chris Chambliss, Dámaso García and Paul Mirabella on Nov. 1, 1979.

“I know the press will be comparing me to Munson,” Cerone told the Courier-News seven weeks after the trade, “and that’s something I’ll have to expect.

“I’m aware of what the New York press can do and say.”

But in 1980, Cerone was the darling of the New York media. He recorded three hits in the season’s third game against Texas, then embraced his first games at Yankee Stadium as a member of the Bronx Bombers.

“I don’t know about kids nowadays, what they think about growing up,” Cerone told the New York Daily News prior to his first game with New York at Yankee Stadium. “But when I was growing up, you wanted to play for the Yankees.”

Cerone’s bat heated up with the weather and he was in the lineup almost every day, hitting .277 with 30 doubles, 14 homers and 85 RBI in 147 games while throwing out an AL-leading 51.8 percent of runners who tried to steal. He finished seventh in the AL Most Valuable Player voting and was one of only five players to receive a first-place vote in balloting won by George Brett.

The Yankees won 103 games and the AL East title but were swept in the ALCS by Brett and the Royals despite Cerone’s .333 effort at the plate.

“It’s hard to accept,” Cerone told the Asbury Park Press after the season-ending loss in Game 3 where Cerone, batting with the bases loaded, no one out and the Yankees behind 4-2 in the bottom of the eighth, lined into a rally-killing double play. “I felt I failed.”

The Yankees returned to the postseason in 1981 despite regression in Cerone’s numbers. Over 71 games, Cerone hit .244 with two home runs and 21 RBI after being awarded a $440,000 contract via a win in arbitration that winter. Cerone’s performance drew the ire of Steinbrenner throughout the season, and things boiled over after Game 4 of the ALDS vs. the Brewers – a contest the Yankees lost 2-1 when Cerone struck out with two on and two out against Rollie Fingers to end the game.

Cerone and Steinbrenner reportedly engaged in a profanity-laced argument in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse.

“I’m not going to be here next year anyway,” Cerone was quoted as saying to Steinbrenner by The New York Times.

“I can guarantee that,” Steinbrenner replied.

But the Yankees won the deciding Game 5 by a score of 7-3 as Cerone went 2-for-3 with a home run. New York then swept Oakland in the ALCS before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series, with Cerone starting all 14 games during New York’s run. 

It would mark the last time Cerone would play in the postseason.

Cerone made his third straight Opening Day start for the Yankees in 1982 but sustained a serious left thumb injury on May 11 while tagging out California’s Don Baylor on a play at the plate. The next day, the Yankees traded for catcher Butch Wynegar in a deal with the Twins, and two days after that Cerone underwent surgery on his thumb. He did not return to action until July and finished the season hitting .227 in 89 games.

But despite his struggles, Cerone was brought back for the 1983 season, signing a four-year deal worth a reported $2.5 million.

“The Yankees are my team,” Cerone told the Miami Herald on the eve of Spring Training in 1983. “I’ve always wanted to play for them.”

Cerone and Wynegar shared the catching duties in 1983, with Wynegar batting .296 with a .399 on-base percentage while Cerone hit just .220 in 80 games. In 1984, Wynegar got even more playing time as Cerone missed about two months with an elbow injury and appeared in just 38 contests while hitting .208.

On Dec. 5, 1984, Cerone’s time with the Yankees came to an end when he was traded to the Braves in exchange for pitching prospect Brian Fisher.

Entering his age-31 season, Cerone was now a seasoned veteran who transitioned into a part-time role. After hitting .216 in 96 games for the Braves in 1985, Atlanta sent Cerone and two minor leaguers to the Brewers on March 5, 1986, in exchange for future Hall of Famer Ted Simmons. Cerone batted .259 in 68 games for Milwaukee before becoming a free agent when his four-year deal expired.

Cerone then returned home when he signed a one-year, $250,000 deal with the Yankees on Feb. 13, 1987.

“I talked to a lot of teams, but it was just talk,” Cerone told Newsday about his search for a new club. “It didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere. Spring Training was only two weeks away, and I was getting a little worried. I guess it shows (Steinbrenner) has a soft spot. I’m really pleased with the way things have worked out.”

Brought in as a backup for Joel Skinner, Cerone appeared in 100 games for the first time since 1980, batting .243 over 113 contests while leading AL catchers with a .998 fielding percentage. The Yankees brought Cerone back for 1988 on a one-year deal worth $300,000 but suddenly released him the day before the season opener.

Cerone, who blamed ongoing difficulties with manager Billy Martin for the move, thought his career might be over and considered selling insurance. But when Red Sox starting catcher Rich Gedman broke his foot on April 10, Cerone found an opportunity. He hit .269 in 84 games – and was not charged with an error all season – to help Boston win the AL East but did not appear in any games in the ALCS as the Red Sox were swept by Oakland.

Cerone returned to Boston in 1989 and hit .243 in 102 games. The Red Sox, however, did not offer him a contract for the 1990 season. A day after Boston officially non-tendered Cerone, he signed a two-year, $1.4 million deal with the Yankees – returning for his third stint in New York.

But after hitting .302 in 49 games in 1990, Cerone was designated for assignment on Jan. 13, 1991, as the Yankees made room on the 40-man roster for pitcher Scott Sanderson. 

“I don’t have any hard feelings,” Cerone told Gannett News Service after he was released. “I still look back to the winter of ’86. Nobody wanted me and collusion was going on. The only team that wanted me was the Yankees, so I can’t knock the Yankees.”

A week after leaving the Yankees, Cerone signed with the Mets and hit .273 over 90 games in 1991. He hooked on with the Expos in February of 1992. He hit .270 over 33 games but ceded most of the playing time to 38-year-old Gary Carter before being released on July 16.

By August, Cerone had decided to retire.

“My first life is over,” Cerone told The Record of Hackensack, N.J. “My other eight lives are about to begin.”

In retirement, Cerone worked as a broadcaster, in marketing and in real estate. He finished his 18-year big league career with a .245 batting average that included 998 hits and 190 doubles.

It was a career that – for a period of time – saw him become a hometown hero for the game’s most celebrated team.

“If you’re an athlete, you’re competitive – even if you’re playing tennis or Donkey Kong,” Cerone said in 1983. “People say: ‘You’re not a good loser.’ Well, how many good losers do you know?

“I’d rather be a bad winner than a good loser.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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