Rick Dempsey is best remembered by some for his rain-delay antics and entertaining crowds with his impersonations of Babe Ruth. The long-time Baltimore catcher, however, proved over the course of his career, which encompassed parts of four decades, that he was more than one of baseball’s most memorable characters.
Dempsey was one of the best defensive catchers in the latter half of the 20th century. He possessed a cannon for an arm and was a magician who helped guide some of the game’s greatest pitching staffs to a pair of World Series titles, picking up a World Series MVP for himself along the way. Dempsey has been part of the game for nearly six decades, starting out as a Minnesota farmhand in the late 1960s before embarking on what proved to be a remarkable journey.
He played for Billy Martin, Earl Weaver and Tommy Lasorda and, along with Tim McCarver and Carlton Fisk, is one of only three catchers to play in the Major Leagues in four decades [1969-92]. So, to pigeon-hole Dempsey as simply the guy who ran around in the rain would not do justice to someone who was one of baseball’s most durable and dependable players for 24 seasons.
Dempsey, 73, is semi-retired and living in California. He’s still looking for work even though he says that being on the road with a team at any level these days is pretty much out of the question.
“I don’t enjoy retirement,” he said. “I never wanted to be retired; it just worked out that way. Now, it’s too late for me to take a managing job. I have my grammar school sweetheart and we’ll be married 54 years in February. I can’t leave her alone for that long. We’re getting to that age where we have to keep an eye on each other. But I would like to be involved with a team in some respect.”
The work ethic that was so prevalent during Dempsey’s playing days remains. He’s had that singular focus since he was a youngster growing up in California and starring in local Little and Pony Leagues.
MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF
Dempsey is quick to admit that bettering himself in sports, not academics, was his main focus while attending Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino. He was hooked on baseball and had been so since an early when he began listening to Vin Scully on Dodger broadcasts as an 8-year-old. He speaks warmly about memories of attending drive-in movies with his parents and how, in between features, he was consumed with the highlights of Dodger games that were shown on the big screen.
“I loved it at eight years old and told my mother I wanted to be a professional baseball player,” Dempsey said. “I wasn’t a very good student. All I wanted to do was play sports. It was a Catholic high school so the priests helped me a little but with my grades so I’d be eligible to play sports. I didn’t get to play baseball when I was a freshman or sophomore because I didn’t have a way home.
“My brother [who was his ride] was a high hurdler so I became a miler on the track team and ran a 4:36 mile. The coaches thought I might run a four-minute mile by the time I was a senior but I said no, I wanted to be a right fielder when I was a junior.”
Dempsey moved behind the plate for his senior season and hit a team-leading .466 to earn All-Camino Real League honors. The Van Nuys Valley News said he was “considered a definite Major League catching prospect and the Twins agreed, drafting him in the 15th round of the First-Year Player Draft. He was the first of four players from Crespi Carmelite to get drafted and is one of nine from the school to reach the Major Leagues. Included in that group are Jeff Suppan, Sean Gilmartin and Ryon Healy.
“I used to go to all the semi-pro games in Los Angeles and they played for a guy who was a scout for the Minnesota Twins,” Dempsey said. “He liked the fact that I always went to the games when I told him I would and they gave me a shot. He came to my mother’s house in 1967 in Simi Valley and I signed a contract. He told my mother don’t change the furniture in my room because I’d probably be back in six weeks. I signed as a 145-pound catcher and two years later I was playing in the big leagues.”
“They wanted me to stay but they said I wasn’t going to play. So, I said okay, I’ll play for the worst team in baseball before I play for the Orioles.”
Dempsey eventually did go home but not before he appeared in 40 games for Minnesota’s affiliate in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League. He hit .206 in 102 at-bats with nine RBIs. He opened 1968 with Wisconsin Rapids of the Class-A Midwest League but was there for 11 games before moving to Auburn of Class-A New York-Penn League.
“It was really foreign to me,” Dempsey said. “I didn’t know anything about being by myself and being on the road but I made a lot of friends early on. I went to the summer league in ’67 and played half a game every other day. The next year I went to Wisconsin Rapids and didn’t hardly play at all. I went into the manager’s office and said can you send me somewhere where I can get the opportunity to play? So, they sent me to Auburn and I played every day.”
Dempsey hit .293 with seven homers and 61 RBIs in 73 games and was named as the league’s Rookie of the Year. He was also named a first team NYPL all-star and lauded by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues. Dempsey joined the Air National Guard in 1969, which allowed him to continue playing for much of the summer and he played well back in the Midwest League, hitting .364 in 151 at-bats.
The Twins were impressed and put him on the 40-man roster before calling him up to the big club in September, allowing Dempsey to play for Billy Martin and watch as the Twins captured the newly formed American League West crown. Dempsey made his Major League debut on Sept. 23 against the Royals at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. He popped up to second in his first at-bat but singled to center off Chris Zachary to lead off the ninth in a 6-2 victory. Dempsey went 3-for-6 with a walk in five games.
Manager Earl Weaver #4 and catcher Rick Dempsey #24 of the Baltimore Orioles stands on the mound to make a pitching change during an Major League Baseball game circa 1982 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Weaver managed the Orioles from 1968-82 and 1985-86. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
“The first guy to come up to me in the locker room was Harmon Killebrew,” Dempsey said. “He was one of the all-time nicest guys in the world. I think he and Brooks Robinson both had the same mother. Major League Baseball was not easy to break into at that time. No one liked you and most of the veterans were cold and didn’t want to talk. I remember having a hard time with Rod Carew. I didn’t even know who the heck he was.
“They made it pretty tough on the rookies in those days; the tough times are what I remember the most but I never let it bother me. I was one of those kinds of players that just pulled for all of the guys.”
Martin made quite the impression on the 19-year-old catcher, one that remains as vivid for Dempsey as it was 54 years ago.
“I loved Billy; he was a little guy like me,” Dempsey said. “He was very outspoken and he told me just hustle and play hard for me every day and you’ll have nothing to worry about. I thought he was a great player’s manager. He would go and hang out with the players, drink with them and do all that stuff. He made it fun. But when he got on the field, he took things seriously. I got along with him really well.”
Dempsey may have gotten along with Martin and Martin with him but Martin was fired after the season and Dempsey found himself in the Double-A Southern League in each of the next two seasons. He did get a pair of September callups but they were mere cameos.
While Dempsey made the Major League roster in 1972, he didn’t last long, hitting .200 in 25 games before being sent to Tacoma of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he would spend the remainder of the season. The next time he would see Minnesota would be as a visiting player.
Catcher Rick Dempsey #24, of the Baltimore Orioles, argues the call with the home plate umpire Larry Barnett during a game on September 12, 1982 against the Cleveland Indians at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by: Ron Kuntz Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
MINNESOTA TO NEW YORK TO BALTIMORE
The Twins traded Dempsey to the Yankees for outfielder Dan Walton, a journeyman who would appear in 297 games with six teams over a nine-year career. Dempsey was back in upstate New York in 1973, spending the majority of the season with Syracuse of the Triple-A International League, where he hit .248 with 47 RBIs. He also appeared in six games for the Yankees before embarking on a journey that would last another 18 years in the Major Leagues.
“New York came calling,” Dempsey said. “They wanted a lefty hitting catcher and I became Thurman Munson’s backup guy. I learned the game from Thurman. He had the most impact on me of any person or player. I loved the way he played the game and we became very good friends.”
Dempsey spent all of 1974 with the Yankees, serving as Munson’s backup for most of that time. He hit .239 in 43 games. He also got in a late September fight with teammate Bill Sudakis, a volatile sort who was also one of New York’s backup catchers. The team was flying to Milwaukee from Cleveland and Munson and a few other players were chiding Sudakis on the flight about Dempsey being the true backup catcher.
Sudakis got upset and wasn’t about to start anything with Munson so he sought out Dempsey on the plane and began to yell at him about who the real backup catcher was, ultimately stabbing Dempsey in the chest with a fork. Dempsey didn’t want to start anything on the plane but when the team arrived at the hotel in Milwaukee, Sudakis started in again and a fight ensued. The two tore up the lobby and in the melee Bobby Murcer got hurt and missed the final two games of the season.
The Yankees were a game out of first heading into the final two games. They split the two games and Baltimore won its final two games to win the division. Whether Murcer’s presence in the lineup would have made a difference is up for debate since the Orioles won out to claim the title. Sudakis was traded to the Angels after the season.
Dempsey spent all of 1975 as Munson’s backup and was also reunited with Martin, who took over for Bill Virdon midway through the summer. While he loved playing with Munson and for Martin, Dempsey’s stay in New York was just about over. He started the 1976 season as Munson’s backup but was dealt to Baltimore in a blockbuster deal on June 15 that also saw Tippy Martinez, Rudy May, Scott McGregor and Dave Pagan headed to the O’s in exchange for Doyle Alexander, Ken Holtzman, Grant Jackson, Jimmy Freeman and Elrod Hendricks.
Dave Skaggs #8 gets a hand from Eddie Murray #33 and Rick Dempsey #24 during the World Series at Three Rivers Stadium on October 1979 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images)
“In Baltimore it was hard to break the ice,” Dempsey said. “Earl was not an easy guy to get along with. He and Billy were a lot alike. He was a yeller and a screamer and he beat the fundamentals of the game into you. When I first got traded, I met them in Chicago and I didn’t start a game for quite a while. Dave Duncan [the starting catcher] got hot and started playing well, so they stuck with him.
“When we got back to Baltimore, I was dropped off at a hotel on I-695 and went to the desk to get my key. I was dragging three pieces of luggage and a hang up bag across the parking lot. I got to my room and stuck my key in the door and it didn’t open. I sat there crying asking myself is this what it’s come to? The Yankees are winning the division and I’m sitting here in Baltimore, 12 games out.”
It wasn’t all bad for Dempsey, though. He met Cal Ripken, Sr., who Dempsey called “the greatest catching coach”. He added that Ripken took a liking to him and polished him up behind the plate. Still, it took time for Dempsey to get any consistent playing time. After throwing out several runners in his first start against the Red Sox on June 22, Dempsey had gained an in with his manager.
“I got a little notoriety in Earl Weaver’s eyes,” Dempsey said. “He believed in a strong defensive catcher. That’s where I made my mark. I used to listen to him and Jim Palmer battling. Palmer told me I had to stand up to him otherwise he’d bury me. We had our share of arguments, too. But I learned how to handle a good staff with Baltimore and ended up being the everyday catcher for 10 years.
“I was able to catch some good pitchers. I came over with Scott McGregor, Rudy May, Tippy Martinez, who had the best curveball ever, and I learned how to call a game from Jim Palmer. All the pitchers enjoyed having me behind the plate. I never let anybody steal bases, I never missed a runner that I had a half decent chance to throw out and I never missed a ball in the dirt.”
he MVP of the 1983 World Series Baltimore Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey (r) talks with ABC's commentator Reggie Jackson (C) while Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams (L) is on the phone in the Orioles locker room after the Orioles defeat the Philadelphia Phillies in game five of the 1983 World Series, October 16, 1983 at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Baltimore won the series 4-1. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Dempsey became the Orioles starting catcher in 1978 and held that position for a decade, helping the Orioles to the World Series in 1979 [they lost in seven games to Pittsburgh] and then again in 1983. This time they won, topping the Phillies in five games with Dempsey earning the Series MVP after hitting .385 with four doubles and a homer. He ended up hitting .304 in 19 playoff and World Series games for Baltimore.
While Dempsey never hit higher than .262 during his decade as Baltimore’s starting catcher, his presence behind the plate and in the clubhouse made him the perfect veteran leader, especially as Palmer wound down his career and retired.
The decade wasn’t always great, though. His buddy Munson would die in a plane crash on Aug. 2, 1979. The Orioles played the next night in Yankee Stadium, earning a 1-0 victory that seemed very hollow. Dempsey went 0-for-2 with a walk.
“I saw Thurman a couple of days before he crashed the plane,” Dempsey said. “We had a day off in Minnesota and the Yankees were in the same hotel. He told me he bought a new plane. I told him I wished he wouldn’t fly, that he was a baseball player. Within a week he crashed. That was one of the saddest days for me ever. That was that.”
Another sad day came when it became apparent that Dempsey’s time in Baltimore was over. He remained the starting catcher through 1986 but hit just .208 at the age of 36.
“The Orioles told me that I wasn’t going to be the everyday catcher anymore and that they didn’t want to pay me for that last year,” Dempsey said. “They said they wouldn’t pick up my option. They wanted me to stay but they said I wasn’t going to play. So, I said okay, I’ll play for the worst team in baseball before I play for the Orioles.”
Former Baltimore Orioles player Rick Dempsey leads cheers between innings during a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals on August 9, 2014 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. The Orioles won 10-3. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
A PITSTOP ON THE WAY TO ANOTHER WORLD SERIES
Dempsey ‘s words proved to be prophetic. He signed with Cleveland and the Indians finished with an MLB-low 61 wins in 1987. He appeared in only 60 games and hit .177. Just when it appeared as if Dempsey began to heat up at the plate, he went 3-for-9 with four RBIs in the previous two games, he was bowled over by Kansas City’s Bo Jackson in a home-plate collision on July 21. Dempsey broke his thumb and missed the rest of the season.
“Cleveland was one strange organization,” Dempsey said. “They wouldn’t even let me warm pitchers up in the bullpen. Then I met Bo Jackson at home plate. There was a chopper to the mound and he was on third and I’m thinking I can’t block this guy. I’m 175 pounds and he’s 235 with world-class speed. I went up the line a little and he knocked the living shit out of me. But I held on to the ball. I held him to less yards that [Brian] Bosworth did. I was happy to get away from Cleveland, though.”
Dempsey knew that he wanted to keep playing. He felt that he still had the skill behind the plate to guide a pitching staff; it was just a matter of finding the right landing spot. So, he decided to try close to home and paid the Dodgers a visit.
“I was 40 years old but I knew I could still play,” Dempsey said. “I went to Fred Claire’s office. He was the new Dodgers GM and I waited in his office at 2 p.m. His secretary told me he was in a meeting and that he would come out and get me when he was done. At 7 p.m., I was still sitting there. The secretary had gone home and it was dark outside.
“He eventually came out and I said I’m sorry Mr. Claire, I never give up on anything, don’t make me do it now. Let me talk to you for a half hour and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll go home and retire. He turned out to be the best GM I ever talked to. ‘This is what we’re going to do’, I told him. ‘I’m going to hit a homer every 24 at-bats, drive in a run every five at-bats, turn your staff around, win the division, win the playoffs and then win the World Series. I’m going to catch the last pitch and I’m going to give you the ball.’”
When Spring Training rolled around in 1988 Dempsey was at Vero Beach with the Dodgers. Despite a strong camp, though, Claire said he needed to send him to Triple-A for a bit until he could find a place for Alex Trevino. That decision wasn’t final, though.
“I told him I can go home and start my managing career and that I’d be okay,” Dempsey said. “So, he left and 40 minutes later he came back and said you made the club. We got to the World Series and I caught the last pitch and gave him the ball. I got it signed by everybody. That was Orel’s [Hershiser] last pitch that season. Mike Scioscia and I got a lot of accolades for turning the staff around. We ended up winning the World Series with what was the worst team, on paper, in history.”
Dempsey’s line for the season was just about what he told Claire it would be. He appeared in 77 games, hit .251 [42-for-167] with seven homers and 30 RBIs.
“Claire called me a few years ago and asked me if I wanted to do a talk with him at the Oakmont Country Club,” Dempsey said. “He told me he gave that ball to the Hall of Fame. The ball was worth $6.5 million. We could have sold it, split the money and been very happy.”
Rick Dempsey while with the Los Angeles Dodgers.(Getty)
THIS IS THE END
Dempsey spent 1991 with the Brewers and hit a respectable .231 with four homers and 21 RBIs in 147 at-bats. The end, however, was near. He went to Spring Training with Baltimore in 1992 and didn’t make the club, getting cut the last week of camp.
“I knew I could be a part time catcher for them but they had Chris Holies at the time,” said Dempsey, who was eventually activated in June. He appeared in eight games, had nine at-bats and collected one hit, a single against the White Sox on July 6. “I sat there on the bench and started one game. I knew at that point they just wanted me to come in and quit so they didn’t have to pay me but I refused to do that. I know I could have played a couple more years. That was so embarrassing to start one game all season long.
“I just wanted to put it behind me and get to my managing career. I wanted to manage for the Orioles and I talked to [general manager] Roland Hemond and the farm director to see where they could place me. They said come in Friday, we’ll have a meeting and put you someplace but I showed up for the meeting and they didn’t and that was the end of it with me and Baltimore.”
Dempsey contacted Claire and was hired to manage in the Dodgers farm system. He managed at Bakersfield in the Class-A California League to a 10th-place finish in 1993 before guiding Albuquerque of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League to a title in 1994 and a fifth-place finish in 1995.
“I was the most brutal manager ever for Bakersfield,” Dempsey said. “I wanted to be like Earl Weaver. I yelled and screamed and Fred told me we want you to be Rick Dempsey and not Earl Weaver. I went to Albuquerque and won a title and had two good years there.
“Tommy [Lasorda] had a little heart attack around that time and there was a lot of speculation as to who would replace Tommy. No one ever interviewed me about being the Dodger manager but my name showed up in the L.A. Times about it and that upset someone, so I left the Dodgers. Still, they were the classiest organization I was ever a part of.”
Dempsey went on to manage the Mets Triple-A affiliate in the International League in 1997-98 and served as a coach on the Dodgers’ and Orioles’ Major League staffs between 1999-2006 before joining Baltimore’s broadcast team, a position he held until 2020.
NOW ABOUT THAT RAIN DELAY STUFF
While Dempsey had a long and storied career some folks just can’t get over the fact that he was the guy who ran around in the rain. What’s interesting is that the idea to perform in the rain was actually Sparky Lyle’s and not Dempsey’s.
“I was in the outfield with Sparky during batting practice [with the Yankees] and he said one of these days I’m going to run around the tarp and do a pantomime of Babe Ruth doing his home run,” Dempsey said. “But Sparky never did it. When I was with the Orioles, we were tied with the Red Sox one year on the last day of the season and we were playing for second-place money. It started to rain and everyone left the field and when they covered it up, there was one baseball on the tarp.
“I went and I got that baseball to throw it to the fans and I was in my socks slipping all over. I was skating to the ball and the organist started playing rain drops keep falling my head. When the music was over I threw the ball to the fans in left field. After that, the fans didn’t want to leave, it was incredible. They started chanting we want Dempsey. Rich Dauer came into the clubhouse to get me and that’s when it came to me. So, I went back out to the tarp and did Babe Ruth hitting the homer. I ended up doing that routine three times. It ran its course and that was it.”