Yogi Berra became the full-time starting catcher for the New York Yankees in 1949 and remained in that position for a total of 12 seasons. He would become one of the top five catchers in baseball history, winning three MVP Awards and helping the Bronx Bombers win 10 Pennants and 7 World Series during his time as their starting receiver. But what he also did was create a stockpile of talented catching prospects in the Yankees’ farm system and today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant was one of them.
The Yankees signed Gus Triandos, a strapping Greek-American native of San Francisco, in 1948 when he was just 17 years old and before they knew Berra would become their behind-the-plate superstar. They assigned the youngster to their C-level club in Twin Falls, Idaho where Triandos smashed 18 home runs and averaged .323 in his first-ever season of professional ball. The next year he did even better, belting 26 home runs with a .307 average and showing great skill behind the plate. That got him pushed up to the A level of the Yankees’ farm system, where he started the 1950 season in Binghamton. That’s where he ran into the “Berra factor.” Two other catching prospects ended up on that year’s Binghamton roster, Lou Berberet and Hank Foiles and both would end up averaging over .300 that season. So when Triandos averaged just .048 in his first eight games with the club, instead of being patient with their young prospect, the organization demoted him back to C ball and gave him a bus ticket to Amsterdam.
He spent the balance of that 1950 season playing for the Rugmakers. He hit an amazing .363 and smashed 11 home runs in that half-season and impressed every baseball-lovng fan in Amsterdam with his shotgun arm and powerful swing. He also impressed the ladies of the Rug City.The 6′3″Triandos had Hollywood good looks and was built like a Greek God. The Recorder sports reporters covering the team nicknamed him “Gorgeous Gus”and the team’s female fans were disappointed that as a catcher, big Gus had to cover his handsome face with that big old catcher’s mask most of the time he was on the field. To top it all off, Triandos had a kind heart too. He was known to visit sick kids in both Amsterdam hospitals and was always willing to sign autographs. In addition to being the top vote getter on that year’s Can Am All Star team, Triandos ran away with that year’s “Most Popular Rugmaker” fan poll.
The only weakness Triandos had on a baseball field was his lack of fleetness afoot. Simply put, the guy was considered one of the slowest runners in Major League history. Despite that handicap, his strong hitting and outstanding defensive ability were clear indications that this guy would some day be a starting catcher on a big league team. But with Berra squatting behind the plate in the Bronx, it wouldn’t be for the Yankees.
New York brought Triandos up a first time in mid-August of the 1953 season. Casey Stengel got the then 22-year-old prospect into 18 games down the stretch and he hit his first and only home run as a Yankee. But he averaged just .157 and when the season was over so was his Yankee career, pretty much. He spent almost the entire ’54 season with the Yanks’ Double A club in Birmingham and that November, was included in a historic 17-player transaction with the Orioles that brought Bob Turley and Don Larsen to the Yankees.
It was the big break Triandos’ career needed. He was actually the starting first baseman on the 1955 Baltimore team and Hal Smith started behind the plate. He took over the starting catcher’s job during the 1956 season and remained in that role for the next seven years. He quickly established his reputation as one of the league’s best all-around receivers. He made three straight AL All Star teams and his 30-home runs in 1958 tied Berra’s record for most HRs by a catcher in a season. Though he was still obscured by the Yankee great’s shadow, he became a huge fan favorite in Baltimore, where they named a street after him.
Triandos gained lots of notoriety and sympathy for having to catch Hoyt Wilhelm’s fluttering knuckleball during the Hall-of-Famer’s four-plus seasons as an Oriole. Baltimore manager, Paul Richards designed and had made an over-sized catcher’s mitt to assist Triandos with the task. Though Wilhelm had some of his best big league seasons pitching to Triandos, including his only no-hitter, big Gus often said that catching the hurler’s signature pitch was the worst part of his career.
In 1962, Triandos was traded to the Detroit Tigers and a year later, Detroit sent him and pitcher Jim Bunning to the Phillies. It was there that he caught his second career no-hitter, when Bunning accomplished the feat in June of 1964 against the Mets. But Triandos had stopped hitting during his final few seasons in Baltimore and never again regained his stroke. He retired after the 1965 season and returned to his native California, where he started a mail delivery business. He died in his sleep, from heart failure in March of 2013 at the age of 82.