Best known for his productive five year run with the New York Yankees in the mid-1980s, nearly two decade long MLB veteran Rick Cerone was as hard nosed and tough as they come.
Replacing the irreplaceable Thurman Munson, Cerone had his career year in his first season in New York, batting .277, hitting 14 homers and driving in nealy 90 runs.
He also had stops in Cleveland, Toronto, New York (a few times and suiting up for both teams), Atlanta, Milwaukee, Boston and Montreal.
After his playing career was over, he spent time in the broadcast booth for the Yankees and even formed a minor league team in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey.
In our newest Card Back Q&A, the longtime catcher talks about his high school football stardom, his relationship with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, being the grit of those Yankees teams and much more.
Tony Reid–Your 1981 Topps card had two fun facts. One stated that you held every offensive record at Seton Hall University. What are your lasting memories from your experience in college?
Rick Cerone-Out of high school, I was a football player, a fencer and baseball player. I had 60 football scholarships and none for baseball. The school I signed with was going to let me play football and baseball. They pulled the baseball offer at the last minute. They said I was going to be the starting quarterback and that I wasn’t going to be allowed to play baseball. They gave me their word and at the last minute, on August 1st, I had no scholarships. I wound up going to Seton Hall (instead). Mike Shepard was going to be the first year coach. He said he would find a scholarship for me if I wanted to stay home and play baseball. I did and it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. My favorite memory was getting to the College World Series two out of my three years there. I have great memories of Seton Hall. Now that they have a stadium, my number is retired there along with Craig Biggio and Mike Shepard. It changed my life, really.
TR–The second fact on the card said that you threw 13 touchdown passes as a high school senior. What was Rick Cerone like as a quarterback?
RC-That was my favorite sport. You had a lot of people watching the high school football games. We went to Essex Catholic high school in Newark. We went undefeated my senior year. I think I threw 25 touchdowns in my two years as a starter. I could throw. I tell people that the best team I ever played on was my Pop Warner Newark Bears team. We had 12 or 13 Division 1 football players and two guys made it to the pros. I loved football. It was fun. The little known fact on the back of my cards was one of them said that I was an all-state fencer. I won the state title in 1972 my senior year at Essex Catholic. I was a state fencing champion.
We are talking about tidbits on card backs, I had been playing for a while, it might have been seven or eight years at the time, well one of my Topps Yankees cards said ‘Laid down a key bunt for a Yankee win in August.’ I went up to Sy Berger at Topps and said ‘Sy, who in the hell wrote that I laid down a sacrifice bunt? That was the highlight of my whole career?’ He was embarrassed but we looked forward to seeing the tidbits they had on the backs of the cards.
TR–The back of your 1982 Donruss card mentioned how you won a celebrated $440,000 salary arbitration over the winter of 1980-81 and never heard the end of it from Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. What do you remember from that arbitration and what was your relationship like with the boss?
RC-That is an interesting story. When I went over to the Yankees, I had a great year. I finished seventh in the MVP voting in 1980 and everything turned around. I was making $110,000 in 1980. I didn’t sign my contract. The general manager, Gene Michael, renewed me. After the big year going into the negotiations Cedric Tallis was the GM. He offered me a three-year contract and I said I wanted to go one year at a time. I felt like I was going to have another great year. I went to go talk to him. He said ‘Rick do you hear those lawnmowers going off in the background? I hear them all day long.’ I said ‘Cedric, there is snow on the ground. There are no lawnmowers.’ He was a little out of it and that forced me to go to arbitration and George was mad as hell. I asked for $440,000. They offered me $350,000 and the arbitrator has to rule one way or the other. You finish seventh in the MVP voting and you can write your own check. They were very supportive. I got it. George didn’t like me. He said I was a greedy ball player, especially a local kid. We had a good relationship, though. That grows the relationship.
TR–You had a card produced in 2004. In the Upper Deck Yankees Classic set the back of your card. Said ‘Cerone was the true grit of the Yankees teams of the early 1980s. He not only brought punch to the lineup, but he blocked the plate exceptionally well. In 1980. He led the team to the playoffs and finished seventh and AL MVP voting.’ What are your lasting memories of your time and pinstripes?
RC-Playing with so many great players and being able to play at home in front of my friends and family, that was the biggest highlight. We got to the World Series and you think you are going to get there many, many times. I only got there once and we lost to the Dodgers in 1981. One good thing about COVID was I got to watch all of my old games on YouTube that I never saw before. The only other World Series I did was when I was broadcasting with the Yankees. I got a couple rings as a broadcaster. I wish we would have won. The Yankee fans are so passionate.
You mentioned blocking the plate. I was a dirty player. I blocked the plate all the time without the ball. I gave up my body. I was thrown out of games left and right. That was a big part of the game. What I take out of baseball is that I was always with my teammates. I was a player rep for a long time. I was fighting for benefits and better pensions. We kept fighting that with all the strikes. We really wanted to take care of our players and the former players. We created our own account that has grown to $70,000 a year which is nice. Not that these guys need it but the older players need that. I always loved my teammates. We had a lot of fun. We didn’t always get along. I got into a couple of fights but those are the memories I will never forget.