The book: “Catcher: How The Man behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero”
The author: Peter Morris
How to find it: Ivan R. Dee, 386 pages, $27.50
Where we’d go looking for it: Amazon has it (linked here)
The scoop: Catching up on the creation and early evolution of the catcher position won’t leave your hands hurting.
Morris, who proved his gumption in the baseball history genre by writing two volumes of his classic, “A Game of Inches” in 2006 (linked here and here), followed them up with “But Didn’t We Have Fun?” in 2008 (linked here) and “Level Playing Field” in 2007 (linked here and our review of it last year, linked here) that really sets the stage for this one.
The rare photos uncovered from the Library of Congress and Baseball Hall of Fame notwithstanding, Morris’ prose again, digging up facts and clearing up fiction about how the position turned from someone who stood far back behind the batter to one who had to move closer when the curveball came into existence — still, not wearing a glove or mask — are what make this a non-stop read once you get rolling.
The period covered here — the 1870s until the early 1900s — define how indispensable a position catcher became and still is. Or, as Casey Stengell once said: “You have to have a catcher or you’ll have a lot of passed balls.” Especially with spitballs they had to deal with.
The famous author Stephen Crane was the starting catcher on the Syracuse University varsity baseball team in 1891 while he was studying literature. Hence, the first indication that the position needed someone with a good head on his shoulders. Maybe it’s the real inspiration for “The Red Badge of Courage,” which came four years later, when he was 23. The position, as Crane would prove, was representative of courage, leadership, resolve and daring — things the American boys who came of age in the 1870s and 1880s, right after the Civil War — thought initiated them into manhood. It was the Daniel Boone position on the baseball field that showed real bravery and tactical brilliance.
Morris even quotes the great sportswriter Henry Chadwick, known as the Father of Modern Baseball, as saying: The captain of a nine should be a good general player: and if he excels as a catcher, all the better, for that is his place in the field … (he) should be well up in all the points of the game and on the watch to take advantage of the errors of the opposing nine.”
St. Louis’ Joe Torre slides under Phillies catcher Tim McCarver to score on a sacrifice fly in a game at Philadelphia in 1971.
Interesting, the position changed a bit in the 1890s where it was given to those rather portly or those “who couldn’t get out of their own way.” Regardless, the catcher position turned out some of the game’s first great managers and GMs — Connie Mack, Branch Rickey and Wilbert Robinson — from the late 1800s to the 1920s. Just look at the top mangers in the game today who were catchers — starting with the Dodgers’ Joe Torre and the Angels’ Mike Scioscia.
Some things don’t really change.
There are, by the way, almost 100 pages dedicated to an appendix of references and an index, proving Morris’ research really is pretty thorough. And organized. And did you know: The frist hit recorded in the first major league game ever played was by Jim White — a catcher, who Morris contends, based on his career, belongs in the Hall of Fame but somehow has been passed over. Morris calls it “a grave injustice” but “it makes sense in a curious way. He was the greatest catcher of an era when the feats of catchers were so incomparable that they could not be incorporated into the game’s history.”
With that, let’s also not forget Silver Flint, Joe Leggett, Nat Hicks and Charley Bennett.
How it goes down in the scorebook: A ball in the dirt, blocked by the catcher who slides to his right in the correct fashion, gets his body in front of it, and knocks it down with his chest protector, flipping off the mask to make sure the runner on first has no ideas of taking an extra base.