Get a Glove on “Catcher”
Two-thousand ten was the “Year of the Pitcher.” Pitchers have almost always been paramount. But did you know there was a time when a hurler took a backseat to his backstop? Peter Morris details this post-Antebellum period in “Catcher: How the Man behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero.”
1. Baseball’s early days are reminiscent of a Charlie Chaplin short – No sound, plenty of fury and lots of head scratching.
On July 4, 1873, Nat Hicks defined his 11-year career. The catcher already bore an injured forefinger and added a foul tip to the face to his list of injuries the previous day. He remained undeterred. With his right eye “almost knocked out of his head, and his nose and the whole right side of his face swollen to three times their normal size,” Hicks proceeded to endure four more blows, but his team won so nothing was all that unusual. Hicks broke every finger in his hand along with his wrist, his eyebrow and his kneecap during his tenure. (47, Catcher)
Some catchers, without any sort of helmet or padding, stood so close to the batter that the batter rested his weapon on his opponent’s head. A fast one left John Clapp with a hollow in his left cheek bone, and he said, baseballs forced his left eye shut three times. For Doug Allison, injuries were “monuments for work well done.” Frequently, Allison had been “put to sleep” by blows to the head. Such were the perils of unprotected work. They were accepted as the norm for decades. (53)
If the starting catcher landed on the disabled list, that spelled disaster for the home team. The majority of gentlemen and ladies alike were not to be found at the ballpark at those times. There was little reason to attend.
While its defenders championed baseball as the ultimate feat of valor that required all of a man’s mental faculties, society as a whole viewed the game as barbaric. Much to parents’ dismay, increasing numbers of young ladies fell in the former camp. One remarked that the catcher was “just too brave for anything.” (70)
2. Morris traces the game’s evolution in a thorough and lively fashion.
By 1877, teams could no longer risk their investment. Something had to be done. That something was introducing the catcher’s mask. At first it did not go well. Men of mammoth proportions were reduced to mice. The public likened the contraption to a bird cage or to a muzzle. They reacted similarly to the chest protector which was introduced about the same time. Men who used to risk life and limb now had little at stake, observers reasoned. Maybe a catcher wasn’t so great after all. So long to the days when hordes of lads dreamt of being catchers. Behind a mask for an entire game, the man who had been the center of attention was now almost anonymous. As a result, a disproportionate amount of catchers, as opposed to their teammates, pursued not so desirable exploits off the field.
3. Some of the most colorful men ever to take the diamond stood behind the plate.
Patsy Dockney would long be known for a knife fight that left him with a slash that extended across his chest and left him gushing blood. Charley Bennett challenged that only a wimp used a padded glove. Apparently he would rather be left with a split left thumb, blood poisoning or no blood poisoning. Don’t forget another catcher, Connie Mack.
Catchers have been on the receiving end since the beginning. Whatever happens, the ball comes to rest in their hands. Get a glove on “Catcher” by Peter Morris.
Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.