BA Book Reviews: “Catcher”

Catcher: How the Man behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero
By Peter Morris
Ivan R. Dee, 2009
List Price: $27.50

Long before catchers actually had tools of ignorance, brave—or crazy—young men clamped their teeth around a chunk of rubber and crept up behind the batter to receive pitches barehanded. When their gnarled fingers split open or a foul ball collided with their skull they got back up and kept at it, earning the respect of their peers and the admiration of the spectators in the grandstand.

Part daredevil, part cowboy, these early catchers made themselves indispensable with a reckless disregard for their own safety. No team could hope to contend without a star receiver. The growth of the position significantly affected the evolution of the young game in the latter part of the 19th century. Peter Morris details this progression in “Catcher: How the Man behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero”.

One of the game’s more prolific historians, Morris went back in time through newspapers and other periodicals from the 1800s, reconstructing the development of both the game and the men behind the plate. Pioneers at the position who weren’t content to merely return the ball to their pitcher began moving ever closer to the batter in the late 1850s. Nat Hicks and William Craver were among the first to regularly play right behind the batter, and their influence forced others to do so as well. The advent of the curveball in the 1870s made it essential to have a man who was willing and able to catch this nearly unhittable pitch.

Batteries often moved from team to team in unison. A top pitcher was worthless without a competent catcher. Some pitchers learned this lesson the hard way. Star hurler Tommy Bond was let go by Hartford in 1876 after injuring all of his team’s receivers. The following season hard-throwing Larry Corcoran was asked by the Buffalo club to slow down his pitches; he was released when he refused because he “showed no sympathy for his catcher.” Teams couldn’t afford to keep losing catchers to bruised palms and broken fingers—or worse.

The game revolved so much around the pitcher and catcher that the other seven players often became nearly irrelevant. Scoring plummeted, with a high percentage of outs coming via strikeout. Fans lost interest, as contests were either long, drawn-out scoreless affairs or lopsided mismatches when one team couldn’t field a capable catcher.

The introduction of the mask, chest protector, glove, and shin guards helped to restore balance to the game while simultaneously emasculating the men behind the plate. Old-timers scoffed at the softness of the catcher of the 1890s. Anyone could do the job with all that padding. Catchers were jeered as “mere backstops.”

In time, however, the prestige of the position recovered, thanks in part to tricky pitches like the spitball and knuckleball. The catcher of the early 1900s came to be regarded as the quarterback of the team, and winning clubs relied heavily on a man who could think for his pitcher and position his defense. Connie Mack, a former catcher, became one of the game’s most successful managers; others soon followed in his footsteps.

Morris highlights countless individuals who contributed to the evolution of the position, such as Hicks, Craver, Jim White, Doug Allison, Charley Bennett, Jim McGuire, and Roger Bresnahan. There’s an entire chapter on Harry Decker, a catcher/con man who created one of the first catcher’s mitts. The introduction contains one of the best stories, about a young ne’er-do-well named Stephen who is drawn to the game against his Methodist clergyman father’s wishes. With little parental supervision, he spends most of his time on baseball diamonds, perfecting his catching. Eventually we learn this is the tale of Stephen Crane, better known as the author of “The Red Badge of Courage”.

From there the introduction moves into a more generic description of the pioneering frontiersman and the cowboy, who share many of the traits Morris sees in the early catchers. This is the theme he hits on throughout the book, and while it may be essential to his premise, it does grow tiresome at times. The historical developments and player anecdotes would sufficiently build his case without the repeated explicit comparisons to Daniel Boone.

That’s a small bone to pick with such an excellent history, however. And this really is a history of the whole game, because the changes at catcher had such a deep impact on the way baseball was played. Before you’re done reading you’ll begin to wonder why so many of the Hall of Famers from the 19th century are pitchers and so few catchers (only Buck Ewing and Mike “King” Kelly have been enshrined). It took a lot more gumption to stand behind the plate and catch those balls than it did to stand on the mound and throw them.