SOURCE: HNN ()
Now, in “Catcher,” Morris tells the story through the last three decades of the 19th century and into the 20th, when the game became essentially the one played today. He does so by focusing on the role of the catcher. Although his argument that for a couple of decades the catcher became a folk hero like the cowboy or even Daniel Boone is more than a bit of a reach, the rest of his book is so well done that Morris’s occasional detours into the Am Civ theorizing are only minor distractions.
Until after the Civil War, the pitcher’s job was pretty much to lob the ball over home plate so that the batter could put it in play. The catcher’s job was not particularly exciting or dangerous; he was basically just another fielder. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, by the 1870s that was changing. Pitchers were still prohibited from throwing overhand, but they fudged, avoided, or ignored the rule as much as they could, and threw harder and harder. When Arthur “Candy” Cummings and others added curveballs to their repertoire, the game—and the catcher’s role—changed dramatically. The catcher moved closer to the plate and, in Morris’s words, stood “slightly stooped, with both hands together to catch the ball, and legs far apart to allow him to lunge in either direction after a foul tip or an errant pitch.”
A writer in 1910, looking back to catchers of that era, noted that “in those days, when there were no gloves, or only those leather-tipped things for the catcher and first bagger, the palm was kept out of the way, if possible…[T]he oldtimers aimed to catch the ball in a trap or spring box made of the fingers. They showed wonderful deftness in taking every pitch and every throw upon the fingers, and seldom letting it strike the palm. Once in a while, however, there was a miscue, and either a stone bruise or a split hand resulted. The fingers, too gave way before the shock, and most of the oldtime players had their digits twisted, gnarled and horribly distorted.”
Confined to the pitcher’s box but not yet anchored to a pitching rubber, pitchers got a running start and fired the ball toward the batter from less than 45 feet away. Not surprisingly, scoring plummeted, and fielders had less and less to do because most of the outs came from strikeouts and foul tips caught by the catcher. All a team really needed was a reasonably good pitcher and a competent catcher. Interestingly, Morris argues, the latter was lionized more than the former. Standing behind the plate, clenching a strip of rubber between his teeth to protect them, and with only his nimbleness to protect the rest of him, the catcher personified courage and cool competence.
Understandably, however, baseball played as a two-man game lost its appeal for spectators and other players. Things hit bottom, Morris says, “on May 11, 1877, when a twenty-four-inning scoreless tie between Harvard University and the professional Manchester club was played with a baseball that was very hard to begin with and eventually became so ‘punky’ that it was impossible to hit out of the infield.” Increasingly featuring games that dragged on and on, with most outs recorded by strikeout, baseball was becoming dull, even excruciating, to play or watch . The game was at a crossroads—and leaving it the way it was might well have doomed it to being a “niche sport,” like today’s fast-pitch softball, rather than the “national pastime.”
To make it more inviting, to make both offense and defense more interesting, the game’s movers and shakers made numerous important adjustments over the next 30 years: among other rule changes, the pitcher was moved further from the batter (reaching the current 60-feet 6-inches in 1893), while the catcher moved even closer to him and began to use protective gear—the mask, the glove, the chest protector, and finally, in 1907, shinguards, Roger Bresnahan’s claim to fame. Some fans—and some catchers—lamented the anonymity and apparent loss of manliness that accompanied these developments, but catchers soon regained much of their lost prestige when it became clear how much skill was involved in snaring pitchers’ ever-growing assortment of unpredictable pitches, most notably the spitball.
In addition, said the Albany “Evening Journal” in 1911, “the star catcher is the real brain center of his team when it is on the defensive. Usually the man behind the mask plans out every play made in the field….What the quarterback is to the football team the catcher is on the diamond.” So in the half century between the Civil War and the Great War, the catcher went from being a paragon of physical courage, to a mere “backstop,” to the “thinking man’s” athlete, the equivalent of a football quarterback.
To trace this developmental arc, Morris has consulted an enormous number of contemporary newspapers, magazines, and personal papers. Indeed, he brings so many examples to his narrative that the players involved start to blend into one another. Still, some, like Charley Bennett and “Doc” Bushong stand out, and Morris closes his book with a plea that one of their number, Jim White, be added to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I rise to support that motion, not least because honoring White will also draw attention to how the game was played little more than a century ago—before steroids, and the lively ball, and batters wearing helmets and elbow pads, and warnings from umpires about beanballs. Not “the good old days,” by any means, but different, and fascinating, and well worth remembering.