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How History Created The Cult Of The Catcher

Dec 5, 2012
Originally published on December 5, 2012 2:28 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Earlier this week, Deacon White was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. And yes, we know, you've never heard of him. White's career began in 1871, at the dawn of professional baseball. He played catcher in the days when catchers use no equipment at all: no glove, no pads, no facemask. They became heroes celebrated for their courage and their wits, and Deacon White stood out as one of the best.

Baseball historian Peter Morris serves on what used to be called the Veteran's Committee at Cooperstown. It's now called the Pre-Integration Era Committee. He's also the author of "Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero" and joins us now from the studios at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. Good to have you with us today.

PETER MORRIS: My pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And in your book, you argue that the generation that came of age after the Civil War looked around for some heroes and found them behind home plate.

MORRIS: Yeah. It's hard to understand today just how much the catcher, especially in the 1870s, dominated the baseball game. A single baseball game was - really revolved around the catcher's ability to harness what the pitcher was pitching, and everything revolves around that. The pitcher couldn't use his best pitches if he had - he didn't have confident - confidence in the catcher.

So he really was a sort of iconic folk hero, dominated the game in a way that I think no player ever has before or since and - at a point to where people resented it and would say, you know, this is a game played by two players while the other seven just kind of watch.

CONAN: The pitcher and the catcher and everybody else watches. The catcher's - well, we are familiar with the crouched position right behind home plate. That was not what they did in the 1870s.

MORRIS: No. They stood, sometimes a little stooped but mostly straight up, and they would just catch the ball and be ready to throw it to bases immediately. And the way that they would throw it sort of made them look like gunslingers. And so that really fed into the whole icon of them, the whole idea of them as American folk heroes.

CONAN: Folk heroes. Give us some idea. You quote any number of sources, literary and otherwise, in your book who worshipped these men.

MORRIS: Yeah. One of the most prominent was Stephen Crane, the great American novelist, and he really - most of his preparation for writing the "The Red Badge of Courage" and his other novels was spent being a catcher. And in fact, he really had two very unsuccessful stints in college where he spent most of his time trying to be the catcher for the college nine and didn't go to too many classes. And really, all he developed was a kind of love of baseball and a sense of what it took to be - to have great courage. And I think both of those really fed into "The Red Badge of Courage."

CONAN: And courage, we see the beating that catchers take today. They got the same foul tips and balls off their various parts of their body back then too.

MORRIS: Oh, it was tremendously difficult position to be in. You were right in the line of fire, and of course, you know, you could be the most prepared possible and then the batter might foul tip it. And it would just, you know, the angle will change just enough that it would, you know, hit your forehead usually. And a few of them had such great reflex. I mean, Deacon White was known for his great reflexes and became an incredibly durable catcher. But it was sort of known that, you know, if you put a neophyte behind a plate, he would usually get injured within an inning or two. That was - the danger was so great.

CONAN: And the early history of baseball is replete with teams that raided other teams for their catchers.

MORRIS: Oh, and particularly in the 1870s that the best teams were the ones with the best catchers. You really couldn't be successful without one. And Deacon White stood above everybody else to the point where he played on five consecutive championship teams. And he went from team to team and the championship just followed him around wherever he went.

CONAN: He was quite a good hitter too.

MORRIS: He was a great hitter. He was a way above-average hitter, playing a position where, you know, the defense was so all-encompassing as a skill that you could, you know, you could really just put anybody there if they could field the position and not worry about their bat. But he was a consistent .300 and above hitter.

CONAN: And I wonder - statistics then and now are so different. The game essentially was so different. When you were talking with the people on the Veterans Committee about Deacon White, what were you saying that finally convinced them that this man, at long last, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame?

MORRIS: Well, we had some great conversations about what it took to play the position. And you know, Bob Watson, who started out as a catcher, was one of the committee members. Phil Niekro, Bert Blyleven and Don Sutton, Pat Gillick, all pitchers, all Hall Famers, were really able to add a lot of insight to what it must have been like.

And the other - one of the main things we talked about was just how they played much shorter schedules in the 1870s. So when you look at career statistics, that's a huge distortion. Deacon White ended up with 2,000 career hits, but he was playing in a - in an average of 40, 50, 60-game schedules a year. So there was no way to generate the kind of career milestones that we look at as benchmarks today. You know, 3,000 hits would be all but impossible. And 2,000 was a terrific accomplishment.

CONAN: And the number of errors he recorded even as a great defensive catcher would have been, you know, totally unacceptable by today's standards.

MORRIS: Oh, exactly. Yeah. And again, an issue where we had to really sort of look at what - compare him to people from his own era. And when we did that, you know, it became really obvious just how much he stood above his contemporaries.

CONAN: Are the records from those days good enough that you have reliable accounts of who was good and who was great?

MORRIS: Well, they're getting a lot better. I mean, we have a very good full statistical record now. We're getting a better sense - it's becoming easier and easier to get back to the contemporary accounts of them in the newspapers and generate an idea from it then. And you know, the trouble over the years in putting people in the Hall of Fame has been that that's been either on a partial statistical record or, you know, after all their contemporaries are dead, so we don't have that record. And of course we can never bring those people back to life.

But by accessing the newspaper accounts, we can get a better sense of it, and I think it's really encouraging to be able - to be able to - to be on a committee that, I think, did such great work in bringing back an era that happened so long ago that even when the Hall of Fame was founded in 1939, it was ancient history back then.

CONAN: And it's interesting, your book had pictures of the hands of some of the great catchers of those days, gnarled and twisted. Anybody who played catcher could expect to be crippled - their hands - for the rest of their lives.

MORRIS: Exactly. And people would say, you know, I don't know what this guy looks like but just look for a catcher's hands. And as soon as you'll see - you see those hands, you recognize, oh, that's - that must be who it was.

CONAN: Are there stories about Deacon White? You mentioned he traveled from team to team. I guess he had one fantastic year in Boston. But what kind of a man was he? Do we know?

MORRIS: He was a really high-character man. In a time when baseball had a lot of guys who spent their evenings drinking and carousing, Deacon - he was known as Deacon because he went to church and he was a Sunday school teacher. And family came absolutely first for him.

And so the only season in his first 15 years in the big leagues where he missed any significant amount of time was when his father was ill. And when his father passed away, he signed a new contract to come back and play. But he actually signed it - he signed a very unique contract that said he would only have to play for two months, and then he could decide for himself whether he needed to go back home when the harvest was ready to (unintelligible) ready and his mother would need help around the house. So he was a man of family.

He was - family came first and his religion came first. He never played on a Sunday. And he was teammates with Connie Mack and Billy Sunday towards the end of his career. So...

CONAN: Two other well-known gentleman of the game, yes.

MORRIS: Yes.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you talked about the hero worship these catchers generated in the 1870s. When protective equipment did start to come in, gloves and then masks and pads, Roger Bresnahan and shin guards, that - the view of the catcher began to change.

MORRIS: Exactly. It really - in a way it almost emasculated what had been this ultimate American hero. And instead of, you know, being able to look at themselves as this sort of ultimate warrior, this ultimate gunslinger, they started to see themselves, you know, they would - people would make fun of them, you know, this man with a mattress on, this man with a bustle on his face. You know, people would compare the mask to a bustle, which is part of a woman's dress, and it was very, you know, very insulting. And a lot of catchers had a really hard time adjusting to that.

CONAN: And the gloves were pretty primitive by today's standards, but even the first ones were no more than just a pad, I guess, on the palm of the hand. The fingers were left exposed.

MORRIS: Exactly. Because the idea was you really - you had to catch the ball with both hands and then throw it with one. So catchers would have really very light gloves on both hands. And often they just cut the fingers off altogether because the idea was you would catch it, you would catch it like a spring, kind of like a receiver catches the ball where you just - you let it hit your hands and your hands moved back. And then you have to immediately adjust into the throwing position. So again, very much like a gunslinger.

CONAN: And it's interesting. As you talk about this, the catcher today has regained some of that reputation from those days.

MORRIS: I think so. I think the catcher's toughness is really recognized. And also, the catcher's unique position, as somebody who's part of the offense and part of the defense, plays a key role in what the pitcher throws and the pitcher's ability to throw, you know, particularly balls in the dirt, which are very hard.

You know, if you don't have a good catcher back there, then the whole team is lost. And so I think the catcher has really started to regain the reputation of being a key contributor to both, and I think that's why so many great managers are former catchers.

CONAN: We've been talking about Deacon White, the newest member of baseball's Hall of Fame. Baseball historian Peter Morris, thanks very much for your time today.

MORRIS: You're very welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Peter Morris wrote the book "Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero" and joined us from the studios at Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.