by Edward Gruver
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The bond between pitcher and catcher is one of the most important -- and least understood -- aspects of baseball.
When Hall of Fame hurler Ed Walsh was asked in 1915 for advice on pitching, he answered, "Hook up with some good catcher." Walsh spoke from his experience with the White Sox, where he worked with catcher Billy Sullivan. From 1899 through 1916, Sullivan batted .212, but he was one of the best defensive catchers of his time.
The pitcher-catcher battery can be found at the core of winning teams throughout baseball history. The term battery was initiated in the 1860s by Henry Chadwick, who used it to compare the firepower of his pitching staff to Civil War artillery. Some 20 years later, the term included both pitcher and catcher as standout catchers like Buck Ewing, Wilbert Robinson, and Deacon White gained respect for their position.
In baseball's early years, catchers had little influence on the game's outcome. Their primary duty was to block the ball whenever it passed the hitter. They served as a "backstop" and exerted little influence on the man on the mound.
Roger Bresnahan, who caught for John "Mugsy" McGraw's New York Giants at the turn of the century, changed the way catchers played their position when he introduced shin guards in 1907 and the catcher's mask a year later. From 1905 through 1908, Bresnahan was the batterymate for the Giants' great one-two combination of Christy Mathewson and Joe McGinnity, and his judgment and tenacity behind the plate not only helped lead New York to the pennant, it also set the standard for future catchers.
Judgment is key, and a catcher must always remain rational, even under the toughest game conditions. In Game Seven of the 1926 World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals, St. Louis catcher Bob O'Farrell skillfully protected a tenuous 3-2 lead by guiding 39-year-old right-hander Grover Cleveland Alexander through the final seven outs against a Yankee lineup of Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Meusel, and Combs.
O'Farrell's work behind the plate in that seventh game highlighted one of the most important jobs a catcher had as the game evolved in the twenties and thirties, and that was to know the strengths and weaknesses of both his pitcher and the opposing hitter.
Moe Berg, who caught for several major league teams from 1923 to 1939, said that since the catcher is in a position to watch the hitter firsthand, he should recall what kind of pitch the batter likes and doesn't like, to which field he hits, what he did his last time up, and what he's likely to do in his current at-bat.
By the forties, some hurlers were leaving pitch selection entirely in the hands of their catcher. Indians' Hall of Famer Bob Feller believed that if a catcher was intelligent and had considerable game experience, it was best to leave the game almost entirely in his hands. Feller followed his own advice and left the decision making up to Jim Hegan, who played for Cleveland from 1941 to 1957 and proved valuable despite batting just .228.
Bresnahan set the tone for a catcher's tenacity, and later generations followed in his fiery footsteps. Mickey Cochrane, a Hall of Fame catcher in the twenties and thirties, used anger to spur his pitchers on. If Philadelphia Athletics' ace Lefty Grove tired in the late innings, Cochrane called for a mound conference and suggested to the hot-headed Grove that it might be time to give in and take himself out of the game. In an era when pitchers prided themselves on going nine innings, Cochrane's suggestion angered Grove just enough for him to throw harder.
Needing five outs to wrap up a win against the rival Yankees, Cochrane confronted A's pitcher Rube Walberg late in the game and spat, "You remind me more of a gutless, washed-up old bum than a major league pitcher." His biting words energized Walberg enough that the pitcher got the final outs to win the game.
Johnny Bench followed a similar approach decades later when he was behind the plate for Cincinnati's "Big Red Machine" in the seventies. Like Cochrane, Bench knew how to push his pitchers, and Reds' hurler Jim Maloney appreciated it. Maloney said that although Bench treated him at times like a two-year-old, he liked his catcher's ability to take control of the game.
Bench simply followed the edict of his manager, George "Sparky" Anderson. Known as "Captain Hook" for the quickness in which he pulled pitchers, Anderson said the only responsibility a catcher on his team had to have was controlling the man on the mound.
From Koufax by Edward Gruver.
Copyright © 2000 by Edward Gruver. Reprinted with permission.