There would have to be a good reason that a catcher’s protective gear has long held the unflattering nickname “ The Tools Of Ignorance,” right ? Well, catchers are anything but ignorant, and in the opinion of many people, may have the hardest job on the diamond. Their job is both physically hard and mentally stressful. Catchers are up and down from a squatting position constantly for 3-4 hours, in about 4-5 games a week, over a nine month period. It is torture on their knees. Their common sense is often questioned for taking up the thankless job.
Their ability to handle a pitching staff is a crucial aspect of a catcher’s duties. In these times of situational pitchers and specialists, making the right pitch selections is more vital than ever to winning ballgames. Handling a pitching staff and their quirks and eccentricities is also a catchers responsibility. It’s much like being a harried day care worker, having to treat and discipline each child differently to get them to behave.
A catcher should move well behind the plate, so as to block wild pitches, and should have a good percentage of throwing out base runners. A runner often steals more on the pitcher than the catcher, however. A catcher must be fearless, often blocking the plate and risking injury. He should know his opposing hitters well. Bi-lingual catchers are also a plus, as communication is key to getting hitters out. Hitting prowess is often considered “ gravy ” as far as catchers go. Do all the other things well, and a manager can overlook a .220 batting average.
I’d like to list for you now my Top Ten All-Time Catchers. I won’t bore you with a lot of stats, but give a brief statement on each.
Top Ten All-Time Catchers
1. Johnny Bench – I saw Johnny play in person for the Big Red Machine many times as a young boy in the ‘70s. Bench had huge hands and there is a famous pic of him holding seven baseballs in one hand. Bench would quickly pivot in his crouch, not getting up, and fire throws to first and third base picking off runners. Johnny was the complete package. He boasted stellar offensive numbers and was an incredibly gifted defensive player.
2. Yogi Berra – The lovable Yogi is just as famous for his funny quotes as his great numbers and World Series wins. Here’s two to make you smile. “ Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded “ and “ O.K, I want everybody to pair up in threes ! “
3. Roy Campanella - On January 28, 1958, after closing up his liquor store for the night, Roy was driving to his home in Glen Cove, New York. Tragically, he hit a patch of ice, wrecking the vehicle and becoming paralyzed from the waist down. He had a relatively short MLB career, after previously starring in the Negro League.
4. Ivan Rodriguez- Great hitter and even better defensive specialist. Second only to Bench defensively, in my opinion.
5. Josh Gibson- Josh Gibson was a negro league legend. Records were often poorly kept of those games, many of which were barnstorming contests against inferior competition. Still, he was rumored to have possibly hit anywhere from 800- 1000 HR’s in his storied career. The lack of accurate records has led to a lot of folklore regarding Negro League stars. It was said that Cool Papa Bell was so fast he could turn out his bedroom light and be under the covers before it got dark ! Of Josh Gibson, the story goes that in the last of the ninth inning at Pittsburgh, his team down a run, with a runner on base and two outs, Gibson hit a HR far into the night sky, apparently winning the game. The next day, the same two teams were playing again, but now in Washington. Just as the teams had positioned themselves on the field, a ball came falling out of the sky and a Washington outfielder grabs it. The umpire yells to Gibson, “You’re out ! In Pittsburgh….yesterday!”.
6. Mickey Cochran - He was one of the best catchers of the 1920’s and ’30’s. He finished his career with a .320 batting average.
7. Carlton Fisk - Perhaps best known for his series tying HR in game six of the 1976 world series vs. the Cincinnati Reds. Great all-around player.
8. Mike Piazza - He finished his career with a .308 batting average, 427 home runs, and recorded 1,335 RBI’s. Mike Piazza was easily the best offensive catcher of all-time.
9. Gabby Hartnett - Hartnett was a six time all-star playing most of his career for the Chicago Cubs. Hartnett was calling the pitches for Carl Hubbell in the 1934 All-Star Game when Hubbell set a record by striking out future Hall of Fame members Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin in succession. Gabby was once photographed while signing an autograph for the famous gangster, Al Capone. After the photograph was published, Hartnett received a telegram from Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis instructing him not to have his photograph taken with Capone in the future. Hartnett replied with a telegram back to Landis stating, “That’s fine, but if you don’t want me to have my picture taken with Al Capone, YOU tell him.”
10. Bill Dickey, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson - All great catchers in their own right and all legendary Yankees.
There are a number of talented catchers currently in the major leagues. Two of the top defensive catchers and handlers of their pitching staffs are Yadier Molina and Russell Martin. Other prominent catchers are Carlos Ruiz, Matt Wieters, Carlos Santana, A.J. Pierzynski, and Buster Posey. You also have the old guard represented by Brian McCann, Joe Mauer, and Mike Napoli, though Mauer and Napoli often play 1B or DH these days. Some up and comers to keep your eye on are Jose Montero of the Mariners, A.J. Ellis of the Dodgers, and Devin Mesaraco of the Reds. Wilson Ramos of the Nationals is one of the game’s top prospects, but has had some bad luck early on. He was abducted in Venezuela and rescued after two days in the off season. On May 12, 2012 he tore his ACL against the Reds, ending his season.
All in all, the catcher is the second most important position on the field after the starting pitcher, in my opinion. You must consider that the catcher is involved in the execution of every play, just like the pitcher. But, while starting pitchers are called on to pitch once every five days, catchers start 4-5 games a week. There is no doubt in my mind that catchers have the most grueling, demanding job in baseball.