I'd Rather Catch

A New Hampshire Yankee, George (Birdie) Tebbetts of the Boston Red Sox has been voted by the fans the most popular catcher in the American League, and this is his thirteenth year of major league baseball. After forty-four months in the Army Air Forces he returned to the diamond rusty and, some thought, past his peak. But he has made a remarkable recovery, and today there is no keener, quicker mind behind the plate. Off season, Mr. Tebbetts is associated with the Paul Sadler Insurance Agency of Nashua, New Hampshire.

A MASCOT'S uniform with a large zero on its back can inspire a nine-year-old boy to swaggering ambitions. Mine did: I first made up my mind that I was going to be a catcher and play baseball in the major league when I was mascoting for the Nashua Millionaires. The team was operated by Francis Parnell Murphy, later twice governor of New Hampshire, who had the special uniform made for me. And of course I was going to be a catcher for the Millionaires just like my idol Bill Haefner, an outlawed catcher from the Pittsburgh Pirates who later played with the New York Giants. He was replaced on my pedestal by Clyde Sukeforth, successor to Haefner and present Brooklyn Dodgers coach.

In my sand-lot playing, in grammar school, and later at Nashua High School, I copied Haefner and Sukeforth. I watched and studied their every move: their handling of pitchers, throwing, work behind the plate, and batting. By the time I graduated from high school I had gained enough proficiency to receive offers from six major league teams. But no one of the six was the Boston Red Sox, the team of my heart. So I went with Detroit.

The Detroit Tigers helped me through Providence College after accepting their scout Jean Dubuc's report. I graduated in 1934, and after two years in the minors with New Bedford, Massachusetts, Springfield, Illinois, and Beaumont. Texas, I began catching for the Tigers under Mickey Cochrane, the game's greatest competitor. In my first major league game I caught Elden Auker, the old submarine pitcher with the underhand delivery. We won. And with true beginner's luck I made a hit which figured in scoring the winning run.

It was four years before I played in my first and only World Series. Bobo Newsom, one of baseball's great characters and travelers, sparked us to the pennant by winning twenty-one games. We played the Cincinnati Reds and lost after seven dismal games. I told myself I wasn't nervous in my first game of that series. But I was, as I realized when I attempted a pick-off with Dick Bartell, but threw the ball into center field.

Our manager, Del Baker, one of the brainiest men in baseball, was a great sign-stealer. But in that World Series sign-stealing didn't help. We knew every pitch the Reds' pitchers were going to throw, yet lost. Catcher Jimmy Wilson was giving away the pitches by twitching his forearm muscles when he called a curve. When the muscles were still, the pitch was a fast ball.

Signals are very important but they must be simple. They are of no value if they are so difficult they tend to take the pitcher's mind off the situation. They can be given with the hand, fingers, glove, feet, from the count on the scoreboard, or by the pitcher. When I was with Detroit, Tommy Bridges and Schoolboy Rowe used to give me signs for many of their pitches. I have caught pitchers whom I knew so well through careful study that we could have worked a whole game without signals.

The catcher must be alert to spot the opposition's stealing his signs; he must also watch his teammates so that they won't give away the signal by shifting their weight; but most important, he must watch his manager maneuver his teammates into different positions for each batter, and from these moves anticipate his manager's desires.

I try to let every player know what pitch I have signaled for. The second baseman and shortstop get the sign when I signal the pitcher. The second baseman relays the sign to first baseman, right and center fielders, while the shortstop relays it to the third baseman and the left fielder. It takes just a couple of seconds for everyone on the team to know the pitch. There's an advantage in giving them an added jump on the pitched ball.

I also try to prepare an umpire for a pitch. In a close game with the count three and two on a batter such a tip-off prepares him for what is coming and he will be set to make the call. Because I work next to the umpire, my relationship with him is an honest one. My beefs are legitimate and I try not to prolong them. Umpires are sensitive and proud of their work.

Of course every catcher tries to take advantage of the batter. For that reason we have a great reputation for heckling. Most of the chatter at the plate is conversational, but sometimes a word here and there may produce the desired result. In a game early this summer at Fenway Park, Paul Campbell of the Tigers took an extremely good pitch for ball four. Later he worked the count to three and two, and I said, "Paul, you've got to swing at those good pitches. That pitch you took for ball four last time was mighty good." The next pitch was a bad ball, but he swung and missed.

In a series against the White Sox, Cass Michaels, a push hitter who causes us a lot of trouble, was at bat and the count went to two balls and no strikes. "Well, Cass," said I, "here's a chance for that first home run." The next pitch had to be good. It wasn't though. Cass swung wildly and popped out.

It is surprising how many major league catchers develop faulty habits which tip off pitches to the opposition. To protect himself a catcher must be absolutely sure that every movement he makes -- after coming out of the sign-giving crouch -- is exactly the same for every pitch.

A good catcher has many ways of assisting his pitcher. For example, a right-handed pitcher who has a tendency to hang a curve ball may be helped by having the catcher shift his weight to the right just as the pitcher is about to release the ball. This shift of weight will make the pitcher realize the ball must be thrown with the catcher's shift, and to the catcher's new position. It also will help him to hold on to the ball long enough to correct the hanging of the ball.

If an experienced catcher realizes his pitcher is having trouble controlling his low pitch, and it is costing him strikes, he will catch from a higher position to help correct this normal error. A low ball is always caught up; a high ball is always caught down. Every ball should be caught in the strike zone if it is possible. A curve ball which might have been low could very well be called a strike if a catcher reached out and caught it in a strike zone, rather than wait for the ball to complete its full curve.

Pitchers' tempers are gaited. They react differently to situations. Catchers can criticize some pitchers and they take it graciously and make an attempt to better themselves. Others don't like it: they are sensitive and touchy. They sulk and cry. These pitchers require special treatment.

In a game early this summer one of our young pitchers fell behind by only two runs in a game, became discouraged, and assumed an "Oh, what the heck" attitude. I had to keep after him, telling him he was still in the game, and we could break it wide open any time. He settled down and pitched well, and Vern Stephens smacked a homer to win the game in the ninth.

The easiest pitcher I ever caught was Elden Auker. His underhand deliveries came over the plate nice and soft. The toughest pitchers for me to catch were Hal Newhouser and Dizzy Trout when they were breaking in with the Tigers. They had plenty of stuff, but were extremely wild. I think that Maurice McDermott, our fine-looking prospect with the Red Sox, will also fall into that category.

The best pitchers I have caught are the right-handers Bridges and Rowe, and the southpaw Newhouser. Bridges, who is close to forty-three, is still pitching in the Pacific Coast League. He was a great curve-ball pitcher, an earnest workman, and had fine control. It was reported that the Yankees offered him $5000 to pitch one of the games in the final series against the Red Sox last year. He refused. Rowe had everything, including a smart head. Newhouser overcame his wildness to become one of the game's great pitchers. I used to get a thrill out of working with him. Now I get a thrill out of batting against him.

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