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.

WHEN a catcher throws off his mask to catch a foul fly, the first thing he must do is to get under the ball as fast as he can. His next thought is to catch the ball on the tip of his nose. If he starts to whirl and becomes confused, he should immediately focus his eyes on the ground and then look up. The dizziness will stop and he will locate the ball. Jim Hegan of Cleveland is today one of the best at catching foul balls. He is also the finest defensive catcher in the American League. He is tall, fast, has a good throwing arm, and is an able receiver. Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees is the best-hitting catcher and Les Moss of St. Louis hits the longest ball.

A catcher fielding a bunt scoops the ball into the mitt with his bare hand, instead of attempting to pick the ball up without the aid of his mitt. This habit saves many fielding errors during the course of a season. I attempted a bare-hand pickup on a bunt off the bat of Pete Suder of the A's in a game at Shibe Park last year, couldn't find the handle after three tries, and finally sneaked up on the ball and trapped it with my mask. Believe me, it's much easier using the mitt.

The pick-off is, of course, a defensive aid to the team. The catcher should try to use it without a pitchout. For example, with a man on first base, and a pull hitter at bat, the catcher gives the sign to the first baseman and then signals for a pitch which the batter cannot hit into right field. Many a time the base runner will be forced at second because of his slow start after the attempted pick-off.

I will always remember a bawling out I received from Jack Flynn, my college coach, for throwing the ball into left field on an attempted pick-off at third base in a game in which we were leading, 8-0. He pointed out that my blunder cost our pitcher a shutout. The catcher should never attempt a pick-off with one or no outs unless he has a better than fifty-fifty chance to get the man. If the man advances on a bad throw, he can score on an outfield fly. But there should be no fears with two outs. The catcher may get the pitcher out of a hole, and if not, the error will not be too costly.

With men on first and third bases, and a possibility of an attempted steal, it is the catcher's job to figure out his play. His judgment will be influenced by the score, the type of runner, and the type of opposition. For example, with men on first and third, a tie score, and two out in the ninth, there is little reason for a catcher to throw to second base, because the man on second is not important. He might, therefore, fake a throw to second, and attempt to catch the man at third.

But suppose it's this way: men on first and third; the man on first is fast, the man on third is slow -- the score is irrelevant. The ball should be thrown through to second base as fast as possible. The catcher can handle the runner on third. If the man on third were the fast man, the catcher would first fake the man back to third and then throw to second base. The ability of the pitcher to hold the man on base is a determining factor in all types of these plays, along with the score of the game.

Another important play is the cutoff on throw-ins. Different systems are used, usually to take advantage of the infielder possessing the best throwing arm. On our Detroit pennant winner of 1940, Bartell handled all extra-base-hit throw-ins from the outfield because he had a great arm. The keyman on the cutoff is usually the first baseman. He cuts off throw-ins on directions from the catcher and makes the throw to the different bases. The pitcher backs up the play. Cutoff plays will win many games over the season when properly executed. When they are not, they can be very costly.

A catcher should use the pitchout purely as a benefit measure for the team: for defensive purposes when he has definite knowledge that the runner is going to try to steal; or to upset the running style of the opponents. For instance, a catcher is playing against a team which uses the hit-and-run quite frequently. At the first opportunity where it will not hurt his pitcher's effectiveness, he should call for a pitchout. This can be a defensive maneuver to determine the running strategy of the other team. At the same time it is a bold stroke toward upsetting the opponents' running game. There will be a question in their minds for the remainder of the game as to when he is going to use the pitchout. The question may be sufficiently strong to stop the team from using its usual tactics and make it play an unnatural game.

Luke Appling, the White Sox shortstop, is the best hit-and-run man in the game, and I take keen delight in trying to outsmart him. On one occasion in Chicago, Luke put the hit-and-run on with the count two strikes and no balls, and men on first and second. I thought only a guy like Luke would try anything so crazy, and called for a pitchout. He swung and missed, and I got the runner on third.

In another game against the Chisox, the tying run was on first base. Rowe was the pitcher, and up came Appling with one out. The guessing game started again. I called for four straight pitchouts. The runner stole second on the second pitchout, Luke finally struck at a pitch over his head, and I threw out the runner going into third. Whew!


THE problem of protecting home plate against the runner who is attempting to score is a simple order. The catcher's job is to get the ball and tag the runner. It is foolish, in my opinion, for any catcher to attempt to block the plate unless the throw carries the catcher into the runner's path -- and then he is not deliberately blocking the plate. If it is a question of the runner or the ball, get the ball. If the catcher doesn't have the ball, the man is safe. So, get the ball.

That man Appling is in again for a story that happened at home plate in a game against the Chisox at Fenway Park last year. Luke came tearing into the plate as I took a throw from the outfield. I hipped him and he went sprawling to the right of the plate. I then went over and tagged out the highly chagrined Luke, and he was boiling. "If you were anyone else," said Luke, "I'd sock you." The Fenway Park crowed roared its approval of my play.

A few days later the St. Louis Browns came to town with two Negro players. One of those players, Willard Brown, came rushing toward the plate as I awaited a relay from the outfield. The throw was tardy, and again I tried the hip on Brown as he slid in. He went sprawling but managed to tag the plate before I got the ball. Now it was my turn. The crowd cheered Brown and gave me a large round of boos for spilling the Negro.

Immediately following World War II, an alien group of fans took over Briggs Stadium in Detroit from the regular Tiger fans, than which there are few better in the country. This group booed Hank Greenberg, Al Benton, and me out of Detroit. Detroit's post-war fans were not the only ill-behaved crowds in the majors. Joe DiMaggio was booed unmercifully in New York, Ted Williams in Boston, and other name stars got it in their respective parks. The crowds are now back to prewar levels -- well-behaved and appreciative.

But the alien fans in Detroit crucified me. The boos really hurt, for I felt that the crowd was unfair. I was still rusty after missing four years while in the service and most of spring training because of an ulcer.

I developed rabbit ears. My batting average dropped to .243, and finally General Manager Joe Cronin of the Red Sox was able to obtain my services from the Tigers on May 20, 1947, in an even swap for Catcher Hal Wagner. I had nothing against the Tigers' management, but hated the fans' abuse and was extremely happy to move to Boston.

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