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.

2.

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!

3.

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.

4.

WHILE most of the big stars were getting booed by the unruly postwar crowds, Ted Williams got a thorough going-over from the Boston fans and press way back in 1942, after leading both major leagues in batting with a .406 mark the year before. He didn't bat .400 in '42, but his .356 average was good enough to lead the American League. The fans thought he should have done better. The boos soured Ted on the fans and the press. He hasn't recovered from them to this day.

I think Williams is the best player I have ever seen. He is an outstanding team player and a great man up at the plate in the clutch. He is not demanding on his teammates as some of the game's other high-priced players are. He minds his own business, is highly popular with the team, and doesn't ask for extra consideration. He can run and throw with speed and accuracy, and is the best left fielder in the game.

Ted calls everyone "Bush." But it is not a derogatory name with him, it's a term of affection. He will call Stephens, our slugging shortstop, "Bush," then turn around and call the newest and greenest rookie by the same name.

I believe Ted would break Babe Ruth's record of sixty home runs in a single season if he were playing at Yankee Stadium, Briggs Stadium, or Sportsman's Park, where the right-field barriers are short. Fenway Park's short left-field wall (315 feet from the plate) is a haven for right-handed batters, but it takes a good poke to get a homer to right.

The Yankee Stadium right-field barrier is extremely short, and Chinese homers are frequent there. Because fans sit behind the right-field fences in New York, Detroit and St. Louis, it gives the illusion that the fences are farther away. Fenway Park's high left-field wall, with no fans behind it, looks as if it were directly behind third base. The only park that really tests a batter is Chicago's Comiskey Park, where the left- and right-field fences are equidistant from the plate.

If I were called upon to pick my American League All-Star team from l936 to the present, I would choose Lefty Grove, Newhouser, Charley Ruffing, Bob Feller as pitchers, with Johnny Murphy in relief. The catchers would be Cochrane and Bill Dickey. The infield would have Greenberg, Charley Gehringer, Cronin, and George Kell, with Lou Boudreau as utility man. The outfield would be made up of Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Earl Averill, with Jimmy Foxx as utility man. My All-Star manager would be Joe McCarthy, with Art Fletcher and Del Baker the coaches.

Cochrane and Dickey were great inspirations to their respective teams. Cochrane had a dynamic personality. He worked his pitchers hard and was the greatest catcher I have seen at blocking the plate. Dickey was one of the best clutch hitters. He was always cool and at ease. Both Cochrane and Dickey were blessed with superior pitching staffs.

The average catcher's major league career is longer than the average of any other position, and because of this longer experience, he becomes more valuable to his team. The average career of a major league catcher is approximately ten years. Mike Tresh of Cleveland has been in the majors ten years, Hegan of Cleveland eight years, Buddy Rosar of Philadelphia eleven years, Bob Swift of Detroit ten years, Al Evans of Washington nine years, and I have thirteen years of service.

Dickey, Cochrane, Rick Ferrell, Luke Sewell, Rollie Hemsley, Ray Hayworth, Merv Shea, Frank Pytlak, Frank Hayes, catchers who have retired in recent years, had from twelve to twenty years of service. The catcher who takes care of himself lasts a long time in the majors. He must do stretching exercises in the off season and quite often remedial exercises to improve his speed. The continual crouching can cause an enlargement of thighs with the resultant loss of speed.

I love baseball and get a challenge out of every game I play. But catching is not a breeze. It is a big job and a self-effacing one. It is a good catcher who remembers that the pitcher is the one who must look good and not himself. It is a great catcher whose spirit and determination will lend confidence to his pitcher as he faces the different issues during the course of a game. He alone sees the entire baseball field, he alone is in front of the pitcher, and from his actions the pitcher will get the feel of those players whom he cannot see. He must always remember that the pitcher and the entire baseball team are looking at him on every pitch, and his actions can either lift a ball club up to its desired key, or let it down. He must know that a game is over only when there are three men out in the ninth inning and his team has won or lost.

That is a large order, and I lay no claims to greatness. But it is a great game.

Presented by

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile his neighbor, the patriarch of a 70-acre family farm

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In