Sunday, July 5, 2009

Off-Season Pastimes: Catcher

"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." (Rogers Hornsby)

What can the avid college baseball fan do in the off-season to stave off the dreaded baseball-deprivation blues?

Read a Baseball Book: Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero, by Peter Morris

Warning: Reading this book should only be attempted by die hard baseball fans who revel in knowing the minutiae and history of the game.

This book could be subtitled, Everything You Didn't Know You Wanted to Know About the History of Catchers in Baseball.

The author has done his research well for this book, providing an incredibly in-depth description of the evolution of the catcher's role, his job, his equipment and his reputation, mostly confined to the era from the 1870s through 1910.

Along the way, he weaves in analysis of the evolution of late 19th century American culture and mythology, comparing the Catcher to no less than Daniel Boone, the American Cowboy and Ulysses S. Grant.
The catcher would embody many of the traits of the archetypal American hero, including courage, resourcefulness, and a unique fitness to a specific task. He would bring those attributes to the industrial city and demonstrate that they still had value in the quintessentially American game of baseball. Finally, while he belonged in his new environment, he never belonged to it. He managed to retain a strong hint of the
While some of the cultural analysis seems a little over the top and some his extended ramblings read somewhat like a scholarly research paper, I found that I was learning things about the development of baseball and of the catcher's role that I never knew before - and that's saying a lot for someone as obsessed with baseball history as I am.

One of the best features, for me, was the extensive quotations from newspaper and magazine articles of the era. For example, this is from a 1909 article in a Washington newspaper:
The catcher is the armored cruiser of the baseball diamond. He wears a mask to prevent him from trying to catch foul tips with his teeth and a chest protector stuffed with wind to keep stray balls from burrowing into his thorax and spraining his vermiform appendix. Thus armored he is required to crouch behind the batter, brush the bat out of his eyes, watch the bases, dig wild balls out of the atmosphere, keep the opposing players from sliding home by letting them slide into his ankles with his spiked feet and quarrel with the umpire besides running half a block over small boys after a foul ball every inning. Some men do this for pleasure. But then, others dive off the Brooklyn Bridge for pleasure too.
I thoroughly enjoyed wading through this book, even spending a bit of time in the 100 pages of appendixes, footnotes and index. It took me a good 2-1/2 weeks to complete the read - it would no doubt provide many less book-wormish fans a entire off-season's worth of slow hibernatory digestion.

One can only hope that Mr. Morris is working on a sequel covering the development of the role of Catcher in the century since. I'd love to see a comparison between the abilities and reputations of catchers like Berra, Bench and Rodriguez to Bresnahan, Kelly and Ewing of the 19th century.

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