Unmasked hero

By Bill Castanier

Local author details catcher’s lead role in early baseball

Modern catchers in baseball are almost anonymous; they are hidden head-to-toe behind pounds of high-tech, protective equipment, and their catching hand is guarded with a massive mitt. But that was not always the case, as Haslett baseball historian and author Peter Morris details in his new book “Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate became an American Folk Hero.”

In the early days of baseball, the catcher was positioned right behind the batter, just like today, but that’s where the similarities end. In the mid-to-late 1800s, catchers had no protective equipment whatsoever. No mask, no chest protector, no shin protectors and, amazingly, no glove.

During this time, the position of catcher and the men who filled it took on mythic proportions, representing everything important to baseball.

“Catcher” is Morris’ sixth book on the history of baseball. His “A Game of Inches” (2006) was named the best baseball book of the year by two separate organizations. Morris said the catcher represents the best characteristics of 19th-century baseball.

“It was very much implicit in the writing of the sportswriters of the era and sometimes explicit about catchers’ extreme courage and rugged individualism,” he said.

Morris said during that time, the nation’s “heroes” had just fought the Civil War and settled the West, and the catcher exemplified the characteristics of those individuals. “The catcher had a willingness to be the centerpiece, for better or for worse,” he said.

Today, Morris said the centerpiece has become the shortstop, but in early baseball the game revolved around the catcher. “He was always the best athlete and had to have special skills,” Morris said. “It was a violent, brutal game [for a catcher], and injuries were commonplace. A catcher had to have great reflexes and great positioning.”

Morris said an average player in the catcher position would get hurt immediately. The book includes a photograph of the hands of one early catcher with fractured fingers. Morris provides plenty of details about broken noses, closed eyes and “bursted hands with blood trickling down.”

“The ability to bear up under excruciating pain often seemed to be the whole point of being a catcher in the early 1870s,” he said.

In the book, Morris compares the catcher to the “gunslinger” of the Wild West. Quoting Wyatt Earp, Morris writes, “The winner of a gunplay usually was the one who took his time.”

One catcher who Morris said exemplified the characteristics of the Western gunfighter was Silver Flint, of the Chicago White Stockings. “He took pride throughout his career in being resilient despite having all his fingers broken multiple times,” Morris said.

Morris relates stories galore about Flint’s “mangled paw,” and how he would give reporters guided tours of the hand, telling which pitcher or play was responsible for each misshapen finger.

Contrasting Flint was “Deacon” Jim White, who played for the legendary Boston Red Stockings team that dominated the first professional baseball league in the 1870s. “He was a quiet, religious guy — a stoic at the position,” Morris said. “It’s surprising which guys could stand up to the task.”

Morris also details the slow integration of protective equipment into baseball. “There was a lot of controversy about it,” he said. “Catchers would claim it was terrible and a sissy thing to do.”

It wasn’t until 1877 that a mask was introduced, followed by the chest protector in 1884 and the mitt in 1888.

“Naturally, as each piece of equipment came along, the catchers would complain it was harder to do things,” Morris said.

As is the norm with Morris’ writing, “Catcher” brings new depth to a sport we tend to take for granted.

Morris is in the process of editing his monumental “Game of Inches” for paperback and considering a book on why baseball is considered “the national pastime.”

In the early era, the author said the game was pretty revolutionary. “It attracted the upper class and the lower class,” he said. “It attracted men and women, young and Morris old.”

Morris fell in love with the American game of baseball by way of his hometown Toronto Blue Jays, to which he is till loyal. But it was a different game — Scrabble — that attracted him to the East Lansing area. The area was considered a Mecca of Scrabble in the 1980s, thanks to a couple of championship-caliber players hanging around. Morris moved to East Lansing to study under them and learn their unique style. The move paid off: Morris became a world Scrabble champion in 1992, winning with a triple-letter, double-word “equable.”