The name is Carter—er, Cater - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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The name is Carter—er, Cater

Whatever it is, nobody ever seems to get it right or to be aware that Oakland's first baseman is one of the game's best unknown players

Danny Cater's nickname is not one of those that will ring through the ages, like Poosh 'Em Up Tony or The Sultan of Swat. It is not even Dangerous Danny or Fancy Dan. It is Carter. Just Carter. He has been called that by newspapers so often, presumably because Cater doesn't look right to linotype operators, that it has caught on among his fellow Oakland Athletics. Carter Cater.

How is that for a little color? Remember that, and you can keep Danny Cater distinct in your mind from Doug Rader and Del Unser and Wayne Comer and any number of other major leaguers who—having been blessed neither with dazzling habits on or off the field, nor with good solid baseball names like Rollie Fingers or Coco Laboy, nor with especially interesting features like Sandy Koufax's elbow or Ken Harrelson's nose—tend to run together dimly in a zone of semiconsciousness somewhere in major league expansion country between Kansas City and Anaheim. Cater is the one whose name is frequently spelled wrong. Also, he is the one hitting around .325.

That is his forte, at least in the eyes of his world—statistics. His teammates kid him for knowing his own figures down to the fourth decimal, as well he might. Percentagewise, he was the best first baseman in the league last year and the second best hitter. He failed to finish first in batting, at .290, only because Carl Yastrzemski lost his head toward the end of the season and shot up over .300. Yastrzemski was the popular favorite; Cater was widely accused of being a figment of the box-score manufacturers. To some people, in fact, the most egregious symptom of the Dominance of the Pitcher was not Bob Gibson's earned run average or Hoyt Wilhelm's age, but the fact that a Cater almost emerged as a league-leading hitter. Whoever heard of a batting champ you never heard of?

Of course, that is a shabby attitude to take toward a mature, competent and likable pro who has never batted less than .270 in his five major league seasons and who is in a tie for eighth place in lifetime batting averages among active American League regulars. But the A's unassuming, unremarkable-looking first baseman says he does not mind such popular disregard. "I don't think people will ever recognize me on the street, or anything," he says. "I don't know why. They just never have. I think I could win the batting crown and still nobody would know who I was. They don't even know who I am where we live. But that's all right. Other baseball people know how you're doing, and that's what's important." Cater's goals do not include being a culture hero. He wants, he says, to keep on hitting well enough to stay in the lineup, and to keep his strikeouts down to no more than one in every 10 at bats.

Danny Cater's wife Gail, a Williams-port, Pa. girl he married when he was playing minor league ball in that city (where they still make their off-season home), is a little less nonchalant about his going so unnoticed. (He has never been accorded a full-scale personality sketch in any Bay Area newspaper, for instance.) "It's hard to understand about recognition," she says. "Even in Williamsport he's never had a write-up. The best he has received was a line or two saying, 'an adopted son of Williamsport.' There was a fellow who wrote for a New Jersey newspaper, I believe, who always gave Danny write-ups. I think he is dead now."

Which brings up a complaint occasionally lodged against her husband—that he doesn't have any life out there, as they say. "They told me in the minor leagues that I'd never make the majors because I was too lackadaisical," Cater recalls. "They said you had to be a holler guy. So I tried it for awhile, but it didn't work out. I'm just not that kind of guy. Not with this voice of mine. I mean, if I were to yell right now that lady over there probably wouldn't notice." He motioned across to a small middle-aged woman seated some 15 feet away in the hotel lobby, who looked as though she might faint easily.

Another name that has been accorded Cater is The Texas Tenor, because he is from Austin and his voice sounds as though it comes from some smaller and less full-throated state. "So I just decided I'd keep playing my way, and hope that hollering was a lot of—well, I don't want to say bull, because I know it can help the pitcher. But I'm just not that kind of guy."

It keeps coming down to what Cater is not. As ballplayers go, he is not very fast, powerful, daring, timid, weak or slow. No one has accused him of dogging it lately, but he is not Charlie Hustle, either. His style of play is probably more effervescent and inclined to waste motion than Satchel Paige's, but not much more—and Cater is only 28. He does not look like a natural for any position, which possibly is one reason why he has fitted unobtrusively into every single one except pitcher since signing with the Phillies in 1958. At first base—his favorite position (the outfield, he says, gets boring) and one he plays much better than most people realize—he has the air of a hired man, taking work where he can get it, being in place when the time comes, waiting calmly for every throw however rushed it may be. He will never be known as Dr. Strangeglove, on the one hand, nor as The Big Cat or Stretch, on the other. Perhaps for this reason, or because he just slipped everyone's mind, he was not selected as the league's Golden Glove first baseman last year, although he accepted 185 more chances and made six fewer errors than George Scott, the winner, and had the highest fielding percentage, .995, among the candidates.

At bat, the word for what Cater is not is "explosive." Over 90% of his lifetime hits have been singles or doubles, and no very high percentage of them have been what you would call shots. His stance is closed and free of any hint of anxiety or eagerness. With what appears to be a lazy swing, he gets the big—36-inch, 36-ounce—thick-handled bat he switched to last year in front of the ball and, thunk, the clean, functional base hits go looping or hopping off in all directions.

Oakland Vice-President and Batting Coach Joe DiMaggio, who has seen no reason to offer Cater advice, observes approvingly that "he's a swinger." He means a bat swinger. Cater neither drinks nor smokes nor enjoys being away from his wife and three little girls, and for a long time he played The Sound of Music over and over again on his portable phonograph. DiMaggio, who also says Cater "gets good contact," was referring to swinging away, which is looked upon more favorably these days than during some other periods of batting philosophy. Not only, as the sayings go, does Cater swing away, but he Just Tries to Meet the Ball and he Goes with the Pitch, admirable virtues, perhaps, but not moves that are going to make him a wildly acclaimed public figure.

Cater is so unnoticeably efficient, in fact, that Gene Mauch, who managed him during his rookie year with the Phillies, recalls that "he came up 10 times and saw 11 pitches." When Cater is announced he stands in there as though it will take three or four pitches for him to build up enough intensity to attack, and when you look up from sweeping the peanut shells off your scorecard he has already swung away, gotten good contact, gone with the pitch and eased a double into the left-field corner. The next day the double is locked securely into the records and so is Cater—out of sight and out of mind.

Which is intolerable. The very essence of being a big league ballplayer is to so establish oneself that people can think back in future years and say, "Remember old Wayne Terwilliger?" and smile contentedly. Despite its freshet of statistics, baseball is held together and kept evergreen by personal trademarks and recollections. But because of his intrinsic lack of entertainment value and because he is no man for self-promotion, Cater is only the best of many good big league regulars today who are in danger of departing the base paths of time without leaving a clear impression of what they were, "Lucky plays," he says straight forwardly, when complimented on two splendid scoops at first base, "I didn't know I had them." Asked if he has been credited with any errors so far this year, he says, "No, but a couple of times I should have been." Ooed over for having extended a recent batting streak with a single, he says, gloomily, "Umph, you should have seen it. It looked like I had taken it in my hand and rolled it over the first-base bag."

But anyone who has stood behind a batting cage knows that getting wood on good pitching as consistently as Cater does is a feat. Asked what he expects Cater to do, Manager Hank Bauer says, "Hit." Move runners along, get on base, anything special? "Nope. Hit." That is what he does. He does everything batting instructors tell people to do, and it works. Granted, when it comes to scoring and driving in runs he isn't a superstar. But his lifetime average of .7 runs produced per game matches those of Ron Hunt and Mike Shannon—two old-reliable types who have been widely acclaimed for being underrated—and is just .01 under (surprise) Ken Harrelson's. Most likely Cater is as good a ballplayer, all things considered, as, say, Gene Woodling, Bobby Thomson, Gil McDougald or even Tommy Henrich—none of whose names will be forgotten soon. They, of course, had the advantage of playing on teams contending for pennants.

All might have been different if, as Mauch says, Cater had not "hustled us right out of a pennant in '64." As much as anything else, thinks Mauch, what beat the Phillies that year was the loss of Cater. He was batting .300 in late July when he ran into Joe Torre at first while trying to leg out a base hit, and broke his wrist. Had that not happened, some well-timed World Series hit by Cater might now be as clear in the fan's instant-replay mind's-eye as one by Rico Petrocelli, Dal Maxvill or Jim Northrup.

As it was, Cater drifted off into the obscurity of various infield and outfield jobs with the White Sox and then the Athletics of Kansas City and points west—which meant no fighting for pennants and nothing in the way of a sustained following.

This year, however, Cater ought to be discovered. So far he has had a 16-game hitting streak (he says he doesn't think he has gone 0 for 8 since he started using the heavy bat last year), has won two games in a row with singles and has ranked among the league leaders in RBIs as well as batting. In the field he may even be developing a sort of reverse flair. Twice in Seattle recently he made a tough pickup with an off-handedness that caused a local press-box observer to say, "Damn, he's casual." And, finally, the new divisional setup leaves Cater less room for oblivion. So far the attendance in Oakland is even worse than last year, but the A's have a good chance to win the weak Western Division of their league. "It makes a lot of difference," Cater says. "We feel like it's just hanging up there for us to take." Young and stocked with a variety of possible stars, the A's will undoubtedly be in a race this year, likely a playoff and possibly a Series—and that ought to make Cater, or at the very least Carter—a good, steady, unspectacular household word.