Behold the catcher: a drudge, a human bull's-eye, the backstop, the roadblock. He squats there on his haunches, graceless, stolid, ridiculous. Burdened with armor, he seems an anomalous figure who comes to his game from some other, more warlike, endeavor. In truth, he is a goalie arresting missiles, a linebacker stopping runners. He is a ruffian on the diamond.
But if pitching is the heart of baseball, catching is its mind and soul. How slanderous that the catcher's accessories should be known as "the tools of ignorance." He is, as any catcher will attest, the smartest man on the field. Connie Mack was a catcher. So was Branch Rickey, and so was the late Moe Berg, who was also a scholar of renown, a lawyer, linguist and international spy. Five catchers—Del Rice, Yogi Berra, Ralph Houk, Charlie Fox and Del Crandall—manage major league teams today. Catchers Berra, Houk and Mickey Cochrane won pennants their very first years as managers. What is managing anyway but handling pitchers, and who can do that better than a catcher?
Still, brains are not enough. He must also be big, strong, agile, durable, aggressive, congenial, intuitive, courageous and, with regard to physical suffering, stoical. Small wonder, then, that there are so few who merit immortality. Too many ingredients go into the making of them. And it is the catcher's perennial lament that no one understands the recipe. "If you can hit the ball," says former catcher John Roseboro, now an Angel coach, "they call you a great catcher." But some hitting catchers cannot catch a cold or throw the ball back to the mound without a relay man. Hitting is merely frosting on the catcher's cake. A good catcher who is also a good hitter is as rare as a shutout in Boston. Those who are both have busts in the Hall of Fame.
Super catchers of this sort seem to appear in 20-year cycles, one of which we now are in. The '30s had Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey; the '50s, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanula—Hall of Famers all. And now, in the '70s, we have Cincinnati's Johnny Bench and Pittsburgh's Manny Sanguillen, who, young as they are—Bench is 24, Sanguillen 28—seem cut from the same royal cloth.
Bench and Sanguillen are easily the class of the modern field, although there are many in the first rank below them—Detroit's Bill Freehan, Cleveland's Ray Fosse, the Mets' Jerry Grote, the Yankees' Thurman Munson, Oakland's Dave Duncan, the Cardinals' Ted Simmons, Boston newcomer Carlton Fisk. But all are somehow incomplete. Fisk, Duncan and Simmons need more experience. Munson and Grote are inconsistent hitters. And Freehan and Fosse, who are closest to full accomplishment, have been victims of the catcher's occupational hazard—crippling injury. Fosse has had the index finger on his right hand broken three seasons in succession. His left shoulder was shattered in a memorable collision at home plate with Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game, and this season he already has been hit in the throat with a foul tip, bruised on the thigh by a charging base runner and plinked on the calf by a Nolan Ryan fastball, which is a bit like being hit by a piece of shrapnel. Freehan suffered with typical stoicism agonizing pain in his back for several seasons until surgery fused his detached vertebrae in September 1970. Last year, though he caught more games than any other catcher (144), he had trouble throwing with his accustomed speed and accuracy. This year he seems to be approaching his old form, although a broken thumb handicapped him for several weeks.
Injuries are endemic to catching. The Cubs' Randy Hundley, once one of the game's finest, nearly had his career terminated by knee injuries. He missed virtually all of last season, and though he is back now he is a more cautious workman, realizing that one collision at home plate could be the end of him as a major-leaguer.
As Fosse says, "A catcher who doesn't get hurt has had a good year."
Bench and Sanguillen have been remarkably free of injury and, except for Bench in 1971, when fame seduced him into a few bad habits, both have had nothing but good seasons. Although they differ markedly in style—Bench for all his glamour is cool and apparently unflappable, Sanguillen is wildly demonstrative—they are as near to the ideal as a catcher can hope to be. Both have exceptional throwing arms and extraordinary agility behind the plate. They have rapport with their pitchers and are quick to find a hitter's weaknesses. They have, in baseball parlance, "soft hands," which means they do not fight the pitch but gather it in, much as a receiver in football accepts a pass. They are intelligent and even-tempered and given a bat they hit like fury.
Bench has more power—more power, almost, than anybody—but Sanguillen will hit for a higher average and he has unusual speed on the bases for a catcher. And since they play in the same league, they have divided the catcher fanciers into two camps, much as Dickey and Cochrane did before them.
"Johnny just does things other catchers can't do," says Bench's manager, Sparky Anderson. "We have a boy on our team, Bill Plummer, who can throw as hard, but there is no one who can come up throwing quicker than John. Nobody ever really steals a base on him. Unfortunately, he is at a disadvantage because we have so many inexperienced pitchers. If we had pitchers who could hold a runner, we'd never have any bases stolen at all. Johnny will grab a ball that is inside and be in a throwing motion all at the same time. He has a way of fielding a bunt in front of the plate so that as he picks it up he is bounding back to throw. And he makes the play at the plate better than anyone. He just takes the plate away from the runner. That's physical strength, of course, but there's a technique involved, too."
Bench's mostly one-hand reach-and-grab style of catching is much in vogue now. Some coaches, Pittsburgh's Don Leppert among them, feel it is a more effective way of handling bad pitchers than the old shift-the-feet-toward-the-ball style. Fosse and Hundley even hide their throwing hands behind their backs for protection, catching one-handed almost exclusively. Freehan, however, is a two-hand traditionalist.
Though young in years, Bench is almost a father figure to Cincinnati's kid pitchers. "He calls a game well," says Gary Nolan, a spry veteran of 24. "He stays on you."
Outsiders have speculated for years what it is a catcher says to a pitcher in those periodic conferences on the mound. When the Reds' Jack Billingham faltered slightly in his march through the Philadelphia batting order in a 2-1 win last week, Bench sauntered out for a summit meeting. Afterward Billingham was asked what Bench said.
"He told me," said Jack, "to bust my butt."
For all his size—he tops 200 pounds—and authority, there is a gentle aspect to Bench. In Billingham's victory Bench accounted for both runs with a sacrifice fly and his 17th home run. The homer, he said later, was for his grandmother, Pearl, who was seeing him play for the first time that week. Above his locker is a collection of kewpie dolls inscribed with such reassuring messages as "Cross my heart, I love you" and "I'll drink to that." These say something of the softer side of the first catcher ever to lead either major league in home runs. Bench hit 45 homers in 1970, and his current pace seems to be carrying him into that range again. He got No. 18 Saturday.
Catchers don't often lead leagues in any batting category. Only two in this century—Ernie Lombardi in 1938 and 1942 and Bubbles Hargrave in 1926—have ever won a batting championship. No American League catcher has ever won either the home run or batting title. But this year Bench and Sanguillen, who has been leading the National League in hitting, could combine for an unprecedented catchers' triple crown.
Bench, like most catchers, feels he could hit for a much higher average if he were not required to catch. The Cardinals' Joe Torre is an obvious case in point. As a catcher he was a .300 hitter; as a third baseman last year he led the league (.363). "I know I could concentrate more on my hitting if I was playing in the outfield," Bench says. "A catcher is always in the game. He has to worry about the next hitter coming up and what to pitch to him. And there is always the question of the wear and tear physically."
Yes, infielders and outfielders have so much more leisure. In a recent game he played at first base while his thumb was healing, Freehan was able to beat out an infield roller and stretch a single into a double. His legs were looser, he explained, thus he could run faster. Squatting is not a natural position; it tends to tighten the leg muscles.
Many catchers are routinely given brief respites from their labors behind the plate, although Fosse, for one, complains of boredom when he is obliged to play elsewhere. Roger Bresnahan, Christy Mathewson's receiver on the old, old New York Giants and first of the super catchers, played every position on the field at one time or another, even pitching in nine games. Bench has played first base, third base and the outfield, but he would rather catch, sharing Mickey Cochrane's view that "the greatest thrills in baseball are behind the plate." Then, too, Anderson is loath to move "the best catcher in baseball" to a less responsible position.
As convinced as the Reds are of Bench's superiority, they are no more positive about it than the Pirates are of Sanguillen's status. In Pittsburgh they speak of their Panamanian catcher's "intangibles," one of which is his unabashed enthusiasm for the game.
"The most important asset a catcher can have is the desire to catch," says Coach Leppert, himself a former catcher. "Let's face it, catching is not for the timid. A lot of players have the tools, but they don't like being hit with foul tips or wild pitches and they don't like those collisions at the plate."
Sanguillen endures these hardships with a smile on his face and a bounce in his step. His ebullience is sometimes mistaken for that cardinal baseball sin, hot-dogging, but not by those who know him well.
"A pitcher's first inclination when he sees somebody acting the way Manny does," says the Pirate pitching ace Steve Blass, "is to knock him down the next time he comes up. But Manny is no hot dog. He just enjoys playing, and he shows it."
Sanguillen has much more than mere esprit. "He's deceptive," says Blass, "in that he puts more into catching than people realize. You tend to think of him as a hitter who can throw well. But he can spot my own weaknesses before I can. I pitch from a three-quarter delivery. If I drop below that, I'm in trouble. Manny notices any little change. In the seventh game of the World Series my slider wasn't working at first. But Manny didn't give up on it. You can't do that with a pitch. It started coming around in the fourth inning and he called for it 80% of the time the rest of the way. The Orioles had seen how bad it was earlier and were surprised."
That Sanguillen is playing with both enthusiasm and sagacity is not as surprising as that he is playing at all, for baseball was the one game that did not interest him in high school. When he did finally get around to it, he became a third baseman. He did not become a catcher until he was 21, and it took him a while to adjust.
"It was too much work," he says. "It was hard for me to call the different pitches, hard for me to even glove the ball. I had a lot of trouble with my fingers. And I was flat-footed. But I worked hard. Now I like it. I just do my best. I don't compare myself with anybody else. I don't tell myself I am the best. There are a lot of good catchers in this league."
But comparisons with Bench are inevitable, just as they were 40 years ago with Cochrane and Dickey, who played, as Bench and Sanguillen do now, on pennant contenders. Sadly, Cochrane's career was cut short at 13 seasons when he was beaned by the Yankees' Bump Hadley in 1937. That misadventure fractured his skull.
And there are those who contend that Hartnett, the old Cub, was better than either Cochrane or Dickey. "To me Hartnett was the best," says Charlie Fox, the San Francisco Giant manager and former catcher. "He had that great arm, the best. He was a clutch hitter and he had power. He called a great game, and he'd come out there with that big Irish face and make everybody happy. He was wonderful for the game."
"For what they're making now," says the 71-year-old Hartnett today, "I'd catch 24 hours and clean up the park afterward."
If Gabby has his garrulous backers, so do the others. Casey Stengel holds out for Bresnahan, and some catching purists, disdaining the big hitters, opt for defensive marvels like Jimmie Wilson, Jimmy Archer, Del Crandall, Jim Hegan or Wes Westrum. And what of Josh Gibson, the black catcher who never played a major league game but is in the Hall of Fame and is regarded by some experts as the best of them all? How about Campy? Or Yogi?
Indeed, there is something about a catcher that inspires loyalty. He is the man with the dirtiest uniform on the field, and his fingers are inevitably shaped like pretzels.
"It is not a glamorous position," says John Roseboro, "but it is the most interesting place to be. I do not hesitate to recommend it."
Bench cocks the arm that imperils any would-be base stealer, and Sanguillen, on the move as always, sprints around third en route home.