Backstopping and roaming wide (Part 1:  1890-1935)

Catchers come in many varieties. Some are tall, and some are short. Some are good hitters with marginal defensive ability, and some are good-field-no-hit. Some are remarkably durable, while others seem to get hurt all the time.

Yet for all their diversity, there’s one attribute that nearly all catchers have in common: they’re slow runners.

If a catcher isn’t slow to begin with, several years of constant squatting, and having pitches and foul tips carom off his knees, thighs and groin will surely make him slow. The catcher who’s fleet of foot is rare indeed.

Therefore when a catcher appears at a defensive position other than behind the plate, it’s almost always a spot that doesn’t demand much range: the corner positions of first base and third base, and left field and right field. At the major league level, a guy who plays extensively at catcher and also in the middle infield or center field is exceedingly unusual.

But though these birds are rare, sightings do occur. In this series we profile every major leaguer who played at least half of his games in 1893 or later, and who appeared in at least 15 games at catcher and at least 15 games cumulatively at shortstop and/or second base and/or center field.

We’ve chosen the 1893 starting point because that was the season in which the pitching distance was increased to 60 feet six inches, and thus at which the sport assumed its fully modern form. Before then there was far less defensive specialization than would later be displayed. And even through the 1890s, as we’ll see, there remained quite a few guys who played catcher as well as short/second/center.

We’ll meet these fellows in two groups: first, those who qualify for club membership simply by meeting the minimum standard of 15 games at both catcher and 15 games at the rangy positions. Then, we’ll introduce the hard core guys, who played at least 50 games in both modes of deployment.

The 15-15 Club

Pop Schriver

Years: 1886-1901
Games by position: catcher 654, first base 49, third base 18, center field 10, shortstop 9, second base 9, left field 8, right field 5
Total games: 800
Total win shares: 74
Fielding win shares: 33
Fielding win shares/game: .041

He was never a full-time regular, but Schriver delivered a long career of quite useful utility play. Unsurprisingly, nearly all of those games in center field, shorstop and second occurred when he was in his in his early-to-mid-20s, and performing as pretty much a whatever-it-takes scrubeenie. Over the second half of his career Schriver was almost exclusively a catcher-first baseman, and was even his team’s primary catcher a few seasons, though once again never a heavy first-stringer.

He was the sort of player who isn’t really good at any one thing, but just kind of solidly competent at most everything, and thus a handy guy to have around.

Duke Farrell

Years: 1888-1905
Games by position: catcher 1,003, third base 290, first base 106, left field 48, right field 39, center field 22, shortstop 13
Total games: 1,563
Total win shares: 183
Fielding win shares: 65
Fielding win shares/game: .042

This hefty guy (6-foot-1, 208), on the other hand, was a full-time regular for the first several years of his career. He appeared capable of blossoming into a star, but couldn’t get there with the bat.

Farrell’s games in center field came when he was young, as would be expected. But the 13-game stint at shortstop, apparently filling in during an injury situation, oddly took place when Farrell was 29 and the big fellow had already been a catcher in more than 500 major league games.

Card Corner Plus: Gene Michael and High Intelligence on 1972 Topps
Three smart players devoted their lives to baseball.

Farrell was converted from catcher to third base at age 24, in his fourth big league season. That was in the American Associaton in 1891, and Farrell’s unusually gaudy hitting stats for that season provide strong suggestion that by that time the A.A., in its final season of operation as a recognized major league, was no longer presenting a quality of play equal to the National League. Farrell was deployed primarily as a third baseman for only two years, and from 1893 onward was always mostly a catcher. Over the second half of his career he delivered his best offensive output, while settled in as a semi-regular behind the plate.

Parke Wilson

Years: 1893-1899
Games by position: catcher 250, first base 67, shortstop 19, third base 18, center field 4, left field 4, right field 3, second base 1
Total games: 366
Total win shares: 27
Fielding win shares: 11
Fielding win shares/game: .030

Schriver, Farrell and Wilson were teammates with the 1895 Giants.

Wilson was never a serious prospect, but instead always a utility guy. All his games at shortstop came in his final season in the majors, in which Wilson was a full-on supersub. If he’d had another year like that, he’d have been a Superdupersub.

Mike Grady

Years: 1894-1906
Games by position: catcher 525, first base 246, third base 51, right field 29, shortstop 14, left field 14, center field 7, second base 5
Total games: 918
Total win shares: 120
Fielding win shares: 20
Fielding win shares/game: .022

This one is a puzzling case. Grady was never a complete regular, but that was either because he was brutal defensively (and for what it’s worth, his fielding stats suggest that was the case) and/or because he was quite injury-prone. It sure wasn’t for any lack of offensive capability: this 5-foot-11, 190-pound guy could freaking flat-out hit, for average, for power, and with a healthy walk rate.

Interestingly, the only year in which Grady hit poorly was 1900: with the Giants, assuming the same manner of supersub role that had been filled by his teammate Parke Wilson the season before. The 30-year-old Grady that year appeared in 11 of his 14 career games at shortstop.

I’d sure like to have watched this dude play.

Art Nichols

Years: 1898-1903
Games by position: catcher 96, first base 81, center field 30, right field 14, left field 7
Total games: 241
Total win shares: 18
Fielding win shares: 5
Fielding win shares/game: .021

Twenty-nine of Nichols’ 30 big league games as a center fielder came in 1901, with the Cardinals, as he served as the backup to first-stringer Emmet Heidrick. In his brief major league stints before that year, Nichols had appeared only as a catcher, but it seems pretty clear he must have played quite a bit of outfield in the minors.

Art Hoelskoetter

Years: 1905-1908
Games by position: second base 78, third base 77, catcher 49, first base 28, shortstop 16, pitcher 15, right field 13, center field 7, left field 1
Total games: 299
Total win shares: 15
Fielding win shares: 7
Fielding win shares/game: .023

Another fairly marginal big leaguer, Hoelskoetter (did they have the German names going on in that era, or what?) was your classic play-anywhere utilityman, even serving as an innings-eating pitcher. Unlike the rest of these guys, he wasn’t a catcher who filled in elsewhere, but mostly an infielder who went behind the plate when called upon. The great majority of his catching appearances came in his final season in the majors; if he’d managed to get into just one more game back there, he’d have qualified for the 50-50 Club below.

Grover Hartley

Years: 1911-1934
Games by position: catcher 435, first base 19, second base 13, third base 4, center field 2, shortstop 1
Total games: 569
Total win shares: 36
Fielding win shares: 12
Fielding win shares/game: .021

Speaking of marginal major leaguers … not only does Hartley just barely qualify for inclusion here, he does so almost entirely as a function of his appearances in the Federal League in 1914-15, a league that aspired to be major, but in actuality featured a quality of play a clear notch below the AL and NL.

But, hey, arbitrary thresholds are thresholds nonetheless, and besides Hartley was an interesting guy. He knocked around the fringes of the major leagues forever, mostly as a scrubeenie but, lo and behold, suddenly emerging at the age of 38 as the primary catcher for the woebegone 1927 Red Sox.

Hartley then became a coach for the Indians, appearing in a few games for them as well in 192930, and then as a coach for the Browns, Hartley got in his last few turns as an emergency catcher in 1934, at the age of 45. It was then on to a long career as a minor league manager, and along that road Hartley inserted himself as a stopgap backstop for the final time in 1939.

I don’t know, but I strongly suspect he eventually became the sort of old man with whom it must have been a blast to sit down and get him started telling baseball stories.

The 50-50 Club

John Grim

Years: 1888-1899
Games by position: catcher 578, second base 44, first base 29, shortstop 23, second base 20, right field 12, left field 2, pitcher 1
Total games: 706
Total win shares: 62
Fielding win shares: 28
Fielding win shares/game: .040

Well, how about this: Grim’s “Most Similar Batter” is our old friend Pop Schriver. Clearly, these near-total contemporaries were indeed extremely similar ballplayers.

But the closeness of their career totals doesn’t tell the entire tale. Grim’s career was a bit shorter and denser than Schriver’s; Grim strung together several seasons as a first-string catcher, filling in at various other spots on the days when he wasn’t behind the plate, and obviously on a more extensive basis than Schriver. Still, like Schriver’s, the majority of Grim’s appearances at second and short took place when he was quite young, and as his career progressed Grim was deployed more and more exclusively at catcher.

Heinie Peitz

Years: 1892-1913
Games by position: catcher 960, third base 79, first base 75, second base 74, shortstop 11, right field 7, left field 4, pitcher 4
Total games: 1,234
Total win shares: 114
Fielding win shares: 53
Fielding win shares/game: .043

Never a star, and never even really a full-timer, Peitz was nonetheless a remarkably consistent, dependable, useful semi-regular for a very long time.

His shortstop appearances all came very early in his career, when Peitz was 22, but his second base activity was quite a different story: after having never played an inning at the position, Peitz was used as a second baseman in 69 games in 1901-02, at the ages of 30 and 31. What makes it odder still was that the Reds were moving Peitz off his customary catching spot in those seasons in order to make room behind the plate for none other than the infamous Bill Bergen, in his first two big league years, putting up OPS+ marks of, oh, I’m afraid yes, 29 and 30.

Not yet odd enough for ya? Well, then, how about this: In those two seasons, Peitz, who almost always hit right around or slightly below league-average, busted out with far and away the best two offensive performances of his career, laying out OPS+ figures of 127 and 130.

Charlie Dexter

Years: 1896-1903
Games by position: right field 235, center field 159, catcher 116, third base 79, first base 76, second base 41, shortstop 40, left field 8
Total games: 771
Total win shares: 61
Fielding win shares: 15
Fielding win shares/game: .019

Dexter was a little guy (5-foot-7, 155) with an interesting little career, a quite singular course. He arrived in the majors very young, as a 20-year-old catcher, but his defensive work there was apparently unimpressive, as within a couple of years Dexter was playing almost exclusively in the outfield. But then his hitting imploded, and his major league status was in peril.

At that point Dexter was reinvented, neither as a catcher nor an outfielder. Now an infielder, Superdupersub Dexter put together back-to-back seasons in 1901-02 with around 500 plate appearances both times, while appearing extensively at all four infield spots, yet as a regular at none of them.

Roger Bresnahan

Years: 1897-1915
Games by position: catcher 974, center field 221, third base 42, right field 41, first base 33, second base 28, left field 19, pitcher 9, shortstop 8
Total games: 1,446
Total win shares: 231
Fielding win shares: 52
Fielding win shares/game: .036

None of the players we’ve yet encountered were stars, but this fellow was, most definitely.

Though Bresnahan presented the classic catcher’s build, at 5-foot-9 and 200 pounds, he ran very well and was deployed mostly as a center fielder early in his career. It wasn’t until 1905, Bresnahan’s fifth full big league season, that manager John McGraw began sticking with him as his primary catcher. No matter what his defensive role, Bresnahan hit well, with moderate power and outstanding on-base ability.

Along with his first-rate play, Bresnahan became renowned as the inventor of the catcher’s shin guards. Vividly demonstrating the value of his innovation, in 1908 Bresnahan caught 139 games, an astounding total for that era. He is a member of both the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit.

Wally Schang

Years: 1913-1931
Games by position: catcher 1,435, left field 97, center field 65, third base 60, right field 5, shortstop 1
Total games: 1,842
Total win shares: 245
Fielding win shares: 61
Fielding win shares/game: .033

Coming along 15 or so years later, Schang was a remarkably similar player to Bresnahan. He wasn’t quite as stocky (5-10, 180), but built in the same basic mode, and shared every major attribute of Bresnahan’s: Schang ran quite well for a catcher, so well that he spent non-trivial time in center field before fully settling in behind the plate, all the while delivering consistent, effective offense with OBP as its central strength.

Schang played for the Yankees in their championship seasons of the early 1920s, but that was when just about all the New York ink was devoted to some outfielder named Ruth. So although Schang’s mode of play as well as his overall career contribution were very close to Bresnahan’s, he didn’t gain nearly the notoriety Bresnahan had with McGraw’s Giants in the first decade of the century. Schang never made the Hall of Fame, and somewhat to my surprise wasn’t elected to the Hall of Merit either.

D’oh! A couple of alert readers have pointed out that I’ve overlooked a 50-50 man from the 1920s-30s: none other than Moe Berg! Yes, the catcher-turned- spy had been a shortstop-turned- catcher with the White Sox in the late 1920s. My bad!

Next time

Though the practice of deploying a player at catcher and at some combination of shortstop/second base/center field remained fairly common through the 1890s, as we’ve discovered it became more rare into the 1900s. In fact, after Wally Schang, it completely disappeared for a long time. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, no major leaguer would be used in this manner; indeed in this era the catching position became extremely specialized, as few catchers saw significant time at any other positions, including first base.

It wouldn’t be until the 1940s that things would begin to loosen up again. We’ll find out exactly how.

D’oh! A couple of alert readers have pointed out that I’ve overlooked a 50-50 man from the 1920s-’30s: none other than Moe Berg! Yes, the catcher-turned-spy had been a shortstop-turned-catcher with the White Sox in the late 1920s. My bad!

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