Calling All Catchers

Tim McCarver, seen here at famous baseball bar Foley's, was the Phillies' starting catcher in 1970. (via NJ Baseball)

Tim McCarver, seen here at famous baseball bar Foley’s, was the Phillies’ starting catcher in 1970. (via NJ Baseball)

The 1970 Philadelphia Phillies suffered from the bigotry of low expectations. The year before, manager Bob Skinner had been fired with a 44-64 record; coach George Myatt took over for the rest of the season, but the results (19-35) were even worse.

The Phils’ composite record of 63-99 consigned them to fifth place in the National League East (this was the first year of divisional play). The expansion Montreal Expos finished lower at 52-110 – a record identical to the San Diego Padres, their expansion mates in the NL West. Parity, anyone?

The only three teams in the NL that finished below .500 in 1969 were the Expos, the Padres and the Phillies. The first two had the expansion excuse; they were the new kids on the block. The Phillies, on the other hand, had been around since 1883, but given their lengthy history of underachievement, they were hardly deserving of grey eminence status.

In 1970, most Phillies fans were biding their time till 1971 when Veterans Stadium, the multi-purpose colossus in South Philadelphia, would open. In the meantime, the Phillies would have to play out the 1970 season in moldering old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia.

Curiously, management attempted to generate some interest by adopting a new logo and uniforms one year before the move to Veterans Stadium. More importantly, the team had a new manager, Frank Lucchesi, who had started his career as a player-manager at Class D Medford of the Far West League in 1951 and had been working his way up ever since. In 1969, he had won the PCL South Division by managing Eugene, the Phillies Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, to an 88-58 record. He was well acquainted with the younger players in the organization, so he was the logical choice for the job.

In 1970, the Phillies had a number of young players who would go on to productive major league  careers (e.g., Denny Doyle, Larry Bowa, Larry Hisle, Oscar Gamble, Don Money, Greg Luzinski and Rick Wise), but they also had a veteran presence. Johnny Callison had been traded, but Tony Taylor, Chris Short and Grant Jackson were still around. Jim Bunning, who had been released by the Pirates, returned for a second tour of duty, and Tim McCarver had been acquired from the Cardinals.

McCarver was a 10-year veteran who had played in two All-Star Games and three World Series, yet he was only 29 years old. He was a prominent name in the multi-player transaction that sent him to Philly, yet today the deal is remembered primarily because Curt Flood refused to report to the Phillies and challenged the reserve clause in an historic court case.

McCarver did report to the Phillies, and he was their starting catcher on April 7, 1970, the last opening day at Connie Mack Stadium. The 15,918 spectators were rewarded with Chris Short shutting out (2-0) the Cubs and outdueling former Phillie Fergie Jenkins.

Lo and behold, two days later the Phillies again defeated the Cubs (5-3), and the day after that, Woodie Fryman shut out (2-0) the Pirates. 1969 had been the year of the Miracle Mets. Would it be the Phillies’ turn in 1970? Would Connie Mack Stadium close down decked out in postseason bunting?

Any initial optimism was quickly dashed, as the Phillies embarked on a seven-game losing streak. In late April, however, they fashioned a six-game winning streak, and after taking two of three from the Dodgers, they actually were above .500 with a 10-9 record. So perhaps there was cause for cautious optimism. A .500 record would be a quantum leap forward. As it turned out, any optimism in that regard was also short-lived.

The Phillies lost (3-1) on Friday, May 1, to the Giants at Candlestick Park, so their record stood at 10-10. The real Mayday distress signal, however, did not go out ’til the next day when the team’s catching situation was turned on its head.

The Phillies’ previous first-string catcher, Mike Ryan, was still around for backup duties. Ryan’s strong point was defense, which is borne out by the fact that he only tallied 370 hits in his 11-year  career. Curiously, the 1969 season had been — by his standards — a career year offensively, as he hit 12 home runs in 446 at-bats. That .204 batting average was dangerously close to the Mendoza line for a first-string catcher, but considering his .193 career average, it was hardly uncharacteristic.

Curiously, Ryan and McCarver had been on opposite sides in the 1967 World Series when McCarver was the Cardinals’ starting catcher and Ryan was with the Red Sox. Though Ryan had just 226 at-bats that season, he played more than any of the other members (Russ Gibson, Elston Howard and Bob Tillman) of the Red Sox catching corps.

One can almost imagine the baseball gods looking down from the empyrean and snickering at the misfortunes they had visited on the two catchers who had gone from pennant-winners to a franchise that had not won a title in its entire 87-year existence. But the gods were not finished with McCarver and Ryan.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

On Saturday, May 2, the Phillies sat at .500, neither here nor there. At day’s end, after a 7-1 loss to Gaylord Perry, they were below .500 again, but that was the least of their worries. The sixth inning was the turning point.

The Giants were leading 3-0 when Willie Mays led off the bottom of the sixth with Lowell Palmer on the mound for the Phillies. A foul tip off Mays’ bat caught McCarver’s right hand and he had to leave the game. So Ryan quickly donned his catching gear and took over behind the plate.

When play resumed, Mays singled to left and Willie McCovey doubled to center field with Mays scoring, running the score to 4-0. When Ken Henderson followed with a single to right, McCovey attempted to score but was thrown out at the plate for the first out of the inning. Dick Dietz was called out on strikes and Al Gallagher popped out to second to end the inning, but for Ryan those last two outs were anything but routine, as his left hand had been badly spiked in the play at the plate.

As it turned out, while performing the usually mundane chore of recording the first out of the inning, the Phillies had lost both catchers to broken hands. Whereas McCarver broke a bone in the back of his right hand, Ryan’s bone was in the back of his left hand. Clearly, the baseball gods were into symmetrical sadism…or is it sadistic symmetry?

Ryan was due to come to the plate in the seventh inning, but rookie utility man Jim Hutto came on as a pinch hitter and singled. He remained in the game as a catcher. The stocky Hutto (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) looked like a catcher, but his resume at that position included just two games in the Florida Instructional League, and nine games at Triple-A (Tulsa and Eugene of the Pacific Coast League). He remained in the game to the end (he made the final out of the game).

The day before, the catching situation had been in good hands – literally. Now the team’s two catchers had just one pair of good hands between them. Hutto was okay in an emergency, but there were five months left in the season, and he was not the long-term answer.

So Mike Compton was summoned from Eugene. Compton had done some caddying for McCarver earlier in the season, but he was not around long enough to garner even one at-bat. On Sunday, May 3, he started behind the plate in both games of a double-header. In the first game, Hutto filled in late in the game after Compton was lifted for a pinch hitter, but by day’s end, Compton had logged six at-bats at the dish and 17 innings behind it. The Phillies actually swept the double-header (8-6 in 13 innings and 13-6), so it was a day to remember for Compton. The team had sucked it up in the absence of McCarver and Ryan. Maybe things would work out after all.

Compton, however, needed some backup himself, so Del Bates was also called up from Eugene and made his debut on May 6 as a pinch-hitter for Compton (Bates was a left-handed batter, Compton was right-handed). Bates stayed in the game behind the plate in a 4-3 victory over the Padres at Connie Mack Stadium. The call-up likely surprised him, as his career had plateaued at part-time duty at Triple-A (Seattle, Richmond, Rochester, Columbus). When he made his major league debut with the Phillies, he was less than a week away from his 30th birthday.

At the beginning of the day on May 7, the Phillies stood at 13-12 before their game against the Padres. That was their last day above .500 in 1970, as they embarked on a 10-game losing streak.

As the season wore on, it was obvious that Compton and Bates were overmatched. Compton played in 47 games and hit .164. Bates played in 22 games and hit .133. The latter was the odd man out after coach Doc Edwards was pressed into service on June 6.

Edwards was only 33 years old, but he had not played in the majors since 1965, when he split the season between the A’s and the Yankees. Having knocked around Triple-A ball from 1966 through 1969, his last stop had been with Eugene.

Edwards added a veteran presence behind the plate but the offensive results were only marginally better. He hit .269 (21-for-78), which was a big improvement over Compton and Bates, but he literally had no power. His 21 hits were all singles.

The situation improved somewhat after Ryan returned on July 6, but the Phillies’ record had slipped to 34-45. Edwards remained on the active roster as a backup (he played his last game on August 29), while Compton became the third-stringer (his last game came one day later).

McCarver returned as the first-string catcher on Sept. 1. With the team at 62-70, a strong finish could still get the Phillies to .500. Unfortunately, their NL opponents had other ideas, and the Phillies went 11-18 the rest of the way.

The only highlight from September on came in the final game of the season on Oct. 1. This match-up could be classified as a loser-take-all contest, as the victor would finish in fifth in the NL and the loser would finish last.

The baseball gods decreed that McCarver would score the last run at Connie Mack Stadium in a 2-1, 10-inning victory over the Expos. After almost six months of baseball games, when all was said and done, all that separated the Phillies and Expos was a rainout of a Phillies-Dodgers tilt that was never rescheduled. Expos’ manager Gene Mauch might have been disappointed by the outcome, but it was not the first time he had experienced disappointment at Connie Mack Stadium. Perhaps he found solace in the knowledge that it would be the last time.

That final contest, by the way, is still remembered for the do-it-yourselfers in the crowd of 31,822. Many fans showed up with tools to help them dismantle the stadium for customized souvenirs. Some fans polite enough to wait ’til McCarver crossed home plate with the winning run; some were not. Who would have guessed that used trough-style urinals could be so prized?

At the conclusion of the 1970 season, the baseball gods had diverse fates in store for the Phillies’ catchers. McCarver’s career is the most conspicuous, as he remained an active player through 1979, then returned to the Phillies late in the 1980 season (which resulted in the team’s first title) so he could join the short list of major league players who appeared in four different decades. Younger fans remember him primarily as a broadcaster, not just for his network telecasts, but also for the Phillies, Mets, Yankees and Giants.

Ryan remained in the game as a backup catcher with the Phillies through 1973. In 1974, his final season as a player, he was a backup catcher behind Manny Sanguillen on the division-winning Pirates. When the Phillies opened Veterans Stadium on April 10, 1971, he participated in a pre-game ceremony that involved catching a baseball dropped from a helicopter.

Compton and Bates both went back to the minors. Clearly, their big league sojourns, albeit short, were facilitated by the events of May 2. Compton went back to Eugene in 1971 and retired in 1973 at age 28. Bates finished out the 1970 season with the Triple-A Wichita Aeros of the American Association and then retired. The only 1970 Phillies’ catching alumnus who is no longer walking the earth, Bates passed away at age 69 in 2009.

Hutto went down a similar path, but with a twist. After hitting .185 for the Phillies in 1970, Hutto was traded to the Orioles. After the 1971 season, he went to the Angels in the Rule 5 draft but returned to the Orioles in 1973. Playing exclusively at Triple-A from 1971 through 1974, he resurfaced with the Orioles in 1975 and played three more games behind the plate. After spending the 1976 season with Triple-A Rochester, he retired.

Like McCarver, Edwards remained in baseball when his playing days were over. His coaching gig with the Phillies in 1970 launched a coaching and managerial career that spanned more than four decades. In 1973, he left his coaching position with the Phillies to manage Double-A West Haven of the Eastern League. He made several stops at Triple-A ball, entering the record books in 1981 as the manager of the visiting Rochester Red Wings in the marathon 32-inning Easter weekend contest (finished in the 33rd inning on June 23) against the Pawtucket Red Sox.

Serving as a coach with the Cleveland Indians in 1985 and 1986, Edwards took over the manager’s job after Pat Corrales was fired in 1987 and skippered the Indians through 1989. He coached for the Mets in 1990 and 1991, and managed Triple-A Buffalo of the American Association in 1993 and 1994. Starting in 1996, he managed various teams in various independent minor leagues, finishing his career with seven seasons (2006-2012) at the helm of the San Angelo Colts.

Edwards’ return to active duty in 1970 showed the value of a “washed up” catcher, while the promotions of Compton and Bates, offered ample evidence of the upward mobility possible in the profession. At the same time, the travails of McCarver and Ryan evinced the physical dangers that made that upward mobility possible. This explains why so many veteran catchers linger in Triple-A. They know they are just one hairline fracture away from a return engagement in the Show.

The hazards of the catching profession were obvious to millions of TV viewers during the 1970 All-Star Game when Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning. According to legend, Fosse was never the same (in reality, he was an All-Star and Gold Glover again in 1971).

That national TV audience was supplemented by 55,837 fans (admittedly, some had probably left before the 12th inning) in Cincinnati. The injury-ridden Phillies-Giants game two months before was seen only on local TV and in front of 7,422 fans in San Francisco. Still, for any aspiring ballplayers pondering a career in catching, the profession’s occupational hazards and the chances for upward mobility were obvious.

Pitchers…infielders…outfielders…a dime a dozen. Good catchers are hard to find. Mediocre ones too, come to think of it.

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Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 47 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.

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87 Cards
87 Cards
A good catcher in the Phillies’ organization in 1970 wasn’t catching. Bob Boone played 20 games at third-base in AA Reading in 1970 but missed most the season for military service. Boone converted to catcher the next season at AA–his first steps to the record for games-caught when he retired after nineteen MLB seasons (since broken by Fisk and Iván Rodriguez). Boone caught his first games in 1971 and by 1973 was the Phillies’ starting catcher. Perhaps spending his college and early-professional seasons in the infield extended Boone’s years behind the plate. Additionally, McCarver often spelled him when Steve Carlton… Read more »
In 1969, a rookie catcher named Dave Watkins spent the entire season on the Phillies’ big league roster, appearing in 69 games (getting a card in the 1970 Topps set as result), then never played major or minor league baseball again. He only hit .176, so he might not have been much of an improvement over the catchers the Phillies actually employed in ’70, but the Phillies could have used all the help they could get. Does anyone know what happened to Watkins? He may have retired, but he was only 25 at the end of the 1970 season, and… Read more »
87 Cards
87 Cards

Watkins, at age 25, saw prospects on the way and returned to Kentucky Wesleyan University, excepted here:

He says “I would have learned how to assess myself better in order to advance faster.”

His biggest days in BB:

Perhaps the unexpected retirement of Watkins caused movement on the Boone-to-catcher switch?

“McCarver….returned to the Phillies late in the 1980 season (which resulted in the team’s first title) so he could join the short list of major league players who appeared in four different decades.” I’ve always found McCarver’s brief comeback intriguing. He signed with the team on September 1, when active rosters expanded to 40. The whole time he was there, the Phillies were locked in a tight pennant race. For all but three days in September, they were within one and a half games of first place, in one direction or the other. McCarver made six appearances. Details of each… Read more »