SABR

Tim Blackwell

This article was written by John Vorperian.

Timothy P. Blackwell was a switch-hitting reserve catcher (.228 career batting average) who fashioned a ten-year big league career, and had his best season at the plate hitting .272 as the full-time catcher for the Chicago Cubs.

Blackwell was born on August 19, 1952 in San Diego, where he grew up and participated in Little League Baseball. A dual interscholastic sport star at Crawford High School, he was voted Most Valuable Player in both baseball and football. As a senior, he batted .392 in league games, hit .355 overall, and was declared the Hot Corner selection for the All-League First Team and the All-San Diego CIF second team. Upon high school graduation in 1970, Blackwell attended Grossmont Community College (El Cajon, CA).

On June 4, 1970, the Boston Red Sox selected the infielder-catcher in the 13th round (304th overall) of the free-agent amateur entry draft. Red Sox scout Ray Boone signed the recruit. Blackwell was assigned to Jamestown (New York-Penn League). In 28 games, Blackwell batted .235, with 10 RBIs, hitting three doubles, and stealing one base.

Tim opened 1971 with Greenville (Class A, Western Carolinas League) and became a full-time catcher during that season. The next year he moved to Winston-Salem (Advanced-A, Carolina League). In 1973, Blackwell was promoted to Double-A Bristol (Eastern League) and batted a lifetime minor league career high .283. He also tied for the Eastern League lead in double plays by a catcher with 12. Next stop on the farm club express was Boston's Triple-A squad, the Pawtucket Red Sox (International League).

At 1:00 a.m. on June 29 1974, Blackwell got a very early morning wake-up call in Norfolk, VA. The 21-year old catcher learned that Carlton Fisk had injured his knee and was out for the season. Blackwell had 12 hours to get to Cleveland for a game against the Indians. "When Pawtucket Manager Joe Morgan told me about it, I was dazed," said Blackwell. "I never thought I would be going up to Boston this soon. After all, Carlton Fisk is one of the top catchers in the major leagues." In fact, Pudge, a future Hall of Famer, led Boston in home runs and runs batted in and was second to Carl Yastrzemski with a .313 batting average when a collision at home plate terminated his season. As further evidence that Blackwell had not expected such a move, the young man had paid rent through August for his Cranston, RI apartment.

With Fisk now gone and Red Sox pennant hopes in the balance, the New England franchise's plan to fix the back-stop gap was to have veteran Bob Montgomery alternate with the Triple-A call-up.

So on July 3, 1974, before 27,730 in Fenway Park, Blackwell made his major league debut against the AL East Division rival Baltimore Orioles. He caught righthander Reggie Cleveland. In the bottom of the third, Blackwell singled in his first plate appearance, ending up on second base when O's third baseman Enos Cabell committed an error. He singled again in the bottom of the fourth. In the seventh, Blackwell grounded out to second, and in the ninth he flew out to center field flycatcher Paul Blair. The final score of the game was Baltimore 6, Boston 4.

In August 1974, Blackwell turned 22 and Dave Langworthy of The Christian Science Monitor wrote that for the Southern Californian, "...sitting behind the plate for the Red Sox is like playing catch with his baseball card collection. Luis Tiant and Juan Marichal, the two veteran righthanders who have accounted for over one-third of all victories in 1974, were both already started on major league careers when Tim was 11 years old. And the young catcher remembers asking for outfielder-designated hitter Tommy Harper's autograph when Harper played for the Padres in Blackwell's home town of San Diego."

How did he feel about The Show? "Actually, handling pitchers in the majors is a little easier," Blackwell noted. "Most of them are veterans and they know what they can and can't do in situations. They usually stay with what works." Blackwell told Langworthy the big difference was the batters. "They're so much more aggressive than in the minors," he remarked, "It's unbelievable. They go after every pitch in the strike zone all out. As a catcher I have to be extra careful about things like where my target is. It's so easy to get burned."

Boston manager Darrell Johnson said, "I knew that Blackwell had the defensive fundamentals. He catches the ball well, he throws well, makes contact. He's never going to hit for big power, but he can hit for some average. What has impressed me most is the way he studies hitters and the game. He asks question after question. When he first got up here I might have to ask him about his calls on a couple of batters an inning. Now, it's maybe two for an entire game. And the fact that he throws so well had kept people from running on us."

In sharing time behind the dish with vet Montgomery and having regular daily skull sessions with Red Sox skipper Johnson, a former catcher himself, Blackwell clubbed .246, eight RBIs, and had a .971 fielding average for the year.

Fisk returned in 1975. As a reserve catcher with the American League pennant winners, Blackwell got into 59 games and raised his fielding average to .984, but batted just .197. These totals punched a return ticket to Rhode Island to play in the minors at the start of 1976.

On April 19, 1976, Tim was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies and sent to their Double-A club in Reading (Eastern League). In addition to catching for Reading, he also played some outfield. A little over a year later, on June 15, 1977, Blackwell and right hander Wayne Twitchell were traded by the Phils to the Montreal Expos for catcher Barry Foote and southpaw Dan Warthen.

At the close of the season he had swung a dismal .091 in a mere 17 games. On January 14, 1978, Montreal released him.

Blackwell inked a contract with the Chicago Cubs a month later, on February 10. The Cubs assigned him to AA Wichita (American Association), where he regained form, batting .293 with 33 RBIs. The 25-year-old old was brought up to the parent club for the remainder of 1978, and he got in 103 at-bats in 49 games, hitting at a .223 pace. The following year, 1979, was a disappointing one. Tim accumulated 122 at-bats but only batted .164.

In April 1980, emergency sirens went off for the Cubs. At the Cactus League's close and it was evident Chicago's first string catcher Barry Foote, down with back injuries, would be on the bench for some time. Cubs General Manager Bob Kennedy saw Blackwell as the obvious choice to replace Foote. Early on, under hitting coach Billy Williams' keen tutelage, Blackwell restructured his batting swing. "It's like starting from scratch," he said. He was prompted by bullpen coach Gene Clines to be more aggressive at the plate. "I can hear him [Clines] all the way from the bullpen. He could be in the upper deck and I'd hear him," Blackwell said. Clines admitted that he was pretty loud, "I could be on Lake Shore Drive and you'd hear me." The 27-year-old Blackwell responded with a banner year, appearing in 103 games, with 320 at-bats. He swatted for a .272 average, with 30 RBIs, and 16 doubles. With his glove, he led National League catchers in double plays with 16. In an article in the August 30, 1980, Sporting News, Goddard noted, "Blackwell put the ball on second base as no Cubs catcher has since Randy Hundley."

Blackwell was granted free agency on November 13, 1981. The San Diego native returned to the National League's northern outpost with a signed deal on January 14, 1982 with the Montreal Expos. In his final regular season MLB game on May 17, 1983, Blackwell was called upon to pinch hit in the 14th inning. He flew out to right. (Montreal won the game, 3-2.) Fourteen days later, the Expos released him. On June 20, 1983, Blackwell signed with the California Angels, but the Halos placed him with their AAA affiliate Edmonton (Pacific Coast League).

After 1983, Blackwell took up coaching as a catching instructor, and piloting minor league teams. In 1985, he managed the Clinton Giants (Midwest League), a San Francisco Giants class-A affiliate to a 71-69 record. He steered the 1989 Pittsfield Mets (New York-Penn League) to the playoffs and garnered Manager of the Year hardware. In 1990, Blackwell directed the Mets Florida State League club, St. Lucie, to a 76-58 record and the playoffs. Again in 1991, he managed Columbia (South Atlantic League) to a 86-54 overall finish and won the playoff championship.

Manager Blackwell caught the eye of the Independents and in 1994 Mike Veeck's Saint Paul Saints (Northern League) hired him as their field chief. The '94 Saints were playoff champs. After two seasons in independent ball, Tim resumed managing in the affiliated minors with Baltimore, Colorado, and Milwaukee farm clubs.

Overall, Tim Blackwell played 426 major league games for four teams over ten seasons. He was a defensive specialist, and a fine reserve catcher, whose insights allowed him to stay in the game for 20 more years after he stopped playing.

Note

A version of this biography was originally published in '75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball, edited by Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan, and published by Rounder Books in 2005.

Sources

Langworthy, Dave, "Tim Blackwell: He used to collect autographs now his own is in big demand." Christian Science Monitor, August 29, 1974 p. 9

Goddard, Joe, "Blackwell Fits In Foote Shoes" The Sporting News, August 30, 1980 (Vol. 190, Issue 9), p. 39.

Thorn, John, Pete Palmer, & Michael Gershman, with Matthew Silverman, Sean Lahman, Greg Spira, Total Baseball, 7th Edition,Total Sports Publishing, Kingston, NY, 2001.

Conversations with: Cecil Cooper, June 8, 2005, Queens, NY and John Kennedy, June 24, 2005, New Haven, CT.

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