His childhood is obscured by the mists of time. His death was not mentioned in the sports pages of his home town, where he had started and ended his professional career. No obituaries of him can be found. The casual fan of today knows little about him. Nevertheless, for nearly two decades Charley “Pop” Snyder was one of the best catchers in all of baseball.
Charles Nicholas Snyder was born in Washington, DC, on October 6, 1854. The names of his parents have been lost, but Charley told census enumerators that his mother was born in Maryland and his father was a native of Germany. (It is probable that the family’s surname was originally Schneider. That’s the name Charley gave for the 1900 census; in all the others it is Snyder.) What happened to Charley’s parents is not known. However, the Charles Snyder listed in the 1880 through 1920 censuses is definitely our man.
In 1880 Charley was living in the household of his brother-in-law James Henry Cavanaugh, a clerk in the U. S. government’s treasury department. Apparently he lived in the Cavanaugh household for at least 40 years. As Charley was single, Cavanaugh must have been the husband of his sister.
Snyder first attracted attention in 1872, while catching for a strong semiprofessional club in Washington called the Creightons in honor of the legendary pitcher, Jim Creighton. Nick Young, manager of the Washington club of the National Association, was impressed by Snyder’s athleticism and strong throwing arm.1 Snyder was reportedly “a tall, slender youngster with a keen eye, a strong arm, and was an athlete from the sole of his feet to the top of his head.”2 Snyder made his professional debut for Young’s Blue Legs on June 16, 1873, at the age of 18. (Young and James Cavanaugh had worked together as clerks in the treasury department, and it is possible that Young learned of Snyder through the youngster’s brother-in-law.)
Snyder hit only .194 for Washington in his rookie year, but his outstanding defensive work behind the plate excited the interest of other National Association clubs, who weren’t above poaching players from their competitors. Soon Snyder was on the move — to the Baltimore Canaries in 1874 and the Philadelphia Whites in 1875. He made $20 per week in Baltimore and doubled that in Philadelphia. When the National League replaced the Association in 1876, Snyder joined the Louisville Grays of the new circuit. He spent two seasons in Kentucky before the Grays left the league because of a gambling scandal. The defending National League champion Boston Red Caps then signed Snyder, and he spent three of the next four seasons in Beantown (taking the 1880 season off to play in his home town for the Nationals in Washington in the reorganized National Association, now a minor league.)
When the American Association was organized as a major league rival of the National League, Snyder joined the Cincinnati Red Stockings (or Reds, as they were usually called) as playing manager. It was his best year ever, both as a player and as a manager. He hit .291 and led the league with 50 runs batted in.3 As a catcher he led the league in putouts, ranked second in range factor, third in assists, and fourth in double plays. It was as a manager, however, that he had his greatest success. He led his team to the pennant by a comfortable 11½-game margin over the second-place Philadelphia club.
An unusual gesture made by Snyder after the 1882 season led baseball writer Bill James to call him “a better man than a ballplayer.” James credits Snyder with being a brilliant defensive catcher, who earned $1,100 that season. During the offseason the Reds sent him a contract calling for $1,800 in 1883.Snyder returned it, saying it was too much. He suggested the Reds reduce the amount of his raise and give the savings to a teammate who he thought was underpaid. According to James, the Reds agreed, and Snyder played for $1,700 in 1883.4
James also wrote that Snyder was the slowest player of the 1870s.5 He offered no justification for this assertion, probably because none exists. The National League did not keep stolen base statistics until 1886. In 60 games that season, Snyder stole 11 bases. Three of his teammates (Hick Carpenter, Charley Jones, and Fred Lewis) stole fewer.
Although Snyder at 27 was barely a year or two older than most of his players (and four years younger than shortstop Chick Fulmer) his players took to calling him “Pop” and the nickname stuck. Perhaps it was his receding hairline or the seriousness with which he took his managerial responsibilities that induced his minions to give him that cognomen, but he was known as Pop Snyder for the rest of his baseball career. As a manager he was considered a taskmaster who stressed fundamentals.6 After the 1882 season Cincinnati played a two-game exhibition matchup against the National League champion Chicago White Stockings. Snyder’s men split the games, winning the first contest over the highly favored National Leaguers, but losing the second. The fact that his team did this well in the first ever inter-league showdown has been cited as evidence of Snyder’s managerial skill.7 The Reds contended for the American Association pennant in 1883, finishing in third place with a .622 winning percentage. The 1884 team played at nearly the same clip, but Snyder gave up the managerial reins about one-third of the way into the season.
In 1885 Snyder suffered an arm injury that caused him to miss nearly half the season, but he came back the next year. In March 1886 The Sporting News reported, “Snyder’s hands are entirely healed, and he will make a gallant effort toward holding Tony Mullane’s cannon-ball-like delivery.”8 In December the paper reported that Snyder was keeping himself trim by exercising at a skating rink in Washington. “He had the reputation of being one of the most graceful skaters at the capital.”9
The Sporting News also told about Snyder’s visit to a palm reader, who looked into Charley’s hand and immediately identified him as a baseball catcher. “It’s just wonderful – that fellow’s gift of reading a fellow’s hands,” Snyder said. “If I possessed such power I’d never lay down three queens to John Kelly’s one-card draw.”10
Actually it did not take special talent to identify Snyder’s occupation. Twenty years later a columnist wrote: “One glance at his hands convinces one that he has been in many a diamond battle.”11
In 1887 and 1888 Snyder played for the Cleveland Blues in the American Association and was a backup for Cleveland when they went to the National League in 1889 When the Players League was formed in 1890, Snyder joined the Cleveland Infants of that circuit, but quit in mid-season and spent the rest of the year as a Players League umpire. In 1891 he was back in the American Association for part of the year as a player-manager for the Washington Statesmen. He played his final major league game on the Fourth of July at the age of 37. On July 30 he resigned as manager, his team having lost twice as many games as it won (23-46 .333).
At the urging of Nick Young, now president of the National League, Snyder became an umpire. He worked in the senior circuit in 1892 and 1893, spent three years in the minors, and resumed umpiring in the National League from 1898 through 1901. Although he was not yet 50 years old when he left that hazardous duty, there is no record of him ever again being gainfully employed.
Snyder has been ranked as the best fielding catcher of the 19th century and as the second greatest overall, when hitting, fielding, and handling of pitchers are taken into account.12 He led his league three times each in putouts, assists, and double plays by a catcher. He finished second or third in assists eight times. Twice he led the league in range factor. On the negative side, he once led the league in errors and three times led in passed balls. He still holds the record for the most career errors by a catcher and may be the record-holder for passed balls as well.13
That Snyder ranks high in errors and passed balls is not surprising. He caught more games than any other backstop in the 1870s and 1880s when the job of the catcher was so much more difficult than it later became. Before 1893 a pitcher could take a hop, skip, or jump and hurl the ball to the plate, which was only 45 or 50 feet away. Furthermore, early catchers did not wear catchers’ mitts.
Snyder told a reporter, “The first time I ever put a mitt on my hand was with the Cleveland club in 1885. Up to that time I only wore a finger glove no heavier than that worn by infielders of today. The result was that I never went a week without having some sort of injury to my hand or fingers, but that did not keep me out of the game.”14
In 1907 The Sporting News ran a feature on the retired ballplayer under the headline “Backstop with Brains” and the sub-head “Charley Snyder was one of Game’s Greatest Catchers.” The article proclaimed that Snyder was a thinking player. He did not rely solely upon his natural abilities, but infused science and headplay into his playing.15
Larry Gerlach wrote that Snyder had been ranked by sportswriter Sam Crane in 1912 as one of the fifty greatest baseball players in history. Gerlach averred that Snyder was one of three players credited with developing the basic fielding techniques for their respective positions; the others being George Wright for shortstop and Ross Barnes for second base.16
Gerlach cited one example of an innovation by this brainy ballplayer. In 1877 Snyder invented a system of signals that coordinated the work of pitchers and catchers, a forerunner of the sign language that is so important to baseball today.17
Charles Nicholas Snyder died at the age of 70 on October 29, 1924, in his hometown of Washington, DC. Never having married, he left no descendants. He was buried in Washington’s Glenwood Cemetery in a site owned by J. H. Cavanaugh. “A Backstop with Brains” should be his epitaph.
In addition to those cited in the notes, the following sources were indispensable:
1 Larry R. Gerlach, “Charles Nicholas Snyder (Pop),” Baseball’s First Stars, Frederick Ivor-Campbell, Robert L. Tiemann, and Mark Rucker, eds. Cleveland: Society for American Baseball Research, 1996, 152.
2 The Sporting News, December 26, 1907.
3 RBIs were not a part of official league statistics in 1882. Some sources place Snyder first in that category; other rank him second.
4 Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, New York” Free Press, 2001, 42.
5 Ibid., 14.
6 Gerlach, op. cit.
8 The Sporting News, March 29, 1886.
9 Ibid., December 18, 1886.
11 Ibid. December 26, 1907.
12 Charles F. Faber, Baseball Pioneers, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1997, 44, 86.
14 The Sporting News, December 26, 1907.
16 Gerlach, op. cit.