Ernie White 1 had a predicament. His Columbia (South Carolina) Reds were on the road against the Augusta (Georgia) Rams, finishing a three-game South Atlantic (Sally) League series, and his regular catcher, Wilbur McConnell, was out of action with a split finger sustained two days earlier against the Macon Peaches. Backup Everett Johnson was carrying the load “despite aggravation of an old shoulder injury which prevented his making throw[s] to second base.”2 The third-place Reds (16-9) had managed to win both the Friday opener and the second game on Saturday night, but in that game Augusta (fourth place, 11-11) had discovered Johnson’s inability to stop steals. Taking full advantage, they stole nine bases, but still lost.3
A Sunday afternoon crowd of 1,679 graced Jennings Stadium for the series finale. Augusta had lost three games in a row and needed a win. Manager Lou Fitzgerald sent out his best early-season starter, 25-year-old right-hander Ray Knoblauch, albeit “the wild man of the Augusta staff,”4 against White’s choice, spot starter Ed James, another righty. Knoblauch immediately demonstrated his tendency to miss the plate by walking Columbia’s leadoff hitter, Gene Hatton, but retired the next three batters and kept the Reds off the scoreboard. James reciprocated with a clean first inning of his own. Knoblauch commenced the second inning with a walk to Bill Ford; this time, the Reds converted it into the first run of the game when Jim Bolger doubled him home.
James safely negotiated the Augusta second inning, but Rams catcher John O’Lari, hitting eighth in the order, singled to open the third. Now with a baserunner, Augusta went at the vulnerable Johnson with the same vengeance they had shown the night before. With Knoblauch batting, O’Lari stole second and moved to third on Johnson’s passed ball. Knoblauch drew a walk of his own to put runners on the corners with no outs. Because “Knoblauch, unaccountably, was not sent to second,”5 James dug in to coax a double-play ball from leadoff hitter Bobby Wilkins. That scored O’Lari, but James escaped the half-inning with a 1-1 score.
James and Johnson were back in the soup again in the Augusta fourth. George Brown singled and stole second, then Max Davidson singled him in to put the Rams ahead, 2-1. Davidson made things interesting with another stolen base, but “there the merry-go-round broke down.”6 The fifth inning passed quietly for both teams; Knoblauch was finding a groove — he shut the Reds down again in the top of the sixth. But in the bottom half, White, sensing the fragility of his team’s still-manageable one-run deficit, tried “one Rickey never thought of — but his pupil did.”7
With two outs, Augusta’s Elbie Flint reached first base on an error and “was ready to steal second on the unfortunate Johnson.”8 As the next hitter, Jim Burns, stepped in, White called time with umpire Al Zingone.
White summoned strong-armed Hal Stamey9 from his post in right field and positioned him, standing, beside Johnson “as a sort of alternate catcher.”10 Stamey didn’t put on protective catcher’s gear, but White had James alternate his pitches to the two catchers, using Stamey for pitchouts. “The runners never knew to which receiver James would pitch.”11
The move required left fielder Lew Davis and center fielder Bolger to try to cover the entire outfield. Bolger manned the general right-center area; Davis was in left-center but shallow, responsible for handling any errant throws to second base Stamey might unleash.
Fitzgerald immediately objected to the arrangement. Zingone “said it looked all right to him,” and allowed play to proceed. Fitzgerald told Zingone that Augusta would play the game under protest.12
White’s strategy worked, at least when Augusta didn’t get their bats on the ball against Columbia’s compromised defense. Burns, likely distracted by the presence of two catchers behind him, the alternate pitches, and the possibility of pitchouts, took a called third strike to end the Augusta sixth; Flint hadn’t attempted a steal as long as Stamey was stationed with Johnson.
But in the Augusta seventh, O’Lari led off with another single. White promptly moved Stamey behind the plate to assist Johnson again; this time the Rams “hit it where they ain’t” as Knoblauch “laced a single to left” and, as the batting order flipped, leadoff hitter “Wilkins brought both runners in with a two-bagger.”13 Those runs bumped the score to 4-1, Augusta.
Now down by three runs but undeterred, White summoned Stamey again in the eighth inning with Flint on first base after a single. Playing cat-and-mouse, Fitzgerald didn’t chance a steal then, but, as The Sporting News wrote in its coverage of White’s experiment, with two out and after Stamey had returned to his normal position, “Flint swiped second and third,” but didn’t score.14
On balance, Fitzgerald had the better of White as the managerial wheels turned. Because of the Augusta skipper’s “no steals while both of them are back there” counter-strategy, Stamey never got an opportunity to throw to second base in any of his three part-innings with Johnson. But the two balls hit into Columbia’s two-man outfield in the seventh inning while Stamey was assisting Johnson added a comfortable cushion for the Rams.
Knoblauch, fully settled in from the fourth inning on, pitched no-hit, no-run ball over the last five innings. He dispatched the Reds in the ninth to wrap up a five-hitter that stopped Augusta’s three-game losing streak.15 Fitzgerald withdrew Augusta’s protest, saving Sally League President Dick Butler from having to make a determination under Rule 8.06. “From what I’ve heard and read, it doesn’t seem to be legal. But I wasn’t there and I have nothing official to go on,” Butler said.16
Sports desks all over the country snapped up either the Associated Press or United Press stories on White’s ploy and added their own ruminations on Rule 8.06. The rule read: “A defensive player, other than the pitcher and the catcher, may occupy any position on the playing field in fair territory.”17
The Augusta writer who observed the strategy in person said, “No doubt about it. It was illegal. … Columbia manager Ernie White gets the award of the week for ingenious effort, but he’ll never win a baseball game that way.”18 The Sporting News called the move “a new twist,” “revolutionary,” and “a stunt,” but also reported, “White admitted that his maneuver was illegal.”19 The spin by the Boston Globe on the Associated Press story implied legality: “Manager Ernie White of the Columbia Reds has inaugurated a two-catcher system … to stop wholesale steals of second base. It works, too.”20
Although the Miami Daily News story quoted White as saying that he planned to use his “two-catcher shift” as the Reds returned home to play the Columbus (Georgia) Cardinals that next night, it didn’t happen.21 Instead, “the day after flashing his unique strategy, White signed Jimmy Hodges, a semipro catcher from his home town of Pacolet, South Carolina, to handle the backstopping chores until the Reds’ regular receivers are available.”22
The loss was nothing more than an early-season blip for Columbia. White showed his managerial mettle by keeping the Reds in contention all season, guiding them to second place in the 1953 regular Sally League season behind the pennant-winning Jacksonville (Florida) Braves, then winning the championship in the Shaughnessy playoff finals against Jacksonville, four games to three.23
Sources and acknowledgments
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, I used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for Ernie White’s player, team, and managerial pages and the B-R Minor League Encyclopedia for data on the 1953 Columbia Reds and the 1953 Augusta Rams. I am indebted to Tina Monaco of the Georgia History Room, Augusta-Richmond Public Library System, Augusta, Georgia, for scans of digitized material from the May 11, 1953, edition of the Augusta Chronicle, including the box score of this game. Neither Baseball-Reference nor Retrosheet carries minor-league box scores, so that material was vital to this account.
SABR colleague Kurt Blumenau’s fact-check of this account provided valuable feedback.
1 White, a left-handed pitcher who reached the majors with the 1940 St. Louis Cardinals, had a 30-21 record and a career 2.78 ERA in four seasons with St. Louis and a three-year stint with the Boston Braves after World War II. His signature major-league accomplishment was with the Cardinals — a six-hit shutout of the New York Yankees in Game Three of the 1942 World Series, en route to St. Louis’s championship. He began his managerial career in 1949 with the Boston Braves’ Appalachian League affiliate, winning both the regular-season pennant and the playoffs. The South Carolina native took over his home-state Columbia Reds (Class A, South Atlantic League) in 1952 and won pennants in 1952 and 1953, capped by the 1953 league championship. Mike Richard, “Ernie White,” SABR Baseball Biography Project, sabr.org, accessed December 17, 2020.
2 United Press, “2-Catcher Shift Stops Foe,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 11, 1953: 16.
3 Randy Russell, “Knoblauch Checks Reds as Rams Triumph, 4-1,” Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, May 11, 1953: 6. Columbia won the Saturday night game, 9-5, despite Augusta’s nine stolen bases. “Results: South Atlantic League,” Charlotte Observer, May 10, 1953: 66.
4 Russell, “Knoblauch Checks.”
5 Russell, “Knoblauch Checks.”
6 Russell, “Knoblauch Checks.”
7 United Press, “2-Catcher Shift.” The Brooklyn Eagle’s coverage of White’s innovation had the United Press wire story as a core, but added a Brooklyn-specific angle when it used this reference in its subhead. The story noted, “White is a former ‘pupil’ of Branch Rickey.” Rickey was general manager of the Cardinals as White advanced through the St. Louis minor-league system from 1937 through 1939, then debuted with the parent club in 1940. Rickey later moved from the Cardinals to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
8 Russell, “Knoblauch Checks.”
9 Hal “Hoss” Stamey, a lanky (6-feet-2, 175) native of Brevard, North Carolina, played industrial league baseball before beginning his professional career at age 20 with the Philadelphia Phillies’ Americus (Georgia) affiliate in the Class-D Georgia-Florida League in 1948. After two successful seasons there, the St. Louis Cardinals made him their only selection in the Rule 5 minor-league draft in November 1949. He signed for $6,000, which qualified him as a “bonus baby” under baseball rules then in effect, requiring the Cardinals to carry him on their 40-man major-league roster. Described by scouts as a “can’t miss” player, he went to 1950 spring training with the club. (Red Byrd, “Bilko Bulks Large in Cardinals’ Plans,” The Sporting News, March 15, 1950: 16). But the 1950 Cardinals had two future Hall of Fame outfielders in Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter, as well as experienced reserves in Harry Walker, Bill Howerton, and Chuck Diering, leaving no room for Stamey. Near the end of spring training, St. Louis exposed him to waivers. He was claimed by the Cincinnati Reds and assigned to their South Atlantic League affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina. (“Player Released by Cardinals,” Sedalia [Missouri] Democrat, April 4, 1950: 11.) Stamey hit .259 in 149 games there in 1950 and, after spending 1951 and 1952 in the Army, was back with Columbia as the everyday right fielder and number-three hitter in White’s batting order in 1953.
10 Associated Press, “Reds Use Two Catchers at Same Time,” Orangeburg (South Carolina) Times and Democrat, May 11, 1953: 8.
11 United Press, “2-Catcher Shift.”
12 Russell, “Knoblauch Checks.”
13 Russell, “Knoblauch Checks.”
14 “One Catcher Fails to Halt Thefts, So White Tries Two,” The Sporting News, May 20, 1953: 32.
15 Augusta was the only unaffiliated club in the 1953 Sally League. The team slid down the standings and finished sixth in the eight-team league, nine games under .500. Ray Knoblauch, who got this win against Columbia, finished the 1953 season with an impressive 15-9 record for a losing team. He reached Double A with the Texas League Shreveport Sports in 1955, but was out of Organized Baseball after the 1957 season. Ray Knoblauch’s son, Chuck, was the 1991 American League Rookie of the year and a four-time AL All-Star. Ray Knoblauch went on to a successful career as a high-school baseball coach in Texas. He died in 2002. https://www.mrt.com/news/article/Chuck-Knoblauch-s-Father-Dies-7816932.php.
16 Randy Russell, “All in the Game” column, Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle, May 11, 1953: 7.
17 Associated Press/United Press, “2-Platoon Strategy for Catchers Works,” Miami Daily News, May 11, 1953: 9. As of 2020, the rule has been restated as Rule 5.02 and, in pertinent part, states: “5.02 Fielding Positions — When the ball is put in play at the start of, or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be in fair territory. (a) The catcher shall station himself directly back of the plate. He may leave his position at any time to catch a pitch or make a play …” Official Baseball Rules, mlb.com. https://img.mlbstatic.com/mlbimages/image/upload/mlb/ub08blsefk8wkkd2oemz.pdf.
18 Russell, “All in the Game” column.
19 “One Catcher Fails.”
20 “Manager Rivals Boudreau by Shift to Stop Base Thefts,” Boston Globe, May 11, 1953: 12. The “Boudreau” reference was a reminder of the radical (at that time) defensive shift employed by Cleveland manager Lou Boudreau against Ted Williams in 1946.
21 ‘2-Platoon Strategy.”
22 “One Catcher Fails.” The Baseball-Reference pages for the 1953 Columbia Reds show a “James Hodge” listed on the team roster and appearing in seven games with no position specified and no statistics recorded. Those pages also show 25-year-old Hank Kalafut as the only Columbia catcher other than McConnell (102 games) and Johnson (14 games) for the 1953 club. Kalafut appeared in 15 games and hit .306 in 49 at-bats.
23 The 1953 Sally league had a decidedly two-team race. Columbia finished 2½ games behind Jacksonville in the regular season. The third-place Columbus Cardinals were 26 games back. Columbia, paced by Bolger and pitcher Barney Martin, closed out Jacksonville by a 4-2 score in the seventh game of the Shaughnessy finals. By that time McConnell’s finger was healed and he was back behind the plate. (“Columbia Reds Cop Sally Loop Playoffs,” Montgomery [Alabama] Advertiser, September 16, 1953: 15.) Nineteen-year-old Henry Aaron played second base for Jacksonville in 1953. He hit .362 and was promoted to the parent Milwaukee Braves for the 1954 season, commencing his 23-year Hall of Fame, career.
Augusta Rams 4
Columbia Reds 1
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