Catchers As Base Stealers

This article was written by L. Robert Davids

This article was published in 1982 Baseball Research Journal

    John Wathan of the Royals seemed an unlikely candidate to set a new season record in 1982 for stolen bases as a catcher. He was 32 years old and had served as a back-up first baseman and outfielder as well as a catcher. He also lacked the reindeer proportions with 205 pounds spread over a rugged 6 foot, 2-inch frame. It is true he stole 17 bases in 1980, but only eight as a catcher. He swiped 11 in the short 198 1 season, again achieving eight as a catcher, but the tip-off was his performance in the second half games of September 21 and 26. In each game he stole two bases, and whenever a catcher swipes more than one base in a game, he is to be reckoned with.

    Wathan started fast in the 1982 season, during which he played almost all of his games behind the bat. He already had 26 steals when he fractured an ankle on July 5. He was out of the line-up for five weeks, but, when he returned on August 10, he resumed his thieving ways. He passed Ray Schalk’s season record of 30 steals and finished the year with 36 in 121 games. It looked like he was going to be the team leader on the Royals, but fleet Willie Wilson edged past him in the final week with a total of 37.

    Wathan thus moved far out in front on a season basis among base-stealing catchers. He does not yet rank among the leaders on a career basis because he has caught fewer than 400 games. Sixteen of his 70 career steals have been as a non-catcher.

    John Stearns of the Mets is another modern catcher who is a threat on the basepaths. He set the NL record in 1978 with 25 thefts as a backstop. He also plays first and third, and five of his 90 career thefts have been at other positions. Carlton Fisk of the White Sox, who is 34, stole a career high 17 bases in 1982, all as a catcher.

    Wathan, Stearns, and Fisk are the only catchers to reflect the revival of base stealing during the last 20 years. Major League baseball hasn’t seen such activity on the basepaths since the days of Johnny Kling, Red Doom, Roger Bresnahan, Ray Schalk, and Wally Schang. In the intervening decades it became almost embarrassing to view the futile base stealing efforts of catchers. In 1954, for example, there were 56 players who caught one or more games in the majors. They stole a collective total of 19 bases that season, little more than one-half of what Wathan stole in 1982. Bill Sarni of the Cards and Red Wilson of the Tigers led with three.

    On a career basis, Ernie Lombardi passed for a gazelle with his eight steals in 1853 games compared to the likes of Del Rice, Gus Triandos, and Russ Nixon. Rice had two thefts in 1309 games in 17 years; Triandos had one steal in 1206 games in 12 years; and Nixon, now the manager of the Reds, never stole a base in 906 games in 12 years.

    In a review of all the catchers since 1 900, it was not surprising to find that it was those catchers who played some games at other positions who were the best base stealers. This necessitated close checking of game records to separate out those steals made while playing other positions. This applied to almost all of the season and career leaders and was most pronounced with Roger Bresnahan and Wally Schang. Bresnahan, who played all nine positions, had a strange combination as catcher (974 games) and center fielder (221 games). He was fast on his feet in spite of his bulky appearance; 140 of his 212 steals took place when he was behind the plate. He was still fast and crafty enough to steal 19 bases as a catcher in his final season in 1915. Schang, who also played third base and the outfield, stole 94 of 122 bases as a catcher.

    Schalk is the career leader with 176 steals. He was the only “purist” among the top dozen, never playing any other position. Here are the top 12 season leaders and career leaders since 1900. Thefts made while playing other positions than catcher are not included.


               Stolen Base Records for Catchers

Season                                                 Career

36 John Wathan, KC AL, 1982           176 Ray Schalk, 1912-29

30 Ray Schalk, Chi AL, 1916             140 Roger Bresnahan, 1900-15

25 John Stearns, NY NL, 1978           131 Red Doom, 1902-16

24 Ray Schalk, Chi AL, 1914             121 Johnny Kling, 1900-13

23 Johnny Kling, Chi NL, 1902           96 Billy Sullivan, 1899-1914

23 Johnny Kling, Chi NL, 1903           94 Wally Schang, 1913-3 1

20 Red Doom, Phil. NL, 1908             86 Eddie Ainsmith, 19 10-24

19 Ed Sweeney, NY AL, 1914              86 Jimmie Wilson, 1923-40

19 Roger Bresnahan, Chi NL, 1915     85 John Stearns, 1975-82

19 Ray Schalk, Chi AL, 1917               84 Ivy Wingo, 1911-29

17 Eddie Ainsmith, Wash AL, 1913     79 Carlton Fisk, l969-82

17 Carlton Fisk, Chi AL, 1982             66 John Roseboro, 1957-70