Pitcher’s Choice

This article was written by Stanley Grosshandler

This article was published in 1977 Baseball Research Journal

The 1976 season saw the revival of a rare custom-pitchers who work with the catcher of their choice. The success of Steve Canton and Mark Fidrych, who had personal catchers by request, may initiate other partnerships in the pitch-and-catch fraternity.

Carlton, a 20-game winner for the Phils, had Tim McCarver behind the bat for 32 of his 35 starts, plus the playoff game Steve pitched. Bob Boone and Johnny Oates were the receivers for his first three games. On May 1, Tim took over for a 4-2 win over Atlanta, and was Canton’s personal catcher the remainder of the season. This was the case even though Boone, the number one receiver, was one of the best in the game. This opportunity seemed to stimulate McCarver, for the 18-year vet turned in some good clutch performances.

Of course, Canton and McCarver were not strangers. They had been batterymates on the Cardinals from 1966 to 1969. Tim caught Steve in the fifth game of the 1967 World Series and both the second and sixth games of the 1968 classic. Then McCarver was a first-string backstop. His 1976 performance was unusual in that he was signed primarily as a pinch hitter by the Phils.

The situation with rookie Mark Fidrych was somewhat different.  Tiger Public Relations Director Hal Middlesworth (a SABR member) gives insight into this catcher relationship.

“Bruce Kimm was the starting catcher in all of Mark Fidrych’s 29 starts for several reasons,” Hal said. “Milt May was to have been our first string catcher; however, he was injured and as Bill Freehan was not throwing well, Kimm, a good receiver but not a strong hitter, got the nod for Fidrych’s first start.”

“Mark kept winning and Kimm, who had caught him the previous year at Evansville, remained behind the plate, Ralph Houk was not about to break up a winning combination.”

The veteran baseball writer, Fred Lieb (also a SABR member), cites several instances of pitchers who chose their catchers in the early part of the Century. Fred named Christy Mathewson and Frank Bowerman; Eddie Plank and Mike Powers; Jack Coombs and Jack Lapp; Cy Young and Lou Criger; and Grover Alexander and Bill Killefer.

“In Mathewson’s early days”, Fred recalls, “his favorite catcher was Bowerman; however as Roger Bresnahan developed into a good hitter and baserunner McGraw insisted on playing him every day so Matty hooked up with him for about four years.”

Mathewson pitched to Bowerman from  1900 through 1907 though Frank was not the Giants regular catcher. It was Bowerman who was behind the bat for Matty’s second no-hitter. Bresnahan was the Giants first stringer from 1905 until he left the club in `08.

The Philadelphia Athletics had such a combination in Eddie Plank and Mike Powers. Powers joined the newly formed A’s in 1901, having played in the National League. He hooked up with the rookie southpaw Plank that year. The two formed a battery until Mike’s untimely death early in the 1909 season.

Though purely conjecture, it may have been the common bond of being college men in that relatively uncultured period that drew the two together; for Plank had starred for Gettysburg College, while Powers was a physician who had graduated from Notre Dame.

In the 1905 Series Mike caught one of Eddie’s two starts and was behind the bat when Plank pitched the first game ever played in Shibe Park in 1909. Powers died shortly after this game.

Cy Young and Lou Criger played together five years before joining the 1901 Boston team. They paired together for Boston through 1908. Criger’s lifetime average of .221 is among the lowest of any player who played in 1000 or more games. But he was Young’s favorite batterymate.

Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander joined the Phillies in 1911 where he teamed up with “Reindeer Bill” Killefer who had been obtained from the Browns that season. They starred as a combo until the 1918 season when both went to the Cubs. During their stay in Philly they enabled the Phils to get into their first World Series (1915); however Killifer was disabled and did not appear behind the bat during the Series.

With the Cubs, Bill caught Alex until 1922 when he devoted his time to managing, the position he had been appointed to the previous season.

Another Hall of Famer, Dazzy Vance, preferred to have veteran Hank DeBerry behind the bat when they played for the Dodgers for nine years. Hank and Dazzy had been together for two years at New Orleans and came up together in 1922. Hank could handle the Dazzler’s hard stuff and caught his no-hitter in 1925. DeBerry was never a first stringer. It was no coincidence that he caught only 35 games in 1930.  That was the exact number that Vance pitched, including four in relief.

Prior to this season the most famous pitcher-catcher preference took place on the 1938 Cleveland Indians. That season the Tribe acquired the well traveled Rollie Hemsley who Bob Feller insisted handle his pitches. This caused the always obstinate Johnny Allen to demand that Frank Pytlak be behind the bat when he pitched. All problems were solved when Rollicking Rollie broke a finger and Pytlak was forced to handle everyone.

The Feller-Hemsley alliance broke up when Bob joined the Navy in 1941 and Hemsley was shipped across the state to the Cincinnati Reds.

Of course, there were some brother pitcher-catcher combinations who must have been pretty familiar with each other. Mort and Walker Cooper spent the war years together with the Cardinals before they were broken up. And Wes and Rick Ferrell were traded together from the Red Sox to the Senators in 1937. But they really were no closer as pitcher and catcher than some of the special combinations cited above.