Peter Morris has established himself as the leading historian of early baseball. With Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero, he consolidates that reputation. Morris traces the evolution of the catcher’s role from baseball’s beginnings into the early twentieth century. Along the way, he connects changing perceptions of the catcher to larger changes in American society (sometimes persuasively, sometimes not). The story he tells is entertaining, unpredictable, and thoroughly absorbing.
Morris begins with a prologue of sorts, recounting the experience of Stephen, a young man born in 1871. Bright, slight of stature, fiercely competitive, and somewhat alienated, this young man loves baseball and in particular the catcher’s position. He is good enough to be the starting catcher for Syracuse University, which he attends before dropping out to become a journalist and, before long, a novelist. Morris reveals with a flourish that he is describing Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895).
In Morris’s telling, Crane’s “obsession with being a baseball catcher” is not simply an interesting bit of trivia. Rather, Morris argues, Crane in this respect stands for his generation: “Mastery of the intricacies of the [catcher’s] position was seen by American boys who came of age in the 1870’s and 1880’s as the ultimate embodiment of courage, leadership, resolve, and daringin short, it was their initiation into manhood.” Morris frames this assertion with a rapid overview of American conceptions of heroism from the colonial era to the late nineteenth century. He acknowledges his debt to the work of historian Richard Slotkin for this overview. Some readers, finding this account of the “American hero” heavy on clichés, may be tempted to stop right there. That would be their loss, however, for even if one rejects the notion of an entire post-Civil War generation of boys desperately in search of a way to enter manhood, Morris is thoroughly convincing when he argues that, for many young men of this era, the catcher had an aura that attracted admiration and emulation.
Morris traces that aura to the 1850’s, when baseballstill in its formative stagecame in two primary flavors: the New York Game and the Massachusetts Game. There were a number of differences between the two (both in rules and in style or attitude), but among the most salient was that in the Massachusetts Game the pitcher and catcher had greater impacts relative to the other positions in the field. At the same time, in the Massachusetts Game, the catcherwho was positioned much closer to the batter than was his counterpart in the New York Gamewas far more vulnerable to injury. It was in part for this reason, Morris suggests, that by the end of the Civil War the New York Game had become dominant. Another concern was the fear that it would be too easy to throw games if only two positions were inordinately important for their outcomes.
In the New York Game, the pitcher had a role very different from the likes of Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Tim Lincecum. The rules specified that the ball was to be pitched underhand. The pitcher’s job was to put the ball in play. The catcher typically stood well behind the batter, hands protected (if at all) by thin gloves no thicker than today’s batting gloves that generally covered the palms. The technique was to stand with legs slightly bent, hands cupped together, ready to catch the ball with the fingers (rather than on the palm, as would later catchers equipped with mitts). It was not a particularly inspiring role.
Even as the New York Game became generally accepted, changes were underway. Pitchers, growing restive under the restrictions, began to deliver the ball a bit higher, then higher still. Before long, average scores decreased as pitchers began to be more dominant. Meanwhile, catchers, who had already begun to move closer to the batter in certain strategic situations, now had to deal with much faster...
(The entire section is 1667 words.)