An x-ray is worth 1,000 words. The one to the right (the left hand of longtime 1800s catcher Deacon McGuire) may lead us to information that support the case of Charlie Bennett for the HoME. Howard has carefully sifted through Bennett’s case and asked me, as Bennett’s advocate: Just how tough was it to catch back then?
We can answer the question through both the statistical record of catchers’ durability and the evolution of a catcher’s suit of armor. I’ve done a little of my own data digging about durability, and a wonderful SABR article provides a history of catcher’s gear, so let’s fuse them together into one informative timeline.
If catching in Charlie Bennett’s day (1878–1893) was tougher than it is now, we would predict that olde-tyme catchers would play far fewer games compared to their league’s schedule than today’s catchers do. So to explore this, quick and dirty, I took the third-highest finisher for each season in games at catcher (to avoid one-year durability wonders). Then I found the percentage of the league’s schedule that they played. We’ll start the data at 1876 when the league adopted a fixed schedule, meanwhile splicing in pieces of narrative from the article.
Early 1870s: Catchers move closer to batter. Fingerless gloves with little protection. 1876 (70 game schedule): 79% Catcher's mask invented 1877 (60): 88% First "padded" glove, fingerless. Catchers use 2 hands til hinged mitt, 60s. 1878 (60): 88% 1879 (84): 75% Early 1880s: Foul-tip rule for 3rd strikes. Facemask in wide use. First chest protector. 1880 (84): 80% 1881 (84): 83% 1882 (84): 83% 1883 (98): 76% Bennett wears first outside-the-uniform chest protector. 1884 (112): 71% Overhand pitching allowed. 1885 (112): 61% 1886 (140): 51% 1887 (140): 54% 1888 (140): 56% Late 1880s, first well-padded mitts. 1889 (140): 59% Early 1890s, catchers wrap legs in newspaper or leather (under uniforms) 1890 (140): 76% 1891 (140): 74% 1892 (154): 71% 1893 (133): 69% Pitching box moved back ten feet to current distance; mound created. 1899: Pillow mitt created 1900 (140): 56% 1901: New rule—catcher must squat within box behind plate 1907: Bresnahan wears first full suit of catching gear by donning shin guards, heckled. 1910 (154): 76% 1920 (154): 95% Catchers still don’t wear helmets. 1930 (154): 82% 1940 (154): 85% 1950 (154): 84% 1960 (154): 84% 1970 (162): 86% 1980 (162): 91% 1990 (162): 82% 2000 (162): 88% 2012 (162): 83% ================ 1876-2012: 80%
The numbers show that catchers were really only able to go about 70–75 games until the very late 1880s and early 1890s. Improvements and inventions such as the pillow mitt, better masks, and wide use of chest protectors didn’t take until after the schedule began to lengthen. So teams had to have two regular backstops and a lot of arnica. That’s why HoMErs Buck Ewing and King Kelly, catchers by trade, spent so much time in right field and elsewhere to keep their bodies fresh and their bats in the game.
Back to Bennett, his heyday was over by the late 1880s/early 1890s. He was in his mid-30s by then and even the rapid pace of catching technology couldn’t take back a decade of pitch-by-pitch pounding. Not to mention spikings by opposing runners. And home-plate collisions. And foul tips to various pieces of the body.
With 130 years of perspective, it’s easy to overstate these advances in catching gear. It was all still primitive, as McGuire’s x-ray suggests. Plus, thanks to the he-man sports culture, adoption may have been sporadic, after all Bresnahan was ridiculed in his full outfit nearly fifteen years after Bennett retired. For that matter, the mandating of batting helmets took decades after Ray Chapman’s beaning. Yet, shortly after Bresnahan’s shinguards debuted, catchers’ games played climbed to the levels we see today and stayed there.
Catching hurt. A lot. It was dangerous work, so dangerous that a backstop could only handle a half a season until equipment became sufficiently protective. And catching hurt so much that eventually pain trumped machismo. This is all to the good, of course. It means we see the I-Rods, Mauers, Piazzas, Benches much more often than fans saw Charlie Bennett.
Will Howard vote for Bennett? We’ll see. But in the meantime, we’ve learned a vital life lesson: Always use protection.