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24 september 2009

If there were a Pulitzer prize for baseball history, Peter Morris's Catcher would be the obvious front-runner for 2009.

In fact, I'm tempted to recommend that the book be nominated for the general Pulitzer Prize in history. Catcher displays encyclopedic knowledge of its subject, a gift for narrative, and an indispensable feeling for the way in which social ideas and practices change over time. Morris's sense of how the role of catchers on baseball teams shifted over a fluid half-century in the sport, from roughly 1865 to 1915, is history at its best: a reading of "raw" primary data that shapes its sources into a convincing argument about how successive eras in the past really did differ from one another in terms of values, technologies, rhetoric, and social dynamics.

Baseball is among the most stable of American activities. 140 years ago, at the inception of the professional game, there were nine men on the field, three strikes for an out, three outs in an inning, and nine innings in a game. The diamond, the bases, and the sequence of play were so close to what you'd see in a 21st-century game that players transported from one era to the other via time machine would quickly pick up the rules after a brief orientation.

But if you suddenly materialized at a ballgame in the 1870s, you'd be amazed by the pitchers and catchers. Pitchers, closer to cricket bowlers than to modern toers of the rubber, could take a little run in a literal "box" before delivering a pitch that was suppose to be released underhand, but kept slipping up above the belt. Catchers' main responsibility was to catch third strikes, as they still must today lest a batter gain first on a strikeout. But they also had to catch foul pops, foul tips, and fouls grounded backward on one bounce – all of which counted as outs under 19th-century rules. And they had to catch all these missiles without any mask, or padding, or mitts.

It's no wonder that the great catchers of the '70s – Jim White, Doug Allison, John Clapp, and their like – were the most sought-after free agents of their day. The pitcher, then as now, was the most important single man on the field at any time. But Morris is fond of quoting Casey Stengel's adage: without a catcher you are going to have a lot of passed balls. In a day when the rapport between extremely individualistic pitchers and their highly athletic personal catchers was central to avoiding a passed ball on every other pitch, the notion of a "battery" as a perfectly-attuned pitcher-catcher partnership dominated baseball strategy.

And with those catchers racing around snaring every loose baseball in sight, it's no wonder that kids wanted to grow up to be catchers. The downside of losing a few teeth or the use of your fingers was nothing to the thrill of manning the manliest position in sports in the 1870s.

But then Morris introduces the great paradox in his argument. The importance of catchers led to technological innovations to keep their faces uncrushed and their hands unsmashed. But the mask, the chest protector, the mitt, and ultimately the shin guard emasculated the receiver. The man of steel vanished behind the tools of ignorance. Sure, the new gear (developed over the decades from the late 1870s to the late 1900s) kept catchers healthy. But it also meant that any healthy player could catch.

I won't spoil Catcher for readers by recounting any of its marvelous anecdotes. Morris knows his baseball with amazingly entertaining thoroughness. He is not as strong on general historical contexts (a weakness that, come to think of it, may cost him that Pulitzer after all). Casting about for American heroes to compare his catchers to, he invariably cites Daniel Boone, "the cowboy," and General Grant. But his baseball history is as solid as his general frame of reference is thin.

Morris, Peter. Catcher: How the man behind the plate became an American folk hero. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2009.