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How Fielding Has Changed


Stand-Up Catchers

It is well known that the catcher’s stance has evolved through the years. Back in the 19th Century, catchers stood up, quite a distance from the batter, often catching the pitch on a bounce. Over time, they have moved to their current position. But I was surprised to see how erect catchers were still standing in the mid-1930s. Here we see a clip of the 9th inning of Game 6 of the 1935 World Series in which the Tigers prevail over Chicago. As the action proceeds, notice how both Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett squat when giving the signals but then return to a nearly standing position as the pitch comes in. 

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The More Things Change…

Our website is a collection of changes to baseball through the years, but sometimes it’s important to reflect on how much baseball has also stayed the same. Take a look at an NFL game from 1938 and it’s almost an unrecognizable scrum of mud-covered bodies. It bares little resemblance to the modern game. Baseball has certainly changed, but watch this relay play from the 1938 World Series between the Cubs and the Yanks and it is clear that we are talking about the same basic sport. Frankie Crosetti rounds second and heads for third very much like a modern ballplayer, while the Cubs’ shortstop handles the relay from the outfield and fires to third in the same way that a Cubs’ shortstop might well do today.

Still, given the mission of this website, we’ll note a few interesting changes in this clip. Crosetti is choking up on his bat (rarely seen today), the pitcher does not back up a base, the Yankee catcher is in nearly a standing position on the next pitch and the dirt infield looks to be in relatively horrendous shape. And as always in clips from these years, every man viewable in the stands is wearing a suit and most are doning hats as well. Women and children are nowhere to be seen.

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Bad Hop Fenway

This clear, color presentation of the Red Sox-Twins September 30th matchup in 1967 provides an opportunity to comment on the field conditions of those years. In a word, they were bad. It wasn’t just that the groundskeeping advancements of today had not yet arrived, although that was part of it. Before big television money came into baseball, there was just not the same kind of care taken in how the game was presented. Today Major League games are played on flawlessly pristine fields of grass and dirt, manicured throughout the game to look immaculate on HDTV sets. But in 1967, as we can see here, the grass lines are shabby, there are rough patches everywhere and an unintentional trail is beginning to mark where catchers have gone out to the mound. Closeups of the dirt infield show a thousand footprints, as the dirt was not constantly smoothed between innings. The playing surface generally caused havoc for infielders such as in the 5th inning when Rod Carew gets a bad hop off a slow grounder. Hard to say how much it hurt fielding statistics since the official scorer (at least in this case) seems pretty sympathetic.

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Back Up Catcher

I’ve often wondered about (and been impressed by) the way many catchers run to back up first base on a hit to the left side of the infield.  Is this worth doing?  We always hear how wearing the “tools of ignorance” takes the life out of a player in a long season, Do we really want him constantly trekking to first base on the (extremely) rare possibility of catching or blocking an overthrow?  For this reason, I was a bit shocked to see catcher Jerry Grote literally sprinting with the runner on a hit to the left side during the 1969 World Series. Later in this game, he even backed up first base on a routine fly to centerfield.  Was this a Grote practice or did all catchers do this in those days?

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Leather Larceny

Defense in Major League Baseball has improved gradually over time as baseball gloves have improved. Even in the 1970s, baseball gloves were not of the size or shape to really allow for one-handed, over-the-wall catches to be made frequently. Here we see a rare example at Candlestick Park in 1972 as Rick Monday is robbed by 22 year-old rookie, Gary Maddox. With today’s elongated gloves, we see this play made on almost a nightly basis somewhere in baseball.
Speaking of equipment, an interesting shot at the end of the clip, as we see Jose Cardenal give his batting helmet to the first base coach who whips it away as Cardenal takes his hat out of his back pocket. This was the transition period where batters were wearing helmets at the plate but disposing of them on the basepaths. Cardenal felt many pitchers threw at his head due to his Latin roots and Cuban heritage. He sometimes even carried a switchblade to the plate in his sock. You know, just in case…
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Above: Modern outfield mitt


Charity Scoring?

Not to belabor a point, because it is mentioned elsewhere on this site, but it sure seems that official scorers were more generous 30 or 40 years ago.  Time after time, while watching games from the past, we see balls ruled as hits that would almost certainly be errors today. Some of the time, as in this clip from a 1979 Royals-Yankees game, the announcers are also surprised by the ruling, But nevertheless, it does seem like there was greater inconsistency in official scoring in those days. Or perhaps just more generosity.

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No Pepper!

When you see old newsreels of ballplayers in the 1930s and ’40s they will often be playing “pepper.”  Pepper was once part of a ballplayer’s daily routine. A kind of baseball version of a pickup basketball game, Pepper consisted of a batter standing some 20 feet from 3 or 4 fielders and “peppering” the ball back to them with a quick stroke. Clean fielding could lead to victory while batters and fielders supposedly developed quick eyes, hands and reflexes. But ballparks eventually began banning pepper. Sources give varying reasons for this, including the dubious claim that it was to protect fans during warmup (if this was the case, why allow rocketing baseballs to be hit into the stands during batting practice?). Others claim it was to protect the grass behind home plate where Pepper games often congregated.Whatever the reason, it often led to the rather odd signage in Major League ballparks in the 1970s and ’80s, such as this one in Anaheim Stadium in the 1979 ALCS, with the stern warning, “no pepper.” Today this spot would probably hold a greenscreen for a rotating TV advertisement.

Below we see the 1956 Kansas City A’s playing a little Pepper in Spring Training.

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Mike Schmidt Errors

Granted everyone has a bad game now and then but these two errors by Mike Schmidt in the 1981 All-Star Game look particularly bad. A 10-time gold glover, Schmidt obviously didn’t have his A game that night.  But the clips are interesting for a number of other reasons as well.  One, is just in watching the way the ball is bouncing at Cleveland Municipal Stadium (which of course, shared the field with the NFL’s Browns).  Kubek and Garagiola, while always ready to make excuses for any player, aren’t lying when they say the ball seems to be taking tricky hops.  There is also the emphasis by the announcers on the difference between natural grass and the artifical surface (Veteran’s Stadium where Schmidt played home games had turf).  The decision not to give Mike an error on the first ball makes one wonder a bit about official scorers in 1981.  But then again, maybe they were just being generous during the mid-summer classic.

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