Diamond Notes: Tools of Ignorance


By: Richard Edwards – March 27, 2009 

It’s been quite a few years ago but I still remember coming home from my first organized baseball experience and being asked by my mother, "What position are you playing?" I don’t recall the exact thought process that went into my decision. Maybe it’s because there never was really any other position for me. I told her, "Catcher" and practically saw her eyes begin to water. Being eight years old, I really didn’t understand what the problem was. I mean, why wouldn’t anyone want to catch and get to wear all that equipment? It was a neat thing for me. Others that thought it took the intelligence of a mule to want to play there might beg to differ with my opinion. To them, the catcher’s mask, chest protector and shin guards are truly "tools of ignorance".

Either Bill Dickey or Muddy Ruel, who caught for the great Walter Johnson in the 1920’s, came up with the phrase "tools of ignorance". Both claimed its origin came from an ironic contrast between the intelligence needed to play the position with the foolishness required to play something that requires that much equipment to protect you from injury.

catchinggear09.jpgThe equipment has changed quite a bit over the years. Skull caps and hockey style masks are designed today to protect the catcher from foul tips. I remember just turning your regular cap backwards. I guess I’m showing my age by saying that. Los Angeles Dodgers’ trainer Bill Buhler designed and patented the throat protector that dangles from the masks of most catchers and quite a berrayogi.jpgfew umpires after Dodger catcher Steve Yeager was hit with part of a broken bat in the neck, piercing his esophagus, while he waited in the on-deck circle in a 1976 game. Today chest protectors are equipped with flaps to better cover the shoulder area. Shin guards are designed to protect even part of the area above the knee and on top of the foot. Knee savers were designed to protect the ligaments of the catcher’s knees. Technology has come a long way.

I was not excluded from injuries during my playing career. I was blessed with a great throwing arm and loved being the last line of defense to preventing a run. I only remember one year, when I was 12, that I did not do a lot of catching. That year, I played shortstop and pitched. But at 13, it was back behind the dish and doing what I did best. Growing up in Minnesota, I naturally had an appreciation for ice hockey. I remember playing a little game within a game blocking pitches in the dirt. If the ball got past me, it was like the puck going in the net and the light coming on. It was my job to sacrifice my body to keep that from happening. Often that resulted in badly bruised arms and legs. That didn’t bother me though because there was no better feeling than crouching behind a plate and playing the game that I loved.

Being the last line of defense meant you would be faced with collisions at the plate. Back in my day, there were no protective rules about sliding to avoid those collisions. You were fair game as the runner churned toward home. I remember two collisions to this day. One knocked me a little silly (my wife thinks there may have been permanent damage) and the other resulted in a chin cut that required me to leave the game to go to the hospital to get stitches. rosefosse.jpgI didn’t notice the cut until I was calling signals to the next batter and saw blood dripping down on my uniform pants. I have a scar on my chin as a reminder of that incident. After those two plays, I had a deep understanding of what Ray Fosse felt in the 1970 All-Star game when Pete Rose bowled him over at the plate and dramatically altered his career. If you or your son catches today, count it a blessing that safety rules have been put in to prevent serious injuries involving plays at the plate.

My only real serious injury came in the pre-season of my freshman year of high school on the varsity squad. I had made the team as a ninth grader and was challenging for the starting position. It would turn out to be a high and a low point of my playing career. Unfortunately for me, I got lazy in batting practice one day and rested my throwing hand on my right leg only to have a foul tip glance off a bat and crush one of my knuckles. Not a smart thing on my part. I finished the practice by rolling the ball back to the pitcher and went home and hid the injury from my parents over the weekend, hoping that it if I soaked it, it would just magically go away. That wasn’t very smart either and the injury didn’t go away. My hand swelled up like a balloon and I missed the entire season. That was a real bummer. But, I got the cast off after several weeks, was playing the next day, and was back behind the plate before long, even though that was an awkward feeling.

A lot of catchers don’t hit particularly well, at least for average. That was the weakest part of my game. To this day I blame some of it on poor eye sight that was not corrected until I was in college. There’s a distant chance it could have been a lack of hitting skill but I’ll stick with the former reason. I’m just guessing but catchers probably hit for a lower average than any other position on the field, other than pitchers. If you don’t know or have ever wondered why, read the previous few paragraphs of this article over again. Along with bumps and bruises from foul tips and blocking balls in the dirt, with the pain of home plate collisions, with jammed fingers from catching a moving fastball incorrectly, with occasionally getting hit by the bat on a follow through of a batter’s swing or by a slung bat, with squatting for extended periods of time, you are expected to go the plate and help the team offensively. Tough job sometimes, isn’t it? 

It’s never been an easy job and never will be. A pop fly behind the plate in foul territory would seem like a simple thing. But for the catcher, it rotates back toward the field so he has to play it differently than any other fielder. The next time you see a catcher totally whiff on a pop up behind the plate, remember that. It’s not easy. That’s a fact about many aspects of the catcher’s job. It’s not a truly appreciated job unless you’ve done it before. So why put yourself through the abuse? My oldest son would never have any part of it during his playing days. My youngest plays it with the same passion that I did. To him, like me, there is no other position. It’s not designed for just anyone but for anyone exceptional at it, it’s probably the quickest way to a college scholarship or maybe even to the Major Leagues. If I had the chance to do it all over again, would I do it any differently? Of course not. I’m too ignorant.