The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Eddie Ainsmith”

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 3 – Jim Hegan

Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

During the middle of the 20th century, the Cleveland Indians fielded some very strong teams, including the 1948 World Championship club.  Though they certainly had some very fine position players such as Larry Doby, Lou Boudreau, Al Rosen and Rocky Colavito, arguably the heart and soul of those teams was the pitching.  Bob Feller was the ace, but the Indians also featured Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, Mel Harder, Mike Garcia, Herb Score, and even Satchel Paige.

Feller, of course, went on to win 266 games in his career, despite missing three full seasons to World War II.  Perhaps fittingly, two of those three seasons overlapped with the WWII service of Feller’s favorite catcher, Jim Hegan.

English: Cleveland Indians catcher .

English: Cleveland Indians catcher . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Hegan.

Bob Feller was a rural farm boy from the Midwest, while Jim Hegan was born and raised in Lynn, Massachusetts.  During the war years, while Feller was in the Navy, Hegan served in the Coast Guard.

Lest you think the Coast Guard was relatively safe during the war, at least 15 C.G. ships sunk or were destroyed during WWII, and one (the Natsek) mysteriously vanished without a trace in the Belle Island Strait.

Upon their return from the war, Hegan and Feller enjoyed long and successful careers, forming one of the most productive batteries in Cleveland Indians history.  Feller pitched for the Indians until his retirement in 1956, while Hegan was the team’s primary catcher through 1957, before performing backup catcher duties for a variety of teams for the next few years.  He retired in 1960.

Bob Feller made 484 starts in his Indians’ career.  Jim Hegan caught 241 of those games, almost exactly half of Feller’s starts.  Hegan was behind the plate for 22 of Feller’s shutouts, and one of his no-hitters.  Of the 16 catchers who caught at least one of Feller’s outings, Feller stated that Jim Hegan was one of the best defensive catchers in baseball history.  Feller remembered:

“Jim called a good game. We disagreed rarely. Jim was very good at keeping pitchers calm.”

While Hegan was the Indians’ primary catcher, they led the league in team ERA four years in a row, 1948-51.  Overall, the Indians led the A.L. in ERA six times while he was their primary catcher.  Hegan caught six 20-game winners in his career, and three no-hitters.  Hegan, recognized primarily for his defensive prowess,  was named to five A.L. All-Star teams.

One of the finest defensive catchers of all-time, when he retired in 1960, his .990 fielding percentage was the second-best ever recorded.  Hegan led the league in putouts, assists, double plays, caught stealing, and range factor per nine innings three times each, though not necessarily in the same three seasons.  A gun for an arm, he caught an excellent 50% of all would-be base-stealers during his career, including nearly 70% in ’46 and ’50.

An extremely durable catcher throughout his career, Hegan is still 4th all-time in games played for the Indians with 1,526.  In fact, he was respected so much as a catcher that he was the rare receiver who never once played a single game at another position during his entire career.

One small statistical oddity, in 5,320 career plate appearances, he was hit by a pitch just four times in his entire career.  For what it’s worth, Bob Feller was hit three times.

So what kept Hegan out of the Baseball Hall of Fame?  Well, as with the two other catchers we’ve reviewed in this series (Eddie Ainsmith and Jerry Grote), Hegan just wasn’t much of a hitter.  His career triple slash line of .228 / .295 / .344 is underwhelming, to say the least.  He managed 1,087 hits in his career of which 92 were home runs.  He drove in 525 runs, and he scored 550.  Hegan’s career high in batting average in a full season was .249 in 1947.  He did, however, hit a home run in the 1948 World Series vs. the Boston Braves.

When Hegan retired in 1960, his son, Michael, was just beginning his pro baseball career.  When Mike Hegan was a member of the ’72 World Champion Oakland A’s, he and his dad became the first father-son combo to each be part of a World Series winning team.

Jim Hegan is part of a long line of smooth and highly effective defensive catchers for whom useful statistics haven’t yet fully materialized.  Perhaps all one can do is to notice  the quality of the pitchers they’ve handled over the years, and accept the fact that to some reasonable extent, those pitchers owe at leas part of their success to the Jim Hegans of the world.  As my dad used to say, there’s nothing wrong with just working for a living.

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Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 1 – Eddie Ainsmith

My wife tells me that behind every great man is an even greater woman.  Actually, she just tells me to take out the trash, but it works out to the same thing, at least in my imagination.  Then again, since I’m not even remotely a great man, does that still make her a merely somewhat great woman?  Perhaps behind (or alongside, or even in front of) a mediocre guy like myself there is a truly special woman who puts up with a lot his dumb, pointless nonsense.  Yup, that must be it.

At any rate, that got me to wondering (while taking out said trash) if behind every great pitcher there is a great catcher.  I don’t necessarily mean great as measured by batting average, OPS+ or WAR, but simply by being that pitcher’s primary catcher over an extended period of time.  Just as it’s impossible to quantify how much my wife has done for me over the past 15 years or so, maybe a catcher has a similarly positive, yet hard to quantify, effect on a pitcher.

So I thought I’d take a look at some of the forgotten or semi-forgotten catchers in baseball history who have caught baseball’s greatest pitchers.  I know that as I research this topic, I will learn a lot more about these players than I’ve known before.  And, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to get this post done before my wife tells me to take out the trash again.

Edward Ainsmith

Edward Ainsmith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walter Johnson made 666 starts in his career.  Nineteen different catchers caught at least one of Walter Johnson’s starts.  Only one of them, however, caught more than 200 of Johnson’s efforts.  His name was Eddie Ainsmith.

Actually, he was born Edward Anshmedt, his family changing his name after they passed through Ellis Island in the waning years of the 19th century.  You see, little Eddie was born in Russia, and his family’s surname was Anglicized upon naturalization.  It happened a lot back then.  At any rate, young Ainsmith’s family eventually ended up in New Hampshire, which is where Eddie grew up.

He graduated from Colby Academy (now Colby-Sawyer College) in New London, NH in approximately 1907 or ’08.  He must have been one heck of a young baseball prospect in his time because by age 20 in 1910, he made his Major League debut with the Washington Senators.

Through his first five seasons, Ainsmith was often brought in as a late-inning defensive replacement, or as a pinch-runner or pinch-hitter.  For a catcher, Ainsmith was a pretty good base-runner, notching 17 steals in 1913, and 16 steals in 1917.  In fact, on June 26, 1913, Ainsmith stole second-base, third-base and home in the first game of a double-header vs. the A’s.  The A’s still won the game, however, 11-2.

It wasn’t until 1917 when Ainsmith was already 27-years old that he became the Senators’ primary catcher.  By then, Walter Johnson was already at the mid-point of his career, and had already enjoyed several fantastic seasons.

Ainsmith’s final season in a Washington Senator’s uniform was in 1918.  Nevertheless, in his relatively short stint as the Senator’s primary catcher, he caught Johnson 210 times, more than any other catcher in team history.

Never much of a hitter, Ainsmith batted just .207 during his nine years in Washington.  He ended up in Detroit for the 1919-1921 seasons, then was traded again, this time to St. Louis in the second-half of the ’21 season.  He hit well in 1921 and ’22 (as did almost everyone else with the new, “live” ball), batting .281 and .293, respectively.

Yet by 1923 and ’24, his career was all but over.  He played just a handful of games in each of those two seasons, playing small roles for first Brooklyn, then for the Giants.  Ainsmith played his final MLB game July 21, 1924 at age 34.

He retired with a .232 career batting average, 22 home runs, and 86 stolen bases in 1,078 games played.  His career dWAR was 3.6, and his overall career WAR was just 5.7, so he was obviously primarily a defensive specialist.  In fact, he led the A.L. in Range Factor / Game three times, in 1912, 1917-1918.

One other thing I found interesting about Ainsmith was that on July 19, 1918, as WWI was slowly grinding to a halt, Ainsmith applied for a draft deferment.  Secretary of War Newton Baker, however, had other ideas.  He ruled that baseball was not an “essential occupation” (take that, baseball) and that all players of draft age were subject to the “work-in-essential-industries-or-fight” rule.

A week later, though, Baker sort of changed his mind (under pressure from the baseball oligarchs, apparently) and allowed an exemption for ballplayers until September 1st of that year.  Both leagues voted to cut the season short, and the season ended on Labor Day, September 2nd, 1918 (exactly 95 years ago today.)

The Great War Armistice occurred on 11 November 1918, so Eddie Ainsmith never went off to war anyway.  But we are left to wonder why Ainsmith would attempt to seek a deferment from the draft at all, a rather unusual step in those days.

Was he just too scared to fight?  Was he a pacifist?  Was he concerned that going off to war might ruin his baseball career?  Or could it have been that because he was born in Russia, and that perhaps Anshmedt is actually a German name (there was a large German population in Russia at one time), could it have been that his family connections to  Europe made it too difficult for him to contemplate taking up arms on a European battefield, perhaps against even his own former countryman?  We can only guess at his motivations.

Eddie Ainsmith did go on to live to the age of 91, passing away in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1981.

Did Ainsmith make Walter Johnson a better pitcher?  That seems highly unlikely.  But it is worth noting that of the 562 games he caught in Washington, he was behind the plate 210 times to catch The Big Train.  That means that in 37% of Ainsmith’s games as a catcher, Johnson was on the mound.  In effect, it appears that Ainsmith was virtually Johnson’s personal catcher for several years.

Ainsmith did not enjoy a Hall of Fame career as Walter Johnson did, but having had the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, enjoy a 15-year career as a catcher, and being able to boast that he caught the great Walter Johnson a couple hundred times is a career, and a life, worth having lived.

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