The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Jerry Grote”

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.

Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 2 – Jerry Grote

This is the second installment of this series.  You can read Part 1 here.

As a young boy growing up a Mets fan in the 1970’s, I always liked Jerry Grote.  Looking at the back of his baseball card, I realized he wasn’t going to ever win a batting title, but watching him play on WOR-Channel 9, I watched him catch enough to know that he was a true professional behind the plate.

Even with the advances made in modern statistical calculations, including dWAR, it is difficult to put a real value on how much a catcher like Jerry Grote was worth to the Mets while he was their primary catcher from the late ’60’s through the mid ’70’s.  Thumbing through a copy of the 1974 Mets yearbook, I found this entry:

“Fortunes of Mets continued to revolve in great measure around availability of bulldoggish, fiery competitor ranked with elite N.L. receiving corps; Shea troupe’s decline began to set in after Ramon Hernandez pitch fractured his right arm bone in Pittsburgh May 11, while pennant push coincided with return to steady full-time duty July 21.”

Perennial stolen-base leader Lou Brock considered Jerry Grote the toughest catcher he ever tried to steal off of, and Johnny Bench himself once remarked that if he’d been on the same team as Grote, he (Bench) would have been relegated to third base with Grote being the regular catcher.

Joe Torre, who both played for and managed the Mets, once compared Grote to Johnny Bench and Ted Simmons.  He said that while Bench and Simmons were hitters that caught, Grote was a catcher who hit.  While that may have been an oversimplification of the abilities and careers these three fine players enjoyed, it does reflect on the high level of respect accorded to Grote by his contemporaries, especially concerning his defense.

Tom Seaver worked with a total of 25 catchers during his MLB career, including Grote, Bench and Carlton Fisk.  No catcher caught Seaver more than Grote did.  Grote was behind the plate for a Seaver start 239 times.  Bench was a distant second at 94 times.  Mets backup catcher Duffy Dyer caught Seaver 55 times.  Seaver made 395 starts as a Met.  Grote was behind the plate in 60% of those starts.  It’s hard to imagine Seaver developing quite the way he did without the defensive prowess of Jerry Grote.

Grote was the Mets starting catcher 1,105 times during his 11 1/2 seasons as a Met (1966-77.)  During that time, he was named to two All-Star teams, led N.L. catchers in putouts in 1970 and ’71, in Range Factor / Game six times, and in Fielding Percentage once.  He never led N.L. catchers in runners caught stealing largely because most base-runners just wouldn’t test his arm.

A .252 career hitter with just 39 career homers, Grote was never a great hitter, but he always viewed his defense as his primary job.  With Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and, a bit earlier, Nolan Ryan to catch, the question is, was his reputation partly enhanced by having the good fortune to catch those excellent pitchers, or were those pitchers so highly productive at least in part because they were lucky to have Jerry Grote behind the plate?

Certainly, a young pitching staff has a lot to learn, and a catcher as assertive and competent as Grote could only have reinforced their development.

Grote’s toughness behind the plate was legendary.  Out of San Antonio, Texas, Grote was an old school guy who was not afraid to call out Seaver or any of the other pitchers when they made a mistake.  He often had run-ins with umpires who earned his wrath, including one alleged incident when he allowed a pitched ball to hit an umpire in the mask.

Pitchers who shook him off could expect him to come barking out from behind home plate, so it didn’t happen very often.  And in 1988, seven years after he’d retired as an MLB catcher, Birmingham Barons manager Jerry Grote inserted himself into a game as his team’s catcher when no one else was available.  At age 42, it was the final time he suited up for a game.

Perhaps we should allow Tom Seaver to have the final word regarding the career of Jerry Grote.  Seaver once remarked on national television that even having had Bench and Fisk behind the plate at one time or another in his career, the finest catcher he ever enjoyed as a battery-mate was Jerry Grote.

If Jerry Grote  was good enough to win high praise from none other than Tom Seaver, who are the rest of us to judge?

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