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.
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 1 – Eddie Ainsmith (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)
- Those Who Caught the Great Pitchers: Part 2 – Jerry Grote (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)
- Bob Feller and American Legion Baseball (gloucestercitynews.net)