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.
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.