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Behold the catcher: a drudge, a human bull's-eye, the backstop, the roadblock. He squats there on his haunches, graceless, stolid, ridiculous. Burdened with armor, he seems an anomalous figure who comes to his game from some other, more warlike, endeavor. In truth, he is a goalie arresting missiles, a linebacker stopping runners. He is a ruffian on the diamond.
But if pitching is the heart of baseball, catching is its mind and soul. How slanderous that the catcher's accessories should be known as "the tools of ignorance." He is, as any catcher will attest, the smartest man on the field. Connie Mack was a catcher. So was Branch Rickey, and so was the late Moe Berg, who was also a scholar of renown, a lawyer, linguist and international spy. Five catchers—Del Rice, Yogi Berra, Ralph Houk, Charlie Fox and Del Crandall—manage major league teams today. Catchers Berra, Houk and Mickey Cochrane won pennants their very first years as managers. What is managing anyway but handling pitchers, and who can do that better than a catcher?
Still, brains are not enough. He must also be big, strong, agile, durable, aggressive, congenial, intuitive, courageous and, with regard to physical suffering, stoical. Small wonder, then, that there are so few who merit immortality. Too many ingredients go into the making of them. And it is the catcher's perennial lament that no one understands the recipe. "If you can hit the ball," says former catcher John Roseboro, now an Angel coach, "they call you a great catcher." But some hitting catchers cannot catch a cold or throw the ball back to the mound without a relay man. Hitting is merely frosting on the catcher's cake. A good catcher who is also a good hitter is as rare as a shutout in Boston. Those who are both have busts in the Hall of Fame.
Super catchers of this sort seem to appear in 20-year cycles, one of which we now are in. The '30s had Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey; the '50s, Yogi Berra and Roy Campanula—Hall of Famers all. And now, in the '70s, we have Cincinnati's Johnny Bench and Pittsburgh's Manny Sanguillen, who, young as they are—Bench is 24, Sanguillen 28—seem cut from the same royal cloth.
Bench and Sanguillen are easily the class of the modern field, although there are many in the first rank below them—Detroit's Bill Freehan, Cleveland's Ray Fosse, the Mets' Jerry Grote, the Yankees' Thurman Munson, Oakland's Dave Duncan, the Cardinals' Ted Simmons, Boston newcomer Carlton Fisk. But all are somehow incomplete. Fisk, Duncan and Simmons need more experience. Munson and Grote are inconsistent hitters. And Freehan and Fosse, who are closest to full accomplishment, have been victims of the catcher's occupational hazard—crippling injury. Fosse has had the index finger on his right hand broken three seasons in succession. His left shoulder was shattered in a memorable collision at home plate with Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star Game, and this season he already has been hit in the throat with a foul tip, bruised on the thigh by a charging base runner and plinked on the calf by a Nolan Ryan fastball, which is a bit like being hit by a piece of shrapnel. Freehan suffered with typical stoicism agonizing pain in his back for several seasons until surgery fused his detached vertebrae in September 1970. Last year, though he caught more games than any other catcher (144), he had trouble throwing with his accustomed speed and accuracy. This year he seems to be approaching his old form, although a broken thumb handicapped him for several weeks.
Injuries are endemic to catching. The Cubs' Randy Hundley, once one of the game's finest, nearly had his career terminated by knee injuries. He missed virtually all of last season, and though he is back now he is a more cautious workman, realizing that one collision at home plate could be the end of him as a major-leaguer.
As Fosse says, "A catcher who doesn't get hurt has had a good year."
Bench and Sanguillen have been remarkably free of injury and, except for Bench in 1971, when fame seduced him into a few bad habits, both have had nothing but good seasons. Although they differ markedly in style—Bench for all his glamour is cool and apparently unflappable, Sanguillen is wildly demonstrative—they are as near to the ideal as a catcher can hope to be. Both have exceptional throwing arms and extraordinary agility behind the plate. They have rapport with their pitchers and are quick to find a hitter's weaknesses. They have, in baseball parlance, "soft hands," which means they do not fight the pitch but gather it in, much as a receiver in football accepts a pass. They are intelligent and even-tempered and given a bat they hit like fury.
Bench has more power—more power, almost, than anybody—but Sanguillen will hit for a higher average and he has unusual speed on the bases for a catcher. And since they play in the same league, they have divided the catcher fanciers into two camps, much as Dickey and Cochrane did before them.
"Johnny just does things other catchers can't do," says Bench's manager, Sparky Anderson. "We have a boy on our team, Bill Plummer, who can throw as hard, but there is no one who can come up throwing quicker than John. Nobody ever really steals a base on him. Unfortunately, he is at a disadvantage because we have so many inexperienced pitchers. If we had pitchers who could hold a runner, we'd never have any bases stolen at all. Johnny will grab a ball that is inside and be in a throwing motion all at the same time. He has a way of fielding a bunt in front of the plate so that as he picks it up he is bounding back to throw. And he makes the play at the plate better than anyone. He just takes the plate away from the runner. That's physical strength, of course, but there's a technique involved, too."