Deacon McGuire, the catcher for the 1898 Washington Nationals, checked the runner on first and then wiggled his prematurely gnarled fingers, calling for a pitchout from Wild Bill Donovan. The subsequent delivery lived up to Donovan's nickname. "It was one of the wildest pitches Bill ever made, and you know he made a lot of'em," McGuire told Guy Smith, who wrote a 10-page biographical sketch about McGuire. Instinctively, McGuire thrust out his bare right hand to stop the ball. It caught the tip of his middle finger and stripped the flesh from the bone. Umpire Bob Emslie paid immediate tribute to McGuire's grit by fainting.
McGuire embodied the ethos of the game as it was played long before there was a disabled list. To the surprise of few fans of that era, he was back behind the plate within a week of his injury. "We were short of catchers," he said.
Resilience was the most outstanding attribute of James Thomas McGuire, who in 1895 caught every inning of Washington's 133 games and who holds the major league record for longevity, having played 26 seasons. Hall of Famers Eddie Collins (1906-30) and Bobby Wallace (1894-1918) appeared in 25 seasons, as did pitcher Jim Kaat, who this spring fell short in his bid to equal McGuire's record when the Pirates released him.
McGuire also played for as many teams—12—as any other player in major league history. He managed three of those clubs; his baseball savvy was admired widely. But not as much as his guts. During his career he broke all of his fingers, some several times.
McGuire, who played his first major league game with Toledo in 1884 and his last with Detroit in 1912, was born in Youngstown, Ohio in 1863. He grew up in Cleveland and then, as a young adult, moved to Albion, Mich., where he was apprenticed to an iron-molder. On Saturdays McGuire played baseball. Hours of pouring molten iron from heavy, long-handled ladles had given him an extremely strong upper body, arms and hands. While playing for the town team in Hastings, Mich., he got a reputation as a good hitter but was better known for his work behind the plate. He was believed to be the only catcher within a 50-mile radius who could handle Charles (Lady) Baldwin, a southpaw with an incendiary fastball and sinuous curve, a so-called "snakeball." Baldwin, too, would play in the majors. Pitching for Detroit, he led the National League with 42 victories in 1886.
In 1883 McGuire turned pro and played for an independent team in Terre Haute, Ind. The following season he wound up with Toledo of the then major league American Association, where he shared duties behind the plate with Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black player in major league history. McGuire caught a fascinating duo. Tony (The Apollo of the Box) Mullane was Toledo's ace with a 35-25 record. He was also the only ambidextrous pitcher in big league annals, though he'd stopped throwing lefty by this time. As good as Mullane was, McGuire found it more interesting to catch Hank O'Day, a righthander with lesser ability but greater velocity than Mullane, who may be best remembered as the umpire who called Fred Merkle out at second when he made his famous blunder during a crucial 1908 game between the New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs.
"He threw the heaviest and hardest ball I ever caught," McGuire said of O'Day. "It was like lead and came like a shell from a cannon. The reinforced full-fingered catcher's glove had just come into use the year before.
"One day on my way to that old Toledo park on Monroe Street, I passed a butcher pounding round steak. It gave me an idea, and I went in and bought a lot of it. I put a piece of it in my glove at the start of every inning, and Hank's pitches beat that steak into a pulp." In the next six years, McGuire and his "padded" mitt made stops in one minor league and four major league cities. In 1891 McGuire went to Washington, where he played one year in the American Association and 7� in the National League.
When McGuire first got to the majors, his hitting was woeful. He batted below .200 his first three seasons. But after hitting .198 with Philadelphia in 1886, he averaged .307 the next season. In 1897 he batted .343, the best of his career, and the fourth straight year he hit above .300. His best all-around season was 1895. He batted .336 and had career highs of 179 hits, 30 doubles, 10 homers, 97 RBIs and 89 runs.
Yet those stats pale next to his singular accomplishment that year of catching all those innings without respite. And he went without rest in an age where batteries were listed as much to let fans know who was catching each day as to let them know who was pitching.