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He pointed out the advantage a lefthanded catcher has in throwing to first base. Rickey continued, "The only objection I can see is that it would be against custom. But why shouldn't we try it? But my main reason for trying this was that I'm thinking in terms of the future." Rickey's projection was based on Long's stats at Binghamton the previous season: 27 home runs and an Eastern League-record 130 RBIs. Because the Pirates had drafted Long from the Yankees' Kansas City farm club during the off-season, Rickey had to keep the lefthanded slugger on Pittsburgh's major league roster for the '51 campaign, or risk losing him to the Yankees. However, Long appeared in only 10 games for the Pirates that year and never as a catcher; in midseason he went to the St. Louis Browns and spent the next three seasons in the minors.
However, on Aug. 20, 1958 when Long was with the Cubs, catcher Sammy Taylor was lifted for a pinch hitter late in the game. With one out in the ninth, Taylor's replacement, Cal Neeman, got into a heated argument with umpire Frank Dascoli, and was ejected. Cubs manager Bob Scheffing appealed to Dascoli, pointing out to no avail that he had no more catchers. Long, who had been playing first base, was asked to catch. He caught the final two outs with his first baseman's mitt. He appeared behind the plate once more that season.
Squires got his chance as a result of a spring training conversation with White Sox general manager Roland Hemond. "We were talking about lefthanded-hitting catchers," recalls Squires (who, by the way, played 13 games in '84 at third base, another position customarily reserved for righties). "I mentioned that I'd always wanted to be a catcher, and he thought [Sox president] Bill Veeck would like that idea. I told him I wouldn't do it if they were going to make a joke out of it, and he assured me they wouldn't. So we called the glove company, and the next day they had a lefthanded catcher's mitt there."
"Except for second base, I think a lefthander could play any position," says the lefthanded Veeck. "I thought Mike Squires could catch—he's a good enough athlete to play anywhere. There's no reason I know of why a lefthander shouldn't catch just as adequately as a righthander. I don't think the preference for righthanded catchers has any factual basis except for tradition. It's just an ingrained prejudice that starts pre- Little League with the tyranny of an 80 percent righthanded majority! Why should they give up a position to a lefthander?"
Indeed, perhaps the most curious aspect of the ban on lefthanded receivers is that most baseball men, when pressed, will acknowledge that, aside from tradition, there's no convincing reason why a southpaw couldn't catch. "Most young lefties are discouraged early in their careers, so they never find out whether they can catch," says Fontaine, "but if somebody had the tools and a true arm, why not? I don't think we're against anyone who can play."
Catching is a difficult position to learn, so the sooner a player starts catching, the better. "I wish they started me out earlier," says Pentland, now an assistant baseball coach at Arizona State, "because my mechanics were not what they should have been. I was catching guys like Mike Caldwell and Dan Spillner with a store-bought mitt because the custom mitt we ordered took a long time to come. These guys had major league arms, but they were all over the map in those days. The only catching I'd done was in the bullpen and during BP, and if any balls were in the dirt, I'd just jump out of the way. Well, when I first started catching in games, if there was nobody on, I'd jump out of the way of a pitch in the dirt, and the ball would hit the umpire. The umpires kept telling me, 'Hey, I've got kids and a wife!' It took me a while to get used to hanging in there consistently."
Says White Sox manager Tony LaRussa, the man who gave Squires his assignments behind the plate, "You don't ever see a young lefthander given a catcher's mitt. But if you had the perfect guy, and he was brought along as a lefthanded throwing catcher, and he was capable of playing in the big leagues, I think it could be done."
Any young Ruths or Gehrigs out there listening?