Lefthanded catchers are a rare breed. Of the couple of dozen southpaws who have played behind the plate in the big leagues, only one, Jack Clements (1884-1900), had much of a career, and since 1906 only two lefties have caught in major league games—Dale Long in 1958 and Mike Squires in 1980. Despite baseball custom, there is no convincing reason why a lefty can't be an acceptable big league backstop. The advantages a southpaw would enjoy far outweigh any disadvantages, and some are so striking, it's puzzling that the position has remained almost exclusively the domain of righthanders.
The main advantage a lefty catcher has over a righty is in throwing to first base, and the reason is obvious. "A righthanded catcher has to pivot to make a throw to first, but for a lefthander, the plays are all in front of you," says Squires, who caught in the late innings of two games for the White Sox. Three plays are particularly advantageous to the lefthanded thrower. One is fielding bunts: A southpaw doesn't have to circle the ball in order to be in position to throw to first. Second, a lefty can make a much quicker pickoff throw to first base and, equally important, not telegraph the throw with a pivot. (Long picked a runner off first in one of his two brief appearances with the Pirates as a catcher.) Third, there is the double play—with the bases loaded when the ball is hit to the left side of the infield—in which the catcher takes the infielder's throw for the force at home, then fires the ball to first.
What's more, a righthanded pitcher's curve breaks into a lefthanded catcher's mitt, whereas a righthanded catcher frequently has to backhand a sharply breaking slider or curveball.
The only play that puts a southpaw catcher at a disadvantage is trying to throw out a runner stealing third, because a lefty has to pivot to make that throw. Of such a situation, Squires says, "You just get the ball, and you throw down there. It's not that tough."
There are two other common arguments against the use of lefthanded catchers. One is that in throwing to second, a lefty has trouble getting the ball over righthanded batters. "It's been theorized that because of the preponderance of righthanded hitters, it may be more difficult for a lefthanded catcher to throw with a righthanded hitter in the box," says Dean Taylor, assistant director of scouting and player development for the Kansas City Royals.
Long, now a field representative for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (the governing body of minor league baseball), scoffs at that belief. "You hear people say you might hit the batter, but I had no disadvantage with that," says Long. "I'm 6'4", and the hitters didn't bother me." Clements, who caught more than a thousand games in the majors (mostly with the Philadelphia Phillies), apparently encountered few problems. "It was either give plenty of room when he was throwing," Clements's teammate Al Maul once said, "or else have the ball hurled in your face with all his strength."
One reason baseball people frequently give for not allowing southpaws to catch is that lefties have a natural tail to their throws, and in pegging down to second, the ball will tail toward the shortstop side of the bag. "Most lefties have a live arm with a follow-through that's always going away from the play," says Bob Fontaine, director of player personnel and scouting for the San Francisco Giants. It's not clear whether this line of reasoning means that: 1) a lefty can't throw straight, 2) most lefties don't throw straight, or 3) a lefty doesn't have the intelligence to compensate for the "natural" tail in his throw. In any event, the argument just doesn't hold water. "My ball was too straight—that's why I couldn't pitch," says Jeff Pentland, who caught lefthanded for the Lodi Padres of the Class A California League in 1971. "It's all grip pressure. If you get good rotation on the ball, it stays straight. I had no problem keeping it straight." Squires agrees: "If you develop a good overhand throw, the ball's not going to tail whether you're lefthanded or righthanded."
So, if, as the evidence indicates, lefties are capable of being catchers, why have they been kept from the job? It seems to come down to a blind adherence to tradition, and in baseball, as we know, tradition dies hard. A youngster who throws left will rarely be given a chance to catch (try to find a lefthanded catcher's mitt in a sporting-goods store), and even if he is, by the time he reaches college or the minor leagues, he'll have been converted to another position. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, it may be noted, both played catcher when they were kids. In baseball it's simply axiomatic that lefties don't catch. Bernie DeViveiros, 83, who spent 25 years as a scout and instructor with the Detroit Tigers, and is perhaps as knowledgeable as anyone about the game, expresses the traditional view: "I don't think there'll ever be lefthanded catchers. If I was a manager, I wouldn't want one. I'd go along with a righthander. That's the way it's been."
Appropriately enough, Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck, two of baseball's greatest innovators, were the ones responsible for giving Long and Squires, respectively, the opportunity to play catcher.
Long's invitation to catch came at the Pirates' spring training camp in 1951. Typically, Rickey's reasons for this unorthodox move seem to have been fairly complex. For one thing, it was good p.r., and The Mahatma, who died in 1965, was never adverse to getting ink. The March 14 and 21 editions of The Sporting News carried stories about the experiment. (With the second story was a photo of Long in a catcher's crouch, holding a baseball in his left hand and wearing, as he had once in a high school game, a catcher's mitt made for a righthander on his right hand.) In these articles Rickey, himself a former major league catcher, explained his motives.