Backstopping and roaming wide (Part 2:  1935-1970)

In this series we identify and profile those rare major league ballplayers who’ve performed both as catchers and as shortstops, second basemen or center fielders. Last time, we tracked them from the 1890s to the 1930s. This time we’ll go through the middle decades of the 20th century.

The qualification is to have appeared in at least 15 games at catcher and at least 15 games cumulatively at short and/or second and/or center. As we did before, first we’ll meet those who meet the minimum criteria, and then we’ll feature the few who blow the criteria away.

The phenomenon of major leaguers performing both as catchers and as middle infielders/center fielders was fairly common in the 1890s, but became far less so into the 1900s. Indeed, after Wally Schang was deployed extensively at catcher and center field between 1915 and 1920, the practice almost disappeared. The 1920s and ’30s were a period in which catchers were very strongly specialized; almost none of them played more than a handful of games at any other positions at all, including first base.

(The one case from the 1920s/30s that we regrettably overlooked last time, Moe Berg, was converted from middle infielder to catcher at the big league level, but once he was a catcher that’s what he was exclusively.)

The 15-15 Club

Joe Grace

Years: 1938-1947
Games by position: right field 234, left field 129, center field 25, catcher 21
Total games: 484
Total win shares: 42
Fielding win shares: 6
Fielding win shares/game: .012

And then this curious case came along.

Grace was a pretty good line-drive hitter. He’d consistently hit right around .300 with moderate power through several years in the minors, playing exclusively in the outfield. Over the second half of 1939, the 25-year-old Grace established himself in the majors with the St. Louis Browns, hitting competently while being deployed at all three outfield spots, showing enough range to get the plurality of his games in center field.

Yet the following season, manager Fred Haney, made the extraordinary decision to deploy Grace not only as part of his crew vying for playing time in right field, but also as his third-string catcher, even though Grace had never before played catcher professionally. This exceedingly unusual arrangement was repeated in 1941.

Following that, Grace was drafted into World War II military service (indeed my father-in-law played ball with him in the South Pacific). Upon his return from the war in 1946, Grace would play two more seasons in the majors, then six years in the Pacific Coast League, but only as an outfielder and first baseman; he was never a catcher again.

Mike Sandlock

Years: 1942-1953
Games by position: catcher 128, shortstop 31, third base 25, second base 4
Total games: 195
Total win shares: 11
Fielding win shares: 5
Fielding win shares/game: .026

Speaking of unusual situations … Sandlock was a 6-foot-1, 185-pound minor league catcher who was converted to shortstop by the Braves organization in 1941. Pulled into the majors by the talent vacuum of the war years, he came in handy as a catcher-infielder utilityman for the 1945 Dodgers.

Following the war, it was back to the minors for Sandlock. He would play catcher at the Triple-A level through 1952, and then his career received another odd distinction: Because of Sandlock’s skill at receiving the knuckleball, Pirates GM Branch Rickey (for whom Sandock had played with the Dodgers) promoted him to the majors for the 1953 season, at the age of 37, to be the designated catcher for Pittsburgh’s knuckleballer Johnny Lindell.

Bobby Hofman

Years: 1949-1957
Games by position: second base 85, first base 49, third base 45, catcher 26
Total games: 341
Total win shares: 17
Fielding win shares: 5
Fielding win shares/game: .015

The nephew of Superdupersub Solly Hofman, this Hofman was a utility infielder whom owner/GM Horace Stoneham’s Giants converted into a utility infielder-catcher for his final couple of seasons. While such a move is certainly unusual, in this case it wasn’t quite as odd as it sounds, given that Hofman wasn’t anything at all like your typical nimble, good-field-no-hit utility infielder; he was instead a stockily-built sort with quite limited range, but a bat that was uniquely adapted to deliver Polo Grounds power.

As such, extracting extra leverage from Hofman in this manner made good sense. Hofman validated the decision by performing splendidly in his limited opportunities behind the plate: He committed zero errors, threw out seven runners, was involved in two double plays, and allowed just one passed ball.

A decade-and-a-half later, Stoneham would opt to try the same thing with utility infielder Chris Arnold, whose build and skill set somewhat resembled Hofman’s. Alas, Arnold was unable to pull if off: In nine games and 36 innings as a catcher in 1973, he was charged with an error and four passed balls, allowed three wild pitches, and surrendered four stolen bases in four attempts. End of experiment.

Jay Porter

Years: 1952-1959
Games by position: catcher 91, center field 26, right field 21, first base 16, left field 15, third base 3
Total games: 229
Total win shares: 10
Fielding win shares: 4
Fielding win shares/game: .017

J W Porter (and it was “J W,” not standing for anything) was born in Shawnee, Okla. in 1933, but as with so many thousands, his family soon migrated to California. In Oakland, Porter emerged as not just an outstanding baseball talent, but the most sensational teenaged player in the nation. With the Bill Erwin Post No. 337 American Legion team that won the national championship in both 1949 and 1950, coached by the amazing George Powles, Porter was the major star. (One of his teammates was Frank Robinson.)

From the 1951 Sporting News Baseball Guide, page 161:

Another record was set by J.W. Porter, Oakland catcher, when he captured the national batting championship for the second successive year. The 17-year-old receiver, who hit .551 in ten tourney games the previous year, produced a .488 average in 1950 national tourney play to retain the Hillerich & Bradsby trophy which is awarded annually to the leading batter … Porter, who received a bonus in excess of $50,000 for signing with the Chicago White Sox organization in December, 1950, was named the No. 1 American Legion Junior player of the year.

The precise bonus amount lavished upon Porter was $65,000, a staggering sum for the period, if not the largest yet expended, then close to it. The “Bonus Baby” rule had just been revoked (it would be reinstated in 1953), so the White Sox were able to farm out their prized prospect.

Despite his extreme youth, the Chicago organization assigned Porter to Class A (not what it is today; remember that at that time there were Classes B, C and D as well). As an 18-year-old in 1951, playing exclusively as a catcher, Porter was terrific, hitting .302 with 15 home runs and 95 RBI in 117 games. The following season, performing at both Class A and Double-A, through late July Porter was hitting .323 with 11 homers, this time both as a catcher and outfielder. Yet White Sox GM Frank Lane—who wasn’t called “Trader Lane” for nothing—surrendered the 19-year-old to the St. Louis Browns in a trade.

Bill Veeck’s Browns immediately promoted Porter to the majors. Over the remainder of the 1952 season, they didn’t play him every day, but he was in the starting lineup most of the time, and not as a catcher but rather—curiously, to be sure, but these were Veeck’s Browns—as a center fielder. The raw rookie wasn’t yet ready to master major league pitching, but neither was he overmatched by it: he made consistent contact and hit .250, though without power. Just two years removed from American Legion ball, Porter was holding his own in the big leagues, and stardom appeared inevitable.

But then again these were Bill Veeck’s Browns, and in his brief and frantic ownership of that distressed franchise Veeck matched Frank Lane trade for trade, and then some. In December 1952 Veeck dealt Porter to the Detroit Tigers.

Yet before he could report to his third organization, Porter was drafted into military service, where he would spend the next two years. Discharged in time for the 1955 season, the now 22-year-old Porter made Detroit’s big league roster to start the year. But, oddly, the Tigers deployed their exceptional prospect in a limited utility role, playing him in just 18 games (10 starts) through the end of May before farming him out. In Double-A and Triple-A until September, Porter again did well, hitting .270 with 13 homers in 99 games, playing first base as well as the outfield and catcher.

In 1956 Porter was promoted back to the majors, and now things got truly weird: Though he was on the active roster all season long, Porter was given just 14 game appearances, and only three of them starts, by manager Bucky Harris. The following season, under new manager Jack Tighe, the 24-year-old Porter wasn’t simply left to vegetate on the bench, but still he was used in a strict backup corner outfielder-catcher-first baseman role, getting just 58 games and 156 plate appearances.

And so it would be for the next two years. Porter was acquired by Cleveland, then Washington, and then St. Louis, and each organization deployed Porter as the merest scrubeenie. He got no serious chance to show what he might do in sustained regular play, either as a catcher, outfielder or first baseman. In his few-and-far between times at bat, Porter didn’t hit well, but neither did he embarrass himself; it was a situation that fairly cried out to just give this kid 500 trips to the plate some year—heck, 300 or 400, whatever, something more than benchwarmer status. What were they waiting for?

But by 1960 Porter was back in the minor leagues, where he would put together four straight solid years at the Triple-A level, as a catcher-first baseman hitting for a nice average with consistent power. He never received another call-up. Perhaps most puzzling of all, none of the four expansion teams that came into existence in the early 1960s took a flyer on him. Porter would finally quit playing following the 1966 season, and then work as a minor league manager for a couple of years.

Why it was that such a clearly talented prospect was tossed around from ball club to ball club like a hot potato, and never allowed a meaningful opportunity to succeed or fail as a big league regular, I don’t know.

As if all of this weren’t bizarre enough, in the 1958 Sporting News Baseball Register Porter listed his hobby as “poetry.” I’ve undertaken extensive research into the hobbies listed by ballplayers in the Registers of the 1940s/’50s, and Porter is the one and only guy who stood up and announced that his hobby was poetry.

Don Zimmer

Years: 1954-1965
Games by position: third base 375, second base 294, shortstop 288, catcher 35, left field 5, right field 4
Total games: 1,095
Total win shares: 67
Fielding win shares: 30
Fielding win shares/game: .027

Zimmer’s late-career exposure to catching was a similar circumstance to that of Bobby Hofman. The young Zim, amazing as it may seem to the modern fan, was agile and extraordinarily fast, stealing as many as 63 bases in one minor league season. But by the mid-1960s Zimmer’s appearance was taking on more of the “Popeye” aspect of his later life, and Washington manager Gil Hodges decided that if this utility infielder was going to look like a catcher, well, then why not have him actually play there once in a while?

The original plan was no doubt just to have Zimmer work out at the position and learn its rudiments, and be available as an emergency catcher. But over the course of the 1965 season, neither of the Senators’ primary catchers (Mike Brumley and Doug Camilli) were hitting a lick, so Hodges figured he didn’t have much to lose by giving Zimmer a serious go behind the plate. For more than a week in July, and then for almost three weeks in late August/early September, Zimmer served as the team’s starting catcher. Alas, at the age of 34 Zimmer, who usually delivered some useful sock with the bat, didn’t hit a lick either, and it would be his final season as a major league player.

(Zimmer then went to Japan, where he had, well, an interesting season: In 203 at-bats, he hit nine home runs—but just two doubles and zero triples, along with a batting average of .182. Well, then.)

Ozzie Virgil

Years: 1956-1969
Games by position: third base 189, catcher 35, right field 18, second base 16, left field 8, shortstop 7, first base 5
Total games: 324
Total win shares: 10
Fielding win shares: 6
Fielding win shares/game: .019

A case study in how a player of oh-so-modest talent can not only make the major leagues, but repeatedly extend his career through corny old-fashioned “hustle,” and “grit,” and “smarts,” and “doing the little things” and all such. Developing the skill to fill in at catcher, along with just about every other position, was a vivid illustration.

What makes this situation extraordinary for its period (or perhaps any period) is that Virgil wasn’t your stereotypical under-talented “scrappy” white guy: He was a black Dominican. In fact, in 1958 Virgil became the first black player for the Detroit Tigers, and in 1969 he became the first black coach for the San Francisco Giants. In addition to a long career as a major league coach, Virgil forged a long career as a manager in the Dominican, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Mexican winter leagues.

Virgil also achieved what I believe is the second-most plate appearances in a season (241) by a major leaguer hitting zero doubles, with the 1957 New York Giants. (The record is 277, by Choo Choo Coleman of the 1963 New York Mets. The home ballpark for both players was the Polo Grounds, whose unique configuration rendered it the most difficult environment in major league history in which to hit doubles. But still. Zero doubles.)

Gary Kolb

Years: 1960-1969
Games by position: right field 78, left field 57, catcher 20, center field 18, third base 13, second base 7, first base 1
Total games: 293
Total win shares: 8
Fielding win shares: 2
Fielding win shares/game: .007

Rather the mirror image of Virgil, Kolb was a muscular, toolsy white guy, with ample arm and speed, and some power as well. But he was prone to the strikeout, and was unable to sustain enough batting average to advance beyond fringe status in the majors. Still, Kolb’s defensive aptitude was leveraged as a jack-of-all-trades for several National League ball clubs.

He began to get the occasional inning behind the plate as early as 1963, at the age of 23, and as his career progressed he got more catching duty. The strength of Kolb’s arm is suggested by the fact that while serving as a utilityman at the Triple-A level, Kolb was pressed into service as an emergency pitcher in 40 games and 73 innings between 1966 and 1973.

Marty Martinez

Years: 1962-1972
Games by position: shortstop 157, third base 74, second base 59, catcher 30, left field 21, first base 5, pitcher 1
Total games: 436
Total win shares: 18
Fielding win shares: 8
Fielding win shares/game: .018

Where Hofman and Zimmer were veteran utility infielders displaying catcher-like physiques, this guy’s a different story.

Martinez was a tall, slender middle infielder with impressive defensive chops, and an egregiously powerless bat. How impressive, and how egregious, you ask?

Well, consider this: Martinez was promoted to Triple-A despite having hit .192/.238/.273 in 349 at-bats in Double-A. And despite hitting .200/.249/.252 in 409 at-bats that next season in Triple-A, Martinez was kept on as the first-string Triple-A shortstop.

He eventually managed to get enough of his slaps and pokes to start falling in to be given more than 1,000 plate appearances in the majors—though he never hit a major league home run. Which wasn’t too surprising, given that in just shy of 2,500 minor league at-bats, Martinez delivered all of four home runs.

He first saw service as an emergency catcher with the Braves in 1967, despite never having played the position in the minors. Then in 1968, dealing with an injury situation, Atlanta manager Lum Harris made use of Martinez as his catcher in 13 games between May 1 and June 2, including six starts. Martinez’s arm was such that in that stint opponents attempted just one stolen base against him, and that runner was gunned down.

Martinez thus gained a couple more seasons as a most unconventional utiltity infielder-catcher.

Ron Slocum

Years: 1969-1971
Games by position: third base 21, catcher 19, shortstop 18, second base 13
Total games: 80
Total win shares: 2
Fielding win shares: 1
Fielding win shares/game: .013

Yes, his big league career was pretty doggone marginal. But you have to admit it’s rather impressive to appear in just 80 total games and still make this list.

Slocum was a catcher converted into an infielder in his sixth minor league season. And then the newly minted Padres, not exactly overloaded with talent, figured they could make use of him on their roster. He wasn’t a serious major league hitter, but what the hey.

The 50-50 Club

Bobby Bragan

Years: 1940-1948
Games by position: shortstop 415, catcher 140, third base 24, second base 7
Total games: 597
Total win shares: 25
Fielding win shares: 17
Fielding win shares/game: .028

Bear in mind the context: for the preceding 20 years, almost no major leaguers had played a significant amount at catcher and any other position. And over a period of close to half a century, Moe Berg was the only one who’d played a significant amount at both catcher and shortstop.

So it was bold, to say the least, for Phillies’ manager Hans Lobert to start using his erstwhile first-string shortstop, 24-year-old Bobby Bragan, behind the plate in 1942. And it wasn’t just occasional emergency backstop work; Bragan caught in 22 games that year. Even though these were the woebegone Phillies, this was thinking way outside the box.

Then Branch Rickey’s Dodgers traded for Bragan, and over the next two seasons manager Leo Durocher deployed Bragan as a backup catcher/utility infielder, a mode that harkened straight back to the 1890s.

For the rest of his playing career, Bragan was strictly a catcher, in the majors and minors. He would spend a lifetime in baseball, as a minor league manager, major league manager and coach, and even president of the Texas League. Among the many small ways he was a factor in baseball history, as a member of the 1947 Dodgers the Alabaman Bragan (whose relatively swarthy complexion had gained him the swell nickhame “Nig”) was adamantly opposed to playing alongside Jackie Robinson. But then he came to know and respect Robinson, overcame his deeply ingrained racist habit, and emerged as a genuine champion of racial integration.

Tom Satriano

Years: 1961-1970
Games by position: catcher 321, third base 168, first base 83, second base 58, shortstop 3
Total games: 674
Total win shares: 38
Fielding win shares: 16
Fielding win shares/game: .024

Ed Kirkpatrick

Years: 1962-1977
Games by position: catcher 306, right field 291, left field 240, first base 149, center field 65, third base 5, second base 1
Total games: 1,311
Total win shares: 97
Fielding win shares: 25
Fielding win shares/game: .019

Obviously, players spending significant time at catcher and second base and/or center field have been a distinct rarity in major league history. Moreover, so have left-handed batters playing catcher (and third base or second base, for that matter).

Thus it was quite the extraordinary case for these two to come along at the same time and in the same organization. It probably shouldn’t be understood as coincidence as much as conscious organizational effort: It seems clear that Angels GM Fred Haney and field manager Bill Rigney, building the franchise from the ground up, perceived particular value in the this manner of versatility. (Let’s recall that it was Haney making a catcher of Joe Grace back in 1940.)

Satriano was originally a third baseman-shortstop whom the Angels began deploying at catcher in 1963, his third professional season. Kirkpatrick was a teenaged catcher whom the Angels began deploying extensively in the outfield in 1963, his second professional season. And in the same period, the organization was making use of Jack Hiatt, another talented catching prospect rising through their system, at first base, the outfield and third base.

Both Satriano and (especially) Kirkpatrick were good ballplayers, but there’s no doubt that for both, the multi-position defensive skill the Angels fostered and developed in them significantly enhanced their careers.

Ron Brand

Years: 1963-1971
Games by position: catcher 350, shortstop 41, third base 26, second base 16, left field 14, center field 5, right field 2
Total games: 568
Total win shares: 21
Fielding win shares: 12
Fielding win shares/game: .021

If Bobby Bragan in the 1940s was a throwback, then what are we to make of this guy?

Scrutinize Brand’s statistical record. In nearly every major respect and every minute detail, his figures are a complete anachronism within his era, and would instead have been utterly at home 60 or 70 years earlier: the positions played, the extreme contact hitting, the near-total absence of home runs. Hell, even his 5-foot-8-inch, 167-pound stature says “1897″ a lot more than “1967.”

All I’m asking is this: Did Ron Brand’s career really take place in the 1960s and ’70s, or is that “year” column just messed up? Can’t one of you deadball era scholars dig up a grainy old tintype of Brand sporting the handlebar moustache, suited up with the Beaneaters or some such, tossing about the old base-ball with the lads, and put this issue to rest once and for all?

Next time

We meet the catchers of the most unusual sort from the 1970s up to the present day.

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