Baseball Mystery Files: Left Handed Catchers

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By Matt Mirro, American League Writer

Baseball is an odd sport with a history filled with colorful characters and rather strange traditions. While no one knows the origin of some of the more peculiar institutes myths and, dare I say, legends have taken the place of fact and true history.One weird tradition I could never quite wrap my head around was the exclusion, whether intentional or not, of left-handed throwing catchers. It’s fairly easy to miss what’s clearly right in front of you but, yes, it is true. There has not been a left-handed catcher since May 14, 1989 the Pittsburgh Pirates moved reserve player Benny Distefano from first base to the backstop in the ninth inning against the Atlanta Braves (Thanks to Jack Moore of Sports on Earth for that bit of information!).

1887 cigarette card featuring Jack Clements

That was a whole 26 years ago and no catcher has thrown a ball with his left hand since. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? To find a southpaw who played the majority of his games as a catcher you’d have to go back to Jack Clements who played 17 years in the big leagues from 1884 to 1900. He made his debut with the Philadelphia Keystones of the Union Association. Neither the team nor the league even exists anymore!

To put that in perspective just know that the very first official American League games weren’t played until 1901! Clements actually had a decent career, compiling a .287 batting average with 77 home runs 687 RBI in his 1160 career games. While Clements did play some games in the outfield and at third base he was primarily a catcher and a blip on the radar as far as catchers go. In fact, he was the first player ever to catch 1,000 career games.

So why exactly are catchers so right-handed? Because of the shape of the infield diamond infielders really do need to be right-handed in order to make the majority of plays. But catchers don’t have these same limitations. Now, personally, this question has fascinated me for a long time and I asked around. All I’ve really been able to gather is that most people don’t know and there really is no definite reason. Allow me to share some of my favorite responses with you.

Myth: “Left-handed catchers will hit the right-handed batter when trying to throw down to second base.”

This one flat-out made me laugh. How is that a left-handed catcher is prone to hitting the right-handed batter any more than a conventional right-handed catcher is prone to hitting the left-handed batter? The is that he is not. It’s really just a cop-out. I cannot imagine a world where this is the reason why baseball has excluded players of Clement’s ilk. Come on, man!

Myth: “Left handed catchers can’t throw to third base.”

I’ll admit there is some truth to this. Let’s say Billy Hamilton was breaking for third on the pitch. A left-handed catcher would have to catch the ball, jump up from his crouch and find an angle to the base before throwing the ball to try to nail the runner. Is it more difficult? Yes, a little. Is it, possible? 100% yes! Right handed catchers have to do the same thing when they throw down to first base on dropped third strikes and pitch outs. Catchers are some of the smartest and most analytic players on the team. They have to be in order to command the team on the field. If the coaching staff could easily work with a lefty backstop and master the art of throwing to third.

Myth: “Left arms are as strong as right arms.”

Come one, now? Really? No comment.

So there really isn’t a reason, at least not one anyone living knows. Think about the days when Jack Clements (This article’s champion) played. It was the Small Ball Era. You had to scratch out runs one at a time. Defensive fundamentals was an absolute must. Obviously, no one saw Clement as a liability and there certainly a lot more need for a defensive minded catcher. I cannot imagine why this trend has continued. Somewhere in America there are young men who can handle the catcher position with ease but throws left-handed. There just has to be. So what happens to them? Normally they either learn to throw left-handed or find a new position. Let;s stop this trend because it’s quite unnecessary and just flat-out weird.

Attention baseball minds: Free the left-handed catcher!

Oh, one last quick side note. Last year a Netflix movieThe Battered Bastards of Baseballhighlighted the rise of the Portland Mavericks. The independent minor league team was owned by Bing Russell, the father of popular actor Kurt Russell and featured some very colorful characters. Among them was a left-handed catcher by the name of Jim Swanson who was featured in the film. So it would seem that Mr. Russell wasn’t blinded by an ancient myth. Good for him!

You can find Matt on Twitter @Mirro_The_Ronin and join in the discussion @CTBPod or on our Facebook page.

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