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Colliding with History at Home Plate

As soon as Pete Rose lowered his shoulder and crashed into catcher Ray Fosse in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star Game, baseball fans and writers began celebrating his hard-nosed play that won the game for the National League.

“That’s why Pete Rose earns $100,000 a year for playing baseball,” David Condon wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “It was the type of block that would have made a Kansas City Chiefs tackle blush.”

“Sure, Pete Rose could have slid around Ray Fosse,” Dick Young wrote in The Sporting News. “And [Hall of Fame running back Jim] Brown could have tried to out-nifty more guys instead of running over them. . . . Pete Rose has long been commended for his way. He has been tagged Charley Hustle, and he wears it proudly.”

On the NBC broadcast, announcer Curt Gowdy observed Rose checking on the injured Fosse after the play. “Now look at Rose helping Fosse up,” he told a national television audience. “No hard feelings. Baseball is that kind of game.”

But over the past four decades, as athletes in all sports have grown bigger, faster, and stronger, leading to more violent collisions and more severe injuries—most notably, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey’s season-ending leg fracture suffered in a 2011 collision—Major League Baseball has decided it doesn’t want to be that kind of game anymore.

Cubs’ catcher Harry Chiti blocks the plate as Pirates’ outfielder Roberto Clemente tries to score. June 26, 1955.

A new rule was enacted by MLB for the 2014 season that punishes home-plate collisions like the jarring hit Rose laid on Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. Fosse, who was 23 years old at the time, never quite recovered from his injuries, and no team today wants to see the same fate befall a perennial MVP candidate like Posey, who just turned 27.

However, the new rule has met with resistance from fans, writers, and even some players who say collisions have always been part of the game. Terence Moore, a columnist at MLB.com, decried the “panic, whining [and] hand-wringing from the Knee-Jerk Society of America” when it was announced that general managers were meeting to discuss the proposed rule. Former Major League outfielder Gabe Kapler wrote that “fans of hard-nosed baseball” will miss the collision play “desperately.”

But a look back through baseball history tells a more complicated story about how collisions have been perceived over the years. Lowering your shoulder and barreling into the catcher to score a run wasn’t always accepted as a normal part of the game.

Baseball was never more “hard-nosed” than it was during the gritty years of the late 19th century, when players such as John McGraw and Wee Willie Keeler of the Baltimore Orioles used every trick at their disposal to gain an edge on the field. McGraw, a third baseman, was infamous for hip-checking opposing base runners as they rounded the bases or holding onto their belts while they attempted to tag up on a fly ball. He was celebrated by some for his anything-goes attitude, but players and writers back then had a far different attitude about home-plate collisions.

For instance, in 1897, two future Hall of Famers, the Cincinnati Reds’ Bid McPhee and Baltimore Orioles catcher Wilbert Robinson, were involved in a violent play at the plate that injured both men. As the Sporting Life newspaper described it, McPhee’s “daring slide” caused him to crash into Robinson, who was carried off the field with a severe cut at his knee. McPhee left the game a few innings after the “deplorable accident . . . one which all the players of the Cincinnati Club regret.”

As Sporting Life explained, “Everyone is thankful that it was none other than McPhee who figured in the spiking. Had it been some of the other players, the word might have gone out that it was intentional, and retaliation might have been the cry against Cincinnati. However, Robinson himself acknowledges that it was not Mac’s fault, as he tried to block McPhee from reaching home.”

Jake Daubert is out at home as the catcher hangs on to the ball, c. early 1900s.

For the first half of the twentieth century, most base runners—even those who skillfully practiced the art of intimidation like Ty Cobb—almost always slid feet-first into home plate. That led to some spikings, like the one described above, but few major injuries like the ones suffered by Fosse and Posey. Though there was often some contact between catcher and base runner, violent collisions at the plate were infrequent.

In 1919, Cleveland Indians catcher Steve O’Neill explained how catchers in his day prepared for plays at the plate in a first-person article for Baseball Magazine:

“The runner will almost invariably hit the dirt and come on spikes first. On a close play of this kind the catcher very often drops the ball. He is blamed for this indiscriminately by the crowd and almost always by the press. The official scorer gives him an error. . . . Bear in mind, the base runner is trying to make the catcher drop the ball. He wants him to drop the ball so badly that he slides into him full speed, feet first. The catcher is very often lucky not to be knocked off his feet, to say nothing of hanging on to a slippery baseball that he probably hasn’t had a chance to get a firm grip of.”

One of the few serious injuries to a catcher involved in a collision happened during the 1939 World Series. Ernie Lombardi, the Cincinnati Reds’ Hall of Fame catcher, was branded as the goat after the New York Yankees’ Charlie “King Kong” Keller knocked him woozy on a play at the plate in the 10th inning of Game 4. The ball rolled a few feet away, but Lombardi was too dazed to retrieve it, and Joe DiMaggio came all the way around to score. The World Series–clinching play was dubbed “Lombardi’s Snooze” (in those less concussion-aware times), and the Yankees went on to sweep the Reds in four games.

After decades of not worrying about collisions, however, more catchers began to blatantly block the plate on throws home, forcing runners into the difficult decision of whether to go around the big body in protective gear or to go through him. Umpires had cracked down on the spikes-high slide, perfected by Ty Cobb, that often caused catchers to drop the ball as they applied a tag. There weren’t many options left.

By World War II, The Sporting News reported that “many complaints were made last season” about catchers blocking the plate. “It isn’t going to be easy to legislate against the maneuver,” TSN wrote. “There is a rule in the book that says a catcher can’t block home plate unless he has the ball in his possession. But we can’t remember an umpire calling a base runner safe because the catcher blocked the plate illegally. . . . And base runners rarely use their spikes nowadays as weapons.”

With stubborn, sturdy catchers like Clint Courtney, Gus Triandos, and Sherm Lollar refusing to budge, collisions at the plate gradually became more commonplace in the 1950s and ’60s. As the game moved into a more pitcher-friendly era, runs were at a premium, and base runners tried everything in their power to score when the game was on the line.

Alvin Dark of the New York Giants scores in the fifth inning of Game Three of the 1951 World Series after Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra drops the ball following the tag.

Naturally, more collisions led to more injuries. During spring training in 1959, future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Ernie Banks were each hurt in separate collisions with catchers. Washington Senators catcher Clint Courtney, one of the toughest men in the game, suffered a hairline fracture in his leg because of a collision with Hal Smith of the Kansas City A’s during a March exhibition in Florida. But he “staged a remarkable recovery,” according to The Sporting News, to return in time for the regular season.

Like with the Pete Rose–Ray Fosse play, those games didn’t even count in the regular-season standings. But the base-running strategy of colliding with a catcher in order to knock the ball loose was ingrained by then. Catchers ever since have lived with the knowledge that one bad collision could permanently alter their careers.

Future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk of the Boston Red Sox was told he would never catch again after he tore ligaments in his left knee in a collision with Cleveland’s Leron Lee in 1974. But Fisk recovered to play 24 more years and set the all-time record for games played by a catcher.

Carlton Fisk underwent reconstructive knee surgery following his devastating collision with Leron Lee in June of 1974.  Despite being told he would never play again, the rising, young catcher returned a year later.

A decade later, Buck Martinez of the Toronto Blue Jays did suffer what turned out to be career-ending injuries, breaking his leg and dislocating his ankle in a gruesome collision with Seattle’s Phil Bradley in 1985. Yet in 2014, he fell on the same side as “hard-nosed” baseball fans when he told MLB Network’s Matt Vasgersian that he thought the new collision rule “really exaggerated” the problem that catchers face.

The home-plate collision was never more celebrated than it was during the 1991 World Series, when Sports Illustrated published a memorable cover photograph of Atlanta Braves catcher Greg Olson landing on his head after being up-ended by the Minnesota Twins’ Dan Gladden. Some have called the ’91 World Series the greatest ever played, and part of the reason was because of the intense “throwback” nature of those seven games.

But you can’t throw it back very far when you’re talking about the type of home-plate collision that was outlawed before the 2014 season. As a base-running strategy, it wasn’t in popular use for much of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. Maybe at some point, we’ll return to the days when catchers didn’t have to worry so much about collisions, and then the rules may need to change again. Such is baseball’s cyclical nature.

 

 

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