By Jack Moore
In the ninth inning of a May 14, 1989, game between Pittsburgh and Atlanta, the Pirates moved Benny Distefano from first base to catcher as part of a double switch. In doing so, they did something that no major league team had done in more than nine years and no team has done since DiStefano caught his final game as a Pirate on Aug. 18 of that year: they put a left-handed thrower behind the plate in a major league game.
Twenty-four years later, there's a chance we could see it again. The Milwaukee Brewers named Logan Schafer, a left-handed reserve outfielder most famous for starting a triple play on a ball that bounced off the top of his head, as their emergency catcher.
Schafer probably won't have to gear up in 2013. Even though Brewers manager Ron Roenicke doesn't partake in the largely shared aversion that MLB managers have against pinch-hitting with reserve catchers -- he pinch-hit Jonathan Lucroy in the club's third game, with Martin Maldonado already in -- it would still take extraordinary circumstances to force Schafer behind the plate.
Still, even the possibility is notable. For more than a century, it has simply been accepted as fact that lefties don't catch. Observe the reaction to a left-handed catcher at a local tryout in 1948, via the Youngstown Vindicator:
"New York, July 3 -- Eddie Krajnik scratched his head and stared in disbelief when Dick Bernard showed up at a Phillies' tryout camp in Kenosha, Wis.
Now young Bernard is perfectly normal in every respect, but what intrigued Scout Krajnik was the fact that he is, of all things, a left-handed catcher."
The Phillies signed Bernard, and although he never made the majors -- Baseball-Reference doesn't even have a minor league record for him -- the mere idea of a left-handed catcher was enough to make waves. Ripley's Believe it or Not, a cartoon devoted to the wacky world of sports in its inception, caught wind of the story and featured it nearly six months later.
There hasn't been a left-hander with his primary position as catcher since 1900, when Jack Clements retired after playing 10 games behind the plate for the Boston Beaneaters. He had a few contemporaries: Sy Sutcliffe, Pop Tate, Fergy Malone, Sam Trott and Bill Harbridge join Clements as the only lefties to play at least 100 games at catcher, with Clements as the only one to play beyond 1892.
As 1901 ushered in the American League, the left-handed catcher was shooed out of professional baseball. Jiggs Donahue caught 19 games for the first iteration of the Milwaukee Brewers in that first American League season. He spent the rest of his career at first base. No lefty has caught more than 10 games in a major league career since, according to Baseball-Reference.
Explanations for what has become one of baseball's axioms are surprisingly hard to find. Bill Dickey, a Hall of Fame catcher for the Yankees from 1928 through 1946 who hit left-handed but threw right-handed, tried to solve the mystery. He was told, according to Henry McLemore in the March 22, 1941, edition of the Vancouver Sun, "a left-handed catcher would hit a right-handed batter in the head when he made a throw to second." As Dickey pointed out, the concept is absurd. "That's crazy, though. Why wouldn't right-handed catchers hit left-handed batters when they made a peg?" Easy as that, the idea crumbles. (Just don't tell Shane Victorino.)
Perhaps, some think, left-handers have difficulty throwing to third from behind the plate. Although right-handers are naturally squared for a throw to third in their crouches, left-handers would have to shift their bodies to square up and "make a peg," as Dickey would say. Considering differences in "pop times" of fractions of a second mark the difference between an Ivan Rodriguez (who caught 46 percent of opposing base stealers) and Mike Piazza (who caught a paltry 23 percent), the necessity of a weight shift or a foot shuffle could be the difference between out and safe.
Distefano dismissed that less-harebrained idea in a 2009 New York Times feature:
"When I had to throw to third, I cheated a little bit -- I sat a couple of inches farther back and my left foot was a little open ... I didn't have to shuffle my feet because I had good arm strength. And when guys steal third, 9 of 10 times it's on the pitcher anyway."
Plus, if Yadier Molina can do this and routinely catch runners off first base with quick throws, there are some lefties out there who can make snap throws to third. And imagine the throws lefties could make to first -- not only on pickoffs, but also in fielding bunts, a point occasionally made in favor of the lefty backstop.
Distefano himself offered the most salient point against left-handed catching I've ever seen: The left-handed catcher is often hung out to dry on plays to the plate, as he would be required to field throws from the outfield with a backhand, thus making a sweeping tag from in front of the plate impossible. The only way for the left-handed catcher to position himself over home plate would be in the direct path of the slide, practically asking for a play we've seen destroy catchers' ankles recently, most notably Buster Posey's in 2011.
But I (a left-hander myself, albeit never one drawn to catching) think the answer is simpler: We've never taught our lefty kids to play the position. Left-handed catching mitts are rare in stores and often must be custom-ordered. Teaching the position is difficult enough without having to teach it backwards for lefties. The question of why it never took hold in the game's infancy -- five left-handed catchers in the 1800s is still a tiny amount -- may be a better one, but once the idea of catcher as right-handed only was established, it was here to stay. As any baseball fan knows, the game doesn't change easily.
I won't be rooting to see Logan Schafer behind the plate this season, since that would mean rooting for an injury to one of the Brewers' natural catchers. But if he does get there, it will be an historic moment, one of the rare instances in which a lefty busts through one of baseball's weirdest axioms.
* * *
Jack Moore's sports addiction was a lost cause from the moment his older brother mowed a makeshift baseball diamond into his backyard. Now he writes about sports wherever the web will have him. Right now, you can catch him at CBSSports.com, FanGraphs, Advanced NFL Stats, Bucky's 5th Quarter, DisciplesOfUecker.com, RotoWire.com and on Twitter (@jh_moore).