Hobie Landrith was only 15 years old and the star catcher of the Northwestern High School team when a Detroit Tigers scout invited him to Briggs Stadium. It was 1945, the final year of World War II.
The Tigers “were trying to get Hank Greenberg into shape,” Landrith later recalled. “He had been in the military, had been released, and the Tigers were on the road. It was a 10-to-15-day span that he was going to be working out, hitting balls and catching balls, whatever.
“I jumped at the chance and this brought me into contact with members of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, and when the team returned home, they asked me if I would catch batting practice. I was just overwhelmed by the opportunity to be rubbing shoulders with these players. It was great because it gave me an insight into what it would be like to be a major league baseball player. It was at that time that I felt like, yes, if I worked hard and really honed my skills, that I might have a chance to play in the major leagues. Five years later I was there.”
However, it was as a member of the Cincinnati organization that Landrith entered organized ball.
Not playing for his hometown Tigers was one of the few disappointments of Landrith’s baseball career, which spanned seven different teams and 14 big-league seasons in the post-World War II era.
“Dad went through the rosters of the big league clubs when scouts became interested in me and decided Detroit wasn’t for me,” Hobie recalled in a 1960 interview in Baseball Digest. “The Tigers had just signed Frank House as a catcher and they had considerable money invested in him. Cincinnati then came through with a fine offer and both Dad and I decided to grab it. I’ve never regretted it. Birdie Tebbetts was the manager and he helped me more than any other single man. He was great.”
Among other things, ex-Tigers backstop Tebbetts tutored Landrith on the art of handling pitchers. “He taught me when to get on ‘em, when to not get on ‘em,” Landrith said in an interview with baseball historian Ed Attanasio. “I was able to recognize when a pitcher was losing his stuff or losing his composure and tried to get him back on track. And sometimes I had to play the bad guy and say things to the pitcher to get him riled up.” Landrith became famous for making as many as four or five trips to the mound each inning.
Landrith broke in as a 20-year-old with the Reds in 1950, cracking a run-scoring single in his first big-league at-bat. Hobie, a compact 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, never was much of a slugger, jokingly claiming that he had “warning-track power.” During the 1950s, he played for a succession of National League teams: Cincinnati (1950-55), Chicago (1956), St. Louis (1957-58), and San Francisco (1959-61). He typically was the second- or third-string catcher, though he caught a career-best 111 games for the Cubs while hitting only .221.
His best years were with the Giants, where he played with such All-Stars as Willie Mays, Harvey Kuenn, and Willie McCovey. The ever-hustling, effervescent catcher “is a delight to watch at work,” observed sportswriter Bob Stevens when Landrith was with the Giants. “He bounces, he yells, he encourages, he scolds and he WORKS. He has already become somewhat of a legendary chatterbox. He is forever going out to the mound to discuss strategy with his batterymates and it’s quite a picture to see little Hobie looking up into the perspiring face of a Sam Jones. Hobie’s head wiggles and wags and his mouth opens and shuts with machine-gun rapidity.”
In one of his most memorable games, Landrith was behind the plate for Juan Marichal’s first major-league start, on July 19, 1960 against Philadelphia. With Hobie calling all the signals, as he did throughout his career, Marichal was four outs away from a no-hitter when Clay Darlymple singled. Marichal wound up with a one-hit shutout.
After three seasons at Candlestick Park, Hobie became the first selection of the New York Mets in the expansion draft. Choosing a light-hitting, 32-year-old journeyman catcher seemed like an odd choice, but manager Casey Stengel attempted to explain the rationale behind the decision. “You gotta have a catcher,” said Casey, “or you’re gonna have a lot of passed balls.”
Landrith appeared in 23 games for Stengel before being sent to Baltimore for “Marvelous Marv” Throneberry, the tangled-foot first baseman who became a folk hero in New York. Before leaving, Landrith hit a walk-off two-run homer off Warren Spahn to give the Amazin’ Mets one of their few victories of 1962.
The following season, Baltimore sold Landrith to Washington, where he wrapped up his career by batting .175 in 42 games. His final numbers read: a .233 average with 34 home runs in 772 games and a .983 fielding percentage. He spent 1964 as a coach with the Senators, then moved on to the world beyond baseball. Hobie, who had spent his winters as a car salesman in Detroit, put the powers of persuasion that he had once used with pitchers to good use, enjoying a successful career in sales and public relations with Volkswagen.
Today, the 86-year-old Landrith is a resident of Bloomfield Hills. He married a girl he’d known since grammar school and together they have six children. Hobie never had any illusions about why he was able to stay in the big leagues for as long as he did. “I was in the major leagues more because I was a good defensive catcher, and the fact that I was good at handling pitchers,” he admitted. “I always thought I was a fairly decent hitter, but I realized that I wasn’t in the big leagues for my bat.”