Squatting behind the plate and catching 140-150 pitches a game is the toughest job in baseball. Being a catcher is the quickest way to get to the big leagues, but that’s because the position is so physically demanding. Catchers are constantly up-and-down, up-and-down, not to mention sliding and lunging side-to-side. Not to mention the 95 mile per hour pitches that come off the bat at 125 miles per hour as foul tips and slam into the mask. Concussion, anyone?
Yet, there are some perfectly sane people who want to do that job. Thankfully so, otherwise we’d see a lot of passed balls, am I right?
The Tigers have had nine All-Star catchers in their history. Here’s a roundup of those Detroit receivers, hopefully with some factoids you didn’t know.
As far as we know, Cochrane is the only Hall of Famer to have another Hall of Famer named after him (actual first name). Mickey Mantle’s father “Mutt” Mantle was a fan of the Athletics in the 1930s and named his son after the Philadelphia catcher.
Cochrane only hit six homers in Detroit in his career and one of those was grand slam. A lefthanded hitter who stood under six feet, Mickey was not a power hitter, preferring to slap the pitch to the opposite field or pull it through the hole between first and second.
Most Detroit fans know that York set a record in his rookie season with 18 home runs in one month. In that era, when 20 homers meant something, 18 in a month was unbelievable. York was one of the strongest players in baseball, a man so imposing at the plate that he struck fear in pitchers. One American League manager said of him: “He’s half-Indian, half-white, and half monster.”
York was never drafted during World War II and he found himself in a pickle in 1943 when he got into a contract squabble with the Detroit front office. York didn’t warm to the idea of a salary cut the team wanted everyone to take. Instead he held out during spring training, but after a few weeks he caved. The popular slugger suffered for his stand however, and for the first few weeks of the ’43 season he was greeted with jeers in Detroit. Rudy redeemed himself: he led the league in homers and runs batted in that season. By that time, York was a first baseman.
Tebbetts was an All-Star for the Tigers in 1941 and 1942. He succeeded York at the position for Detroit and he was almost the exact opposite as a player. York hit 35 homers in his rookie season. Birdie hit 38 homers in his entire 14-year career. But while York was a pretty bad defensive catcher, Tebbetts was a master at the craft. He was good enough with the glove that when he was 35 and 36, he earned MVP votes while playing behind the dish for the Red Sox in the late 1940s.
Why was George Tebbetts called “Birdie”? Because when he was a tyke a family member noticed that his voice sounded like a chirping bird.
When Hank Greenberg became general manager of the Indians, he hired his old teammate Birdie as a minor league manager and scout director. Tebbetts later managed the Reds, Braves, and Indians, but never finished higher than third, despite a career winning record as a skipper.
During the 1969 season, Freehan kept a diary, as was recently mentioned by Bruce Markusen on this blog. The diary became the book “Behind the Mask,” which is an underrated baseball book. It’s not nearly as controversial (or well written) as Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” (which came out the same year), but it does contain some keen insights into the workings of a baseball team. Freehan’s contempt for teammate Denny McLain is apparent in the book, as is his respect for superstar Al Kaline.
Want symmetry? Freehan hit exactly 200 home runs, 100 at Tiger Stadium and 100 on the road. 125 came against righthanded pitchers, 75 against lefties.
When Parrish came up through the Detroit organization in the mid-1970s, the farm system was teeming with ballplaying talent. The Tigers bright prospects were bubbling to the top and the big catcher was one of the prized blue chips. But there were serious questions about him. Some in the organization felt his weightlifting would hamper his progress and his flexibility behind the plate. One of those critics was a high-ranking member of the club.
In 1980 at his first spring training as Detroit manager, Sparky Anderson made a point to monitor Parrish’s workout routine. The new skipper was old-school, he didn’t think a ballplayer should be muscle-bound. Today, we’re used to seeing sculpted baseball players with chests that look like their made of granite. But in the 1970s, Parrish was a freak.
The muscles didn’t hurt, of course. Parrish played 19 seasons, and unlike most catchers, he never transitioned to another spot in the field. He caught more than 1,800 games, a figure that still ranks in the top ten all-time. Not bad for a “muscle-head.”
Nokes was probably the most unlikely All-Star catcher in Detroit history. When Parrish left as a free agent before the 1987 season, it looked like the Tigers would have a big void. But Nokes caught 109 games and hit 32 homers to finish third in Rookie of the Year voting. His unexpected performance helped the Tigers to 98 wins in one of the most thrilling seasons in team history.
But Matty never captured that magic again and he spent only 2 1/2 more seasons with Detroit. He later had some fine seasons for the Yankees. On September 4, 1993, Nokes was behind the plate when Jim Abbott, the one-armed pitching star from the University of Michigan, tossed a no-hitter for the Yankees.
Mickey is connected to Cochrane. No, he wasn’t named for the former Tiger catcher, he was named after Mickey Mantle, who was born in Oklahoma like Tettleton. Cochrane begat Mantle who begat Tettleton, got it?
While he was in his first big league training camp with the Oakland A’s in 1984, Tettleton earned a nickname that stuck the rest of his career. Teammate Joe Morgan noticed that Tettleton ate cereal every day in the clubhouse. From that point on, he was known as “Fruit Loops.”
Tettleton hit 245 home runs. His first came off Frank Tanana in 1984, when Tanana was pitching for the Rangers.
Like Cochrane, when Purge arrived in Detroit, the whole story changed. The Tigers quickly became winners. The year before Rodriguez was signed as a free agent, the Tigers lost an embarrassing 119 games. They improved by 29 games in the first year with Pudge, who was an immediate All-Star. In 2005 the team hosted the All-Star Game and Rodriguez was like the unofficial host for the three-day festivities. The team was fun again and attendance went over two million. The following season, the Tigers shocked the baseball world when they won 95 games and the pennant. From there, the Tigers were a competitive team for nearly a decade, winning even after Pudge was traded.
He returns to the Tigers in 2017 for his second stint after having spent seven seasons in Motown. Avila was the starting catcher for the Tigers from 2011-2014 when the club won four consecutive division titles.
His All-Star campaign came in 2011 when the 24-year old his 19 homers and drove in more than 80 runs. He earned a reputation for working well with Justin Verlander, catching almost all of JV’s starts for those four seasons and hitting more than his share of homers during those games.
Who was your favorite Detroit catcher? Tell me in the comments below.