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A Catcher’s Story

Jim Hibbs was an All-American catcher for Stanford University, a member of the 1964 Olympic baseball team, a minor leaguer for eight years, and, briefly, a major leaguer with the (then) California Angels. He is also a Power Line reader.

Jim has written the story of his baseball playing career in a book called A Catcher’s Story. I like the book a lot, and believe that those who followed baseball in the 1960s and early 70s, and those who just like a fun baseball read, will also enjoy it.

Jim was raised in Ventura, California, the middle of a hotbed of young baseball talent in the late 1950s and early 60s. Playing in youth baseball and high school, he faced future major league pitchers like Bill Singer, Jim Colburn, and Jim Lonborg, each of whom had 20-win seasons in the big leagues.

I had my first real conversation with a major league baseball player when Jim and I spoke earlier this month. By contrast, Jim encountered his first future big-leaguer, Steve Hovley, when he was in the second grade and the two battled for athletic supremacy on the school playground.

Hovley eventually became a teammate of Jim Bouton’s in Seattle and features in Bouton’s classic book Ball Four. But A Cather’s Story is, in a way, the anti-Ball Four. Bouton takes a cynical view of his sport and makes plenty of fun of teammates. Hibbs’ book is nearly cynicism-free and with very few exceptions (including a notable one discussed below) has nothing unkind to say about anyone.

For example, Hibbs played for Rocky Bridges, one of baseball’s real characters. Jim could probably have filled pages talking about Bridges’ quirks. Instead, he focuses on Rocky’s “spotless baseball soul.” (Coincidentally, one of Bouton’s books takes its name from Bridges’ statement “I managed good but boy did they play bad”).

Both Ball Four and A Catcher’s Story are honest books, I believe. Bouton chose to focus on human folly; Hibbs opts for human goodness. There’s more than enough of both to write a good baseball book about either.

Jim is particularly grateful to his many managers and coaches. Among them are legendary college coach Rod Dedeaux (his manager at the Olympics), Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson (his manager in training camp), Bill Rigney, Chuck Tanner, Norm Sherry, and Whitey Lockman.

Only Leo Durocher, who managed Jim in training camp, comes off badly. But Jim’s criticism echoes that of players going back as far as Hall of Famer Arky Vaughn, who once refused to play for Leo the Lip until he apologized for publicly blaming a pitcher for throwing a particular pitch that Durocher had told him to.

Some of Jim’s favorite teammates are Andy Messersmith, Juan Pizarro, Charlie Hough, Pete LaCock, and Dave Concepcion. He also got a huge kick out of the great Ernie Banks during Cubs training camp. Some players tired of Banks’ “let’s play two” mantra, but not Jim. “Hibbsy, you want to play two today, don’t you?” Banks would ask. “Sure, Ern, as long as you’re leading the charge,” Jim would answer.

In the spring of 1970, a few months before Pete Rose bowled over Ray Fosse in the All-Star game, Rose attacked Jim’s knee in a home plate collision during an exhibition game between Cincinnati and its top farm team, Indianapolis. Rose mentions the play in his book Charlie Hustle.

As Jim tells it, his left leg was in position to block the plate, while his right leg was extended to help him deal with the throw, which was to his right. According to Jim, Rose’s proper play was a head first slide, with his left hand touching the outside of the plate, which Jim couldn’t really block with his leg. Had Rose made that play, Jim’s sweep tag would have missed him by a foot.

Instead, Rose launched his helmet and shoulders at Jim’s exposed knee, the baseball equivalent of a crack-back block. Rose then jumped to his feet and shouted, “That’ll teach you to block the f___ing plate.”

In discussing Rose, Jim’s language is over-the-top. But it’s easy to understand his outrage. The play cost Jim another shot at the major leagues. For on the evening later that year when he was called up by the Cubs (having moved on from the Reds after spring training), his injured knee gave out on the final play of a game in Tucson. Instead of a return trip to The Show, Jim spent two weeks in the hospital recovering from surgery.

As with Durocher, Jim gets it right about Pete Rose. After all, why would Rose want to “teach” a player in his organization — a potential teammate — not to block the plate on a play where Rose could have scored with a slide. Whatever one thinks about Rose’s play on Fosse, it was not a shot at the catcher’s knee and it occurred in a high-profile game of at least some consequence.

Moreover, Rose’s all-out, show-no-mercy style was appropriate only for him, in his view. When Gene Garber ended Rose’s hitting streak at 44 games with a nasty 3-2 change-up, Rose moaned that Garber had pitched like it was Game 7 of the World Series, and should have challenged him with a fastball. Yet, this was an official major league game, not a meaningless exhibition contest. Why shouldn’t Garber go all out?

Apparently, Rose figured that only he gets to play every game like the World Series depends on it.

A Catcher’s Story is self-published and would have benefited from professional editing. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Jim’s story and recommend it to the baseball fans among our readers.

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