July 18, 2011
For the past century, almost no left handers have strapped on shin guards and gone behind the plate. A long season makes people do goofy things, so there have been occasional glimpses of lefties, but they have been more of a novelty than anything. The Cubs Dale Long caught two games in 1958, White Sox 1B Mike Squires caught a few games in the early 80s, and Benny Distefano caught for 6 innings for the Pirates as an emergency replacement in 1989. He was the last lefty to wear the tools of ignorance.
Only 5 left handers have caught over 100 games, and all of them played in the 19th century. The first lefty to go behind the plate was Philly native Bill Harbridge, who did so for the Hartford Dark Blues in 1876. He would catch 128 games. But there was only one left handed catcher who had a long, impressive career behind the plate. That was Jack Clements, who played on the Phillies from 1884-1897. (Not only was he the last every day lefty catcher, he was also the first catcher to ever wear a chest protector.) Though defensive stats are unavailable, we do have this little gem from the Phildelphia Ledger to let us know what kind of a catcher he was…his fine throwing held runners so closely to their bases, that they could not get around unless by consecutive hitting or through errors by the fielders.
Clements was a fine hitter, batting .287 for his career but hitting .350 or high for three straight years from 1894-1896. (The 1894 team was one of the greatest hitting teams in baseball history, with all 3 outfielders hitting over .400 and the team hitting .350 as a group.) Clements had some pop, too, hitting 17 homers in 1893 and finishing his career as the only 19th century player who played in 1,000 or more games with more career homers (77) than triples (60). Bill James had him listed as the 58th greatest catcher ever, and he certainly can be included in the discussion with Lieberthal, Boone, Seminick, and Daulton for greatest Phillies catcher of all time.
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