This is game 21 of the 2012 baseball season.
In the first inning let’s take a look at This Week in Baseball History for the 4 week of May.
1960 With Hoyt Wilhelm as his battery mate, Oriole backstop Clint Courtney becomes the first catcher to use the big knuckleball mitt.
Clinton Dawson Courtney was born on March 16, 1927, in Hall Summit, Louisiana.
As a player, Courtney wasn’t elegant, but he got the job done, especially as a field general. At his best, he was a good line-drive hitter, though he never had a great deal of power. His 11 years in the big leagues also featured two intriguing positional footnotes. Courtney gets credit (with an element of doubt) as the first receiver in the majors to wear glasses behind the plate. Nine years later, in 1960, he was the first to wear the giant mitt that Paul Richards developed to help handle knuckleball pitchers.
In 1944, Courtney was drafted into the Army. His first stations were Camp Robinson and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Fort Chaffee’s team played in the 1945 National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita, Kansas. After that, he served in Korea, the Philippines, and Japan, where he was a member of the Army of Occupation. Courtney was an outfielder at first, but then went behind the plate. David Condon’s article further supported the idea that Courtney had played ball before joining the Army. It said, “Along the route, Courtney had developed into a proficient ballplayer.”
Accounts also vary widely as to when Courtney began wearing glasses. The McMaster story said it was while he was in Korea, but Bob Broeg said it was later, in the minors. Jo Lawson’s family knowledge makes intuitive sense: the need arose from his welding job. At any rate, Courtney found he had trouble with high twisting foul pop-ups. A vision check revealed that he had astigmatism, and so he also needed specs to play. There was precedent among catchers in college ball and the minor leagues, and (contrary to the accepted wisdom) a big-league catcher — possibly Mike González — may have worn glasses before Courtney. Courtney’s lenses were shatter-proof and he taped the frame to the sides of his head. Even so, his collision-prone style led him to run through a dozen pairs by 1958.
Shortly after Courtney was discharged in 1947, the New York Yankees signed the lefty-swinging catcher.
He made his big-league debut on September 29, 1951 at Yankee Stadium in the second game of a doubleheader against the Red Sox. He went 0 for 2 and was hit by a Mickey McDermott pitch.
Courtney did not lack confidence; he viewed himself as a legitimate contender for Yogi Berra’s job. Realistically, there was no opportunity for him in the Bronx. Berra was the 1951 American League Most Valuable Player; backup catchers Ralph Houk and Charlie Silvera saw little action while Yogi was in his prime.
Therefore, the Yankees traded Courtney to the St. Louis Browns on November 23, 1951. Rogers Hornsby, who had become the Browns’ manager, recommended that the club obtain Courtney. The Browns felt so confident in Courtney that four days later they traded away another fine catcher, Sherm Lollar. Although the door had opened in the majors, Courtney still resented his lack of opportunity with the Yanks.
Near the end of spring training in 1952, the Browns’ new starting catcher got his “Scrap Iron” nickname. Teammate Duane Pillette and announcer Buddy Blattner have received credit for this label, which came about after a footrace against sportswriter Milton Richman in a railway yard near the end of spring training. Courtney tumbled, sliced himself up all over on glass and rocks, but stayed in for the next day’s exhibition game when Hornsby threatened him with a fine.
Courtney missed a couple of weeks in June after a foul tip split a finger but played in 119 games and batted .286 with 5 homers and 50 Runs Batted In. The Sporting News named him its American League Rookie of the Year.
When the Browns fired Hornsby in June 1952, outfielder Jim Rivera and Courtney were the only men who were sorry to see him go. Courtney said, “He never spoke to me either but I understood him. Most of these fellows couldn’t play for him but I could. He was tough but he was okay with me.” It was reported that the other Browns expressed their gratitude by giving owner Veeck a trophy, but there is lingering suspicion that Veeck bought the trophy himself as another of his publicity stunts.
About a month later, on July 12, Courtney got into the first of his on-field fights with the Yankees and the noted sucker-punch specialist Billy Martin. Courtney apparently spiked Billy in the second inning at Sportsman’s Park. Then, “with two out in the eighth, Courtney tried to steal second and was out by a wide margin as Martin applied a hard tag to Courtney’s face.” Courtney followed Billy, who pivoted and slugged the catcher. A brawl ensued and umpire Bill Summers was knocked flat.
Courtney drew a five-game suspension and a $100 fine. As Milton Richman noted, “Courtney already had a reputation for belligerence when he first came up.” He described how the catcher “kayoed” and “flattened” two different teammates who were either not playing team ball or kibitzing card games in which Courtney was losing.
During that season Courtney developed a rapport with Satchel Paige. Bill Veeck told the story in his autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck. Courtney “had served notice that he wouldn’t catch Satch. I liked Courtney because he was a rough, tough little man who played the game for all it was worth. I felt very strongly that this was a matter entirely of environment and upbringing. Once Clint got to know Satch, I was sure, he’d come around — even though I was perfectly aware that Satch would do nothing to appease him.” ‘
That was how it worked out. Veeck later said, “One day I noticed Clint was warming him up. I walked into a bar in Detroit called The Flame. There were Leroy and Clint having dinner together. Courtney told me, ‘My pap’s comin’ up tomorrow from Lou’siana and he’s gonna be mighty mad when he hears about us being friends. But Satch and me figure we can whup him together.’” Eventually Paige said, “There’s the meanest man I ever met, but I’m glad he’s on my side.”
In 1953 Courtney sought a 60 percent raise from $7,500 to $12,000 after his fine rookie year. Bill Veeck responded with an $11,000 contract. Courtney wrote back, “Dear Veeck: I changed my mind. I want $14,000, not $12,000. Clint.”
On April 28 Courtney mixed it up with the Yankees again. In the 10th inning at Sportsman’s Park, he got riled. His old minor-league teammate Gil McDougald had jarred the ball loose on a play at the plate, which he always protected zealously. In response, he rammed into Phil Rizzuto at second base with spikes high in the bottom of the inning. The Yankees came to the defense of their little shortstop, and it turned into another free-for-all. Umpire John Stevens suffered a dislocated shoulder; fans heaved soda bottles on the field; action was halted for 17 minutes. American League President Will Harridge meted out a total of $850 in fines — including $250 on “instigator” Courtney for “violating all rules of sportsmanship.”
The ’53 season also featured another dustup in July. This time Courtney squared off with Johnny Bucha of Detroit when the opposing catcher came in hard at the plate. Over the course of the year he produced much less with the bat, driving in just 19 men on four homers while hitting .251 in 106 games. Broken fingers early in the season hampered him.
Courtney was still first-string after the Browns franchise shifted to Baltimore for the 1954 season. His home run off Chicago’s Virgil Trucks on April 15 was the first in the big leagues at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium. Courtney hit a respectable .270 with 4 homers and 37 Runs Batted In. Perhaps his most distinctive number at the plate, though, was his strikeout total: just seven in 437 plate appearances, which remains a club record.
On November 17 of that year, the Orioles obtained catcher Gus Triandos in a 17-player deal with New York. A few weeks later, Courtney became part of a seven-man swap with the White Sox. Marty Marion Chicago’s manager said, “We wanted catching strength and I think we got it.
At the end of March 1955 Courtney told United Press, “Gone soft, hell! I’m just as wild as I ever was. I still don’t take nuthin’ from nobody. They say I turned into a lamb just because I got fined for one of those fights, huh? Well, whoever says it is crazy.” He added, “This is a good club to be with — providin’ they gimme some work to do.”
Courtney spent less than half a season in Chicago. He didn’t get off on the right foot there, holding out for a better contract from Frank Lane. On June 7, 1955, the White Sox sent him in a 3-for-1 deal to the Washington Senators. Courtney finished the year hitting .309 and was at .300 in 1956. He was a semi-regular, getting roughly 300 plate appearances a year from 1955 through 1957.
In 1958 Courtney was the subject of trade talks in the early part of the season. However, Washington didn’t trade him and he went on to set a number of career highs: games played, plate appearances, home runs, and Runs Batted In.
Courtney split the Senators’ catching duties almost evenly with Hal Naragon in 1959. He had a heart-attack scare in February, but the ailment was later diagnosed as pleurisy. Then in the exhibition season, he suffered a hairline fracture of the leg in a collision at the plate. Expected to be out for a month to six weeks, he was back in action mere days later. However, mumps kept him out of the lineup from late April through early June. His batting fell off to a .233 average.
On April 3, 1960, Washington traded Courtney back to Baltimore.
Orioles manager Paul Richards said of the trade, “You know, Courtney is about three times better a catcher than anyone has ever given him for being. He hops around out there, but he gets the job done. He’s one of the fellows who doesn’t mind winning.” A word about Courtney’s arm is in order, too. He played in a time when the stolen base was largely out of vogue, but throughout his career, he nailed 41percent of opposing runners. In addition, he possessed another valuable skill as a receiver, being an expert “framer” of pitches.
Hoyt Wilhelm’s knuckleball had bedeviled Gus Triandos, who surrendered 28 passed balls and 29 wild pitches in 1959. Triandos later said, “The more I caught him, the worse I got.” During the early going in 1960, Gus and Baltimore’s other catcher, Joe Ginsberg, gave up 11 more passed balls and four wild pitches while Wilhelm was working. The Orioles’ staff had another knuckleballer too, Hal “Skinny” Brown.
The innovative Richards, noting that there was no regulation governing the size of catcher’s mitts, came up with the model called “Big Bertha” or “the elephant ear.” He had first hatched the idea in the fall of 1959; in May 1960 he said, “with the situation no better, I sent [Orioles pitching coach] Harry Brecheen to Chicago to a factory.” The mitt was 42 inches in circumference and weighed 30 ounces, vs. the standard 33-34 inches and 27 ounces.
Courtney got to break in the mitt on May 27 when Wilhelm pitched against the Yankees. The Orioles won 3-2, and the game was free of passed balls. After the game, Courtney said the glove was easy to handle. “I don’t know how many pitches would have jumped past me with a regular glove. This was the first time I ever caught [Wilhelm]. Boy is he rough to catch. I don’t see how anybody ever hits him.”
Major League Baseball’s rules committee enacted a rule against the Big Berthas in December 1964, establishing a maximum circumference of 38 inches for catcher’s mitts.
The oddity of Courtney’s 1960 season was a bout with the yips. Various catchers have found themselves unable to throw the ball back to the pitcher normally. Courtney got around the mental block either by throwing the ball to third base or by walking partway to the mound. Fortunately, the malady did not last long, but it was ironic because Courtney had been known in the past for “burning” the ball back to his pitchers.
On January 24, 1961, Courtney was packed off again, going to Kansas City. Courtney appeared in just one game for the A’s, however, before they returned him to Baltimore on April 14. Courtney’s last major-league appearance came on June 24, 1961.
In February 1962 the expansion Houston Colt .45s signed Courtney as a free agent. However, the big club cut the 35-year-old veteran in April 1962.
Courtney hung on in the minors for two more years as a player-coach.
Courtney finished up behind the plate with 37 games for San Antonio in 1964. In November he rejoined Houston as a combination bullpen coach and catcher. His feisty side was still on display in the 1965 season, as he got into a brief fistfight with teammate Lee Maye. As Courtney was hitting fungoes, a little kidding got out of hand. Courtney got a bruise on his head and a minor finger injury.
Courtney went on to coach and manage in the minor leagues for the rest of his life.
Clint Courtney died on June 16, 1975, in Rochester NY at the age of 48.
A large part of this biography comes from the SABR Baseball Biography Project written by Rory Costello. It can be found online at http://bioproj.sabr.org
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Well, that’s it for today’s Baseball History Podcast. I’ll see you later at the ballpark.