Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning


“Tools of Ignorance”

The Evolution of the Role and Equipment of the Catcher in Baseball

By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E

“Tools of Ignorance” is the nickname given to a catcher’s protective equipment: mask, chest protector and shin guards. Different sources have credited Muddy Ruel and Billy Dickey with coining the phrase. According to either version, the usage was meant to be ironic, contrasting the intelligence needed by a catcher to handle the duties of the position with the foolishness needed to play a position hazardous enough to require so much protective equipment.

Today, the catcher is without question the most involved position on the diamond, playing a part in every single pitch of the game. But this was not always the case. In the mid-1870s, when pitchers threw underhand, a catcher was literally a backstop. He stood 10-feet behind the plate with something resembling a mattress strapped across his chest and his job was to block balls with his chest to prevent them from going to the backstop. In the late 1870s, rubber mouth pieces similar those worn by boxers and fencing-type masks were introduced to help otherwise defenseless catchers. Other innovations included:

  • Catcher’s mitt. Catchers, like the other fielders on the team, caught bear-handed until 1890 when Albert Spalding introduced something that looked like a padded, fingerless railroad workman’s glove. Catchers didn’t catch the ball with the padded glove, they let it hit their chest protector and then smothered it with both hands as it bounced off their chest. Baseball gloves for position players were not allowed until 1895, and they were not used to catch the ball. They were used to knock the ball to the ground and then pick it up. The catcher and the first baseman were permitted to wear a glove or mitt of any size, shape or weight. All other players were restricted to the use of a glove or mitt not weighing over ten ounces, and measuring in circumference around the palm of the hand and not over fourteen inches. The original gloves were created not to catch the ball, but to knock it to the ground where the player would pick it up and throw it to the appropriate base.

The round, pillow style catcher’s mitt was introduced in 1899, and with several minor modifications, remained the same until the 1920s. The first mitts were small, flat and shapeless throughout the dead ball era. Over time, finger loops were added and depth was increased so the ball would stick, but the catcher still had to use two hands. The catching technique with the pillow mitt was to stop the ball with the relatively stiff mitt, then secure it with the bare hand. This was accomplished by holding the bare hand behind the mitt and quickly moving it to the ball after it hit the mitt. If the catcher had to move his mitt to catch a ball and failed to move both hands in unison, the bare hand could be exposed and subject to harm. Jammed and broken fingers were very common injuries during the pillow-mitt era.

Over time, mitts evolved to match today’s style of baseball. Catchers now have to one-hand or backhand the ball, which means that they have to work lower because pitching is lower. When a catcher is that low, he can’t hold two hands out in front. In the 1950s, Gus Niarhos cut an opening in his mitt so he could squeeze the two sides together like a fielder’s glove. This led to catcher’s mitts with breaks in them and long oval pockets. Previously, mitts had a pocket but no breaks, and catchers caught two-handed so the ball wouldn’t pop out. One-handed catching became possible with the hinged mitt and was popularized by catchers like Johnny Bench and Randy Hundley in the late 1960s. The spring-action hinge snaped the mitt close on contact, thus allowing catchers to catch one handed and reduce the risk of injury to the throwing hand.

  • Catcher’s mask. As previously noted, catchers in 1876 used a fencing mask to protect the head and face. As they moved closer to the plate and better vision became important, mask design began to change. In 1878, Spalding offered an open view mask which consisted of an oval frame, forehead and chin pads covered with imported dog skin and metal bars to improve vision. Over time, improvements in mask design, weight and safety were made. Most of today’s catchers use a hockey style helmet that resembles Darth Vader’s head gear. The new helmet is made of high-tech polycarbon, and protects the top, sides, and back of the head. The cage-like opening in the front is bigger than that of a normal mask which increases a catcher’s peripheral vision and the V-shape design deflects the ball so that it doesn’t hit the catcher flush like previous masks.

  • Chest protector. Legend has it that the wife of Detroit Wolverines catcher Charles Bennett devised the first chest pad to protect her husband. He wore it outside his jersey in 1883. Prior to this, catchers wore “breast protectors” made of sheepskin under their uniforms to avoid razzing by teammates, opponents and fans. James “Deacon” White, is said to have created the first chest protector in the early 1880s. His design included a canvas-covered rubber bladder pumped full of air. Padding eventually replaced the air tubes. Today’s chest protectors are ultra-light, made of memory foam with thermos foam backing, CoolMax lining and removable shoulder pads. They couture to the body to maximizes range of motion provide catchers with the most protection with minimum weight. Youth models come with removable tail pieces that protect the groin.

  • Shin guards. In early 1890, catchers began wrapping their bare lower legs with newspapers or leather, which was then hidden under their uniforms. This later evolved into more elaborate pads, all worn under the pants. In 1907, catchers adopted a larger, bulkier version of the leg pads worn by cricket players which consisted of light cane rods encased in padded fabric to cover the shins, and padding to protect the knees.  Within a couple of years shin guards were widely accepted. In 1916, Rawlings introduced hard, heavy fiberboard shin guards and -the term “tools of ignorance” was coined. Shin guards remained relatively unchanged until 1995 when W. F. Hunt Jr. patented leg guards with adjustable lower thigh pieces to facilitate lower crouches and increased protection. Today’s shin guards are much lighter and protect the foot, toes and ankles. Their light weight allows catchers to get lower, catch on one knee and be more mobile and athletic when receiving pitches, making tags, chasing pop-ups, fielding bunts and receiving throws from infielders and outfielders.

  • Catching style. Catchers began to get closer to the plate in the early the 1880s, when a rule change dictated that the final strike, including foul tips, had to be caught on a fly for a putout. Pitchers had begun throwing overhand by 1884, when the National League ruled that pitchers could throw underhand, sidearm, or overhand.

Even after somewhat protective gear was available, most catchers stood upright behind the plate in the early days. It wasn’t until the late 1920s and early 1930s that catchers began to squat directly behind home plate.

Early catchers were often stocky and the least athletic players on the team. Teams didn’t want non-athletic players in the field and they wanted sturdy guys who could block the plate and were not afraid of collisions with opposing players errant bats and wayward baseballs. Over time, the position of catcher changed drastically. In the 1950s and 1960s, catchers like Yogi Berra caught with the throwing hand behind the catcher’s mitt to ensure that the ball was caught. With the advent of the hinged catcher’s mitt, players like Johnny Bench perfected the one-hand style with the throwing hand protected behind the body. In the 1970’s and 1980’s some teams opted for catchers who were more athletic and flexible like Tony Pena who could get down so low that they were sitting on one hip with the other leg extended to the side. Today, many catchers have adopted one-knee stances to help them receive and frame pitches at the bottom of the strike zone and help the pitcher get more called strikes. The current emphasis on getting lower and framing pitches has led to teams looking for more athletic, flexible and mobile catchers. It has also led to strength and conditioning coaches altering the design of strength and conditioning programs for catchers to enhance flexibility, mobility, strength, speed and performance in their ever-changing roles.

The design and materials used in catcher’s equipment have changed significantly over time to match the changes in the responsibilities and movements required of catchers. Long gone are the days when the catcher was just a backstop that stood 10-feet behind the plate and blocked balls with his body. According to Jerry Weinstein, former MLB catching coordinator for the Brewers and Dodgers and minor league manager for the Expos, Cubs and Rockies, “The catcher is the ultimate warrior in sports. He is up-tempo and high energy. He comes to play every minute of every day both in games and in preparation for games. He is mentally and physically tough. He is unselfish, low-maintenance and dedicated to winning. He makes everyone around him better. He gets the most out of every pitcher by being totally prepared and by making the pitcher’s success his number one priority. He is a ‘location facilitator.’”

Today’s elite catchers are athletic and they want to catch. They are flexible and agile. They are not fast compared to other players, but they can cover short distances rapidly. They are strong, quick, and have the muscular endurance and physical work capacity to go through their daily preparation and catch 9 or more innings 5-6 times per week in the cold, heat and occasional rain. They are mentally and emotionally strong and capable of managing a game and a pitching staff. Catchers operate at one speed – their “best speed” on every pitch. No little things exist for a catcher; everything is important.

According to Weinstein’s The Complete Handbook of Coaching Catchers, the most important traits for a catcher to possess are:

  • Overall athleticism

  • Ease of actions – movements are fluid and efficient and effortless; catchers must be light on their feet and movements behind the plate and throwing should be compact

  • Past history of success in other sports or positions – better catchers were often quarterbacks, point guards or infielders

  • High state of awareness – creative game manager and pitch caller, high-energy, efficient on the bases and quick putting on gear between innings

  • Body language – confident, calm, consistent, high-energy, able to adjust to adversity

  • Unselfish – team orientated, runs balls out, makes productive outs, well-liked by teammates

  • Smart/lifelong learner – analytical and aptitude to learn, adjust and help others

  • Good anticipation skills

  • Strong physical presence

  • Flexible stance and able to block balls correctly with fluid movements

  • Quickness – ability to move laterally and quickly block balls

  • Minimal history of injury – best predictor of injury is previous injury

  • Good eye-hand skills – seldom drops pitches or strikes out

  • Relaxation – able to keep blocked ball close

  • Throwing – accurate, in-line carry

  • Ability to frame pitches

Quotes from and about catchers:


Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM has over four decades as a head strength and conditioning coach (Astros) and strength and conditioning consultant (Rangers). He is Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager


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