"BEHIND THE PLATE IS MY HOME"
Thanks to the efforts of some committed teachers and willing students, Black catchers might be in for a resurgence
By Jerry Crasnick
While most kids his age were running around in Spiderman costumes, George Baker preferred a different kind of superhero outfit. He was a pre-kindergartener when his father handed him a catcher’s mask, a chest protector and some shin guards and let him have at it. Little George was never afraid of the ball, or skittish about bruised arms and other consequences from errant pitches. He was a budding young athlete in his element -- sweaty, dirt-caked, exhausted, and physically and emotionally fulfilled.
“He loved the grit of it,’’ says his dad. “Catching runs deep in our family.’’
Some families pass down a talent for art or music. The Bakers of Waldorf, Md., have a thing for catching. George IV played the position in college at Liberty University and George Washington in the late 1980s before a brief run in the minors with the Orioles and Marlins. He has spent the past three decades teaching and training catchers, many of them minorities, at the youth level. His son, George V, has inherited his backstopping tendencies. And sister Jaelyn was a talented Division I softball catcher at Delaware State University.
One family doesn’t necessarily portend an industry trend. But the Bakers might help provide an answer to a nagging question: Where have all the Black catchers gone?
George Baker (the son) and his friend Zion Rose, a highly regarded prospect out of Chicago, are travel ball alumni and products of the Hank Aaron Invitational, an annual collaboration between USA Baseball and the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation that focuses on helping high school players from diverse backgrounds reach the next level. During their HAI stints in Vero Beach, Fla., and Atlanta, Baker and Rose were tutored by former big league catchers Charles Johnson and Lenny Webster and longtime MLB catcher-turned-manager Mike Scioscia in the finer points of the position.
Now they’re sharing a campus and a dream at the University of Louisville, where they’re hoping to continue a school tradition and eventually ascend to pro ball.
The landscape for aspiring Black catchers is changing, thanks to the hard work and commitment of coaches on the front lines and some prominent role models. Bo Naylor, a native of Ontario, Canada, made his major league debut this year and has emerged as the Guardians’ catcher of the future. Harry Ford is a top 100 prospect working his way up the Mariners’ chain. Paul McIntosh spent time in Triple-A ball with the Marlins this year. And Darius Perry, a former All-Pac-12 catcher at UCLA, recently began his pro career after signing with the Rockies in the MLB draft.
Could more be on the way? Webster, who played parts of 12 big league seasons before gravitating to coaching, sees a ripple of interest with the potential to turn into a wave.
“There's a lot more interest being garnered as far as African American kids wanting to be catchers,’’ Webster says. “I think that’s why you're starting to see somewhat of an influx of talented African American catchers. A few kids have come along and taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, and really want to catch. I've seen several kids come through our program who have a chance to possibly catch in the big leagues someday.’’
Long before Black catchers faded from the scene, some all-time greats helped set the standard. Josh Gibson attained near-mythical status in the Negro Leagues. Roy Campanella won three MVP awards with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s and, like Gibson, reached the Hall of Fame. Elston Howard won an MVP Award and made 12 All-Star teams with the Yankees, and John Roseboro, Earl Battey and Elrod Hendricks earned respect for their durability and consistent performance in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Black representation began to wane drastically after the mid-1980s, when Floyd “Honey Bear’’ Rayford backed up Rick Dempsey in Baltimore. Since Webster retired in 2000 and Charles Johnson put away the gear five years later, it’s been Russell Martin and a few assorted cameos.
The decline in Black catchers reflects a slowdown in Black participation in baseball overall. Developmental baseball is an expensive proposition, with barriers to entry for young athletes whose families can’t afford exorbitant costs for showcases and equipment. And the lure of a quicker route to success has made football and basketball more appealing to many athletes. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, only 6.2% of players on MLB Opening Day rosters in 2023 were Black. For sake of comparison, Black players made up 18% of big league rosters in 1991.
At the catcher position, Latin-American players have filled the void. Of the 30 Opening Day catchers in the majors in 2022, 14 came from Spanish-speaking countries. The list includes seven Venezuelans, three Puerto Ricans, and one player each from Mexico, Cuba, Panama and Brazil (Yan Gomes).
Charles Johnson carved out his path behind the plate as a young ballplayer in Florida after catching the bug at an early age. He learned the art of catching from his father and wanted to emulate his uncle Terry McGriff, who reached the majors with Cincinnati in 1987. In a 12-year career with the Florida Marlins and five other clubs, Johnson made two All-Star teams, won four Gold Gloves and played a central role on a World Championship team in 1997.
In his second act as a catching instructor, Johnson approaches each day with a sense of passion and purpose. He’s a stickler for details, from blocking balls to proper throwing mechanics to all the other trade secrets that help catchers help pitchers navigate a lineup. He bonds with kids who view selflessness as the ultimate virtue and revel in the less glamorous aspects of the role.
“Hopefully I can encourage them that it’s possible, because catching is such a rewarding position -- to be out there day in and day out and be a decision maker on the field and know you were part of every pitch,’’ Johnson says. “I want a lot of Black kids to catch, because it’s such an exciting place to be. It’s hard work. Don’t get me wrong. It takes dedication. But it’s so rewarding.’’
While Johnson was a workhorse, averaging 122 starts a season at his career peak, MLB teams are less inclined to rely on a single iron man at the position these days. Last year, J.T. Realmuto of the Phillies started a major-league high 130 games behind the plate and was one of only six catchers to surpass 100 starts. In 2002, Jason Kendall started 140 games and was one of 15 catchers to top 100.
At a time when versatility is prized, some baseball people see a future where organizations exercise more creativity and open-mindedness and don’t reflexively funnel aspiring Black catchers to the outfield. Will there come a day soon when we see a Russell Martin super-hybrid who splits his time between catcher and second base?
“This is no different than when there weren’t Black quarterbacks or Black shortstops,’’ says Reggie Waller, a former minor league player, manager, scout and baseball executive who currently works as an MLBPA consultant focusing on youth development. “It’s all about changing mindsets and being open to the fact that these kids have the ability to perform at these positions provided they get the chance. You don’t have to take a guy and start moving him to the outfield, which is a common move.
“Today's game is changing. You see what’s going on with the Dodgers: They’re taking guys and moving them in multiple positions. And it really is indicative of what present day travel ball is all about. Kids play multiple positions. They’re accustomed to it. They absolutely believe they can do it because they’ve always done it.’’
Several participants at this year’s Hank Aaron Invitational spoke of the gratification they derive from catching, and the emotional tug of the position. Ryland Duson, a junior at Vista Murrieta High School in California, plays quarterback on his school’s football team and patterns his game after Lamar Jackson. He switched positions in baseball to accommodate an upperclassman as a sophomore, but is intent on locking down the catching job next season.
“People say I’m a leader, and behind the plate you get to lead the game and control the whole game,’’ Duson says. “They put me in the outfield and it wasn’t for me. Behind the plate is my home.’’
Photo courtesy of @showtime.bake
Photo courtesy of @zionrose4
At Louisville, George Baker and Zion Rose are joining a program with a track record for producing elite catchers. Former Cardinal Will Smith made the All-Star team with the Dodgers this year. Henry Davis was drafted No. 1 overall by Pittsburgh two years ago and is in the majors at age 23 -- albeit in right field. Two other recent Louisville catchers, Dalton Rushing and Jack Payton, have also graduated to pro ball.
Now Baker and Rose are embracing that legacy, even though there are only so many innings to go around. Rose is a capable outfielder and Baker has the versatility to play first and third base. But they’re at their most comfortable in a squatting position, beneath all that gear. It’s been that way for Baker for as long as he can remember.
“My dad was training kids how to catch since I was a baby,’’ he says. “I had the love for it.’’
Like so many of their peers in the next wave, they watch Bo Naylor’s highlight clips and monitor his Instagram posts and say, “Why not me?’’ While cognizant of the history, they’re fueled by a desire to fulfill their own destinies -- foul tips to the mask notwithstanding.
“Years ago, they referred to the catching gear as ‘the tools of ignorance,’’’ says Lenny Webster. “These young kids have no idea. When I mention that to them, they look at me like I'm crazy.’’