What happened to the African American catcher?
Examining the lack of black catchers in MLB and the prospects with a shot
On March 12, A.J. Lewis’ collegiate baseball career abruptly ended, like a candle snuffed out by a sudden, chilling wind.
Caught in the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, the 21-year-old catcher could have headed home to Chicago. He was enjoying an impressive season with Eastern Kentucky University, enough so to be named to the watch list for the 2020 Buster Posey National Collegiate Catcher of the Year Award.
Instead, the senior catcher pointed his car south. His destination: Atlanta, 357 miles away but, he hoped, one giant step closer to his goal of playing a transformative role in Major League Baseball. Lewis is determined to not only rise to the majors, but to also become the first African American everyday starting catcher since Charles Johnson, who last played 15 years ago.
That drought — a puzzlement at every level of the game — “is something I want to change,” Lewis said. He is intent on jump-starting the proud tradition of black catchers such as Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella and Johnson.
“Those guys are like superheroes to me, because they did things that were impossible,” Lewis said from Atlanta, where he spent two weeks working with Nic Wilson, a former Eastern Kentucky coach who is now a hitting instructor for the Colorado Rockies’ Class A-short season Boise team. “Those guys were what I want to be. So, I got to love seeing myself in that situation.”
Since the moment Campanella joined the Dodgers in 1948, the year after his Brooklyn teammate Jackie Robinson integrated the major leagues, there have been several black and Latino catchers. Puerto Rico’s Ivan Rodriguez won 13 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards as he built a Hall of Fame career. Others of the Caribbean and Latin America who shone on the big stage include the Molina brothers, Jose, Bengie and probable Hall of Famer Yadier; Elrod Hendricks; Manny Sanguillen; and Tony Pena. Also enjoying a notable career is black Canadian catcher Russell Martin.
That there were African American standouts at the position also cannot be denied.
Gibson never gained entry into the majors because of the color of his skin, yet he is practically deified as stories about his feats abound in this, the 100th year of the founding of the Negro Leagues.
Campanella crafted a laudable Hall of Fame career in Brooklyn. Mainstays Elston Howard, John Roseboro and Earl Battey combined to win seven Gold Gloves from 1960 to 1966. Johnson won four straight National League Gold Gloves from 1995 to 1998.
Those backstops long stood out as beacons for hopeful young black catchers across the nation. Now those beacons are nonexistent. Bruce Maxwell, who is biracial, is the last black catcher to log at least 100 games in the post-Johnson era (119 games, from 2016 to 2018, with the Oakland Athletics).
Where did they all go? And how did this happen?
No one is more anxious than Johnson to see a young African American catcher like Lewis succeed. Then maybe Johnson could stop having to dissect this glaring, yet overlooked problem in baseball, as he waits to finally hand the baton to someone … anyone.
When that will be, Johnson can’t even hazard a guess. But he could have portended the demise of the African American catcher, considering he never needed more than one hand to count the number of black catchers he encountered in his 12-year major league career.
A first-round choice of the Marlins in 1992, Johnson said that in his years in the minors, then after he was called up in 1994, he never saw a black catcher on an opposing team.
“There were only two other black catchers that I knew of: Terry McGriff and Lenny Webster,” said Johnson. Webster was his teammate briefly in Baltimore in 1999. “One of very few [all] black batteries,” Johnson said.
McGriff? In a world made even smaller by more than just happenchance, he is Johnson’s first cousin. The two learned to catch during their childhoods in Fort Pierce, Florida, tutored by brothers, cousins and most notably their fathers. Roy McGriff, a catcher, played for Southern University; he roomed with a youngster named Lou Brock. Charles Johnson Sr. played ball at Florida A&M University, and, like his brother-in-law, also teamed with a future Hall of Famer, Andre Dawson.
It was in this baseball-rich environment that the dreams of two little boys were nurtured from an early age. When an 8-year-old Johnson told his father that he wanted to be a catcher, Johnson Sr. hauled home an Iron Mike pitching machine to bounce pitch after pitch in the dirt for Johnson to learn how to block pitches.
“My dad had a wooden toolshed I’d squat in front of. I missed a whole lot of balls. Eventually, those balls tore a big old hole in that shed,” Johnson said, laughing. “After a while, my goal became not to let the ball get through that hole.”
That training and dedication led Johnson to the University of Miami, a collegiate baseball powerhouse, and to a spot on the gold medal-winning 1988 U.S. Junior Olympic baseball team. When Johnson was taken by the Marlins, he became the expansion franchise’s first draft pick and a team cornerstone for years.
Terry McGriff, a few years older than Johnson, would exit the majors after playing sporadically from 1987 to 1994. Johnson took up the family mantle and went on to earn All-Star berths, Gold Gloves and even a World Series ring. To this day, Johnson remains a member of the Marlins’ extended family, serving the team as a community ambassador. As heady as his playing career became, Johnson always felt the African American catcher remained an aberration.
“From 1995, it was just Lenny and me [in the majors],” he said of Webster, whose career spanned a dozen seasons and ended in 2000. “Now there are none. To me, that is mind-boggling.”
The theories as to where the black American catcher has gone are as plenty as Johnson’s successors are few. Causes beyond players “growing out of the position,” or unequal access to catching equipment, are being examined by those trying to better the access to baseball for youths from underserved communities.
The fact is, the game’s new math doesn’t help. The master of business administration degrees wielded by more and more of baseball’s general managers depend on computer algorithms and predictive measures. These predictive models are often based on comparisons to similar past players. But the numbers of black youths just aren’t being filtered through the system of travel teams and showcases to be able to formulate that insight.
On Opening Day of the 2019 season, just 7.7% of MLB players were African American, down from its zenith of 18.5% in 1975.
Fewer African Americans are playing baseball. Even fewer are being encouraged to be catchers. Those dwindling numbers offer less data. Less data equals more risk. Thus, African American talent development has dwindled.
Likewise, old-school scouting methods and eye tests can also put black catchers at a unique disadvantage, said Kerrick Jackson, head baseball coach at the historically black Southern University and chair of the American Baseball Coaches Association’s diversity committee.
“I have talked to kids, ones who have been borderline [prospects], who have thoughts about the draft, and I say, ‘Make sure you understand that Major League Baseball is based on tradition and it is based on history,’ ” said Jackson, himself a catcher until his sophomore year in high school, when he was converted to a pitcher. From then on, into junior college then Bethune-Cookman University, Jackson caught no longer.
“I ask them, ‘How many black catchers have there been in major league history? Name me one,’ ” he said. “They don’t even know Charles Johnson, right? It is just the nature of the business that they [baseball executives] might look at a black catcher and ask, ‘Who do we compare him to?’ If they don’t have a comparison for him, then he’s not necessarily someone they will be comfortable drafting. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the nature of the business.”
Also, just as quarterbacks often are peeled off by offensive and defensive coordinators by the time they reach college or the NFL, so it is five-tool baseball players whose foot speed, strong arms, great range or no-hit stuff so often tantalize. The desire to protect those tools, along with knees, hands, legs, even craniums, can pit parents against coaches, and coaches against catching prospects.
“It is not a glorified position,” said Chip Lawrence, a Southern University graduate who is the national cross-checker for the San Diego Padres and a 20-year scout. Catching takes commitment and a high tolerance for pain.
“Catchers take a beating every time they strap on that gear: the foul balls, the balls in the dirt, the back swings of the bats. You have to have a special makeup to be a catcher,” Lawrence said.
Tim Anderson, the White Sox’s All-Star shortstop, put it more succinctly.
“I wanted to play a position that used my speed and athleticism. Catching was never something that appealed to me. That position wouldn’t allow me to use those skills.”
Lawrence also discounted that the dearth of African American catchers is the result of a long-standing stereotype that African Americans aren’t “cerebral” enough to play the position.
“I don’t feel the shortage of African American catchers is due to questions of intellect. The game has changed so much at the amateur level that the thinking side of calling pitches has been pretty much eliminated due to coaches calling pitches and relaying them in from the dugout,” Lawrence said.
“Most colleges want a player that can receive and be athletic behind the plate, with the ability to hit being a bonus. If anything, we are seeing more college African American catchers now than we have seen in the past few years,” Lawrence added.
Lawrence, like Jackson, is doing his best to increase the influx of black athletes into the sport. Lawrence is the driving force behind the Providing Resources and Opportunities Youth foundation. His foundation hosts a showcase annually that puts uncommitted players in front of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) coaches and scouts. Within organizations such as this, perhaps more African American catching prospects can be groomed and developed.
“Those programs don’t have the recruiting budgets like larger institutions,” said Lawrence. “If we grow interest in the HBCUs, the HBCUs don’t have to bounce around the country trying to find these young men, so it’s very beneficial for coaches and players.”
Before being detoured to Atlanta, Lewis was hitting .451 this season, which is tied for 13th in NCAA Division I baseball. He was ranked seventh in slugging, tied for 25th in RBIs and on-base percentage and tied for 34th in total bases. On the defensive end, only one of his three errors came as a catcher. He threw out three would-be base stealers.
Still, the figure that might always remind Lewis of his 2020 season is 44. That is the number of games the Colonels had to cancel — 44 precious opportunities Lewis had hoped would enhance his efforts to turn heads before MLB’s annual amateur draft.
“Everything is so uncertain,” he said in mid-March. “We don’t even know if there will be a draft. So, you just keep working. You pretty much have to be an iron man as a catcher, so it’s work, work, work every day.”
When Lewis describes encountering few black catchers at showcases or at the collegiate level, his mission to end the post-Johnson drought seems a lonely, quixotic venture, but he is not alone.
Nick Hassan, a past Rawlings High School All-American, just finished his freshman season at Kennesaw State University. The native of Fayetteville, Georgia, who turns 19 on April 30, is another youngster intent on following in Johnson’s footsteps.
“I just want to be involved in every play,” said Hassan. “I like the responsibility. I like taking care of everyone, of keeping my pitchers in shape. … You need a captain characteristic that shows you can take charge, because everyone’s looking or listening for you to give directions.”
Likewise, Ian Moller is a highly touted high school junior out of Dubuque, Iowa, who has attracted a great deal of attention at national showcases and already has committed to Louisiana State University.
“Growing up, a lot of people wanted to change my position, just because I could play the outfield, like most African Americans,” said the 17-year-old Moller. “I didn’t want to change. I stuck with it because I knew a lot of [African Americans] weren’t doing it, especially at the higher levels. I wanted to start a new trend. And, hopefully, I can be a new standard of catching.”
Not making it is not seen as an option by Lewis, Hassan or Moller. Each is on a mission to honor their people’s past as well as secure opportunities for generations to come.
“When I was young, it was all about playing the game and having fun. As I got older, though, I realized it’s about inspiring people,” said Moller. “I’ve got young African American kids coming up to me asking how they can get on baseball teams. That’s important to me, huge that people know that I am all about helping youth, especially African American youth.”