Charlie Bennett: "Our Catcher"

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It’s the top of the fourth inning. The leadoff batter lines a single to left field. As he crosses the bag , the game is interrupted as a band begins playing from somewhere out beyond centerfield. The centerfield gate is opened and the band enters the park followed by a man pushing a wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow is filled to the brim with silver dollars. The crowd, many of whom contributed to the treasure, begins to yell in hysterics. As the wheelbarrow is pushed toward home plate, the beloved catcher is escorted out of the dugout and informed that this gift of 520 silver dollars (roughly equivalent to a year’s wages at the time) is meant for him. The beloved catcher is forced, under police escort, to wheel the barrow around the bases as the fans continue to stand and cheer for their beloved backstop.

It is entirely likely that only one man in Detroit baseball history could have elicited such a heartfelt tribute, and that man was Charlie Bennett: our catcher.

Charlie Bennett was born in 1854 in Newcastle Pa. In 1879 he signed his first "big" league contract with the Worcester club, then a member of the National League. It wasn’t long before he was one of the stars of the league. In 1881 Detroit signed Bennett for their new National League team, known as the Wolverines, and though the team was largely considered a joke by the rest of the league, fans grew to cherish their one and only star player.

In an 1894 interview, Bennett recalled his first five seasons in Detroit: "In 1881 Detroit entered the National League and I was signed on that team. The team was an experiment. We surprised ourselves and finished fourth. During the next four years I wished many times I was out of Detroit, or, rather, out of that team. It was awful. I thought sometimes we were lucky to finish last. Once we lost twenty-five straight games. Every week I caught a new pitcher. Twice at the close of the season I was the only man on the team who started in the Spring."

It was in 1881, though, that Charlie and his wife Alice conceived the idea for the very first chest protector. Working together, they created the shield by sewing strips of cork in between bedticking material (cloth once used as a bag to fill with stuffing for use as a mattress). Charlie wore the device under his uniform to avoid detection and ridicule from fans and opposing teams.

Bennett was known for playing over injuries, especially to his hands. Catchers, according to the Free Press, "caught without gloves up until 1891, when large padded mitts were first permitted. A thin layer of leather on the palm gave some protection, and until 1880 catchers were permitted to take pitches on the bound. But in 1880, a new rule required a catcher to catch the ball on the fly in order to put a batter out on the third strike. In addition, more balls were pitched, for in 1882 it was decreed that seven ‘called balls’ entitled a batter to first base." As a result, Charlie endured many broken fingers and dislocated joints.

James Hart, Charlie’s manager from his later playing days in Boston, once told this remarkable tale of Bennett: "He had more grit than any catcher I ever knew. A score of times when his hands were badly injured he would continue to catch, and the only way we would find out that he was hurt was to discover blood on the ball. I remember a game in Pittsburgh, the last one of the season in 1889 for the Boston club, when he refused to go out of the game until I simply refused to let him play any longer. Clarkson was pitching, and in the third inning he showed me the ball covered with blood. I called Bennett to the bench and asked to see his hands, and he refused to show them. Mike Kelly was playing right field, and I called him in to catch. Bennett wanted to catch the game out so much that he wouldn’t give Kelly the mask nor the pad. I sent him home after the game, and two weeks later Bennett’s hands were still so sore that he could hardly feed himself. He was the best player to handle I ever dealt with, and I don’t know of one who was a greater credit to the profession."

Mike "King" Kelly, Boston teammate and hall-of-famer, once remarked that "if he had hands such as Charlie Bennett he wouldn’t catch a game of ball for a whole church full of millionaires with their entire wealth stuffed in their pockets!"

Statistically, it’s a very difficult proposition to judge players from the 1880’s because the rules were in constant flux. But after poring over newspaper accounts of the old Wolverines and taking into account what others said and wrote about Charlie, there is little doubt, that had the baseball Hall of Fame been opened in 1910, Charlie Bennett would have been a founding member.

Charlie was known as an outstanding defensive catcher with a very strong, accurate arm, and an above average hitter with extra-base power. He was also known for his handling of the pitching staff. "I used to feel so sorry for a young pitcher who was being hit hard in a game." said Bennett. I often believe it hurt me fully as much as it did him." Newspaper accounts of the time rated Bennett, along with Hall-of-Famer Buck Ewing as the preeminent catchers of the era, and many rated Charlie the best overall. According to a 1913 Free Press article, "Even to this day where the question arises as to who is, or was the greatest catcher the game ever had, seven out of ten will answer Charlie Bennett."

In 1886, the Wolverines’ fortunes turned for the better, and in ‘87 they finally brought home the National League pennant. As Bennett further described, "In 1886 the team was greatly strengthened by the Indianapolis and Buffalo players (whose teams had folded). The big four: Brouthers, Richardson, Rowe, and White, coming from the latter place, and Thompson, Twitchell, and Ganzel from Indianapolis. That year we came within three games of winning the championship. In ‘87 we were more successful and did win. I was with Detroit eight years, the only one who lasted through the struggle. In ‘88 the town went out of the league and I went to Boston, where I have since remained."

"The old Detroit team in ‘86 -‘87 was the heaviest batting team in the country. It depended on their batting alone to pull it through; although for big men they were clever fielders. In 1887 when we won the pennant and were to play a series with the St. Louis Browns, the Sporting Life dissected the two teams and their style of game at length. It said ‘that the Browns would be easy winners. They would out field us and would steal bases on me at will. That I was not accustomed to their dash and style, and I would be badly rattled.’ When the series was finished we found that we had not only outbatted but had out-fielded them, and had stolen more bases than they had. I caught four games and in those games they were credited with but four bases stolen; two of them were the fault of Dunlap in not touching the runner. He had the ball in ample time."

What Charlie failed to mention in the interview was that a doctor, before the ‘87 series began, proclaimed that "if Bennett caught another game his thumb would be in danger of amputation." Of course, he played anyway and was largely credited for "stopping the great base stealing Browns from running away with games from the start." Charles Comiskey, at that time a player on the opposing Browns team said, "What hurt the Browns’ chances of success was Bennett’s great throwing to the bases."

Sadly, the Detroit franchise folded after the 1888 season and its players were sold off to other clubs. Charlie, along with three other players, was sold to the Boston Beaneaters. Bennett was paid a salary of $3500, considered an enormous sum for that period, and the Boston club went on to win three consecutive National League pennants from 1891 through 1893.

In 1890 when Charlie re-signed with Boston, the Free Press wrote, "That Detroiters will rejoice in his good fortune goes without saying. No matter whether we had a tail end club or the world’s champions, there was no difference in the quality of his work. Young and nervous pitchers under his wise counsel and steadying influence became valuable men. Detroit is more his house than any other place, and it matters not how far away he goes, we shall always regard him as "our catcher."

According to James Hart, " Year after year Bennett led the league in catching averages and there, for once, the figures gave him the glory that was his. Never was there a better catcher than Charlie Bennett. He was the wonder of them all, and Boston has never recovered from his loss."

The "loss" Hart referred to occurred in January, 1894. Charlie, along with his good friend John Clarkson of the Boston Nationals, were parting company in Kansas after a hunting trip. As Bennett ran to catch the departing train, he slipped and fell in front of it just as it began pulling out of the station. The train ran over Charlie’s legs. His right leg had to be amputated from just above the knee and his right leg above the ankle.

Charlie’s nephew recounted the sad tale in a 1934 Free Press interview: "Five doctors worked on him. It was the blackest day of my life. His physical condition was so good that ten days later they were able to move him the 18 miles through the zero degree weather to our home where we we nursed him back to health." Three months after the accident, he had regained much of his strength and could bear the pressure of artificial limbs.

And by no coincidence, according to newspaper accounts, the absence of Bennett was the chief reason the Boston team fell off to third place the following year.

After his accident, sympathy for "Poor Charlie Bennett" endeared him to the fans even more than during his playing days. After his recovery, he and his wife settled in Detroit, and Charlie, along with a partner, opened a cigar store. According to the Free Press in 1894, just after his intentions had been announced publicly, "Charlie received over 100 letters from friends asking if the report be true. One lady wrote to Mrs. Bennett: If Charlie Bennett opens a cigar store in Detroit, all the ladies will commence smoking."

In 1896, when it came time to name Detroit’s fancy new ball park at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, a survey was conducted in the local newspaper and Charlie Bennett received so many votes that the owner, rather than name the park after himself, decided instead to name his new ball park after Charlie. Though Bennett Park was demolished in 1911, rebuilt on the same site, and renamed Navin Field at the start of the 1912 season, Bennett continued to be the honorary catcher every opening day through 1926.

On February 24, 1927 Charlie passed away. The next day, the Free Press wrote: "Charlie Bennett was a man and was emulated by all the youths of his day. He had the greatest throwing arm in baseball, his accuracy being something to marvel at. His conduct as a ball player was clean, his record is clear cut and he helped bring fame to Detroit long before the automobile was thought of. The game has lost one of its greatest players but the record he left will stand always."

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