The position of catcher has always been the most physically demanding position, by far, in baseball. As such, it has appealed to some of the roughest characters ever to wear a uniform; tough men who have taken pride at tackling the most challenging role in sports. George Ellard, a backstop for the 1869 Red Stockings, grasped the flavor of it when he said, “We used no mattress on our hands, no cage upon our face; we stood right up and caught the ball, with courage and with grace.”
Time and practicalities may have brought catchers more protective devices than what Ellard was afforded nearly 150 years ago, but he did have the advantage of playing his position several feet in back of the batter. If anything, the closer the catcher moved to the plate, the more demanding the position became. And perhaps the tougher the men required to succeed at the position. Think “Rough” Carrigan or Roger Bresnahan. Think Muddy Ruel, the man that first called his equipment “the tools of ignorance.” Think Charlie “Boss” Schmidt.
Charlie Schmidt was the perfect prototype of the iron-willed, iron-bodied backstop. Born 1880 in Arkansas under hard scrabble circumstances, he worked the coal mines as a teenager. After four years of playing minor league ball in places like Springfield, Missouri and Rockford, Illinois, he joined the Detroit Tigers in 1906 as a 25-year old. A teammate was a young Ty Cobb, then in his second season.
Schmidt quickly established himself as the toughest man on a harsh team. He was known to pound spikes into concrete with his bare hands and dare teammates to punch his stomach as hard as they could. While popular, he was not afraid to use his fists when necessary. His brutal beating of Cobb in early 1907 was largely cheered by the team, if not by manager Jennings. More importantly, handled his field duties with a large dollop of guts, often playing with an assortment of fractures and injuries.
Schmidt played six years in Detroit, finishing with a .243 batting average. Over those seasons the team made the World Series three times. While he never returned to the majors after 1911, his career was hardly over. His final season, with the Springfield Midgets at the age of 43, didn’t come until 1924. Overall the Boss played 21 years of good ball with 17 different teams. He suffered more than 30 fractures of his right hand, a testament to his determination. Troubled by alcoholism, abandoned by his wife and family, he died in 1932.
He’s immortalized on the Helmar Baseball History and Art Card of the Week, now available at auction.
To visit Helmar’s eBay storefront and read more about Charlie Schmidt and the Helmar Our Guy series, click here.