Death to Flying Things in 1953

Manager Jack Chapman of the 1889 Syracuse Stars (shown here in street clothes) was one of two 19th century players nicknamed “Death to Flying Things” for his defensive skills. The other, Bob Ferguson, is pictured below.

Bob Ferguson

At any rate, this column is not about Chapman or Ferguson, but how their identity nicknames reached all the way into the mid-2oth century to strike a chord with at least one kid player who read about them enough to love their nickname and what it represented to him nearly seventy years later.

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Death to Flying Things in 1953

By Bill McCurdy

It’s hot. Hot as hell. This is good old humid Houston in August, where practically everything painfully hellish starts with an “H”. They couldn’t spell August with an “H” so they spelled it with the weather. And that was hot enough.

A singular bead of sweat rolls down the in-seam skin area of your right leg, ‘neath the blousy grey woolen baseball pants you wear, as you stand, feet apart in center field, just waiting for anything that may come your way in the game that’s about to start.

“Death to Flying Things!”

The war cry of a legendary 19th century player you’ve only read about has become your private battle cry at the start of every new game. Everything that comes your way needs to be pursued with all you’ve got, as though it were the last damn out needed by the winning side of a seven game World Series. You never let up. Letting up is giving up. There is no other way to put it.

Five batters into the game, nothing has come your way, but a single to right and two walks, sandwiched around two strikeouts, has left the bases loaded and a big cloud of early threat by the visiters – who are still knocking hard at the door.

“They must be stopped. We’ve gotta have another “K”, or else, a batted ball that we can turn into a run-stopping out. – Hang loose. – Stay ready.”

You decide to play shallow, even though the #6 batter is a lefty with both the power and the appetite for towering long fly balls. You and your coach decide to play him shallow because you’ve both seen him dink some singles to the shallow reaches of right and center when he wanted – and neither of you want to invite that now by playing him too deep. Besides, you are better at going back for a long fly ball – and nobody’s any good at catching an unreachable liner single under normal outfield defensive depths.

The key to success here is intuition and luck.

On a 2-2 pitch, you decide to start moving in with the pitcher’s delivery. Lucky for you. The lefty swats a line drive that is about four feet high off the ground, but moving intently to a normal base hit touchdown to the right side of 2nd base in shallow center. Your already-in-motion body has continued to accelerate from its with-the-pitch early start. You can see the blur of the rapidly descending ball aiming for the ground to your approaching left side. Your early departure from a short field spot has given you a chance that otherwise never exists.

You go into a hard slide on your left leg, with your left-handed glove extended out and moving as though its upward extended pocket were riding the surface like an emergency vehicle to a potential disaster scene. Your every interactive eye-to-hand bodily movement is now controlled by the laws of physics and a part of the brain that cannot be called into play at will. It’s either there. Or it isn’t.

The memory of it all is precious. And it belongs to you forever.

The glove pocket arrives just in time to prevent the descending ball from touching the ground. Your gloved hand quickly closes around any hopes the motion-energized ball also may have for pushing through your grasp and reaching the ground anyway. You hold on to the sucker. It’s an out. It has to be. After the catch, you leap to your feet in joy. And the umpire quickly flashes the right-handed out sign in confirmation. No matter how small the game, it’s now officially an out – forever – and more importantly – it is a scoreless inning for your adversaries. And the summer league game can now move to the bottom of the 1st, still 0-0 between the home team and the visitors.

“Death to Flying Things!”

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Bill McCurdy

Principal Writer, Editor, Publisher

The Pecan Park Eagle

 

 

 

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3 Responses to “Death to Flying Things in 1953”

  1. Tom Hunter Says:

    Bill,

    Why would you go into a slide on your left leg rather than head toward the ball and make a clean catch running forward or trapping it on one hop and then come up throwing? Once you leave your feet, you’re out of control and the ball, rather than bouncing off your chest, can go all the way to the wall.

    Many times I see an outfielder “lay out” for a ball that could be caught more easily if he just kept running forward. As a friend of mine says, “You can run faster than you can fly.”

    I don’t mean to mess with your fantasy but modern outfielders don’t seem to know how to approach low-hit liners and seem to be afraid of the ball. Falling down on your butt and sliding is not a good way to approach a low liner. End of rant.

  2. Bill McCurdy Says:

    It wasn’t a fantasy. I had made this catch the same way – three times previously. Sorry my description failed to communicate what was happening. A properly executed sliding catch is not a “falling down on your butt” experience. I guess you either have to have been there to see what I’m describing – or had this experience for yourself with a slide catch to know what I’m trying to describe.

    When you are running directly in on a sinking liner, the foot motion of running can make it very hard to get your glove down for a catch in a steady motion. – Once you go into the slide, however, the bouncing movement is removed, and your glove is where it needs to be when the ball comes down. It’s at ground zero. Now all you have to do is see the ball into your glove and contain it. And, if you miss, unlike the headfirst dive, you will be better able to block the ball with your body and hold the batter to a single.

    End of explanation (amended): This is what I get for trying to respond to anything at 1:30 AM. I meant to concede your well-made points that we need better instruction on how to play the outfield. I wasn’t recommending the feet-first body slide catch for every dying quail or fast descending liner, but for crucial game situations – and that notion was certainly not the case in the example I used. My bad. I just got lucky. If the batter had creamed the ball to dead center after the chance to run in early had been taken, it could have been an inside-the-park home run for the other team.

    I just got lucky, but I did it more than once because luck had a long shelf life for me on this one particular play – and that’s not enough to get you a bleacher ticket at the ballpark. I wouldn’t have lasted long playing for a manager like Larry Dierker or A.J. Hinch. The younger me had too much trouble giving up things that seemed to be working just fine, so far.

    Fortunately, “so far” does have a shelf life in most things and it does come attached to a message at the end of its run.

    Unfortunately, sliding catches were never a baseball choice that failed me. My inability to adjust as both a pitcher and a hitter, however, ended my baseball playing dreams far sooner than I had hoped. Now I walk on as a perfect example of how life can take a boy out of baseball, but it can never take baseball out of the heart of the man who continues to live and breathe it into his so-called “golden years”.

    Have a nice Tuesday, everybody – and forgive me, Tom, for the short-sheet answer from last night.

    (note too: I had not seen your second entry until i posted all of the above amendment.)

    • Tom Hunter Says:

      With respect, I played baseball from an early age. I was a pitcher, catcher, shortstop, and outfielder and was instructed by men who had played both college and professional baseball. They taught us to approach a low sinking liner with your glove down so you could make a shoestring catch, trap the ball on one hop or if you were late getting to the ball, be in position up to have it bounce off your chest. You never leave your feet and can come up with the ball in front of you ready to make a throw. I seldom saw outfielders in the 1950s and ’60s diving and sliding unnecessarily the way they do now.

      Sorry for the disagreement, but it’s a pet peeve of mine, along with the “lay out” diving catch. If an outfielder dives and makes the catch with his glove horizontally high above the ground, it means that if he just kept going, he could have made the catch on the run and been ready to make a throw. Occasionally, it is necessary to dive for a ball when it’s a last ditch effort, but shouldn’t be a routine way of making a catch just to make it look more spectacular.

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