By his own description, George "Birdie" Tebbetts was a "Joe"–that is, he wasn’t the type of player who could hit 40 home runs or bat .300 or win any awards: "Joes are the guys who win you the pennant."
Tebbetts may not have won many flags in his long career as a player, manager (his picture when he was skipper of the Cincinnati Reds graced the cover of TIME magazine in 1957), and scout, but he was a member of the small fraternity of those men who devoted their entire professional lives to the game.
A compulsive diarist, Birdie, with the help of his cousin James Morrison, wrote this autobiography a short time before he passed away in 1999.
Born in Burlington, Vermont, in 1912, Tebbetts developed into a steady, if not outstanding, catcher for the Tigers (under the tutelage of the great Mickey Cochrane). He became something of a journeyman, moving on to Boston and Cleveland before calling it quits as a player.
He considers himself lucky to call such men as Ted Williams, Fred Hutchinson, and Hank Greenberg teammates and friends. The description of his relationship with Hutchinson, who died of cancer at age forty-eight, is especially touching in a generation during which men internalized their feelings.
To make it as a "lifer," one has to be especially observant. Tebbetts shares some of these insightful and amusing observations, and not just with the standard, common-sense, by-the-numbers cliches on which writers-***-ballplayers seem to rely. Breaking away from the pat descriptions of veterans returning from World War II to reclaim their jobs to appreciative fans, Tebbetts comes right out to say that some of the replacement players "had on occasion told us they were sorry the war ended as quickly as it did. They knew as soon as it was over their ride was over."
Tebbetts was proud of his accomplishments as a catcher, handling some of the greatest pitchers and staffs of all time: Spahn, Newhouser, Grove, Feller, and Lemon. His description of the responsibilities of the backstop is almost poetic. He notes with disdain the way modern catchers try to "frame" pitches, pulling in balls out of the strike zone with the hope of getting the call. He suggests, in a Casey Stengel kind of way, that
[if it’s] a ball and it doesn’t mean that much, make a ball out of it! The umpire is going to like that. And when you really need it, you get a ball that far off, and he’s expecting you to catch it in the ball zone, but instead you pull it into the strike zone, instead of saying "Ball!" he says "Strike!" but he knows that up to that time you haven’t been framing, so he thinks it’s a strike.
In other words, have respect for the umpire and bide your time. (These sentiments are eerily restated by the Mets’ Mike Piazza in the April 15 issue of ESPN The Magazine.)
Birdie elaborates on the special relationship between catchers and umpires, noting that no other player spends as much time in proximity to the men in blue. He preaches courtesy and honesty or, as he puts it, "chivalry at home plate." He tells the story of helping out an umpire who was still suffering occasional dizzy spells from the lingering effects of a gas attack in World War I and was having a difficult time seeing pitches one day. In a display of compassion that seems unbelievable today, both Birdie and the opposing catcher conspired to help out the arbiter: if the catchers raised their right hands, the call would be a strike; if they lifted the left, it was a ball. This allowed the umpire time to gather his wits and ultimately keep his job.
Tebbetts also takes partial credit for ending the practice of having photographers roaming the field during the game. Up to that point the shutterbugs were allowed to gather close to the action. An on-field argument between Tebbetts and an umpire wound up in the paper the following day, breaking the unwritten dictum of not blabbing to the press about such things. Each man thought the other guilty of violating the code when in fact it was a nearby photographer who was responsible for the breach of etiquette. Shortly thereafter National League president Warren Giles enforced the ban.
Birdie is an especially rewarding bio, coming from a regular guy who was lucky enough to spend his life doing what he loved. When asked how he would like to be remembered when he passes away, Tebbetts responded, "I’m just a baseball guy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be."
The only disappointing aspect of the book is that it is too short. With the life Tebbetts led, and the entertaining, straight-shooting way he describes it, the book could have easily been twice as long and no fan would complain.
This review appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Nine.