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Remembering baseball announcer and former all-star catcher Tim McCarver

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Tim McCarver, the All-Star pro baseball catcher and broadcaster, died last week of heart failure in Memphis, the city of his birth. He was 81 years old. McCarver joined the major leagues in 1959 and embarked on a career as a catcher that spanned four different decades for as many teams - the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox. He was the catcher of choice for some legendary pitchers, including Bob Gibson in the '60s and Steve Carlton in the '70s, and played on two winning World Series teams.

After his retirement as a player in 1980, Tim McCarver shifted the color commentary in the broadcast booth. Over the years working for various networks, he called games for the Phillies, the Cardinals, the New York Mets and Yankees and the San Francisco Giants. He covered 23 World Series, won two Emmys for his color commentary and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. He wrote several memoirs and books. And Terry Gross spoke to him in 1987, when one of them, titled "Baby, I Love It!" (ph), had just been published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Welcome to FRESH AIR.

TIM MCCARVER: Thank you very much, Terry - nice being with you.

GROSS: Are there any permanent changes in your anatomy from having crouched and caught for so many years?

MCCARVER: I don't know whether there are permanent changes in my anatomy. I know that I can tell when it's raining outside without opening the shutters. I know when it's snowing and what the temperature is going to be like before I go outside. Obviously, from catching, I have arthritis in the knees even though I never had a major or serious knee injury. I was never cut on. The only time I was on the disabled list, as a matter of fact, was back in 1970, when Willie Mays fouled the ball back into my right hand and broke it. And I was out for four months. And I'm kind of proud - I think more proud of that fact than I am of anything in my career because of my durability. I'm glad I was durable.

GROSS: Can I see your hands?

MCCARVER: Sure. Sure.

GROSS: They look...

MCCARVER: Normal.

GROSS: Can you turn them over? Let me see the palms of your hands. They look normal. I wasn't - after seeing - after having the ball pound against your hand for so many years, I thought they might be more gnarled.

MCCARVER: Well, when - the particular mitts that I used, I think, aided and abetting a longer-living left hand because the pitchers that you catch are - throw awfully hard. And when you catch the ball away from the bone right below your index finger, it takes some of the cushion. It kind of cushions the blow and takes some of the sting and bite away. My left thumb is in pretty bad shape and overextended - hyperextended. But I feel fortunate in that I was able to plate without having a serious injury.

GROSS: What is so grueling about catching?

MCCARVER: Squatting, the foul tips, the mental strain - as much as anything, I mean, the feeling that you have to concern yourself with other people. A catcher really has to work with his pitcher. And when you work that closely with somebody, you can't help but feel for him when he gets tagged with the loss. If you lose a game 3-2 and you call the pitch that you know shouldn't have been thrown later on, then the pitcher may accept it and say, don't worry about it. We'll get him next time. But you know fully well that it was a bad call. Then you stay awake at night as much as he does. And you're staying awake every night for every pitcher that you catch, you see, because you're going to be back behind the plate again.

The mental strain can be as difficult as the physical strain, and there's a lot of physical strain. Balls bouncing - a baseball is hard, and it's thrown awfully hard. It's thrown 90-plus miles an hour, and it's spinning and twisting and everything. And a catcher in the big leagues cannot catch a full season or 130 to 140 games without half of the time going behind the plate and being hurt and feeling pain.

GROSS: When you say that the position is underestimated, do you mean by the fans, by the players or by the people in the front office?

MCCARVER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCARVER: All of the above - the fans because they can only vicariously see what's going on and the front office because they often negotiate contracts. Like, the catcher was supposed to drive in 100 runs. I mean, when Johnny Bench drove in - he won two MVPs driving in over 100 runs, I believe, four times in his career - a remarkable achievement. Gary Carter, three or four times a hundred RBIs - remarkable achievements because to go back there day in and day out and then still be able to contribute offensively is just truly remarkable.

GROSS: Why is it so unlikely that a catcher would be a great batter?

MCCARVER: Well, primarily because of the fatigue. If I had a nickel for every third and fourth at bat of a game where I made an out, most of the time lazy fly balls the other way, it beats your arms down. The balls beat your arms down. The strain of - your emphasis is on something else. It's not necessarily on only your offense. It's on other things. It's helping your pitcher. It's manipulating a game. It's matching wits. It's - there are just so many things that are involved in that particular position other than the physical strain. I think the standards offensively for catchers going into the Hall of Fame should be lowered, as a matter of fact. I used to negotiate contracts back in the middle '60s, and the general managers used to tell me that my numbers were not as good as an outfielder's or an infielder's or a first baseman's. And I said, but I'm a catcher. They never understood it, or at least they used that to negotiate.

GROSS: From your catcher's perspective, who should the strategist be - the catcher or the pitcher?

MCCARVER: Well, the pitcher's the guy who has to throw the ball. And so he is the guy who ultimately throws the pitch. A catcher will suggest and suggest sometimes very strongly that a pitch should be called. And if the pitcher still disagrees, then it's time to talk. And then and then only should you go out to the mound. I hate conferences at the mound. I think they're - they don't serve any purpose. And a lot of the times on television, a lot of the announcers will talk about how - what's being said on the mound. And most of the time it's for show and not very thought-provoking things.

GROSS: What is the show? What's the show about?

MCCARVER: Well, it shows that a catcher is going out there to slow down his pitcher to speed him up or talk about things. And catchers seem to make their living doing this. I remember Johnny Keane, when I was catching for the Cardinals back in 1963, used to ask me to go out to slow down Bob Gibson. And I used to say, John, he doesn't want me to be out there slowing him down. He wants to work at his pace. And so John wanted me to go out there. Gibson wanted me away from there. I remember one time I went out to the mound, and Bob told me to go on back behind the plate. The only thing I knew about pitching was that it was hard to hit.

GROSS: Well, do some pitchers resent it if the catcher tries to tell them what kind of pitch to throw? Do they feel like they're handing over their game to the catcher?

MCCARVER: Oh, yes. And I don't think any catcher worth his salt really tries to enforce a particular type of game from a pitcher. I think a lot of catchers with experience will try to railroad a young pitcher into pitching the catcher's type of game instead of the pitcher's. And I think the pitchers - or the catchers worth their salt will work with the pitcher and not try to strong-arm him.

GROSS: What about the batter? The batter comes up to hit. You're catching right next to him. Is there tension between the two of you frequently? Would you try to psych each other out...

MCCARVER: No. No.

GROSS: ...Or knock off each other's equilibrium?

MCCARVER: No. A lot of catchers are often asked if they talk to the hitters. I never felt that it was professionally responsible to talk to hitters in particular situations like that. If you couldn't get them out the way the rules of the game were played, I thought it was a minor league attitude for a catcher to take and totally unprofessional to spend most of that time trying to distract the hitter by talking to him.

GROSS: The pitchers who you worked with the longest were Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. Did you have to act almost like a psychologist to both of those pitchers, just to psych out what they were doing in their game and to help them get more on track if they were losing it?

MCCARVER: I don't think - I think psychologist is probably too strong a word because guys who are intelligent like Carlton and Gibson - and I caught some pitchers who weren't intelligent. And I'm not trying to say that I am. But Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton were the two types of individuals who'd read through things like that. I mean, the one thing that I tried to do more than anything else is to be honest. I would try - a catcher as an expert on results of pitches. He's not an expert on how to throw a pitch, but he is on the result of a particular pitch. And I tried to put that more to use than anything else, the results of the pitches that not only Carlton and Gibson threw, but anybody that I caught.

GROSS: What were some of the things that you would tell Carlton or Gibson if they were in a slump? What could you tell them?

MCCARVER: I tried to stay away from things like that. Catchers are often put into awkward positions. As far as arm movement and arm location, I didn't tell him too many things at all about getting - you got to pitch your way out of it. You pitch your way into things like that, into little ruts, and you're a human being, and you're going to fall into little ruts like that occasionally. But guys like Carlton and Gibson, they didn't fall into to them too frequently.

GROSS: Are the balls that are the hardest to hit at bat also the balls that are hard to catch if you're a catcher?

MCCARVER: Yes. That's a good question, and that's true. Generally speaking, the balls that are toughest to hit are the toughest to catch. And because Bob Gibson was difficult to hit, it made him difficult to catch. Conversely, however, Carlton was easy to catch. You could catch him in a rocking chair. His ball - his slider in the dirt was tough, but it was a gaugeable (ph) ball that you knew how to block it. You knew the spin and the rotation and where to go when the ball went in the dirt. Most of the time it was not a problem, but his fastball was - you could catch him in your living room.

GROSS: Are there some fastballs that are so fast that you can't really see them that well?

MCCARVER: No, no. I mean, after all, a catcher has the advantage of knowing what's coming. And consequently, because he knows what's coming, he - and usually gets - major league pitchers can put the ball in an area about the width of two balls or so, which is about a six-inch area. And they can do that with a great deal of frequency. And because of that skill, it's - the act of catching the ball is an easy thing to do. However, squatting and getting down in that position, there's no telling how many times I did that.

BIANCULLI: Tim McCarver speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT WALTER, EDDIE ROBERTS AND ADAM DEITCH'S "CORNER POCKET")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with pro baseball catcher and broadcaster Tim McCarver, who died last week. He was 81 years old. At the time Terry interviewed him, McCarver had just published his latest memoir, called "Baby, I Love It."

GROSS: Tim McCarver, you've been broadcasting since 1980. Was catching good preparation for the kind of sportscasting you're doing now. Was it a good position to play for sportscasting?

MCCARVER: It's the best preparation. A lot of people don't realize that catchers and the broadcasting booth are virtually doing - are facing the field, even though they're two stories higher, two or three stories higher - they're facing the field from the same position and viewing the game from the same position that they worked at it for such a long period of time in most cases. A lot of the things that you think about or that you thought about as a catcher, you have a chance to bring out into the open as a broadcaster. For instance, if a right-handed hitter is hitting and a pitcher is working the right-handed hitter to the outside part of the plate, making it more difficult to pull a pitch, and the outfield is playing the particular hitter around the pull, and you fully are aware that the hitter is more inclined to hit the ball the other way, these are some of the things that you thought about as a catcher, and you can relay and share with the audience some of those thoughts. It's such a complex position to play.

Another example - if the infield is shifted around and the pitcher is throwing a steady diet of breaking balls away to the hitter, well, then you should be able to talk about this and tell the audience why the pitcher may be thinking or why he's wrong in going against the way his defense is. Now, if you were a shortstop, to become a broadcaster, it would be difficult to do this because he doesn't have the same panoramic view that a catcher has.

GROSS: Anyone who's broadcast live knows that there are times when, because it's your turn to say something, you can say the stupidest thing, the most embarrassing thing that you ever imagined. Has that happened to you, that it's been, like, your turn, you open your mouth, and something all wrong and very embarrassing comes out?

MCCARVER: Oh, it's happened to everybody who has broadcast. As an example, during the 1986 season, a season in which the New York Mets were obviously very successful, there was a lot to talk about and a very exciting season for the people in New York City. Of course, the Mets went on to win the World Series. Well, I remember back in the middle of June, there was a ground ball hit to Howard Johnson, the third baseman for the Mets. And the ball took a bad hop, and it was - Ralph Kiner, my colleague, was doing the play-by-play. I was doing the analyst work at the time. Ball took a bad hop, and it hit Howard in the shoulder, and it kind of rolled down his arm into his glove, and he made a nice recovery and threw the runner out at first base by a step. So now our director, Bill Webb, comes right on the shot. And I said - this mental image of a mother holding her child flew into my mind, and I thought, well, I'll use it. And a lot of times, you just fire out with the first thing that comes to your mind. A lot of these things aren't planned.

And I said, sometimes - and I'm going over the replay. And I said, sometimes an infielder, because of the hop, has to handle the hop like a mother would handle her child. Now watch how Howard smothers this ball against his body. And the word smothers came out, and I said...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCARVER: ...I can't believe I said that. And I looked at Ralph, and Ralph looked at me as if to say, get yourself out of this one, pal. And Ralph said, I think you meant cradle. I said, cradle, cradle. That's the word.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCARVER: So certainly, you really do get in trouble there. But the one thing I do remember was from an old broadcast partner of mine who said that he had good advice as an ex-athlete - when he broke in. His name was Richie Ashburn. And Richie said that somebody told him once that if you don't have anything to say, don't say it. And on television, that's very, very important. Silence is as useful and is as important as something fruitfully chosen.

GROSS: You know a lot of the players' secrets because you've played with some of them.

MCCARVER: Yeah.

GROSS: Secret weaknesses - I don't mean, like...

MCCARVER: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: I don't mean their private lives.

MCCARVER: Yes, right.

GROSS: But, like, little secret weaknesses that only other players would really know about or locker room talk that only other players would really have access to. Now you're a sportscaster, and you have to decide how much of that to inform your audience about. What are the ethics of that? Someone comes up to bat, and you know a lot about them.

MCCARVER: Well, often, teams will not allow broadcasters or the media in the training rooms for obvious reasons. If a runner, a guy like a Vince Coleman of the St. Louis Cardinals, for instance, has a minor leg pull or a hamstring pull and would not be able to run as well and you reported that, well, obviously, the other team could hear it. That's why announcers and the media are not allowed in the training room. I - from my playing days, some of the guys are still around that I played against. And, you know, I just say it on the air, if they have a weakness or a strength. And for the most part, most of these players know the weaknesses and strengths of the hitters. It's just execution. They hit it - the pitcher - I mean, hitters are not dumb, and neither are pitchers. Most of these things are known. If a guy's a low-ball hitter, it's pretty easy to find out that he's a low-ball hitter. But if you keep throwing him high fastball, then he adjusts. He's got to do that if he expects to play Major League Baseball.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

MCCARVER: I've loved it.

BIANCULLI: Tim McCarver speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. The World Series-winning catcher and Baseball Hall of Fame broadcaster died last week at age 81. Coming up, I review "Hello Tomorrow!", the odd yet appealing new series now streaming on Apple TV+. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOFF MULDAUR SONG, "BRAZIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.