Left-handed throwing second basemen, shortstops and third basemen

6/22/2013: When I first posted this, almost four years ago, I did not have access to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s stories about Sam McDowell’s appearance at second base. Having now found those stories, I have edited this account to include some of that material.

While right-handed throwers can be found at any of the nine positions on a baseball field, left-handers are, in practice, restricted to five of them. You won’t find a lefty at catcher, second base, shortstop or third base.  It’s extremely awkward for a left-handed-handed throwing second baseman to turn the pivot in a double play, which I’m guessing is the biggest reason you don’t see lefties there.  It’s extremely difficult for a lefty charging a bunt from third base to make a throw to first.  And lefty shortstops lose time getting themselves in position to throw.

The last left-handed thrower to play second base in a major league game was Don Mattingly, who was on the field for one batter when the Yankees and Royals resumed the famed “pine-tar” game in 1983.  Bert Campaneris had been the Yankees’ second baseman during the original game on July 24, but he was on the disabled list when the game resumed on August 18.  Note that Ron Guidry was the Yankees’ center fielder when the game resumed; Jerry Mumphrey, who was the center fielder when the original game concluded, had been traded in the interim. (It wasn’t Guidry’s first appearance in the outfield; he had played center in the ninth inning of a blowout win on the next-to-last day of the 1979 season.) At any rate neither Mattingly nor Guidry got near the ball as the Royals’ only batter after the game resumed, Hal McRae, struck out.

But the last left-handed thrower to earn a fielding chance at second base in a major league game?  Now that’s an unusual story.  Because he was normally a pitcher.

On July 6, 1970, in Cleveland, the Indians hosted the Washington Senators in a “battle” between the two teams at the bottom of the AL East standings.  1970 Sam McDowellSam McDowell took an 11-4 record to the mound for the Indians. The Senators scored two runs in the first inning and two more in the third to jump on top 4-0, but Cleveland rallied and took a 6-4 lead when Duke Sims hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth.

That’s the way the score stood going into the visitors’ half of the eighth.  The Senators got singles from Ed Stroud and Eddie Brinkman, and a wild pitch by McDowell moved the runners to second and third with one out.  McDowell struck out Tom Grieve, but that brought the dangerous Frank Howard to the plate as the potential go-ahead run.  Hondo had hit 44 home runs in 1968, 48 in 1969, and had already hit 21 in his first 79 games of the 1970 season (he would finish the year with 44).

McDowell had already faced 38 batters and had allowed 11 hits and walked five.  He’d also struck out 12, and while pitch counts weren’t in box scores in those days and were rarely reported in the press, he must have thrown a lot of pitches by then.  With Howard and the next four hitters after him all right-handed hitters, it would seem to be a good time for Cleveland manager Al Dark to bring in a fresh right-handed pitcher. Which he did, summoning Dean Chance to the mound.  But Dark didn’t take McDowell out of the game. He put Chance in the lineup in place of third baseman Graig Nettles, who had made the Indians’ last out in the seventh; he moved Eddie Leon from second base to third; and he left McDowell in the game–as the second baseman, giving him the option of returning McDowell to the mound.

Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter Russell Schneider described McDowell’s reaction to the news in the next morning’s paper:

McDowell gulped once, blinked twice, and then was caught up in the spirit of the situation.

“When I could talk, I said, ‘That’s fine…I can handle it,'” McDowell said he told Dark.

Chance intentionally walked Howard to load the bases and set up a force at any base.  That brought Rick Reichardt to the plate. “Nobody had to tell me, but you can be sure I was keeping the ball inside to Rick,” Chance told Schneider after the game. “If he’s going to hit it, he’s going to pull it. There’s no way he’s going to hit it to Sam’s side of the infield.”

A headline from the Cleveland Plain Dealer on July 7, 1970

A headline from the Cleveland Plain Dealer on July 7, 1970

Chance’s mission was accomplished when the right-handed-hitting Reichardt pulled a ground ball to Leon at third base. George Minot, Jr., in his account of the game in the next day’s Washington Post, wrote Leon could have just as easily touched third base to get the force out there or thrown to first to get the final out.  Leon didn’t explain to Schneider why he didn’t try to get the out at third (Schneider did not mention that as an option), but he said, “I threw to second because I’ve got this sore finger and I didn’t want to force a longer throw. Heck, I wasn’t worried about Sam. He’s a good athlete.”

McDowell caught Leon’s throw to get the force at second base end end the inning, but it was a bit of an adventure. Here’s what he told Schneider:

Jack [Heidemann, the Indians’ shortstop] and I talked before every pitch, but the only thing he kept saying to me was, ‘Make sure you cover second on a ball hit on the ground.’ I saw Leon come up with the ball and start to throw to me, but then I lost it momentarily in the white shirt background. So I just got over the base and went down to both knees. Then I looked for the ball. Finally, I found it — but there was no way it could have gone through me, believe me.

No one seems to have asked Dark why he kept McDowell in the game at second base as opposed to a position that might have been less challenging for a lefty. “It did sort of surprise me that McDowell wasn’t put in right field rather than second,” Howard told the Plain Dealer’s Chuck Heaton after the game. I’m guessing Dark was focused on removing Nettles from the game, as he had been the last Cleveland player to bat, and he didn’t have anybody else in the lineup he thought was capable of playing third base except his middle infielders, Heidemann and Leon. McDowell could clearly do less harm at second base than at short.

By the way, McDowell returned to the mound in the ninth (Larry Brown finished the game at second base) and struck out the side, giving him 15 strikeouts for the game, tying his season high.  He would never strike out that many batters in a game again.

Later in the season Dark moved McDowell off the mound in another game against the Senators and sent him to first base, a more conventional position for a left-handed thrower.  That didn’t turn out as well…but we’ll save details for a future post.

McDowell’s appearance as a left-handed second baseman was unusual enough to merit mention in the subhead of the Post’s game story…Minot said no one1958 George Crowe could remember the last time it happened.  That’s because they didn’t have Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference.com back then.  But since I have that advantage, I can tell you that the last time a lefty had played second base was in 1958…and that led to a change in the official rules of baseball.

It was June 14, 1958, the Cincinnati Reds (known as the Redlegs in those cold-war, Commie-hating days) playing the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.  Bobby Thomson, he of shot-heard-round-the-world fame, led off the bottom of the second for the Cubs, bringing pitcher John Briggs to the plate (not to be confused with the John “Breek” Briggs who played the outfield for the Phillies, Brewers and Twins from 1964-75).  Here’s the way Edgar Munzel described what happened next in The Sporting News:

With Bobby Thomson on first base, none out and a sacrifice obviously in order with Pitcher Johnny Briggs at the plate, [Cincinnati Manager Birdie] Tebbetts had First Baseman George Crowe and Second Baseman Johnny Temple switch positions.

Tebbetts wanted to take advantage of Temple’s speed to charge in on the bunt and the strategy paid off when Temple speared Briggs’ pop fly for a double play. [Temple threw the ball to Crowe–who had rotated to cover first as you would on a bunt–to double off Thomson, so Crowe got credit for a putout as a second baseman–standing on first!]

It brought a quick challenge from Manager Bob Scheffing of the Cubs because Crowe was playing second base with a big first baseman’s “mitt” instead of a fielder’s “glove,” as such equipment is defined in the rules book.

The umpires, however, pointed out that the rules do not expressly forbid the practice.

Rule 1.14 states: “Each fielder, other than the first baseman and the catcher, MAY wear a leather glove . . .”

It does not say SHALL or MUST and, therefore, Frank Dascoli and Augie Donatelli of the umpire crew working that series in Wrigley Field sought a specific ruling that night from [National League] President [Warren] Giles.

Giles immediately declared that the interpretation of the rule for the National League would be that only the first baseman and the catcher can wear a “mitt” and anyone playing any other position must wear the regular fielder’s “glove.”

“Tebbets and any other manager can still make the same shift, but if the first baseman plays second base he must put on a glove,” said Dascoli. “You can’t have everybody in the infield wearing one of those big nets.”

Picture 1The last lefty to record an assist as a second baseman was Hall of Famer Jim Bottomley of the St. Louis Cardinals, during his only appearance at the position on August 29, 1924.  Bottomley started at first base, his usual position, with Rogers Hornsby at second.  But Hornsby left the game after the fourth inning with a wrenched back, and his replacement, Ray Blades, was ejected for arguing a called third strike in the top of the ninth.  So in the bottom of the inning, with the Cardinals leading 12-3, manager Branch Rickey moved center fielder Heinie Mueller (also a left-handed thrower) to first base and shifted Bottomley to second.  Joe Bratcher entered the game in center field for the Cards; it would be his only appearance in the field in a major league game and his last appearance in the bigs ever (he also pinch-hit once and pinch-ran twice).  The Chicago Tribune game story noted that the Cardinals “finished with a left-hander playing second base.  Rickey is original, if nothing else.”

The last lefty to commit an error as a second baseman was another Hall of Famer, George Sisler, who was also the last lefty to spend any significant time playing second base in the majors.  He made two starts at the position for the St. Louis Browns in 1917, with two putouts, five assists and two errors (one in each game). His first start was on May 23 in a home game against the Red Sox, with his final appearance coming May 29 at Chicago. Sisler also started two games at third base in 1916.

A couple of lefties who played second base without receiving a fielding chance…Lefty Stewart made an appearance there for the 1933 American League champion Washington Senators.  It was his only major league appearance as anything other than a pitcher.  And in 1920, Hall of Famer Edd Roush, normally a center fielder, finished the final game of the season at second base.  From the looks of the box score, maybe Roush’s Reds were just having some fun, as three other players finished the game at positions where they didn’t start.

Picture 2Hal Chase, considered one of the finest fielding first basemen of all time (in addition to being considered a despicable human being), actually saw quite a bit of time at second base, playing 35 games there between 1905 and 1916, 16 of them in 1916.

Chase is also the last lefty to record a fielding chance at shortstop in a major league game, making three putouts in two games at the position as a rookie in 1905.  Since 1910, almost all left-handers listed as “shortstops” were designated as such on the lineup card, batted in the top of the first inning and then came out of the game before taking the field.  The most recent of these was Mark Ryal, an outfielder and occasionally a first baseman.  On September 4, 1987, Angels manager Gene Mauch listed Ryal on his lineup card as the shortstop and had him bat leadoff in a game at Yankee Stadium.  Ryal flied out to center field, and then Dick Schofield entered the game to actually play shortstop in the bottom of the first.

Tom Chism, a left-handed first baseman who had some good years at the plate in the minors, made his major league debut under similar circumstances as a “shortstop.”  Orioles manager Earl Weaver put Chism on his lineup card at shortstop, batting second, on September 13, 1979, at Toronto, and after Chism flied out, Kiko Garcia entered the game as the real shortstop.  Chism would also start a game at “catcher” on September 19, grounding into a double play before letting Dave Skaggs don the tools of ignorance.  Those two games were Chism’s only major league starts.  His only other plate appearance was a ground out after he replaced Eddie Murray at first base on September 23.  Weaver also listed left-handed Royle Stillman on his lineup card at shortstop in six road games in September 1975, replacing him when the Orioles took the field.

Picture 3Another left-handed “shortstop” was Lou Gehrig, who kept his consecutive-games streak alive with just such a phantom appearance at Detroit on July 14, 1934 (see details on Gehrig’s Wikipedia listing).

The story of lefthanded “shortstop” Nino Escalera is the subject of its own blog post.

Speaking of lefties “playing” second base…in 1973, the first year of the designated hitter, Oakland A’s manager Dick Williams came up with what he must have thought was a bright idea.  Since neither of his second basemen, Dick Green and Ted Kubiak, was much of a hitter, Williams hit upon putting somebody else in his lineup as the second baseman on the road and then putting in his real second baseman after the imposter batted in the top of the first.  Over six consecutive games, May 23-28, at Cleveland at Baltimore, Williams listed either Gonzalo Marquez, Jay Johnstone, Billy Conigliaro or Angel Mangual at second base.  Marquez was a lefty, so his appearance on May 5 at Cleveland marks the last time a lefty was on the lineup card as a second baseman in a major league game.  Williams abandoned the tactic after his phantom second basemen combined to go 0-for-5 with a walk, although twice the batter reached base on an error.

The most recent occasion of a lefty playing third base in a major league game was by the otherwise unremarkable Mario Valdez as a 22-year-old rookie with the White Sox in 1997.  Valdez pinch-hit for third baseman Chris Snopek in the top of the eighth in a game at Pittsburgh on July 2, then played the bottom of the eighth at the hot corner without getting a fielding chance.  Valdez actually played third base in five minor league games and handled seven chances without making an error.

But for the last lefty to field a ball at third base in the major leagues, we go back to a man who was mentioned at the top of this post:  Don Mattingly, who actually started two games at third base during his remarkable 1986 season.  The experiment began August 29, when Lou Piniella, in his first year as a manager, shifted Mattingly to third base in the fifth inning of a game at Seattle.  Wayne Tolleson shifted from third base to short after shortstop Mike Fischlin had been lifted for a pinch-hitter.  The Yankees were trailing 12-11 (in the fifth inning!) but came back to win 13-12.  Mattingly handled six chances at third base without an error and even started a double play, using a glove borrowed from pitcher Dennis Rasmussen.  The headline on the next day’s New York Times game story was “Mattingly Plays 3d in Victory.”  (Oddly enough, the Times barely alluded to Mattingly being left-handed.)  Mattingly had taken ground balls at third during batting practice because Piniella had already decided to use him at the position the next night.  (Mike Pagliarulo, the Yanks’ regular third baseman, was out with a hamstring injury.)

Picture 4In his game story in the Times, Michael Martinez said “some of [Mattingly’s] teammates were not particularly enthused by the idea” of Mattingly manning third.  “I thought it was a joke,” was Rickey Henderson’s reaction to the move.  “Don’t tell me it’s reality.  If it’s the middle of the season and we’re out of the race, I could see it.  But we’re not out of the race.”  (The win in Seattle moved the Yankees five games back of the Red Sox in the AL East.)

“I know everybody thinks I’m nuts,” Piniella said.  “But I’ve got nobody else to play there.”

The next night the Yankees played a doubleheader at the Kingdome, with Mattingly starting the opener at third base as Bill Swift pitched a two-hitter and the Mariners won 1-0.  Tolleson started at short, then moved to third in the sixth inning (with Mattingly moving to first) when Fischlin entered the game.  Mattingly made an error in the bottom of the first on a high throw after fielding a grounder by leadoff man John Moses, but he atoned for the error by starting a double play on a grounder by the next batter, Mickey Brantley.

Mattingly played first base in the nightcap, with Tolleson at third and Fischlin at short, and his fourth-inning homer put the Yankees ahead in a game they would win 3-0.  But the next day he played the full game at third in a 6-2 Yankee loss, with Tolleson at second base as Willie Randolph was unavailable due to a hamstring injury.  Mattingly had four assists in an errorless performance.

The next day, September 1, the rosters expanded  and minor league callup Leo Hernandez was at third base.  Either Hernandez or Pagliarulo was in the lineup for every game the rest of the way.

ADDED 3/16/13: Other lefthanders who have played third base…Terry Francona played four innings off the bench and had three assists without an error for the Expos in 1985…Charlie Grimm started a game at third base for the Cardinals in 1918…and the remarkable Mike Squires, a slick-fielding first baseman, played 14 games at third in 1983-84 (committing no errors in 38 innings) and started four, all in 1984. In one of those games he started at first base, moved to third and finished on the mound. Squires also made two brief appearances behind the plate in his career…but I’m leaving lefthanded catchers out of this post. There have been only two others who have actually caught in a major league game since 1916, Dale Long and Benny Distefano, neither of whom started a game there. Long actually got an assist as a catcher…on a dropped third strike. None of the three lefthanded catchers committed an error, although Long and Distefano each had a passed ball. For more about left-handed catchers, see this post from Jack Moore.

14 thoughts on “Left-handed throwing second basemen, shortstops and third basemen

  1. Kahuna Tuna

    Fun article! I found out how awkward third base is for a lefty thrower when I played third for my Little League team as a 9-year-old. Those are some bad memories.

    It’s significant that McDowell’s 2B appearance in the 7/6/70 game came when Frank Howard was batting. Especially from 1968 to 1970, McDowell wanted NOTHING to do with Howard, who beat him like the proverbial rented mule (1968 OPS of 2.528!). In a game later in 1970, McDowell twice intentionally walked Howard leading off an inning. That may be the game you’re saving for a later post, so I won’t say anything else about it for now.

    Follow-up question on the Crowe-Temple switch: Did the AL already have the same rule in place? If not, when did the AL adopt the rule?

    1. prestonjg Post author

      You are right, Tuna, the game in which Frank Howard was intentionally walked twice leading off an inning is the game in which McDowell played first base. McDowell also intentionally walked Howard a third time in that game! In 1968 Hondo went 8-for-12 against McDowell with two doubles, a triple, and three homers. The first two games McDowell faced Howard in 1969, he hit him with a pitch the first time he came up–both times with two outs and nobody on. Those were also the only times McDowell hit Howard. Guess he remembered 1968.

      I do not know the AL’s position on the first baseman’s mitt issue. Anyone?

    2. David

      I could never understand why there were no regular second baseman who were left-handed. I played 1st-base (left-handed) and every once in a while would play second base. I developed a method of pivoting for the throw to first that appeared awkward and strange to everyone but resulted in my being in the perfect position to make that throw accurately every time. What I did was to pivot on my right foot turning my back to home plate and stepping away from first base but, that put me if the perfect place for making a natural throw to first. It’s easier for a left-handed second baseman to make the throw to second and third. It’s also easier to grab balls hit up the middle because the glove in on the right hand. when you get up to make the throw, you again need to have your back to home plate in order to make that throw naturally. The only tricky thing was taking the throw at second from the catcher, short stop or third baseman when a runner was involved because you had your back to the runner and making that pivot to position yourself for throwing to first or tagging out the runner was an art. If you positioned yourself correctly to take the throw from the catcher, then you glove hand was actually in a better position to make the tag than a right handed player but, for the double play, I actually had to jump away from the base toward the outfield spinning again with my back to home plate to get into position to make the throw to first. That make it easy for the runner to trip me up and break up the play because I really could not see where he was.

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    1. prestonjg Post author

      I’ve heard it said that since the majority of batters hit right-handed, the right-handed throwing catcher will more often have a less-obstructed throw to second base to throw out a runner attempting to steal. I’ve also heard it said that any kid who can throw hard enough and straight enough from home plate to second base gets made a pitcher instead. But there may not be a good reason for lefties not to catch.

      1. Bryan Cantrill

        I’m the father of two baseball-loving lefties — one of whom (who is 6) got his heart set on being a catcher. Curious as to why this is a practical impossibility at the professional level, I did a little research into this, and talked to a friend of mine who played catcher in college. His claim is that while the obstruction argument definitely has some validity, there are so many who hit lefty that it isn’t the real reason that there are _no_ lefty catchers. The reason a lefty can’t (or shouldn’t) catch is similar to the reasons that they can’t (or shouldn’t) play second, short or third: the orientation of the diamond. In particular, on any play at the plate, a righty catcher has an automatic advantage because he is catching with his left hand. Because this is the hand closer to third base, a righty will always have a foot or so of extra reach on any play — which, in a game of inches, could be all the difference…

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  4. Ken Rennoger

    What about plays from the right side of the field ? I assumed the reason why was because it is easier for right handed catchers to throw out base runners attempting to steal 3rd because of the angle .It would be awkward for the lefty especially on a pitch that is inside to a left handed hitter or outside to a righty. Right handed catchers feet are also more likely to be already in the natural throwing position when having to make a throw to 3rd where lefties will need to
    reposition they’re footing and that will be the difference in time between safe and out in too many plays . Not to mention picking off runners on 1st . But I am assuming this so ……

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