While writing the short bio for Henry Yaik today I left out a bit of information on purpose just so I could write about it tonight more in depth. Yaik played one game for the 1888 Pittsburgh Alleghenys behind the plate and he was a catcher in the minor leagues, which other than the fact he caught Cy Young prior to his major league debut, there wasn’t much else to say about him without mentioning one detail about him that made him stand out from 99.5% of all other catchers in major league history….he threw left-handed.
Although the exact number of left-handed catchers isn’t known because some of the old players don’t have which hand they threw with listed, what is known is being a lefty catcher is extremely rare in baseball history, especially since the early 1900’s. Only three lefties have caught a major league game since 1905 and only six all-time have caught more than 100 games. In fact, Jack Clements, who played from 1884-1900 and caught 1076 games, caught more games than the next four highest players combined on the all-time list of games caught by a left-handed thrower.
In the Pirates franchise history, they have used four left-handed catchers, the aforementioned Yaik, Homer Hillebrand, Jiggs Donahue and Benny Distefano, who was the last lefty to catcher a game in the majors in 1989. Yaik caught just that one major league game and made an error and committed five passed balls, so it isn’t surprising that he didn’t last long in the majors. He played just two career games and made three errors in the outfield in his other game.
Hillebrand was a very interesting player from back in the day. He played for the Pirates in 1905-06 and 1908. He was not only a lefty catcher for three games in 1905 but he also played first base, outfield and pitched 18 games. His career ended prematurely due to an arm injury that caused him to miss all of 1907 resting his arm and then he retired after pitching just one inning in 1908 because the arm still wasn’t healthy. He had an 8-4 2.51 record on the mound and hit .237 in 143 plate appearances.
Jiggs Donahue started his career with the Pirates in September of 1900 after playing for the Dayton Veterans of the Interstate League earlier that season. He was a catcher coming through the minors, starting back in 1897 at the age of 17. He played three games for the Pirates in 1900, two behind the plate and one in the outfield. The next season he was used just twice before the Pirates released, one of the times was as a late inning replacement behind the plate. He would go on to have a decent career as a first baseman with the Chicago White Sox starting in 1904 but between the 1901-02 seasons after leaving the Pirates he caught another 43 major league games.
Benny Distefano became the fourth lefty catcher for the Pirates when he put on the gear on May 14,1989 to catch the final inning. He was the first lefty catcher in the majors since Mike Squires caught two games for the 1980 White Sox. The Pirates had pinch hit for the starting catcher, Tom Prince, in the sixth inning that game and then they hit for backup catcher Junior Ortiz in the 8th inning. Benny would catch two more innings on June 13 and then three innings on August 18. Those two final games were both one-sided losses during the first game of a doubleheader. Distefano never caught again in the majors but he did go behind the plate for a few more games in the minors in the early 90’s.
For the record, the Pirates all-time leaders for lefties in games caught are:
1t. Benny Distefano 3
1t. Homer Hillebrand 3
1t. Jiggs Donahue 3
4. Henry Yaik 1