Sports Politics

The Forgotten Leftists

April 18, 2012

Multiple Pages
The Forgotten Leftists

Baseball season reminds us of the identity-politics group that doesn’t bark—left-handers. Why are certain aggregations of once-persecuted people such as blacks or gays so politically potent today, while others such as left-handers can be safely ignored?

Indeed, it’s almost gauche to ask why no left-handed big-leaguer has played catcher since the 1980s. More broadly, why doesn’t anybody (other than a few statistics nerds and the fathers of lefty Little Leaguers) even notice what appears to be flagrant employment discrimination based on traditional but irrational prejudices?

In contrast, the sporting press has waged a long campaign to boost the percentage of black quarterbacks in pro football. This was a push so powerful that when Rush Limbaugh mentioned its existence in 2003, he was forced from his side gig as an ESPN pre-game analyst and then blackballed from buying into an NFL franchise in 2009. (Since the first half of the last decade, the number of black passers performing well in the NFL has declined, suggesting Rush was more or less right.)

“Few care in any organized fashion about discrimination against left-handers.”

Why is the media so much more fanatical about discrimination against black quarterbacks than against left-handed catchers? Numbers alone can’t explain it. While blacks are an eighth of the country, left-handers are around a tenth. But unlike blacks at quarterback, left-handers are utterly shut out of catching.

Although catchers aren’t quite as crucial as quarterbacks, catcher Joe Maurer of the Minnesota Twins has an eight-year, $184 million contract—larger than any quarterback’s.

Like quarterbacks, catchers need to be strong-armed, tough, brave, good leaders, and smart. Just as some quarterbacks call plays (or at least audibles), catchers traditionally call pitches. (In Bull Durham, Kevin Costner plays a veteran minor-league catcher assigned to nurse Tim Robbins’s talented but stupid pitcher to the majors.) Thus, catchers are the most likely to become managers. Hence, bigotry against left-handers can close off not only a playing career, but a managerial career as well.

Neither quarterbacks nor catchers need to be fleet of foot. This means that prejudices regarding these positions are more serious because victims often can’t any play anywhere else. A lefty who is a natural catcher often has no feasible alternative position. Catcher is the baseball position where a less than supremely gifted athlete is most likely to make the majors if he’s gutty—and right-handed.

In the majors, lefties are common in the outfield and at first base because they enjoy a significant batting advantage. By one common measure, OPS+, seven of the all-time top ten hitters have been left-handed, including the top four. In contrast, lefties are vanishingly rare at second base, shortstop, and third base because throwing to first is more awkward for them.

There are numerous theories about why catchers are always right-handed, none of them hugely persuasive. For instance, right-handed catchers can throw better to third because their arm movement is across their torsos, but a hypothetical left-handed catcher would throw better to first on pickoffs, bunts, and dribblers.

In comparison, everybody agrees that left-handers have defensive advantages at first base, yet about three-quarters of first basemen are right-handed.

But why are there no left-handed catchers?

Many other rationalizations have been proposed, none decisive. For example, Bill James argues that strong-armed left-handers are always converted to pitcher. But transforming a talented young left-handed catcher with a good but not great fastball to pitcher on the grounds that everybody knows left-handed catchers aren’t allowed in pro ball is likely dooming him to failure.

Perhaps the most plausible theory is John Walsh’s: A century ago, lefties were stereotyped as too flaky to be trusted with the main leadership position. Think of old-time lefties such as not-quite-right-in-the-head Rube Waddell, angry Ty Cobb, fun-loving Babe Ruth, comical Lefty Gomez, and the irascible Lefty Grove. Today, though, we are as likely to think of stalwart portsiders such as Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, and Warren Spahn, who had thirteen twenty-win seasons after being wounded at the Battle of the Bulge.

Yet few care in any organized fashion about discrimination against left-handers. To garner the political heft to become what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls a “sacralized” victim group, people evidently need to build solidarity along ties of race, sex, language, sexuality, or so forth. Lefties are too random to count. Thus, there is no Left-Hander History Month on PBS, no Left-Hander Studies programs at major universities, and no left-handed equivalent of Al Sharpton arguing on TV about left-handers’ rights and how the very word “rights” is a wrong against his people.


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