Obituary: Ed FitzGerald (1924-2020)

RIP to Ed FitzGerald, who had a 12-year career as a backup catcher in the 1940s and ’50s. He died on June 14 at the age of 96. FitzGerald played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1948-53), Washington Senators (1953-59) and Cleveland Indians (1959).

The surname is a bit unusual, as most players with his last name spell “Fitzgerald” as one word. The baseball stat sites like Baseball Reference (see link above) write it as two words, “Fitz” and “Gerald.” During his playing time, newspapers and baseball cards spelled it as one word, with the “G” capitalized or lowercase. His obituary spells it as “FitzGerald,” so I’ll use that spelling for the remainder of this article.

Edward FitzGerald was born in Santa Ynez, Calif., on May 21, 1924. He attended Santa Ynez High School and St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. Thanks to World War II, he started his pro baseball career later than most. He served in the Army during the war and made his professional debut at the age of 22 with the Class-B Wentachee (Wash.) Chiefs of the Western International League. He made up for lost time, though. After playing in 91 games for the Chiefs and batting .338 with 13 homers, FitzGerald moved to the AAA Sacramento Solons. The Solons’ catcher had suffered an injury, and FitzGerald, who had been training in Portland, flew down to step in. He made enough of a good impression in 11 games that he stuck around Sacramento in 1947 as their starting catcher.

By April of 1947, FitzGerald was considered the best backstop in the Pacific Coast League. Journalist Bill Conlin called him the best young catcher to break into the PCL since Mickey Cochrane — way back in 1924. His offense was certainly impressive — he finished second in the league with a .363 average — but his speed was what got people excited.

Source: Pensacola News-Journal, May 26, 1959

“What thrills the Edmonds Field customers is the manner in which FitzGerald flies down the line to back up the first baseman on infield throws. Encumbered by his catching gear, FitzGerald moves to first faster than one-third of the batters. He dead heats with others and only the really fast runners beat him,” wrote Conlin.

Thought he’d never really get a chance to show off his speed in the majors, FitzGerald stole 26 bases for the Solons in 1947.

The Pittsburgh Pirates purchased his contract from Sacramento for $40,000 and five players. He split time behind the plate in 1948 with Clyde Kluttz and played in 102 games — one of just two times in his career where he would top the 100-game mark. In limited action, he batted .267 with a homer and 35 RBIs. That home run came courtesy of Phillies rookie Al Lakeman on July 20. FitzGerald took the first pitch Lakeman ever threw in the majors and deposited it in the left field bullpen for a 3-run bomb.

FitzGerald also led all major-league catchers with 15 passed balls, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. He frequently caught knuckleballer Kirby Higbe, and that required some adjustments. “What that ball doesn’t do!” he told The Sacramento Bee after the season. “At first I was chasing it all around, but I caught on.” It was later reorted that whenever Kluttz was catching a game and Higbe came in from the bullpen, FitzGerald started strapping on his gear, because Kluttz wanted nothing to do with the knuckleball.

FitzGerald continued to hit in 1949, and his fielding improved dramatically without Higbe on the staff. Injuries limited him to just 75 games, with journeymen Clyde McCollough and Phil Masi filling in. He hit .263 when he did play. McCollough eventually moved into the role of starting catcher, and FitzGerald was sent to AAA Indianapolis in early 1950 after managing 1 hit, a double, in 15 at-bats. He returned to Pittsburgh for two more seasons, 1951 and 1952, but he was strictly a back-up catcher/pinch-hitter and hit .227 and .233, respectively. He was behind the plate for Cliff Chambers’ no-hitter against the Braves on May 6, 1951. It was the first Pirates no-no since Nick Maddox threw one in 1907. He got the starting nod because McCollough was bed-ridden with the flu.

“I’ll have to wire Clyde that he lost his job,” Chambers cracked.

The knock on FitzGerald was that he was weak on pitches in the dirt, but that reputation may have come from his work as a rookie, trying to corral Higbe’s pitches. Still, the Pirates kept bringing in new catchers like Joe Garagiola or Ray Mueller to cut into his playing time.

Other people in the league saw his talent. “They’ve got a catcher sitting on their bench who could make this team right now,” said Senators catcher Mickey Grasso, when told that the only good player on Pittsburgh’s roster was Ralph Kiner. “He’s a good receiver with a good arm and he can hit a little. Trouble is he isn’t getting a chance to play.”

After 6 games with the Bucs in 1953, he was put on waivers and claimed by the Washington Senators. Almost immediately, he took the catching job away from Grasso, who may have regretted complimenting FitzGerald the previous year.

In 88 games, FitzGerald hit .250 for the Senators in 1953. He also completed a rare unassisted double play against Cleveland on June 22. With Wally Westlake (a former Pirates teammate of FitzGerald) on third, Bob Feller struck out on an attempted squeeze, and Fitzgerald tagged a sliding Westlake for the second out. He was the first catcher in four years to accomplish the feat.

FitzGerald, left, and Cliff Chambers celebrate Chambers’ no-hitter. Source: The Morning Call, May 7, 1951.

Senators manager Bucky Harris kept FitzGerald as the starting catcher in 1954, and he slashed .289/.349/.386 with an OPS+ of 106. He appeared in a career-high 115 games and topped 100 hits for the only time in his career. Included in his 104 hits were 13 doubles, 5 triples and 4 home runs.

FitzGerald slammed two home runs against the Kansas City Athletics on May 1, 1955, which accounted for half his home run total on the season. His batting average slipped to .237, and he began to lose playing time to the younger Clint Courtney. Even though FitzGerald hit a career-best .304 in 1956, he did so in only 64 games, as Courtney had claimed the starter’s role. FitzGerald continued to be a valuable backup catcher and pinch-hitter for the next couple of seasons. In six full seasons and a part of a seventh, FitzGerald hit .265 for Washington.

Earlier in his career, FitzGerald broke up a no-hitter by Early Wynn with a home run, but that was in the fifth inning of the game. On June 27, 1958, he entered the game as a pinch-hitter against Billy Pierce of the White Sox, who was one out away from a perfect game. He smacked the first pitch he saw into right field for a double, ending Pierce’s chance at baseball history. “I was sent up there to hit and that’s exactly what I did,” he said after the game, when asked if he had any feelings about breaking up the perfect game. “Sure I’m glad I got it, how else do you expect me to feel?”

FitzGerald was given a chance to start regularly in 1959 but hit .194 through 19 games. Washington traded him to Cleveland on May 25 for catcher Hal Naragon and pitcher Hal Woodeschick. “FitzGerald is five years older than Naragon, but I’m willing to sacrifice the difference in age for experience. It might pay off going down the stretch,” said Cleveland general manager Frank Lane.

Unfortunately, FitzGerald broke his thumb about two weeks after he joined the team and was lost for several weeks. He batted .271 upon his return in 49 games. Cleveland named him a player-coach for the 1960 season, with the task of developing catchers Russ Nixon and John Romano. It ended up being just a coach’s role, as FitzGerald never played another game in the majors.

In 12 seasons and 807 games, FitzGerald slashed .260/.323/.336. He had 542 hits, including 82 doubles, 10 triples and 19 home runs. He drove in 217 runs and scored 199 times. His fielding as a catcher was a little below league average, and he threw out 40% of all baserunners.

FitzGerald spent the 1960 season with Cleveland as a coach before moving to the Kansas City Athletics in 1961. He worked as manager Joe Gordon’s pitching coach, and then he spent three years as a bullpen coach for the Minnesota Twins. FitzGerald’s final job in professional baseball was as the manager of the Fresno Giants of the California League. The team, the Class-A affiliate for the San Francisco Giants, finished over .500 each season.

FitzGerald left baseball in 1967 to return home to his wife and six children. He worked for the State of California Office of State Printing until retiring in 1985.

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