Obituary: Hobie Landrith (1930-2023)

RIP to catcher Hobie Landrith, who played for seven teams in a 14-year major-league career. In his time, he was known for being one of the smallest catchers in baseball and for having one of the biggest voices. The New York Mets announced his death on April 6; he was 93 years old. Landrith played for the Cincinnati Reds (1950-55), Chicago Cubs (1956), St. Louis Cardinals (1957-58), San Francisco Giants (1959-61), New York Mets (1962), Baltimore Orioles (1962-63) and Washington Senators (1963).

Hobart Neal Landrith was born in Decatur, Ill., on March 16, 1930. His parents, Charles and Edna, had a total of nine children. The family moved to Michigan when Hobie was about 4 years old. Oldest brother Charles Jr. became a very good catcher in the Detroit sandlots, and Hobie followed in his footsteps, as did some of his other brothers. In 1946, Landrith was chosen to represent Michigan in the Esquire All-American Boys’ Game, played in Chicago on August 10. He was selected after a tryout held at Briggs Stadium in Detroit; the judges included Tigers manager Steve O’Neill, broadcaster (and former Tiger star) Harry Heilmann and Detroit Free Press sports editor Lyall Smith. Landrith was the first position player from Michigan chosen for that honor. Landrith’s All-East team was managed by Honus Wagner, while Ty Cobb headed up the All-West Team. Also on the team was future major-leaguer Harold “Tookie” Gilbert, son of legendary minor-league manager Larry Gilbert. Landrith was 0-for-2 in the game, which the West won by a score of 10-4. It wasn’t the only youth All-Star Game for Landrith, for he later was invited to the Hearst East-West game in the Polo Grounds in New York City.

Hobie Landrith during his high school years. Source: Detroit Free Press, July 8, 1946.

Landrith returned to Northwestern High School in Detroit and then went to Michigan State University. Pro scouts were after him, and with good reason. His coach at Michigan, John Kobs, felt Landrith, a freshman in 1948, was a better catcher than some of the ballplayers in the majors. When not at school, Landrith played for an amateur team run by Joe Gentile and batted over .350 in 50 games. His throwing arm struck fear in any baserunner, too. While the young catcher was determined to finish his physical education degree at Michigan State, the Cincinnati Reds came to him with an offer that he could not refuse. The 19-year-old was assigned to the Charleston Senators of the Class-A Central League and hit .250 in his first pro season of 1949, with 5 home runs. He impressed the likes of old-timers Bill Terry (“The kid is big league.”) and Bucky Walters (“I think we’ll be seeing a lot of him.”).

Landrith moved up to Double-A Tulsa in 1950 but broke his leg sliding into home in his first game. When he recovered, he joined the Reds as a bullpen catcher. After a few weeks, he was added to the team’s active roster. The team had a series of doubleheaders on the schedule at the end of July and beginning of August, and some of the Reds other catchers like Dixie Howell and John Pramesa were battling injuries. Landrith started 4 games for the Reds behind the plate, with 3 hits for a .214 batting average. His first major-league game came on July 30 in the first game of a doubleheader. He singled in his first at-bat off Boston Braves pitcher Vern Bickford and hit into a run-scoring force play in his second. He also picked off speedy Sam Jethroe off second base. He didn’t play again after those 4 games, but he made an immediate impression. An AP brief about the young catcher noted that he “is bringing a brand of on-the-field chatter which hasn’t been heard since the days of Leo (Gabby) Hartnett. When Hobie is behind the plate, his shrill holler is heard all over the ball park.”

Landrith spent a couple more seasons making the trip between the majors and minors. He spent most of 1951 in Buffalo of the International League and rejoined the Reds in late September for 4 games. Though he batted under .200 for Buffalo, he had a hit in each of the 4 games he played with the Reds, to the tune of a .385 batting average. In 1952, he joined the Reds in early September; he had 4 hits and drove in a run in a 10-inning, 6-5 win in his second start on September 10 against Boston. He started most of the Reds games to close out the season and hit .260 in 15 games. He would not return to the minors again.

Landrith was popular among Cincinnati fans for his hustle, his throwing arm, and his never-ending chatter. Manager Rogers Hornsby liked the young catcher, too, but veteran backstop Andy Seminick held down the Reds starting catching job. Landrith made it into 52 games as a catcher and pinch-hitter and slashed .240/.299/.331. He hit his first career home run in the first game of a July 5 doubleheader. It was a solo shot off Chicago Cubs pitcher Bubba Church. Seminick’s playing time decreased over the next couple of years, but it was catchers Ed Bailey and Smoky Burgess who picked up most of the playing time. Landrith delivered when he played — he batted just .198 in 1954, but 5 of his 16 hits left the park, and he drove in 14 runs. But given Cincinnati’s catching depth, it was unsurprising that Landrith was traded in November of 1955 to the Chicago Cubs for some pitching help — converted outfielder Hal Jeffcoat.

Landrith, right, trots home after a 3-run home run against St. Louis. Teammate Johnny Temple meets to shake his hand. Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 8, 1954.

Landrith, who at 5’10” (rather generous of Baseball Reference to list him at that height) and 170 pounds was dwarfed by Cubs regular catcher Harry Chiti. Nevertheless, he a starting role in 1956 with his smooth defensive play. He maintained that he’d never been given a chance to show he could hit with Cincinnati. “I know I’m a better hitter than that,” he said of his .253 batting average with the Reds. “Give me regular work and I’ll do better. After all, I averaged only 47 games per year in my three seasons with Cincinnati.”

Landrith killed the Reds on his first trip back to Cincinnati as a visitor. Over a 3-game series from April 20-22, he had 5 hits, including 2 doubles and 2 triples. However, he cooled off at the plate and spent most of the season hitting in the .230s. He played in a career-high 111 games and slashed .221/.307/.311, with 10 doubles, 4 home runs and 32 RBIs. His fielding percentage as a catcher was .975, which was a little below average, but he picked off 5 runners. After the season, Landrith was part of a large deal between Chicago and St. Louis. He, pitchers Jim Davis and Sam Jones, and infielder Eddie Miskis all went to the Cardinals in exchange for Jackie Collum, Ray Katt, Tom Poholsky and a minor leaguer.

The Cardinals’ starting catcher was Hal Smith, who made the NL All-Star Team in 1957 after a good rookie campaign in ’56. Landrith actually outhomered Smith in 1957, 3 to 2, but he batted .243 while Smith had a .279 average. After seeing his batting average drop to .215 in 1958, Landrith was traded to San Francisco in October, along with Billy Muffett and Benny Valenzuela in exchange for Ernie Broglio and Marv Grissom. The left-handed hitting Landrith split time behind the plate in 1959 for the Giants with righty Bob Schmidt. He played in 109 games and hit a respectable .251. He also had a banner year defensively. His .992 fielding percentage was second-best in the NL behind Milwaukee Del Crandall and his .994 mark. Landrith was also fifth in throwing out baserunners with 24 and seventh in overall defensive WAR at 1.2.

During the rest of his tenure in San Francisco, Landrith lost playing time to Schmidt and — once again — Ed Bailey. However, he made the Giants a much better team by working with rookie pitcher Juan Marichal. “Hobie has helped me a lot, especially on gripping the ball so the batters can’t see if it’s going to be a fastball or a curve,” he told reporters in 1960. Marichal debuted that summer and threw a 1-hitter in his first game, with Landrith behind the plate. He picked up the fourth win of his career on August 16 against St. Louis. He pitched a 7-3 complete game win, and the hitting hero was Landrith, who belted 3 doubles off Bob Gibson, one of which came with the bases loaded.

After the season, baseball held its first expansion draft to welcome the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s into the league. Houston won the coin toss for the first pick and, given the list of available players from the eight clubs, picked shortstop Eddie Bressoud from San Francisco. The Mets, with the second pick, took Landrith. The choice of a career backup catcher as the first player taken by the team was a puzzler, though manager Casey Stengel had an explanation: “If you don’t have a catcher, you’re going to have a lot of passed balls and you’re going to be chasing the ball back to the screen all day.”

Even though his time with the team was short, Landrith still earned recognition as the first New York Met. He was the catcher for the very first Mets game, on April 11, 1962, and went 0-for-4 in an 11-4 loss. He had better games, batting .289 in 23 games. His 1 home run was a walk-off blast against Milwaukee Braves ace Warren Spahn, leading to a 3-2 win on May 12. Of all the catchers the Mets had in their inaugural season — Chris Cannizzaro, Sammy Taylor, Choo-Choo Coleman, Joe Pignatano, Chiti and Joe Ginsberg — Landrith was the best hitter. Still, he was sent to Baltimore on June 7 to complete an earlier deal that had brought “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry to the Mets. In a story related by syndicated columnist Arthur Daley, it was revealed that the first member of the family who knew about the trade was Landrith’s 11-year-old son, Gary. He had overheard Mets traveling secretary Lou Niss talking about the trade three days before Landrith was told about it. Garry had been instructed to never repeat anything that he heard in the clubhouse, so he kept the secret — even from his father.

Shortly after Landrith joined the Orioles, the team fought with the New York Yankees after a string of beanballs during a June 11 game. Baltimore’s Boog Powell was hit in his helmet and had to be carried off on a stretcher. Yankees manager Ralph Houk went after Orioles manager Billy Hitchcock, and both men were ejected. Several Yankees players blamed Landrith for the rising tensions. “Landrith started the whole thing,” said Roger Maris, who ducked out of the way of a beanball. “He kept making remarks behind the plate.” “That’s right. The guy is with Baltimore three days and he wants to run the league,” added Elston Howard. Baltimore won the game 5-3, and Landrith hit his first American League home run.

Landrith hit .222 for Baltimore over the rest of the 1962 season, leaving him with a combined .236 average and 5 homers. Over the offseason, the Orioles acquired catcher John Orsino in a trade with San Francisco and also added Dick Brown from Detroit. Landrith made the Orioles roster in 1963 but barely played, appearing in 2 games in April and getting just 1 at-bat. The Orioles wanted to move him to Triple-A Rochester when he was removed from the roster, but the Washington Senators intervened and bought his contract. He hit .175 in 42 games before breaking his hand on a foul tip in on August 7. It ended up being a career-ending injury, as the catcher never returned to the major leagues.

Over 14 seasons in the majors, Landrith appeared in 772 games. He slashed .233/.320/.327, and his 450 career hits included 69 doubles, 5 triples and 34 home runs. He drove in 203 runs and scored 179 times. He drew 253 walks and even stole 5 bases. He had a career .983 fielding percentage and threw out 40% of all would-be base stealers.

Landrith remained with the Senators for 1964 as a coach. Following that season, he took a job as a public relations manager for a Volkswagen distributor in California and worked for the company for the next 30 years. As part of that job, he ran youth baseball clinics all over California and Utah. As the Original Met, he was thrilled to see the team win the World Series in 1969, though his job kept him too busy to watch any of the World Series. “It’s hard to believe they won it all, especially if you were around them at the start as I was,” he said. Though he remained out of baseball, his son Dave, also a catcher, was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 1979. Dave’s daughter Robin — Hobie’s granddaughter — was an excellent high school softball catcher, too.

Landrith was invited by then-Giants manager Dusty Baker to work with the team in spring training in the 1990s, and he participated in training camps for several years, passing on his accumulated knowledge to a new generation of catchers. He also had a few stories to tell, like this one from an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2011:

“One of the highlights of my time in Cincinnati was being called into a scoreless game at Crosley Field in the 10th inning when the manager pinch-ran for Andy Seminick. I got my first at-bat of the night in the 12th inning and hit a home run to win it 1-0. [Reds radio broadcaster] Waite Hoyt was yelling, ‘Hobie did it! Hobie did it!’

“After the game, my wife came to pick me up. She didn’t say a word about the home run. I said, ‘Didn’t you stay for the game?’ She said, ‘No, [the kids] were acting up so we went home in the eighth inning. Why, what happened?'”

Landrith is survived by his wife of 74 years, Peggy, and children Gary, Carol, Randall, Beth, David and Linda.

Source: The Honolulu Advertiser, April 5, 1962.

For more information:

Follow me on Twitter: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Instagram: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Facebook: ripbaseball

Support RIP Baseball


4 thoughts on “Obituary: Hobie Landrith (1930-2023)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s