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CATCHER OF THE WEEK: J.C. Martin

In this regular feature, we will help you acquaint yourself with some of the finest practitioners of the most thankless task in baseball to ever don the “tools of ignorance” for our beloved Chicago Baseball teams. This week we feature J.C. Martin.

These Sox hats need to make a comeback.

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. – some motivational poster or something.

J.C. Martin was a very lucky man. On two separate occasions, he got to be in the right place at the right time. He had a brief enough cup of coffee with the 1959 pennant-winning White Sox to be on their Baseball-reference page, and he had a couple big moments during the 1969 Mets’ miraculous run to the World Championship.

Joseph Clifton Martin was born in 1936 in a small town in Virginia just north of the border with North Carolina. He was raised as a devout Christian, something that he maintained throughout his life, to the point where the closest he ever came to profanity was “Geemo Christmas!” – no, I’m not making that up.

He admired Bobby Richardson and Tony Kubek, two very clean-living guys on an otherwise very hard-living Yankees team. So when the White Sox signed him out of high school and he went to Holridge in the D-level Nebraska State League, one can only imagine the shock to his system. Still, he managed to hit .276 with 10 home runs as a 19 year old first baseman.

The following season the Sox moved him up to their B-league team in Davenport IA, but he was in over his head there. So they dropped him back down to D-ball, where he hit 14 home runs to go with a 273/374/430 slash line.

In 1958, the Sox sent him to the C-level Northern League, and the Duluth-Superior White Sox. This time he was ready for the promotion. He slashed 330/412/491 with 10 home runs in a season that included a 18 game hitting streak.

1959 was a very eventful year for Martin. He got the call up to AAA Indianapolis, where he played more third base than first base. He also slashed 287/344/425 for an team that included former big leaguers like Walker Cooper, Dixie Howell and Bob Kuzava, and future big leaguers like Johnny Callison, (future CotW) Camilo Carreon and Gary Peters. Martin, Callison, Carreon and Peters all got tastes of varying sizes in the bigs that year, as the Sox won their first pennant in 40 years. Martin got up to the plate 4 times, and managed to get his first big league hit.

1960 saw Martin back in AAA, where again he put up decent numbers – 285/345/415 – but the corner infield spots were being held down by Roy Sievers at first and Gene Freese at third…both excellent hitters. So decent in AAA wasn’t going to cut it.

1961 saw J.C. get his first year in the majors without having to go back to the minors. Unfortunately for Martin, his big league slash line of 230/290/336 was not going to cut it in any way, shape or form. After the season was over, the Sox decided he should see what the world looked like from behind the plate.

He went back to A ball to learn the trade of catching, and it did not go well, as he allowed 32 passed balls. He did, however, handle A ball pitching to the tune of 328/389/459.

He was with the Sox to stay in 1963. He and Carreon split the catching duties pretty evenly, but Carreon was the superior hitter. Carreon was also better defensively, having been a catcher his entire career. Martin’s one advantage was his arm – he led AL catchers with a 44% rate of throwing out would-be base stealers.

Of course, a problem that would plague White Sox catchers for years – if you bothered to read my post on Ed Herrmann – was their fondness for knuckleball pitchers. Before Wilbur Wood showed up, there was Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher fluttering uncatchable junk up to the still-basically-novice catcher led to some ugly stats for Martin, as he allowed a league-leading 24 passed balls in 1964 and a then-record 33 in 1965.

Still, as the Sox got better in 1966 and 67, so did Martin. His passed balls got low (and stayed low for the rest of his career), and he was a league-average hitter. He also caught Joe Horlen’s no hitter in 1967.

After the season, he was traded to the Mets, where NY wanted a veteran catching corps to handle their young staff, headed by Tom Seaver coming off a stellar rookie year, and other young fireballers like Jerry Koosman, Jim McAndrew and Dick Selma coming up. Oh, and some guy named Nolan Ryan, who the Mets would eventually give up on.

So for 1968, Martin was the Mets’ opening day catcher, but he broke his finger in that game. So Jerry Grote basically claimed the starting gig on his own, even after Martin returned later in the season.

In 1969, Martin and the Mets shocked all of baseball by roaring past the fading Cubs in August and winning the first-ever NL Eastern Division championship. Then in Game 3 of the playoff against Atlanta, Martin hit a three-run pinch-hit single in the 8th inning to put the game (and series) away.

That all set the stage for the 10th inning of Game 4 of the World Series. With the heavily-favored Orioles trying to even the series and the Mets trying to build a 3-1 lead in games, Martin laid down a bunt that was fielded cleanly by Orioles’ pitcher Pete Richert, and his throw over to first seemed to have Martin beat.

An 8×10 picture with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one…

As you can see, Martin was clearly inside the line, and Richert’s ball hit him on his wrist. As the ball rolled off into unmanned territory, the Mets’ Rod Gaspar sprinted home with the winning run. Of course, if this had happened today, Martin would have been called out on replay. But in 1969, he was safe.

Of course, as I said earlier, the Mets’ win was miraculous. Between this and Cleon Jones’ shoe polish getting onto a ball proving it hit him, every single break in that series went the Mets’ way. So Martin got to be in a huge ticker tape parade up Broadway.

That euphoria was short-lived, as Martin found himself back in Chicago, this time to back Randy Hundley up on the Cubs.

It’s kind of ridiculous how many of these guys played for both the Cubs and Sox.

When Hundley got hurt in 1970, the Cubs went out and got Jack Hiatt to take the starting role. Not great news for Martin. Of course, Martin didn’t do himself any favors by hitting .156. In 1971, Martin rebounded, putting up a 264/336/352 slash line, and even got a shot as interim pitching coach.

By 1972, Martin was done. His offensive and defensive numbers were down, and between Hundley, young Ken Rudolph and Martin’s former Orioles for Elrod Hendricks, there was no place for him. So he retired as a player.

He returned to Chicago baseball in 1975 for a year of broadcasting White Sox baseball on Channel 44 with Harry Caray. And as you can imagine, the very clean-living Martin and the legendary carouser Caray didn’t have a lot of love lost for each other. And since Caray was instantly a Chicago institution, that was it for Martin in the broadcast booth.

Still, J.C. Martin had himself a career. He got a small taste of the World Series in 1959, played a major role in the 1969 Series, and got to spend all or part of 14 seasons in the big leagues.

Not too shabby.

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