Major League Catcher Remains Fan Favorite After Losing Both Legs

Apparently, there is no official Major League record for the most
honorary first pitches caught in a season opening game. If there were, a
double amputee likely would own it. From 1896 to 1926,
Charlie Bennett snagged the ceremonial first toss at two Motor City ballparks,
one named for him.

Bennett had been the popular catcher for the hometown Wolverines from
1881 to 1888. The Wolverines were in the National League and were not connected
with the Detroit Tigers, which have always played in the American League. Then,
in 1893, a railroad accident claimed both of Bennett’s limbs.

“Charlie Bennett is regarded as the 19th century’s finest
catcher,” says the Encyclopedia of Baseball Catchers online.
“Charlie Bennett led National League catchers seven times in fielding
percentages and claimed credit for inventing the chest protector.”

Baseball career

Bennett had been born in Pennsylvania 39 years before the train
accident. Though he broke into big league ball in 1878 with the Milwaukee Cream
Citys and also had played a season with the Worcester, Mass. Ruby Legs, he
opted to settle in Detroit.

Bennett fielded pitches and dodged foul tips “in nothing more than
a baseball suit, a rubber cork between his teeth, and a thin glove on his left
hand with the fingers cut out, no mask or protector,” the
Encyclopedia said. His newfangled “chest protector” was a
cork-lined vest made by his wife, “which he wore under his uniform.”

  Charlie Bennett was a popular catcher for the Detroit Wolverines from 1881 to 1888.
  Charlie Bennett was a popular
catcher for the Detroit Wolverines from 1881 to 1888.
  © Goodwin & Co.
(photographer)/Boston Public Library

Bennett’s heyday was with the Wolverines. In 1887, his seventh year
with Detroit, the Wolverines finally won the National League pennant but lost
the World Series to the American Association’s St. Louis Browns, later of
the American League.

After the 1888 season, the Wolverines went broke, and the mustachioed,
5’11”, 180-lb Bennett was sold to the Boston Beaneaters, where he
played for 5 years. The Beaneaters are the ancestors of the Boston, Milwaukee
and Atlanta Braves. Bennett played five seasons for Boston and contributed to
the team’s 1892 World Series victory over the Cleveland Spiders, another
old National League team — not the ancestors of the Cleveland Indians,
another American League team.

The next season was his last in baseball. Afterward, he went hunting
with teammate John Clarkson, a pitcher.

“They were on their way from Kansas City to Williamsburg [Kan.]
when Bennett got off the train at Wellsville, Kan., to speak to an
acquaintance,” the Encyclopedia explains. “Attempting to
reboard the train, he slipped, fell under its wheels and lost both legs.”

After the amputation

The 1893 mishap almost killed Bennett. But he recovered and was fitted
with artificial legs, though he remained “confined to a wheelchair,”
according to the Encyclopedia.

After Bennett recovered from his double amputation and was fitted with
artificial legs, he opened a cigar store in Detroit. Many of his customers had
rooted for him on the ball diamond.

Especially appreciative fans put on a “Charlie Bennett Day”
and gave him a wheelbarrow full of silver dollars. Three years after his
accident, a new stadium opened at Michigan and Trumbull with a new team —
the Tigers. The facility was named Bennett Park in his honor.

When he was invited to catch the ceremonial first pitch on April 28,
1896, Bennett might not have known he would be asked to repeat the feat for 29
more season openers in Detroit. He died in 1927 at 72 years old.

Stadium in Bennett’s honor

Meanwhile, Bennett evidently brought the home team good luck. The Tigers
won the first game in their new den, drubbing the Columbus, Ohio, Senators,
17–2. Play was suspended for a while after a fan wandered onto the field
and collided with the Senators’ center fielder. Knocked out, the player
was removed from the game, Ray Jeskey wrote in the Detroit News.

Fans in the stands and in the “wildcat bleachers” always
cheered Bennett’s appearances. The latter were literally the “cheap
seats.” Local home owners built them just outside the park and above the
fences and sold seats for a fraction of the cost of a legitimate ticket,
according to the Detroit News.

The wildcatters always rooted for Bennett. But they were given to
spitting tobacco juice on paying customers below in the park when they were not
tossing insults and vegetables at enemy players, Jeskey reported.

In the winter of 1911–1912, Bennett Park was expanded into the
concrete-and-steel Navin Field, named for Tiger bookkeeper Frank Navin, who
bought the houses around Bennett Park to make room for the new stadium and
demolished the “wildcat bleachers.” Opening day was April 20, 1912,
Jeskey wrote.

After Bennett caught the pregame pitch, he enjoyed watching the Tigers
trim the Cleveland Indians, 6–5, in 11 innings. Doubtlessly, he joined
loud cheers for a Tiger outfielder who stole home. Nicknamed “the Georgia
Peach,” he was future Hall of Famer Ty Cobb.

Bennett did not live to see the Tigers’ home field grow into Briggs
Stadium and ultimately into Tiger Stadium. After more than a century of play at
Michigan and Trumbull, the home team shifted to modern Comerica Park. It opened
in 2000 at 2100 Woodward Avenue.

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