Only Bill Freehan played in more games at catcher for the Detroit Tigers than Oscar Stanage, but Stanage was far from a star player.
Stanage’s career OPS of .579 is better than only Fritz Buelow and Boss Schmidt among Tigers catchers with at least 200 games played at that position. However, Stanage did provide the Tigers with durability. In an age where catchers were more prone to injuries, Stanage played in at least 77 games in each of his first nine years of his Tigers career, with six of those being at least 94 games. He was in the top five in games played at catcher in the American League in eight of those nine seasons.
After appearing in one game for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1906, he returned to the minor leagues before the Tigers purchased him in August of 1908 from Newark of the Eastern League. Stanage joined the Tigers in 1909 for the third of three consecutive American League championships, and he appeared in two of the seven games in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had a two-run single in the second inning to break a scoreless tie in the Tigers’ 5-0 victory in Game 4 as George Mullin pitched a shutout with Stanage behind the plate. Stanage played again in Game 5 but went 0-for-2, and he did not see action in the remaining two games of the World Series.
Stanage and Schmidt shared duties in 1910, with Stanage getting slightly more playing time, and by 1912 he was firmly entrenched as the No. 1 catcher. That season, Stanage set the AL record for most assists in a season with 211. It is a record that still stood more than 100 years later, and it is a record not likely to be broken because the game is played much differently than it was during that time.
He showed promise with the bat, hitting in the .260s in three of his first four seasons with the Tigers, but he never reached that plateau again with Detroit and finished with a career batting average of .234 with just eight home runs in 3,502 at-bats.
Ironically, Stanage hit the first two home runs of his career on back-to-back days, and in 1911 all three of his home runs came in May. He never had a home run in two different months during the same season during his major-league career, and six of his eight homers came at home.
Stanage’s defense did not measure up statistically. His fielding percentage of .961 was far off the AL average of .969 for catchers, although his rate of passed balls was slightly better than the norm. And strangely, even though he held the record for assists in a season, it must have been as much for his durability as base runners were rather successful stealing on him. He threw out 41.2 percent of the runners trying to steal, while the average for AL catchers was 44.6 percent. He led the AL in stolen bases allowed three times, errors twice and passed balls once, but he also led the league in assists three times.
“Most of those errors were charged to me on throws to catch guys trying to steal bases,” he said in the May 1962 issue of Baseball Digest. “Everybody ran like mad in those days. That’s what makes the game so different now. A catcher doesn’t have to do much of anything anymore. But we were the busiest players on the field back then. Every base runner was out to beat you. Once he got on first base … zoom … off he went.
“If my infielders hadn’t dropped so many of my throws, I’d have had a lot more assists and a lot less errors.”
It seems Stanage had a larger workload than most catchers, and his body began to break down in 1918 when he suffered two broken fingers. The Tigers traded him to the Pacific Coast League after the 1920 season to make room for Johnny Bassler. H.G. Salsinger wrote about Stanage in the Detroit News when the catcher left the team.
“No backstop ever had the ability to outguess the opposition on the hit and run and squeeze play that Stanage had,” Salsinger wrote. “He threw fast and accurate but always a light ball. He never moved faster than he had to but he always got there. His lack of wasted motion made him a favorite with pitchers, for he was an easy man to pitch to and he had the ability to steady the twirlers.”
Stanage bounced around the minors until Tigers manager Ty Cobb hired him as a coach for 1925. During the season, Stanage was pressed into duty, and he appeared in three games in June, going 1-for-5 at the plate.
Stanage remained in the Detroit area after his playing days and was a night watchman and worked the game near the ticket-exchange window at Briggs Stadium. On November 11, 1964, Stanage died at age 81 after a long illness. After his death, there were just three remaining living members of the three consecutive Tigers pennant-winning teams of the late 1900s: Donie Bush, Sam Crawford and Davy Jones.
The first no-hitter in Tigers history was thrown by George Mullin on July 4, 1912, and Stanage was the catcher. There was not another no-hitter thrown for nearly 40 years, and Stanage “caught” that one, too. In 1950, Stanage took a job as a night watchman at Briggs Stadium. He worked at the gate that led to the ticket-exchange window behind home plate in the upper deck, and he was there and watched as Virgil Trucks threw a no-hitter against the Washington Senators on May 15, 1952.
“I would have been fined if I hadn’t seen Mullin’s game,” Stanage said in the August 1952 issue of Baseball Digest. “I would have been fired if I hadn’t been in the park when Trucks threw his. So I saw them both.”
Trucks threw another no-hitter during the 1952 season, but it was at Yankee Stadium, so it’s not likely that Stanage was in attendance. Still, he might be the only person to be in the ballpark for the first two no-hitters in Tigers history.