Gus Triandos and the Knuckleball
“I never enjoyed catching. It tears you apart. I guess I was too clumsy and slow to do anything else.” — Gus Triandos
If you were to design a big league catcher, Gus Triandos could serve as a template. He had muscles everywhere, it even seemed like he had them on his face. Triandos, who was Greek, was built like a Greek god: he had wide shoulders and a barrel chest, a square, dimpled chin, and a strong, broad nose. He looked like he could have played the part of the tough gumshoe detective in a 1960s movie. All those muscles slowed him down, making Triandos famously slow. He stole only one base in his 13-year career.
In 1951, Triandos was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. By that time he was a professional ballplayer and his commanding officer wanted PFC Triandos to be on an Army baseball team. But he took one look at the 6’3, 200-pounder and made a quick decision. “You’re not a catcher son,” the officer said, “you’re my new first baseman.” Triandos played first in the Army, came back to pro ball and put the mask back on. He won a batting title when he hit .368 in Double-AA for a Yankees’ farm team, which got him promoted to the world champions. But that news was lost among the Yankees’ controversial decision to not promote Vic Power, a great first baseman who would have been the first black Yankee.
Triandos was among the group of catchers who found themselves stuck behind Yogi Berra with the Yankees in the 1950s. Casey Stengel didn’t like him because he thought Gus was too slow, so the Yankees included Triandos in a 17-player trade with the Orioles at the winter meetings following the 1954 season. The deal brought Don Larsen and Bob Turley to the Yankee pitching staff. In Baltimore, Triandos finally got a chance to play.
The manager of the Orioles was Paul Richards, who didn’t care about a player’s weaknesses. He liked to maximize their strengths. When Richards looked at Triandos he saw a good right-handed bat and the best throwing arm of any catcher in the American League. But Richards also found another useful job for his husky catcher: handling the toughest pitch in baseball. Most relief pitchers in the 1950s were failed starters, but not Hoyt Wilhelm. God almighty himself had blessed Wilhelm with long fingers and the ability to throw a baseball that didn’t rotate. That makes it very hard to hit, and with Wilhelm in their bullpen, the Orioles had one of the game’s greatest weapons. Hitters couldn’t make contact with it, which is why Wilhelm is in the Hall of Fame. But catchers had difficulty catching Wilhelm’s knuckleball too. Which is why Richards invented a new piece of equipment, a giant catchers’ mitt. The Wilhelm mitt was one-and-a-half times bigger than a regular mitt, but it gave Triandos room for error while catching the knuckler. Triandos caught Wilhelm 113 times, and even though he was as slow as a three-legged dog, Wilhelm had some of his best years fluttering his knuckleball to The Big Greek. Gus even caught Wilhelm’s no-hit game. But Triandos found it nerve-wracking.
“I think catching Hoyt Wilhelm and his knucklers ruined my career,” Triandos said. “The more I caught him the worse I got. I was always worried that one of the pitches would get by me and runs would score. Maybe I was anxious about screwing up. In any case, I let it get to me. There was a great deal of uncomfortableness [sic].”
In the ninth inning of Wilhelm’s no-hitter, the tall knuckleballer waved Triandos out to the mound in the ninth inning. “He calls me out and says I should tell him a joke or something, just to give him a breather,” Triandos said. “But I didn’t know any jokes, so I just laughed at him and walked back to the plate.”