Oscar Stanage, known as “Big O” to his teammates, had a message for Ty Cobb in 1912, after he had observed the Peach hazing newcomer Ossie Vitt. “If you don’t lay off little ‘O,’” Stanage warned, “‘Big O’ is going to hit you hard he will drive you right back to Georgia.”
It was a testament to Stanage’s quiet strength that Cobb, certainly no shrinking violet, took the catcher’s advice and let up on the little rookie third baseman.
Base runners had already learned not to mess with “Big O.” The previous summer, the Detroit Tigers’ last at Bennett Park, the Detroit catcher had gunned down 212 of them. More than a century later, no other American League catcher has ever registered more assists in a season than Stanage did in 1911. Stanage went on to lead the loop in assists two of the next three seasons as he emerged as one of the game’s top backstops in the years leading up to World War One. Between 1911 and 1915, Stanage caught a total of 560 games, a whopping 125 more than any other American League catcher. His 141 games behind the plate in 1911 were the most of any A.L. backstop during the entire deadball era.
The tough and durable catcher grew up on a ranch in Tulare, California. He appeared in one game for the Cincinnati Reds as a 23-year-old in 1906 before being dealt to Newark of the Eastern League. Two years later the Tigers, displeased with the uneven play of Charlie “Boss” Schmidt, purchased Stanage’s contract. Stanage, a right-handed batter, muscled his way into the lineup in 1909, platooning with the switch-hitting Schmidt. Within another year Stanage was doing the bulk of the catching.
Stanage was the epitome of the good-field/no-hit player. He batted .234 lifetime and hit just 8 home runs across 14 big-league summers. His .233 slugging average in 1914 is the second lowest among all catchers in big-league history. He was a ponderous runner, clogging up the basepaths for Cobb, Donie Bush, and other fleet-of-foot teammates. But manager Hughie Jennings obviously didn’t keep him around for his offense.
“No backstop ever had the ability to outguess the opposition on the hit and run and squeeze play that Stanage had,” sportswriter Harry Salsinger wrote upon Stanage’s departure in 1920 after spending a dozen years in Detroit. “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 pitchers.”
For the next several years Stanage played minor-league ball on the West Coast and in Canada. In 1925 he was hired by Cobb, now player-manager of the Tigers, to help coach pitchers and catchers. Stanage also appeared in three games, each time relieving Johnny Bassler or Larry Woodall behind the dish. On June 17, 1925, in a 19-1 blowout of the Yankees, the 42-year-old Stanage batted one last time. He singled off Sad Sam Jones.
Stanage went on to manage Evansville of the Three-I League in 1926, then coached for an old friend, Donie Bush, at Pittsburgh. Stanage finally left the game in 1931. He held a variety of jobs, including working as a night watchman at Briggs Stadium, before dying at age 81 in 1964. There was no mention of his passing in the Detroit papers because the Free Press and News were on strike at the time. This seems appropriate. Stanage’s superior defensive skills, while respected by players and managers, always went unappreciated by the fans. “Stanage,” sportswriter Joe S. Jackson observed in 1918, “is a catcher who has never tried to make much of a flash while working.”