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Former Catcher Jim Hegan: Defense Was His Game

Late Indians receiver was one of major's best backstops, earning
high praise from Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon

By Bob Dolgan
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

(Taken from Baseball Digest February 1999)


If there was such a thing as a Hall of Fame for defense in baseball, the late Jim Hegan would be in it. "He was the best defensive catcher I ever had," said Hall of Famer Bob Feller. "He had a great arm and great mechanics. You couldn't throw a ball past him."

Hegan, a five-time All Star, was the aristocrat of catchers, exhibiting perfect fundamentals in the most demanding of positions. He stalked pop fouls with the relish of a tiger tracking down a zebra. A tall, strong man, he must have had some iron in his system, for he frequently caught both ends of doubleheaders.

The popular catcher was behind the plate in 142 of the 154 games in 1948. The next year, he pushed his workload to 152 games.

Hegan had the confidence of his pitchers. "When I first started pitching, I used to shake him off sometimes," said Bob Lemon, another Hall of Famer. "Invariably, they'd get a hit. So, I stopped shaking him off."

Hegan's weakness was hitting. Usually, he was the eighth hitter in the lineup, just above the pitcher. But he was far from a sure out. He hit 14 home runs, drove in 60 runs and batted .248 in '48, when Cleveland won the A.L. pennant and World Series.

He often had a facility for hitting in the clutch. In the fifth game of the World Series, in front of 86,288 fans, then the largest crowd in baseball history, he hit a three-run homer.

"He loved baseball," said Hegan's widow, Claire, from her home in Lynn, Massachusetts. "He couldn't believe people were paying him to play." Hegan's top salary as a player was $20,000, the going rate for a star in those days.

For more than a decade, Hegan was a bulwark of stability in the Indians' clubhouse. He was the best singer on the team, leading the barbershop quartets. He acquired the talent from his father who was a policeman in Lynn. "You would go into their house and they'd go, 'Boom, boom, boom,' and start singing," recalled Claire, who knew Hegan since she was 15. "His mother played the piano. Jim had a wonderful voice."

Claire remembered that Hegan was actually better in basketball than baseball. "He was wonderful at rebounding," she said. "He played semi-pro basketball in the off-season with top college players until he broke a bone in his hand. Then, (Indians owner) Bill Veeck made him quit."

First baseman Eddie Robinson remembered that Hegan was an avid socializer, even though he was one of the few players on the team who did not drink. "He'd go out with us and drink pop and have as much fun as anybody," Robinson said.

Hegan and Lemon had a legendary friendship, rooming together for 17 years, starting when they were 18 and in the minors. Yet, they were completely different. "I drank and he didn't," Lemon said. "Once, Joe Gordon spiked his coke with a drink while we were barnstorming. Jim said, 'What's this,' and spit it out. He told Joe, 'Do that once more and we're going to meet.'"

Claire said the Hegans shared an apartment with Jane and Bob Lemon when they first came up to the Indians. "Lem was always so full of fun," she said. "He'd wear a fake arm and shake somebody's hand and the arm would come off. Jim was quiet. He was dignified, even when he was young. He was almost embarrassed when people recognized him as being a major leaguer. Sometimes, people took it the wrong way and thought he was aloof."

Claire attended the historic 1948 playoff game in Boston, in which the Indians won the pennant, 8-3. She sat in the stands with Jane Lemon, Virginia Feller and Sandy Harder. She recalls that the Boston crowd was in a frenzy. The four women did not want to cheer as the Indians gained control of the game for fear the fans might get angry. "We were all so happy, but we had to keep quiet," Claire said. At the end of the game, Sandy Harder (wife of coach Mel Harder) broke into tears of happiness. Thinking she was brokenhearted, a Boston fan sitting nearby consoled her. "Don't worry lady, we'll get them next year," he said.

Mike Hegan, veteran Indians TV and radio announcer, was Jim's son. He said his father was a disciplinarian, but fair. "He didn't yell or scream, but when he gave you that look, you didn't go any further." Mike Hegan was attending John Carroll University when he signed with the Yankees to begin a professional career that eventually wound up with 12 years in the big leagues. He was still living at home in Lakewood and came home at 2:30 one morning. "When I pulled into the driveway, I saw a light on in the kitchen," Mike said. "My father was sitting at the table." The father was not happy and let Mike know it. "You've got a whole career in front of you, and I don't want to see you start screwing up," he said. "I don't want you coming home this late again." Mike got the message,

Jim Hegan's 16-year career with the Indians ended in 1959, and he thought his playing days were over. But Lou Boudreau, his old Cleveland manager who was then running the Chicago Cubs, called in June 1960 and asked Hegan, 39, to rejoin him as a player to handle his young pitching staff. "We had a family meeting around the kitchen table," Claire said. "Jim didn't know if he wanted to play again or not. Jim said, 'What do you think?' Mike said, 'I wish somebody would ask me. I'd give my right arm to play in the majors.'" That settled it. Hegan decided to give it a final shot with the Cubs, but he wanted to work out a bit first. "I pitched batting practice to him at Lakewood Park," said Mike, a standout athlete in high school. "Two months later, he hit a home run off Sandy Koufax."

In 1961, the New York Yankees offered Jim Hegan a job as bullpen coach. "That was one of the biggest breaks of his life," Claire said. He was a Yankees coach under manager Ralph Houk until 1972, working on teams that won four pennants and two World Series.

Mike Hegan joined the Yankees when his father was a coach. "I felt I had to be better to justify being the coach's kid," Mike said. "But dad treated me just like any other player."

When Houk became Detroit manager in 1973, Hegan went with him. He had his first heart attack while pitching batting practice for the Tigers. Six years later, on June 17, 1984, Jim was being interviewed in his backyard in Swampscott, Massachusetts. "He stood up to have his picture taken and collapsed and died," C;aire said. He was 64. They had been married 43 years. "Baseball was very good to us, but I miss him terribly," Claire said.

Jim Hegan was the Cleveland Indians catcher in the 1948 and 1954 World Series, and hit a 3-run homer off Braves pitcher Nelson Potter in Game 5 of the '48 Fall Classic. Hegan posted a perfect 1.000 fielding mark in the World Series.

HEGAN'S LIFETIME BATTING AND FIELDING STATISTICS
YR
1941
1942
1943-45
1946
1947
1948
1949
1950
1951
1952
1953
1954
1955
1956
1957
1958
1959
1960
TM
Cle
Cle
WWII
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Cle
Det/Phi
Phi/SF
Chi
AB
47
170
 
271
378
472
468
415
416
333
299
423
304
315
148
189
81
43
H
15
33
 
64
94
117
105
91
99
75
65
99
67
70
32
38
14
9
2B
2
5
 
11
14
21
19
16
17
17
10
12
5
15
7
12
2
2
3B
0
0
 
5
5
6
5
5
5
2
1
7
2
2
0
0
0
1
HR
1
0
 
0
4
14
8
14
6
4
9
11
9
6
4
1
0
1
R
4
10
 
29
38
60
54
53
60
39
37
56
30
42
14
19
1
4
RBI
5
11
 
17
42
61
55
58
43
41
37
40
40
34
15
13
8
5
AVG
.319
.194
 
.236
.249
.248
.224
.219
.238
.225
.217
.234
.220
.222
.216
.201
.173
.209
PO
63
227
 
486
566
637
651
656
597
498
399
661
583
648
287
315
156
76
A
10
32
 
47
54
76
73
64
66
53
42
49
34
28
14
27
17
9
E
2
6
 
5
7
7
7
5
6
7
11
4
2
10
0
2
3
2
DP
2
7
 
11
14
17
16
14
8
7
3
9
12
2
4
5
3
2
FA
.973
.977
 
.991
.989
.990
.990
.993
.991
.987
.976
.994
.997
.985
1.000
.994
.983
.977
Totals AB
4772
H
1087
2B
187
3B
46
HR
92
R
550
RBI
525
AVG
.228
PO
7506
A
695
E
86
DP
136
FA
.990

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