A crowd of 900 fans attending the Modesto Reds game at Del Webb Field on May 11, 1972, watched a pregame induction of Oakland A's players Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers into the Modesto Reds Hall of Fame. The third out of four inductees was Al Pickering, who was one of the original Modesto Reds and spent many years involved in local baseball. The fourth inductee, Walter Schmidt, wore a dark sweater and bow tie and at one time was regarded as one of the best catchers in National League history.
Born in Coal Hill, Ark., on March 20, 1887, Schmidt started his professional career with the Helena club of the Arkansas State League. By 1911, after stops in Carolina and Virginia, he was catching for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. It took just two seasons before he was sought after.
Major league teams could come calling, but the draft rules of the day allowed only one player to be drafted off a minor league team. For five years, Schmidt waited to be signed, and every year another player from the Seals would be taken instead. Being traded was another possibility, but according to the San Francisco Call, the Philadelphia Phillies "tried hard to land Schmidt, but (the Seals) wanted certain players for him which (the Phillies) refused to give up and the deal was dropped."
The Tacoma Times summed up Schmidt's dilemma with the Seals: "Schmidt is of big league caliber and would have gone into the big brush long ago had it not been for the fact that local magnates were unwilling to weaken their team by releasing him."
At the end of the 1915 season, Schmidt finally paid the Seals $3,000 to get out of his contract. The spring of 1916 saw the 28-year-old rookie in camp with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
His first season saw Schmidt hit a weak .190 with two home runs and 15 RBIs; however, his defense was above average and his game calling skills won him praise, all the more impressive considering he hurt his neck in an exhibition game at Erie, according to the Gazette Times.
The 1917 season began with Schmidt holding out for a better contract offer from the Pirates. When he received it, he reported late to spring training. The Pirates got off to slow start and by June 26 the Pittsburgh Press reported that Schmidt was on the verge of being cut due to the reputation he was gaining for being outspoken. With the team bordering on mutiny, it appeared he was going to be made an example. Instead, the manager was fired and Schmidt remained a Pirate.
In 1918, Schmidt threw out 59 percent of the base runners who tried to steal on him. That was the beginning of a four-year stretch in which he threw out at least 50 percent of opposing base runners.
After the 1919 season, Schmidt returned to his home in Modesto and announced he was through with baseball. But when spring rolled around he was holding out for more money again and didn't return until late May. His handling of the Pirates pitchers was best summed up by Brooklyn Robins manager Wilbert Robinson.
"Schmidt developed the young pitching stars of the Pirate staff. He works with them off the field and he keeps them close to the ground on the field. His work in general steadies the whole club. He is a star of the first magnitude," Robinson said in the Columbia Evening Missourian.
Along with a great catching reputation, Schmidt also was known, according to The Gazette Times, as a family man who "hurries home immediately after each game." In 1921, he set the Pittsburgh Pirates team record for steals by a catcher with 10.
In 1922, as usual, Schmidt held out and was suspended until the middle of July, when he was reinstated to the Pirates roster. In 1925, Schmidt was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates went on to win the World Series. Returning to the minors in 1926, Schmidt spent the next four years in the Pacific Coast League until retiring at age 42 in 1929.
Schmidt owned land in the Modesto area and worked for some years in real estate and farming. He became a participant in Modesto-area baseball. The Modesto Bee-KBEE baseball school started in the late 1940s and Schmidt served as an instructor and occasional manager of the team. He also appeared at Modesto's minor league old-timers games. He gave speeches at local sporting events like the Junior American Legion baseball team dinner. In 1969, he was named by Pirates fans as the catcher on the Pittsburgh Pirates all-time team. In 1972, Schmidt was honored with his induction into the Modesto Reds' Hall of Fame for his contributions to local baseball. He died July 4, 1973.
On Aug. 21, 1984, Pittsburgh catcher Tony Pena stole his 11th base of the season, breaking Schmidt's Pirate record for steals set in 1921.
Sources: Tacoma Times, Nov. 25, 1914; San Francisco Call, Nov. 24, 1913; The Gazette Times, Jan. 12, 1917 and May 30, 1920; Pittsburgh Press, June 26, 1917; Columbia Evening Missourian, Aug. 1, 1921; The Modesto Bee, July 15, 1949, June 27, 1951, Sept. 19, 1953 and May 9, 1972.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.