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Matt Batts, 91; ex-Red Sox catcher

Matt Batts

Matt Batts

When Donald Schmidt waited outside the home locker room at Fenway Park in the late 1940s in search of autographs, Red Sox catcher Matt Batts always found time for the Roxbury youngster.

“He’d stop and talk with me, and years after he retired we still corresponded,” recalled Schmidt, who played in the Boston Park League and now lives in Natick, where he was a Little League coach. “Matt made you feel good about yourself, and he was a big reason I loved baseball.”

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During a 10-year Major League career, Mr. Batts played for the Red Sox from 1947 to 1951 and was a resource for the late David Halberstam, author of “Summer of ’49,” which chronicled the American League pennant race between the Yankees and Red Sox, which New York won on the season’s final weekend.

Mr. Batts, who remained close to Red Sox teammates Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Mel Parnell, and Dave “Boo” Ferriss long after their playing years, died of Alzheimer’s disease July 14 in the Ollie Steele Burden Manor nursing home in Baton Rouge, La. He was 91.

Halberstam, who described his interview with Mr. Batts as “one of the most pleasant professional days that I have spent in years,” wrote that one time when Ted Williams and Mr. Batts rode through Florida, the great slugger spoke approvingly of how Mr. Batts was driving, prompting the catcher to say, “I’m the best.”

“No, Batts,” Williams replied. “You use the brake too much. I never use the brake. I’m the best.”

Mr. Batts settled in Baton Rouge in 1958, where he started the Baton Rouge Cougars team to encourage youth baseball in the area.

‘Dad never charged for autographs, and he had requests for them until the time of his passing. He never snubbed kids and would even take them to lunch, because he knew how much it meant to them.’

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In 1994, when Halberstam met James Carville, who grew up near Baton Rouge and managed President Clinton’s 1992 campaign, their conversation did not focus on politics.

“Carville, the hottest political spin doctor and consultant in the country, wanted to talk about Matt Batts, whom I had written about and he had admired as a boy,” Halberstam wrote in a 1994 memoir.

A .269 career hitter signed by the Red Sox after his freshman year at Baylor University, Mr. Batts was adept at throwing opposing hitters off their game, said his daughter Susan of Baton Rouge.

“He was a master at getting under their skin, because he knew their vulnerabilities and he’d break their concentration,” she said. “He did the same thing to me playing cards, knowing all the right buttons to push.”

Though he could be a prankster and raconteur, Mr. Batts always “believed that, given the chance, there was hope for anyone to get back on the right track,” said his daughter Denise Claflin, also of Baton Rouge.

“Dad never charged for autographs, and he had requests for them until the time of his passing,” she said. “He never snubbed kids and would even take them to lunch, because he knew how much it meant to them.”

She added: “As a storyteller, he was never a showoff. He was just funny in a way that made you love the color of baseball. He said he could throw a ball further than he could hit it. He loved the game more than anything else in his life and was honored to be gifted enough to play.”

A native of San Antonio, Mr. Batts starred on youth teams and played freshman football and baseball at Baylor University before signing with the Red Sox.

Former Baylor baseball coach Emil “Dutch” Schroeder, who grew up in Austin, Texas, played youth ball against Mr. Batts.

“I didn’t try to steal on Matt. He always had a great arm,” said Schroeder, who added that Mr. Batts was “always upbeat.”

“He lived a fun life and he wanted those around him to enjoy it, as well,” Schroeder said.

Mr. Batts and his wife, the former Arleene Miller, operated Batts Printing Co. until a decade ago. They were married for 68 years; she died April 23 at 89.

Skip Bertman, who coached the Louisiana State University baseball team to five College World Series Championships, said Mr. Batts was “an unsung hero” who enjoyed instructing young players.

“He was legendary, and he and Arleene donated printing to help our clinics and LSU baseball,” Bertman said.

A sergeant in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, Mr. Batts was stationed at Randolph Field in San Antonio. After the war, he moved quickly through the Red Sox farm system and made his Boston debut late in 1947, hitting .500 (8 for 16).

“We played on the service team together at Randolph Field and then with the Red Sox, and he was a good friend and a good teammate,” said Ferriss of Cleveland, Miss., who is a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame. “Matt was strong, and he had some pop in his bat.”

Mr. Batts hit .314 in 46 games in 1948, when Boston lost to Cleveland in a one-game playoff for the American League title. He hit .242 in 1949 and .273 in 1950, mainly in a backup role.

Traded to the St. Louis Browns in 1951, Mr. Batts hit .302 and was battery mate with Satchel Paige, the first Negro League pitcher to play in the American League.

“I remember dad saying Paige was an awesome pitcher and a genuinely nice guy, and that he liked him a lot,” Denise said.

The following year with the Detroit Tigers, Mr. Batts started 116 games, hit .278, and caught the second no-hitter thrown that season by his longtime friend Virgil Trucks.

Golf became a passion for Mr. Batts, who played on days off between games. On his 83d birthday, he sank a hole-in-one at the Country Club of Louisiana in Baton Rouge.

Mr. Batts, whose nephew Danny Heep played with the Red Sox in 1989 and 1990, was honored at a July 20 memorial service that began with the playing of the national anthem and the announcement “Play Ball.” Peanuts, Cracker Jacks, and hot dogs were served, and those who attended sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

His daughter Susan said his Boston years were his favorite time in the Major League.

“When he got together with his old teammates,” she said, “there was never any sadness or regret about games lost, just a sharing of great times and love of the game.”

In addition to his daughters, Mr. Batts leaves four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

After Mr. Batts died, Schmidt sent a postcard to Susan. “Your dad stood out in my mind because of how nice he was to me,” he wrote. “. . . I was proud to have known him, even if I was only a kid at the time.”

Marvin Pave can be reached at marvin.pave@rcn.com.

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