Authors: Barry Shollenberger
Barry Shollenberger, Ed.D.
5204 Merion Court
Valrico, FL 33596
Dr. Barry Shollenberger holds the position of Associate Professor of Sports Management in the American Public University System. He is a former head Baseball Coach at The University of Alabama (15 years) and, in 1997, completed a two-week coaching symposium titled, “Sport Coaching Methodology” in Bangkok, Thailand as a consultant for the United States Sports Academy.
On August 17, 1920, Ray Chapman, shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, was hit behind the left ear by a pitched baseball and died as a result. He remains the only Major League baseball player ever killed on the field of play. To replace Chapman, the Indians promoted Joe Sewell from their minor league system. Thus began a Hall-of-Fame career that spanned twelve seasons with the Indians and New York Yankees. Mr. Sewell later scouted for the Indians and spent the last six years of his baseball career as Baseball Coach at The University of Alabama.
Keywords: baseball, head injuries, team chemistry, championship competition
He had just graduated from college (rare in 1920 as only five in every ten thousand Americans were college graduates) (3) and was signed to a professional baseball contract by the Cleveland Indians and sent to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Class A Southern Association. He had never even seen a major league baseball game, but the call had come for him to join the Indians big club, after only two months of minor league experience. Worse still, he would be asked to replace one of the team’s most popular players and the only major league baseball player ever killed on the field of play.
On August 17, 1920, at the Polo Grounds* in New York City, Ray Chapman, Cleveland Indians shortstop, was hit behind the left ear by a fastball thrown by Yankees submarine pitcher, Carl Mays. (2) The young shortstop with so much potential, who was just coming into his own as an outstanding player and team leader, died the next day without ever regaining consciousness. His death dealt the Indians a cruel blow both personally and professionally.
Several stop-gap measures were attempted by the Indians to find a replacement for Chapman. After all, the games must go on and there was a torrid three-team pennant race during the last month of the regular season. But, when all else failed, the Indians management decided to call up the young shortstop, Joe Sewell, from New Orleans. Joe would get to see his first big league game from the dugout and then start every other game the rest of the season, which included a World Series championship over the Brooklyn Robins (they would become the Dodgers in 1931). (4)
ARRIVAL IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES
That train ride from New Orleans to Cleveland must have seemed to take forever and, by the time he arrived at the ballpark, the game had already started and he sat and watched, alone, from the end of the bench. That particular game featured trained, veteran professionals and included a straight steal of home, impossibly spectacular defensive plays, and a rare inside-the-park home run. Joe must have wondered if he belonged here on the same field with these seasoned and experienced baseball players.
No time to worry about belonging because the next day he was inserted into the lineup and his future Hall-of-Fame major league career was about to begin. His second game scored a major breakthrough when he lined a solid hit down the third-base foul line and ran all the way to third base with a stand-up triple. As he stood on the bag and looked around the field and the stands, he thought to himself, “Maybe I can play here!”
The Indians locker room was a strange mixture of sadness and anticipation. All the players had liked Ray Chapman (2) and everyone looked on Joe with suspicion and dependence. Shortstop is such an important position on the baseball field and everyone knew that their chances for success would depend on Joe holding up his end. They needed him to perform if they were to have any chance to win the American League Pennant. He was filling the shoes of a player who had earned his solid reputation in the difficult world of intense competition. How would the team view their new teammate?
As the 1920 season drew to a close and as Joe’s play at shortstop continued to develop at the major league level, his consistent and timely hitting would help lead the Indians to the coveted World Series title. Along the way, Joe established himself as a bona fide, big league shortstop; and he even witnessed the only unassisted triple play ever accomplished during the World Series. Cleveland second baseman, and Joe’s double play partner, Bill Wambsganss, completed the feat during the 5th inning of the 5th World Series game. (6)
Joe would go on to play nine more seasons with the Indians and an additional three with the Babe Ruth-led New York Yankees. During his career, he established himself as an unbelievably consistent contact hitter and to this day holds the major league record for fewest strikeouts in a season. In 1932, with over 600 official at bats and almost 700 plate appearances, Joe struck out a total of three (3) times! (5) Long after the other “unbreakable” hitting feats are broken (Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, Hack Wilson’s 191 RBI, etc.) Joe’s three strikeouts in a season will never be approached, let alone bested. The Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee elected Joe to his place among the game’s best in 1977. (1) Not bad for a diminutive college graduate from Alabama who was happy to be playing minor league baseball for the New Orleans Pelicans until that terrible beaning at the Polo Grounds led to Joe’s major league baseball opportunity. It was truly a difficult promotion.
*The New York Yankees played their home games at the Polo Grounds from 1913-1922. Yankee Stadium (“The House that Ruth Built”) was opened in 1923.
**Joe Sewell served as head baseball coach at The University of Alabama from 1964 to 1969. Upon retirement from the University, he resided in Tuscaloosa and was a frequent visitor to the baseball field that bears his name, Sewell Thomas Field (later, Stadium or “The Joe”). In 1979, the author conducted a taped interview with Coach Sewell where much of this information was disclosed.
1. Baseball Reference, (1977). Hall-of-fame voting, veterans committee. Retrieved from: https://www.baseball-reference.com/awards/hof_1977.shtml
2. King, Gilbert. (2012, May 9). A death at home plate. Smithsonian. Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-death-at-home-plate-84826570/
3. National Center for Educational Statistics. (2008). 120 years of American education: A statistical portrait, table 24. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93442.pdf
4. Sports Team History. (2008). Brooklyn Robins team history. Retrieved from: http://sportsteamhistory.com/brooklyn-robins
5. Tourtellotte, Shane. (2013, September 18). The unbreakable records. The Hardball Times. Retrieved from: https://www.fangraphs.com/tht/the-unbreakable-records/
6. Wancho, Joseph. (2015) October 10, 1920: A game of world series firsts – unassisted triple play and grand slam. Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). Retrieved from: https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/october-10-1920-world-series- game-firsts-unassisted-triple-play-and-grand-slam