Monday, January 25, 2010
#21 Joe Sewell
Joe Sewell's baseball career blossomed from the game's worst tragedy, becoming the game's best contact hitter en route to the Hall of Fame.
Sewell was born in 1898, the first of three brothers to play in the Major Leagues. He honed his batting skills as a kid by hitting rocks with a broomstick, Sewell played at the University of Alabama along with Riggs Stephenson, and in 1920, he signed on to play with New Orleans in the Southern Association. He was hitting .289 when a tragedy in New York changed the direction of his life.
The Cleveland Indians were playing the Yankees at the Polo Grounds on August 16, 1920. A Carl Mays fastball came up and in on Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, striking him in the head. Chapman died the next day, becoming the only major league player to die from an on-the-field incident. According to witnesses, the ball bounced so far off of Chapman's head the the Yankee third baseman thought Chapman had laid down a bunt. The Indians, in a heated pennant race, pressed Harry Lunte in at shortstop. When Lunte got hurt a few weeks later, the Indians purchased Sewell contract and he made his debut on September 10. Sewell responded by hitting .329 that month, and the Indians won the World Series.
Sewell stayed with the Indians through 1930, and hit below .300 only twice (.299 in '22, .289 in '30). He was released by Cleveland in January of 1931, and was quickly signed by the Yankees. He played two more years there before retiring. After his career, he spent time as a scout, as well as working in public relations for a dairy. He coached the Univeristy of Alabama's baseball team from 1964-1970. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, and regularly attended the induction ceremonies. Sewell died in 1990 at the age of 91. His brother Luke had a long and distinguished career in the major leagues, and brother Tommy had a cup of coffee with the Cubs in 1927.
Sewell's accomplishments on the field are legendary. Standing only 5'6, he was one of the most amazing contact hitters in the games history. In over 7200 at bats, Sewell struck out only 114 times, including two seasons where he only struck out 3 times. More amazingly, Sewell used only one bat through his entire 14-year career, a 40 ounce bat modeled after Ty Cobb's bat. He still holds the record for most consecutive games without a strikeout at 115 games.
The Autograph: Sewell was one of the first players I ever wrote to, and it was always a great response. I read a lot about the 1920 Indians, and I was fortunate enough that so many of the stars of that team (Sewell, Bill Wambsganss, Joe Wood and Stan Coveleski) were still alive when I started collecting. Sewell was the last surviving player of Cleveland's first world champions.