On Sept. 6, the Indians made a move that would reap dividends for them in the short term for that season and pay off in the long run as well.
The Indians signed a 21-year-old shortstop from New Orleans named Joe Sewell. He would soon be their starting shortstop.
In the wake of Ray Chapman’s death, manager Tris Speaker had turned to Harry Lunte, who had been signed the year before as little more than a bench player to give Chappie a day off. Lunte was an adequate fielder, but he couldn’t break .200 at the plate and was nowhere near the leader that Chapman was in the clubhouse. On Labor Day, Lunte had to be helped off the field with a leg injury during the first game of a doubleheader. He never played in the majors again. Joe Evans, who had six games under his belt as a major league infielder, was pressed into service in the second game of the twin bill, but a better solution was needed.
As Chapman had been considering retirement after the 1920 season, owner Jim Dunn and Speaker were actively looking for a replacement for him, and had their eye on Sewell, who was playing in New Orleans, where the Indians held spring training. A scout was dispatched to watch Sewell play in September 1920, to see if he would be worth calling up.
Sewell was born in 1898 in Titus, Alabama. When he went to college, he would tell people that the population of Titus was 76, “62 of whom are Sewells.” His father was the doctor there, and Joe would follow him on his rounds, with the idea of following in his footsteps.
Sewell played football and baseball. The Crimson Tide baseball team went 13-4 in 1918, 16-2 in 1919 and 14-1 in 1920, winning the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association title each year. The 1918 team is notable for having five future major league players, with Lena Stiles, Riggs Stephenson, Dan Boone and Francis Pratt in addition to Sewell. Sewell’s brother Luke, also an aspiring physician, would join the team in 1919, playing catcher.
The Sewells, along with Stephenson, played on a semi-pro team in the Tennessee Coal and Iron League. Their manager recommended them to a scout, and the three were signed by the Indians. Joe Sewell graduated from the University of Alabama in 1920, and was sent by the Indians to New Orleans.
The Indians were hoping to bring Sewell to spring training in 1921, but Chapman’s death and Lunte’s injury changed their plans, putting Pelicans owner Jules Heinemann in a predicament. New Orleans was fighting for a playoff spot, but Heinemann couldn’t turn down the Indians’ request. He had a good relationship with owner Jim Dunn, and had received financial help from Dunn’s predecessor, Charles Somers.
Sewell, however, could, saying, “I don’t want to go to Cleveland. I’m not good enough for the big leagues.” He had to be talked into playing in the major leagues by his manager and teammates, and then hopped a train to Cleveland, stopping during a layover in Cincinnati to buy a new suit.
He got to Cleveland on Sept. 9 as the Indians were preparing to play the Yankees. Cleveland held a one-game lead over the White Sox, with the Yankees only half a game behind. Speaker told Sewell he wouldn’t be playing that day. He watched the game, a 10-4 Indians win, and continued to sink deeper into his insecurity. He didn’t start the next day, Sept. 10, either, but came on in the fifth inning as a pinch hitter. He tapped a foul pop, which was pulled down for the third out of the inning.
Taking the field in the sixth, Sewell fielded the first ball he saw and threw it into the stands for an error, and then grounded out in his second at-bat of the game as the Indians lost 6-1. The Cleveland News said, “After watching Sewell and Evans at short, we can only pray that Harry Lunte will recover rapidly.”
Evans played shortstop on Saturday, Sept. 11, and Sewell started at short the next day, batting seventh. While in the clubhouse before the game, George Burns gave Sewell a black bat for him to use, “Black Betsy.”
Sewell fielded a popup cleanly in the first inning, but made a throwing error in the second. He came to bat in the second inning, and worked the count to 3-and-1 before slapping the ball into the left field line for an RBI triple. Sewell took it all in from third base and said to himself, “Shoot, this isn’t so tough.”
A hall of fame career had begun.