On May 25, 1930 – 85 years ago this week – Joe Sewell struck out twice in a Sunday afternoon game against the White Sox at League Park. He doubled, one of two extra-base hits given up by White Sox ace Ted Lyons, and came around to score the Tribe’s only run on a hit by Earl Averill.
For most ballplayers, that’s a middling day at the ballpark. For Sewell, it was probably one of his worst days. Although his major league career started because of unspeakable tragedy, Sewell’s 12-year Hall of Fame career led him to Cooperstown.
Sewell, an Alabama native, was signed by the Indians after graduating from the University of Alabama in 1920. He was sent to New Orleans for some seasoning. Ray Chapman was the team’s every day shortstop, but he had just gotten married in the off-season, and suggested that year would be his last playing baseball, as his father-in-law was trying to steer him into the corporate world.
But on Aug. 16, 1920, Chapman was beaned by Carl Mays at a game against the Yankees in the Polo Grounds. Chapman’s skull was fractured, and despite surgery, died the next morning. The Indians, in the thick of a pennant race, were suddenly looking for a shortstop. They brought up Sewell in early September. After a rough adjustment period, he started to settle into the shortstop role. The Indians had to ask for permission to put him on the World Series roster, since he was called up after Sept. 1, and the Dodgers agreed. He ended up on the field as Bill Wambsganss turned a double play in Game 5 of the World Series, and yelled “TAG HIM!” as Otto Miller stood next to Wamby, ultimately becoming the final victim in the only unassisted triple play in the World Series.
For the better part of the next decade, Sewell was the Indians’ starting shortstop – and one of the toughest outs in baseball. His average dipped to .299 in 1923, but until 1930, he never hit below .313. For nine straight years, he never struck out more than nine times in a season.
Sewell’s average dipped to .289 in 1930, and the Indians released him. He ended his career with the Yankees, and returned to Alabama, where he became a scout for the Indians (his signings included Jim “Mudcat” Grant) and coach at his alma mater, which ultimately renamed its stadium for him.
Sewell was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, two years after Averill, who drove him home that day, and 22 years after Lyons, the pitcher who gave him fits.
Lyons struck out Sewell that day. He would only strike out once more the entire season.