On the anniversary of a bizarre event in baseball history, Did The Tribe Win Last Night shares a story originally posted on August 24, 2016, by guest contributor Scott Jarrett. – BT
Ray Caldwell jogged out to the pitcher’s mound, not exactly new territory, he had pitched at Cleveland’s Dunn Field many times before. This time, however (for the first time), it was not as a Yankee or Red Sox – Caldwell wore an Indians uniform. It was August 24, 1919. The Yankees had passed Caldwell along to the Red Sox and the latter had released him.
In the twilight of his career, he had something to prove.
The late August sun bore down on Caldwell. The masthead of that morning’s Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer, promised “morning showers and cooler.” He was no weatherman, but the sky looked promising to him, promising enough for a ball game.
As he warmed up with the flat-nosed Steve O’Neill, a catcher whom he really liked, a lineup of negative questions went to bat in his mind: maybe the Red Sox had been absolutely right about him? Maybe the ol’ flipper had nothing left? Maybe he was nothin’ but a washed up drunk? Maybe Grantland Rice was right when he said a few years earlier that Caldwell coulda been the next Matty – but is simply turning out to be the next Rube.
Caldwell twirled a few windmill stretches with that right arm. It felt pretty damn good. He pushed those thoughts to the edge of the bench.
To hell with Grantland Rice.
To hell with the Red Sox.
The other Indians had taken their positions. He had always liked this team, even when pitching against them in recent years. They were nice guys but also possessed a certain drive and confidence. The Cleveland shortstop, another Ray named Chapman, was one of the funnier guys in baseball. And a hell of a player, too. The centerfielder, Tris Speaker, a sweet-swingin’ and salubrious Texan, ruled all. It was appropriate that he played center. It didn’t hurt that he was the 1912 Most Valuable Player. He was also the Indians manager and led by example. Ray liked that. And it certainly didn’t hurt that The Grey Eagle, as they loved to call him, had an axe to grind with the Red Sox, too. He led them to World Series titles in ’12 and again in ’15. How did they reward him? How about a train ticket to the shores of Lake Erie? There had been no such courtesies for Caldwell; he was 7 and 4 but the Red Sox simply released him – tantamount to telling a ball player that he was done.
As catchers go, O’Neill was an upgrade and Ray had additional reasons to like him: like Caldwell he was from a tiny little town in Pennsylvania. They would get along just fine. And O’Neill brought something extra to today’s game – he had been with the Philadelphia A’s, today’s opponent. It was a bonus that he knew them and their iconic manager, Connie Mack, The Tall Tactician, The Wise Old Owl. These A’s, however, were a far cry from Mack’s world champions of ’10 and ’11. They had limped into town that day with a horrific record of 28 and 78, which put them 41 games behind the White Sox. But they were still a major league ball club. The Indians had to make hay while the sun shone and they were just 8 games behind the Sox. What’s more, they’d play six against the pale hoses in the coming weeks.
There was one more item in his favor, Caldwell decided: Brick Owens was behind the plate. He had always liked ol’ Brick – who didn’t? Well, of course, some fans in Pittsburg, Kansas, had a problem with Clarence Owens, as he was known in 1908. Poor guy. Made some unpopular calls and someone chucked a brick at him (and threw a strike, by god). Well, at least he picked up a good nickname out of the deal.
All of this was enough for Caldwell: good ump, good catcher, a team that wanted him. Bartending and railroad telegraphy would probably be there when his arm fell off, he supposed.
Warmups complete, he looked fully around him to make sure his defense was in place but also to take in the vast expanse of Dunn Field, a beautiful jewel-box of a ball park. His career could begin again, he concluded.
Caldwell sailed through the first and the second, but so did his opponent, Rollie Naylor, a right-handed Texan who had apparently taken his share of lumps that season – he limped into Cleveland with a 2 and 17 record. (That’s one thing about baseball – there’s always someone who seems to have it worse, Caldwell supposed.) The third and the fourth innings went smoothly, too, and his wet weave was working well. Ten years earlier he never would have imagined he would rely on the spitball so much, but you do what you have to do. O’Neill had called a good game, mixing up the spitball with the fastball, which, by the way, felt pretty lively, thank you very much. The boys, however, had trouble getting to Naylor. Until the fourth. The Indians struck for two. That put Caldwell at ease – perhaps the reason that, in the top of the fifth, Caldwell gave one back. O’Neill settled him down, though, as a good catcher will do – and he got the groove back: fastball, spitter, fastball, slider, spitter. Simple, but varied. Keep ‘em guessing.
To hell with the Red Sox.
And so it went and so it should have.
Until the ninth. Storms could gather quickly out on Lake Erie, a massive body of water just to the north of Cleveland, and roll in toward the city. It looked like they would get the game in, however, and that Caldwell would go the distance – he might even sneak into the clubhouse only giving up the four hits. Not a bad start with a new employer, he thought.
Caldwell popped out of the dugout for the ninth, vaguely aware of the darkening clouds above him. Three outs to go.
To hell with the Red Sox.
The first two outs were easy. The crowd urged him on, anxious to see the win and anxious to get home. Caldwell had recorded 26 outs and watched as Jumpin’ Joe Dugan, the #5 hitter that day, dug in. He had gotten one of the four hits off of Caldwell.
A baseball game and all of the important plays therein unfold slowly, carefully. Even the bursts of action – a well-turned double play, a long smash into the gap, a blistering fastball for a called third strike seem to play out with appropriate pace. One might argue that they were “lightning-quick” plays, but the human eye (perhaps apart from a Walter Johnson fastball) could generally process what was happening or what had just happened. Yet, what took place as Dugan, the likely final batter of the game, dug in at Dunn Field on August 24, 1919, occurred with such power and ferocity that one might have missed it with a blink of an eye.
It probably happened in less than a second.
The lightning bolt had gathered its energy in the center of a massive cloud above Dunn Field, initially circulating within it in a frenetic fury. When it could no longer be contained, it shot toward downward, desperately seeking any metal it could find. At first it grabbed ahold of the railing in front of the press box like a harpoon into a massive whale. Yellow and white light blitzed the field and danced around in chaotic splendor. The men in the dugout instinctively started back, some crouched down. O’Neill, always known for his smarts, seemed to instantly recognize what was happening and wisely thought to toss away his heavy metal catcher’s mask. Dissatisfied with the railing, the surprise visitor gathered direction and purpose. It raced along the railing in front of the press box then ricocheted toward the field and the lanky pitcher standing in its center.
As a boy Ray Caldwell had seen his fair share of storms along the Allegheny River and quite a few lightning strikes among the tall trees. He had also seen a few knockouts in his birthplace, Corydon, Pennsylvania. It was an idyllic but hard-scrap town, full of men who felled enormous old-growth hemlocks and eastern pines. Ray’s father could do little to shield his son from the occasional drunken brawl that spilled out of the Hotel Griffin. He had also seen his share of ball players knocked out in any variety of ways: a fist fight at a Broadway club or the occasional fastball to the noggin. In fact, when he pitched for the Yankees early in his career he saw the diminutive Birdie Cree take a Walter Johnson fastball to the head. How little Birdie survived – and even played – the next day, Ray would always wonder. The sensation that suddenly gripped him on the mound this August afternoon, was not unlike one of those knockout punches or a ball to the bean – or so he later decided. The lightning zoomed toward the tiny metal button on the top of his new Indians cap and blistered through Caldwell’s body so quickly he had no time to feel any pain. And, as lightning tends to do, it sought more metal, which it found in his lengthy metal spikes. And then it was gone. The result? Ray Caldwell lying flat on to the ground, arms spread wide, briefly unconscious.
Speaker sprinted in from his shallow haunt in center. He and the other unaffected Indians helped Chapman, who had also been struck, to his feet. As quickly as they had instinctively recoiled, the boys descended on Ray Caldwell, their newest – and latest? – pitcher. The trainer popped out of the dugout while a murmur of recognition rippled through the crowd.
When he came to, Ray Caldwell could see them all around him: heads wearing blue hats with a block letter “C” on them, eyes flung open, blinking with disbelief. He could see them talking at him but damned if they were not saying a thing! He blinked himself, or thought he had, and then suddenly realized he could feel his eye lashes. Could he feel anything else? He was slowly aware of a warm glow within and a tingle – yes, a glistening glow – in his right arm. Chapman seemed to bark at him and make some sort of joke and Ray laughed to be polite, not because he understood the wise crack, but more out of instinct that anything the shortstop said had to be funny.
They sat him up and Brick Owens bent down.
“You OK there, Ray?”
Caldwell shook his head and arched his shoulders skyward.
“What’s the count, Brick?” he said.
“No count,” Owens replied.
“Ray, let’s get you to the doctor,” said Speaker as he and Chapman helped the hurler to his feet.
“No, Spoke, I can do this. Chap, just point me toward the plate.”
Although the strike was now 5 minutes in the past and the skies were clearing, the air all around League Park felt charged with electricity. Perhaps that is why none of the men with the ability to make some sort of logical decision – Speaker, Chapman, Owens or Evans – didn’t prevent Ray Caldwell from continuing the game. Or was it simply that in post-World War I 1919 that’s just how things went. Struck by lightning but relatively alright? Up you go, my man! Many a trench soldier took harder hits than that!
The Indians shook their heads in wonder and began to disperse while Dugan found his bat again (he had wisely thrown it aside). Owens and O’Neill returned to their places. Caldwell wisped dirt off of the rubber. Who were all of these visitors to his mound? Where was he? It was a strange game indeed. And then he remembered: “Oh yeah…to hell with the Red Sox!”
Dugan dug in again. He had had his mind on a girl that ought to be waiting for him after the game, but they were only down one and the pitcher just got struck by lightning, for crying out loud. He ought to be able to do something with that.
Ray Caldwell strained his eyes for O’Neill’s sign. The descending darkness didn’t help. One to go – or so they tell me. The sign didn’t matter. He wet his fingers, essentially telegraphing the pitch type to Dugan. He stepped back and fired. Dugan swung from the heels but could do no more than half skin the sphere, which dribbled toward third baseman Larry Gardner, who scooped it up and fired it to first.
Abbreviated box score
Hit-By-Pitch: Caldwell (4)
Hit-By-Lightning: Caldwell (1)