Out of Tragedy

Joe Sewell in the 1920s

In August 1920 Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman was struck by a pitch and died in the midst of a pennant race. The Indians tried their backup, Harry Lunte. He lasted into September when he went down with a leg injury. In desperation, Cleveland turned to a minor leaguer named Joe Sewell. Sewell left the Major Leagues after the 1933 season and ended up in Cooperstown in 1977.

Joseph Sewell was born in 1898 in Alabama the son of a doctor. In 1916 he enrolled at the University of Alabama as a pre-med major, but played both baseball and football for the college. He was good, particularly at baseball, and became both a star athlete and an excellent student. He was well enough known and liked to become student body President. His baseball team did well winning the conference (not yet the Southeastern Conference) championship all four years (1916-1920) Sewell played (future Major League outfielder Riggs Stephenson was also on the team). With graduation in 1920, he signed with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern League. He did well enough that when Chapman died and Lunte was injured, Cleveland bought his contract and brought him straight to the big leagues.

He wasn’t exactly an instant success. He hit .329 in 22 games, but was terrible in the field. In those same 22 games he made 15 errors in 129 chances. The team was good enough it didn’t matter a lot. They won the pennant and then took the World Series in 1920. Sewell hit .174 in the Series with four hits, two walks, two caught stealing, and one strikeout (remember that stat).

He got better. He remained with Cleveland through 1930, hitting .300 or better every year except two (1922 when he hit .299, and 1930 when he hit .289). He had no power, topping out at seven home runs and 12 triples. He had some speed, but was not a good base runner. His high in stolen bases was 17 in 1926, but the next year he led the American League with 16 caught stealing (to only three successes). To compensate, his OPS+ was over 100 every season except 1930. His fielding improved although he led the AL in errors in both 1922 and 1923. He compensated by leading the AL in assists twice, putouts four times, and fielding percentage three times.. By 1928 he was slowing down and moved to third base, where he played an acceptable, but not brilliant hot corner.

Of course what he could do was hit the ball. In 1921 he struck out 17 times in 683 plate appearances, in 1922 it was 20 k’s in 656 pa’s. It was his worst year. After that he struck out 12 times in 1923 and 13 in 1924. Following that his career high strikeout total in a season was 9 in 1928 (in 678 plate appearances). In 1925 his at bats per strikeouts was a record 154 (he would better that when he set the still standing record of 167.7 in 1932). What all this meant is that Sewell always made contact. Think of the number of times you could hit and run, or start a runner, knowing that Sewell would make contact. The grounded into double play stat is incomplete for the era, but I’ve found no source that claims Sewell hit into a lot of double plays, thus negating the hit and run. There were never going to be a lot of “strike ’em out, throw ’em out” calls with Sewell at the plate.

In 1931 he moved to New York, settling in as the Yankees third baseman. He tended to hit second in the lineup, just behind Earle Coombs and just ahead of Babe Ruth. His non-strikeout skill obviously came in handy in that position. He hit .302 in 1931, scored 102 runs, and struck out eight times (the pressure got to him). He also roomed with Lou Gehrig. Want an interesting bit of trivia? Gehrig’s strikeout numbers 1925 (his first full season) through 1930 (the last season without Sewell) are: 49, 73, 84, 69, 68, 63. Now with Sewell as a roommate: 56, 38, 42. Then it continues low for the rest of Gehrig’s career until 1938 when Gehrig is getting ill (it jumps to 75 in ’38). Now Gehrig never strikes out much and the trend is downward when Sewell arrives, but it drops even more once they room together. I’m not going to credit Sewell with cutting down on Gehrig’s strikeout total. As mentioned above, it was already trending down and wasn’t very high anyway, but I’ll bet they talked about hitting while rooming on the road. 

Sewell remained with the Yankees through 1933. His career was winding down, but he got into one last World Series in 1932. He hit .333, had an OBP of .500, slugged .400 and an OPS of .900 (God love easy to figure OPSs), scored five runs, had 3 RBIs, walked four times, and (get ready for it) didn’t strikeout once (unlike in his 1920 rookie Series).

Retired, Sewell went back to Alabama, ran a hardware store, coached a little, became an Indians scout, moved his scouting skills to the Mets, then in 1964 took over as head baseball coach at the University of Alabama. He stayed six years, won the Southeastern Conference championship in 1968, and had the stadium named for him (it’s a hyphenated name with the guy who preceded Sewell). In 1977 he was elected to the Hall of Fame and died in 1990.

For his career he hit .312, had an OBP of .391, slugged .413, and had an OPS of .804 (OPS+ of 108). He racked up 2945 total bases distributed between 2226 hits, 436 doubles, 68 triples, and 49 home runs. He scored 1141 times, had 1055 RBIs, and 74 stolen bases (but 72 caught stealing). He walked 842 times and struck out 114 in 8333 plate appearances. It’s general conceded that last set of numbers got him in Cooperstown, but the rest are pretty good too.

Sewell was also something of a fogey. I saw a couple of interviews with him in which he claimed that only Reggie Jackson and maybe Ron Guidry of the modern Yankees (this would be the pennant winning Yanks of 1976-81) could have played on his old team and he was certain Ruth called his shot in 1932.  He swore that players were better in his day (and in Ruth and Gehrig maybe some of them were) and that the new crop of players simply didn’t know how to play the game. This from a man who was thrown out 72 times trying to steal while being successful 74 times. I’ll give him this, he was right when he said the new guys struck out too much. On that, he was the greatest expert of all.

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