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Joe Sewell: The Man with the Eagle Eye

Deadball Era infielder Joe Sewell was a contact hitter, and as Mike Lynch explains, this is an understatement. Sewell notched only 20 strikeouts for the 1922 season, which was his career high; in 1925, he struck out four times in 699 plate appearances.

By Mike Lynch, January 17, 2018
Joe Sewell used a single 40oz bat throughout his entire career. The bat was named “Black Betsy.”

Ask the average fan what Joe Sewell was known for and you’d get two answers—1) He was the guy who replaced Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman after Chapman tragically died less than a day after being struck in the head by a Carl Mays pitch in August 1920, and 2) He rarely struck out.[1]

The Alabama native debuted with Cleveland on September 10, 1920, with his team clinging to a slim one-game lead over the soon-to-be decimated Chicago White Sox and a one-and-a-half game edge over the New York Yankees. Sewell was terrible in the field over his first 22 games, but his bat more than made up for it as he hit .329 and reached base at a .413 clip. The Indians won the pennant, then easily took the World Series over the Brooklyn Robins. Sewell fanned in only 4.8 percent of his plate appearances, which proved to be a career-worst.

In his first five seasons from 1920 to 1924, Sewell averaged an amazing 17 strikeouts per 162 games with a career high of 20 in 1922. Not only would he never reach that total again, but he wouldn’t reach double digits ever again. But on May 13, 1923, the unthinkable happened—Sewell fanned twice in a game for the first time in his career. To that point in the season, he’d struck out only twice in 93 plate appearances, but he doubled his whiff total against a 30-year-old journeyman southpaw named Cy Warmoth, a career minor leaguer with a couple cups of coffee in the Majors before breaking camp with the Washington Senators in 1923.

Warmoth went into his start against the Indians with a 2–2 record despite a nifty 2.45 ERA. He was wild, walking 21 men in five starts, and had struck out only 12 of 143 batters. Warmoth was especially wild against the Indians, walking nine in seven innings, and that might explain why he was able to fan Sewell twice. The man was probably afraid to dig in with pitches flying all over the place. Cleveland batters struck out five times in a 5–2 victory, including Tris Speaker, who was almost as difficult to strike out as Sewell.

Sewell responded to the indignity by refusing to strike out for the next 31 games, and only the great Walter Johnson could break a streak that lasted at least 134 plate appearances and maybe more from May 14 to June 17.[2] But his Bugs Bunny numbers got especially crazy starting in 1925 when he struck out only four times in 699 plate appearances.[3] Washington’s Sam Rice fanned only 10 times in 709 plate appearances, but no other batter with 600 plate appearances whiffed fewer than 15 times.

A well-rounded ballplayer, Ray Chapman was loved by both fans and players.

It’s interesting to note that Sewell might have actually fanned five times in 1925, but a strikeout against Detroit’s Dutch Leonard on May 30 in the second game of a doubleheader is listed on Retrosheet.org as a “discrepancy.” Obviously five is almost as impressive as four, but what makes the phantom strikeout intriguing is if it didn’t happen Sewell went from May 2 to August 1 between strikeouts, an incredible 87-game run encompassing 392 plate appearances. Regardless, he also had a 44-game streak that ended the season without a whiff.

From 1925 to 1933, his last in the big leagues, Sewell averaged only five strikeouts per season and seven per 162 games. He enjoyed his all-time low of three in 576 plate appearances with the Yankees in 1932. To put that in perspective, as if any is needed, Mark Reynolds, the all-time single-season strikeout king, fanned three times in a game 26 times in 2009 when he set the record of 223. In fact, as I write this, Reynolds has as many strikeouts in 96 games as Sewell did in his entire career.

Sewell ended his career with 114 strikeouts in 1,903 games and 8,333 plate appearances.[4] He struck out in only 1.4 percent of his plate appearances, and over the last nine years of his career that number was an even more astounding 0.9 percent. 

Let’s take a look at some of Sewell’s amazing feats.

Who Are You? Who, Who, Who Who?

He suffered another two-strikeout game on May 26, 1930, against another rookie left-hander named Pat Caraway, whose big league career lasted only three seasons. The White Sox slabman was so bad that he led the American League in losses and earned runs allowed in 1931 before he was put out of his misery in 1932. But the lanky Texan had Sewell’s number in May 1930 and did something that no other man ever did. He fanned Sewell in consecutive at-bats.

Batting second and playing third base, Sewell went down on strikes in the bottom of the first inning, then again in the bottom of the third. By then he must have thought Caraway was anything but human. Sewell lined out to center in the sixth before doubling off Bob Weiland in the seventh in Cleveland’s 5–2 victory.

Fool Me Twice . . .

That Sewell fanned twice in a game only twice in his career is amazing enough, but that he struck out in consecutive at-bats is even more astonishing, considering he struck out in consecutive games only twice as well. The first occurred in July 1922 in games in New York and Boston. He struck out in a 13-inning win over the Yankees on July 9, then he fanned against Red Sox righty Alex Ferguson on July 11.[5] He also whiffed against Yankees Hall of Famer Waite Hoyt on July 7, giving him three punchouts in four games.

It happened again in July 1924, again in New York and possibly against one of the same pitchers who fanned him in 1922. On July 19 in Yankee Stadium, Sewell whiffed against Bob Shawkey in a 10–5 loss, then he struck out against “Sad Sam” Jones on July 20 in a 4–1 defeat. It was Jones’s only strikeout, which brings me to the next interesting fact.

Lightning Strikes Again

Obviously if you saw that the opposing pitcher recorded only one strikeout in a game, the last player you’d expect to own that strikeout would be Sewell. Yet, 10 times he was the only batter to fan against a pitcher in a game, and if you include pitchers striking out, he was the only other victim an additional four times. It’s almost akin to the most impervious among us to lightning strikes being struck by lightning. But no pitcher achieved the feat more than once.

How Do You Like Me Now?

Sewell and pitcher Wes Ferrell were teammates from 1927 to 1930 before the former was released by the Indians in 1931 and signed with the Yankees. Sewell struck out only three times against the Indians in 57 games, and all three punchouts came courtesy of Ferrell, who fanned Sewell in 1931, 1932, and 1933.

Something in the Water

Sewell struck out against the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns, and Washington Senators 19 times each, but it appears his real Kryptonite was New York. Of his 14 whiffs against the Yankees all but two came in the Big Apple.

Sewell would go on to coach baseball at the University of Alabama. The baseball stadium was renamed the Sewell-Thomas Stadium, which is referred to as “The Joe.”

Home Cookin’

Only 35 percent of his strikeouts came at home, and the team that had him grabbing home pine more often than the rest was the Philadelphia Athletics. Of his 17 whiffs against the A’s, 47 percent came at home. Amazingly, Hall of Famer and legend Lefty Grove allegedly never struck out Sewell despite seven straight strikeout crowns from 1925 to 1931, prompting Grove to insist Sewell was the toughest batter he ever faced.

Dog Days

If a pitcher wanted to coax Sewell into three strikes, he needed to do it before mid-July. Only 40 percent of his strikeouts came in the second half of the season with August being the toughest month in which to strike him out. He whiffed only 13 times in 1,515 August plate appearances.

What’s the Big Deal?

Due to a lack of game accounts there are 29 strikeouts that don’t have a pitcher attached to them, but of the remaining whiffs two pitchers can account for four each—Ed Wells and Urban Shocker. Between 1924 and 1927, Wells struck out 141 of 1,976 batters. He ranked 35th in that category, so he wasn’t awful but he also was no Dazzy Vance. Yet Wells sent Sewell packing four times. The Tigers lefty was said to have an excellent fastball with an even better change-up, which might have thrown Sewell off.

That Shocker is on this list is less surprising, considering he was one of the better strikeout pitchers of his era and led the AL in whiffs in 1922. In fact, he got Sewell three times from 1921 to 1922 before notching his fourth K in 1926.

How Did He Do That?

The most unlikely hurler to fan Sewell was St. Louis Browns right-hander Milt Gaston, who struck Sewell out on May 24, 1926, in a game in which he fanned only one batter. Gaston struck out only 39 of the 945 batters he faced in ’26, for a K/9 IP mark of 1.6. He was said to throw a wicked forkball that he had little control over, and it might have been one of those that fooled Sewell. On the other hand, if Gaston’s forkball was so potent why was he able to fan only 39 men? We’ll probably never know.

Joe Sewell was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.


[1] Sewell actually debuted three weeks after Chapman died because light-hitting infielder Harry Lunte failed miserably as the latter’s replacement and had suffered some injuries.
[2] There’s no play-by-play available for the June 18 game against the Senators.
[3] Sewell’s daily splits show he struck out five times, but that’s based on incomplete scorebook records.
[4] There are three discrepancies in Sewell’s records on Retrosheet.org, so it’s possible his career strikeout total is 117.
[5] There’s no game account of the July 9 game, so it’s impossible to know if he fanned against starter Sad Sam Jones or reliever Bob Shawkey, both of whom recorded strikeouts.

 

 

 

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