Hall of Famer Joe Sewell in his own words

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Bill Francis

Joe Sewell’s big league career got its start almost 100 years ago as the result of one of the most infamous events in baseball history.

Today, baseball fans can listen to the Hall of Fame shortstop, in his own words, recall the beaning incident that resulted in a death as well as other stories from a lifetime in the game thanks to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s latest addition to its PASTIME (Public Archive System To Interact with the Museum Electronically) online offerings.

Available at collection.baseballhall.org, the recently digitized and restored oral histories include not only Sewell but almost three dozen others involved in the National Pastime. Among the first-person accounts are those from such Hall of Famers as Jackie Robinson, Waite Hoyt, Satchel Paige, Al Lopez and Buck Leonard, as well as those from Roger Maris, Tito Francona, Vic Power and Marty Marion.

Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies. Thanks to the oral history collection of the Baseball Hall of Fame Library, today’s fans are able to listen to those associated with the game, in their own voice, talk about their life on and off the field, which can, in many cases, humanize their statistics.

In the case of Sewell, he was interviewed for about one hour in Cooperstown on Aug. 1, 1986, by Rod Roberts, a Professor of English and Folklore at the State University of New York at Oneonta. During the 1980s, Roberts was a consultant to the Baseball Hall of Fame and among his other oral history subjects included in the PASTIME collection are Leo Durocher, Cool Papa Bell, Hal Newhouser and Edd Roush.

Regarding Sewell, he shared his thoughts on replacing Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920, the only player killed in a major league game. After playing only 92 minor league games, the 21-year-old Sewell was thrust into the Indians lineup three weeks after Chapman was fatally beaned by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. Chapman died one day after being hit in the head with a Mays pitch on Aug. 16, 1920.

“I signed a contract in 1920 with New Orleans of the Southern Association and stayed about a month-and-a-half, something like that, and Ray Chapman got killed,” recalled the 87-year-old Sewell in his slow, deliberate Alabama accent. “Then the Cleveland Indians were needing a shortstop and they called me in. I must have been the only one in the organization who they thought was qualified.

I can’t ever remember when I couldn’t throw up a Coca-Cola cap or a rock and hit it with a broomstick handle or a hickory stick or a limb or something. … I would develop my reflexes and my coordination and my timing. I didn’t know I was doing it. But when I got into high school ball I very seldom struck out.

Joe Sewell, on his renowned batting eye

“When I joined the Cleveland ball club, mind you, I had never seen a major league game … it took me about two days and from then on I never was nervous at all,” Sewell said. “So the next day after that first game I was dressing right next to George Burns, the first baseman, and I had on part of my uniform. Tris Speaker was our manager and he came around to me and he says, ‘Joe, you’re playing shortstop today.’ I’ve been there one day now. I say to myself, ‘Oh my.’ It was enough for me just to get ready. George Burns asked me, ‘What have you got?’ I didn’t have a thing. I had an old glove that looked like a fried eggplant, a pair of shoes and a jockstrap. That’s all I had. Didn’t have anything else. George said, ‘You got a bat?’ I said, ‘No, I ain’t got no bat.’ He said, ‘What kind of bats do you use?’ I said, ‘I use a Ty Cobb bat.’ Ty Cobb was my idol. George Burns, in his locker right there, said, ‘I got about a half dozen Ty Cobb bats. Pick out a couple.’”

Sewell batted .329 in the 1920 season’s final 22 games as the Indians won their first pennant. Cleveland, with Sewell at shortstop, would eventually win the 1920 World Series by defeating Brooklyn.

Beginning in 1920, Sewell would go on to play 14 big league seasons, the final three as a third baseman with the Yankees. He finished with 2,226 hits, good enough for a .312 batting average, but is renowned for his batting eye, as he struck out only 114 times in 7,132 career at bats. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1977. A bat used by Sewell in 1920 is part of the permanent collection of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Ray Chapman, a shortstop for the Cleveland Indians, is the only player killed in a major league game. He was struck by a pitch off of Carl Mays of the New York Yankees in August 1920, and would be replaced by Joe Sewell. Listen to Sewell's take on replacing Chapman in PASTIME. (Charles Conlon / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

“I’ve been asked that I betcha thousands of times,” Sewell told Roberts of questions about this renowned batting eye. “Back when I was going to elementary school, we had to walk about a quarter of a mile and I can’t ever remember when I couldn’t throw up a Coca-Cola cap or a rock and hit it with a broomstick handle or a hickory stick or a limb or something. … I would develop my reflexes and my coordination and my timing. I didn’t know I was doing it. But when I got into high school ball I very seldom struck out. … When I was through with college and hit the major leagues, that was the easiest part about it – the hitting.

“Now you take some of these boys in professional ball right now getting a half million dollars or a million dollars a year. Why they swing at balls and miss them by six to eight inches.”

In 1925, Sewell struck out four times in 699 plate appearances.

“I took the third strike three of the four times I struck out,” Sewell said. “One of them was a bad call. I was in St. Louis and Bill McGowan, who was a good umpire and I respected his judgement, had a 3-and-2 count on me and the pitcher threw a fastball right at my cap bill and I took it. Bill McGowan says, ‘Strike three, you’re out, oh my God, I missed it,’ all in the same sentence. And you know what he did? He came out the next day and apologized to me.”

Sewell was born in born and raised in Titus, Ala., one of three brothers, along with Luke and Tommy, that would all play in the majors.

Joe Sewell called fellow Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski "one of the best spitball pitchers that I ever saw." Sewell shares more stories about Coveleski in PASTIME. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)

“Titus? In case you don’t know it, that’s the capital of the world,” said Sewell, living in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as the time, with a chuckle. “My father was a country doctor and he practiced medicine in the horse and buggy days … he practiced medicine 40 years in the country.

“We use to have two stores and a post office. We only have one store and a post office now. Me and Luke went down there last Sunday, a week ago, and they got a plaque right in the middle of Titus, ‘The Home of Joe Sewell, Hall of Famer.’”

According to Sewell, baseball was one of the few activities available to children during his youth.

“My grandchildren the other week, they asked me how I got started in baseball,” said Sewell. “I said that’s all we had to do in Titus was play ball. We didn’t know anything about basketball, no football, no nothing. I told them I played baseball all year round except when it was raining and freezing cold.”

Sewell then talked about his first baseball team, a local squad made up of older players.

“They were playing so I used to be the pigtail. You don’t know what a pigtail is? Well, that’s a boy that stands behind the catcher and runs down foul balls,” he recalled. “Finally, one day they needed an outfielder. They didn’t have but eight men, so they had to have another man so the fellow who ran the team put me out in the outfield and I kept playing from then on. It’s a strange thing but I could always hit. The reason they kept me in there was because I was one of the few that could hit.”

Among Sewell’s teammates during those early years with the Indians was pitcher Stan Coveleski, another future Hall of Famer.

This bat was used by Joe Sewell in his first year with the Cleveland Indians in 1920. (Milo Stewart Jr. / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

“He (Coveleski) was one of the best spitball pitchers that I ever saw,” Sewell said. “Tris Speaker was our manager. We always had a meeting when a club would come into town. But on this particular day Covey was going to pitch and Tris Speaker had this roster and says, ‘How are you going to pitch to so and so, the leadoff man?’ Covey says, ‘I’m going to fire that spitter in there.’ We discuss it. Speaker says, ‘The second man, how are you going to pitch to him?’ Covey says, ‘I’m going to fire that spitter in there.’ We got to about the fourth or fifth hitter and Speaker says, ‘Why Covey, you ain’t going to throw nothing but a spitball ball today then?’ Covey says, ‘That’s right.’ And he opened up with a spitball and closed up with a spitball.”

Acquired by the Yankees in 1931 to play third base, Sewell spent three seasons with New York, a stretch that included his team’s four-game sweep of the Cubs in the 1932 World Series.

“You hear the newspapers talk about the 1927 Yankees. I’ll take the 1932 Yankees. … I’ll take that over the 1927 Yankees any day of the week,” Sewell said. “You could have managed the Yankees ball club. They managed themselves. And I’m going to tell you this: You hit a ball to the pitcher or the infield and run halfway to first base and then back onto the bench, them boys would get all over you. The boys, not the manager. Run the ball out – you can’t tell what will happen. That’s one of the differences between a mediocre ballplayer and a winner.”

Sewell also shared stories about Yankees teammates Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

“I hit right in front of him (Ruth) for three years,” Sewell said. “When I got on first base instead of taking my normal lead towards second base, I’d go back towards right field … I saw him one day playing the Browns and they had a little left-handed first baseman. Ruth hit a line drive and he put his glove up and that line drive took that glove off and took it way down towards the bullpen in right field. Ruth made three bases on it.

“He (Gehrig) was one of the nicest fellows that you’d ever be around. You can’t say nice enough things about him,” Sewell added. “And he was loyal to everybody. If he liked you he couldn’t do enough for you. I can’t remember all the time that he and I roomed together of him ever criticizing anybody or saying any bad things about anybody.”

When asked by Roberts if he enjoyed baseball, Sewell responded, “Oh, I enjoyed every minute of it. … I could have just gotten out of bed and I was ready. … And I’ll tell you this – I tried to improve myself every day.”

Sewell passed away at the age of 91 on March 6, 1990.

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series