Keep your eye on the ball. It’s one of the most basic tenets of hitting, stressed from the first time a young player picks up a bat. Joe Sewell, however, took it to another level.
“When I was a boy I’d walk around with a pocket full of rocks or a Coca-Cola top,” Sewell said, “and I can’t remember not being able to hit them with a broomstick handle.”
Sewell’s big league career was born out of one of the game’s tragedies. After Indians shortstop Ray Chapman died after being struck by a pitch from the Yankees’ Carl Mays in August 1920, Sewell was called up from the minors. The 21-year-old Sewell played in just 92 minor league games before his big league debut, yet he settled in immediately and helped the Indians win the 1920 World Series title.
Within a few seasons, Sewell had established himself as the game's toughest batter to strikeout. Sewell fanned 20 times in 558 at-bats during the 1922 season, and that would be his career high. He never even reached double-digits in strikeouts in any of his last nine seasons. During the 1929 season, Sewell went 115 games between punchouts. He ended his career with a rate of 62.6 at-bats per strikeout.
He had seven seasons in which he recorded more than 500 at-bats while striking out less that 10 times. From September 1922 through April 1930, Sewell played in 1,103 consecutive games, the second-longest such streak in history at the time. Sewell was also known for using only a single bat through his entire career, a 40-ouncer he dubbed “Black Betsy.”
In the field, Sewell led American League shortstops in fielding percentage three times and finished in the Top 5 six times. He shifted to third base in 1929 and, after signing with the Yankees in 1931, was the regular third baseman for the Yankees club that won the 1932 World Series.
Sewell grew up in Alabama and was an accomplished college player with the University of Alabama. In later years, he returned to coach the Crimson Tide baseball team, winning a Southeastern Conference title in 1968. The university renamed its ballpark Sewell-Thomas Stadium in 1978, one year after Sewell’s induction to the Hall of Fame.
Sewell passed away on March 6, 1990.