Top 100 Cleveland Indians: #15 Joe Sewell

Joe Sewell - note the uniform. - Bain News Service, 1921

94 years ago, there was no Internet, no television, no radio coverage of baseball. Baseball fanatics got their baseball news from the papers or by going to the ballpark. Even in that simpler time it is difficult to comprehend the pressure placed on Joe Sewell in September of 1920.

Joseph Wheeler Sewell

Shortstop/Third Baseman, 1920-1930

Height: 5'5" Weight: 155 lbs

Throws: Right Bats: Left

How Acquired: September 6, 1920, Purchased from New Orleans Pelicans (Southern Association)

Left via: Released, January 20, 1931

Born in 1898 in Titus, Alabama, Joe Sewell was the son a doctor, and was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. He attended the University of Alabama as the first step towards a medical career, but his prowess on the baseball field led him to professional baseball. So in the spring of 1920, he signed a contract with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, one of the better minor leagues around at the time. He showed no problems adjusting to the pro game, and by the summer a major league team had purchased an option on him.

Such moves were par for the course for major league clubs, as they used those options (whether specific or vague) to serve as a backups in case of injury or poor play during the season. Minor league clubs in the early part of the 20th century were independent entities, and major league clubs would send their scouts to places like New Orleans just as today they go to college or high school games. The Indians liked what they saw in Sewell, perhaps thinking that he could eventually replace Ray Chapman a couple years down the line. Chapman, one of the team's star players, had hinted that he would retire after the 1920 season to work for his father-in-law, and given that baseball salaries often were less than a typical business salary, it was a real threat. Still, I doubt the Indians had planned for Sewell to join the team for another year or so, never mind during the 1920 season.

LGT's Top 100 Cleveland Indians

In August 1920 the Indians were battling the Yankees and White Sox for the AL pennant, and the Indians, who had yet to win a pennant, had captured the imagination of the fan base. Manager and star center fielder Tris Speaker was acknowledged the team's best player, Stan Coveleski the best pitcher, but not far behind either was Ray Chapman, who was having another fine season, especially on defense. Chapman hit second in the lineup, right before Tris Speaker, and his job was to get on base for Spoke to drive him in. Chapman had a career .358 OBP, but in 1920 he had getting on base at a .380 clip, and a big reason why the Indians were leading the league in several offensive categories. So when Chapman died on August 17, the team, after mourning the loss of a dear friend and teammate, had to somehow find a way to replace his production both at the plate and in the field.

The Indians could not trade for a replacement, as the trading deadline had already come and gone. Harry Lunte, who was the team's backup middle infielder, was known as a good glove guy, but couldn't hit a lick. It was he who had pinch-ran and replaced Chapman on the 16th of August, and the Indians had to be content with him through the end of the season. And for several weeks, he seemed to be working out much as could be expected, as Lunte made one spectacular play after another in the field . But on September 6th, the first game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Browns, Lunte pulled up reaching first base on a single. He couldn't stay in the game, and hobbled off the field. Later diagnosed as a pulled muscle, Lunte would be out for several weeks.

For the remainder of that doubleheader manage Speaker used outfielder Joe Evans at shortstop, but that was a stopgap measure only. The Indians were in the midst of a pennant race, and needed someone who could at least field the position. That was when the team reluctantly exercised their option on Joe Sewell.

Sewell was shocked when he got the news. He had days away from finishing his first professional season, and the major leagues was the furthest thing from his mind. Pelicans manager Joe Dobbs told him that he thought he could play shortstop at the major-league, and told him that they'd leave a ticket at the station if he changed his mind. His roommate, Hank DeBerry, had played in the majors, and convinced Sewell that he could compete at that level, and so he was on the evening train north. He stayed overnight in Cincinnati, having missed the train to Cleveland, and arrived on September 8th. He would make his major-league debut two days later.

Part of Sewell's reluctance had to be that he was replacing Ray Chapman, who was universally loved by his teammates and the fans. He eventually decided that he would play as Chapman, the reincarnation of the fallen shortstop. But he was good enough to succeed as Joe Sewell. Although he was not a physical specimen - in fact, he was the complete opposite - he had broken many Tide baseball records regardless. He was 5'5", 155 pounds, small even for that time, but he made up for a lack of physical strength with an incredible ability to make contact. I don't think it's hyperbole to call him the best contact in the history of the game. In 8,333 career Plate Appearances, he struck out a grand total of 114 times. Let that sink in. In 1925, a season in which he made 699 Plate Appearances, he struck out just 4 times. And Sewell was not a player who simply swung at the first pitch he saw. He finished his career with a .391 On-Base Percentage, the 98th-best percentage in MLB history.

Sewell didn't have a decent bat, so teammate George Burns gave him a bat. He would use that bat, a black forty-ounce bat that he named "Black Betsy" for the remainder of his career, and if you happen to be in Birmingham, Alabama, you'll be able to see it. Despite his misgivings, Sewell not only played at the major-league level, he excelled, hitting .329/.413/.414 in the crucial final weeks of the season, helping the Indians win their first pennant. He was allowed to play in the World Series despite the September 1st roster rule given the unusual circumstances, and although he didn't hit much, he made several outstanding plays in the field, and the Indians won the World Series 5 games to 2 (in 1920 it was a best-of-nine series). Had Sewell done nothing else in his career, he would have been remembered for what he did in the fall of 1920. But his career was just beginning.

After the season Sewell returned to the University of Alabama to continue his pre-med studies, and he returned to Cleveland in 1921. Joining him was his brother, Luke, who would go on to have a lengthy career as a catcher for the Indians and several other clubs. Joe Sewell picked up where he left off in 1920, hitting .318/.412/.444, and would remain a fixture in the lineup - literally. Beginning on September 13, 1922, he appeared in 1,103 consecutive games before being taken out of the lineup, which at the time it ended was the second-longest streak in MLB history. An outstanding defender throughout his career, Sewell made the most of his physical tools.

After a down season in 1930, the Indians released at the age of 31. He quickly signed on with the New York Yankees, and played three season with them, winning his second World Series title in 1932 (known for Babe Ruth's called shot). After a brief foray into major-league coaching, he returned to Alabama, where he opened a hardware store. In the early 50s the Indians hired him as a regional scout, with one of his finds being Jim "Mudcat" Grant. He retired from scouting in 1964 and became the head baseball coach at the University of Alabama, his alma mater. He retired from baseball for good in 1970.

In 1977, Sewell was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, the first player in this countdown to wear a Cleveland cap on his Hall of Fame plaque. He died in 1990 at the age of 91. The baseball stadium at the University of Alabama is partially named in his honor (officially Sewell-Thomas Stadium, unofficially, "The Joe").

Sources

Johnson, Bill. "Joe Sewell," SABR Baseball Biography Project

Sowell, Mike. The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920

Lawless, Molly. Hit By Pitch: Ray Chapman, Carl Mays, and the Fatal Fastball

Career Indians Stats

Year Age Tm G PA R H 2B 3B HR SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1920 21 CLE 22 83 14 23 4 1 0 1 0 9 4 .329 .413 .414 .827 116
1921 22 CLE 154 683 101 182 36 12 4 7 6 80 17 .318 .412 .444 .856 116
1922 23 CLE 153 656 80 167 28 7 2 10 12 73 20 .299 .386 .385 .771 100
1923 24 CLE 153 686 98 195 41 10 3 9 6 98 12 .353 .456 .479 .935 146
1924 25 CLE 153 686 99 188 45 5 4 3 3 67 13 .316 .388 .429 .817 109
1925 26 CLE 155 699 78 204 37 7 1 7 6 64 4 .336 .402 .424 .827 109
1926 27 CLE 154 672 91 187 41 5 4 17 7 65 6 .324 .399 .433 .832 116
1927 28 CLE 153 652 83 180 48 5 1 3 16 51 7 .316 .382 .424 .805 108
1928 29 CLE 155 678 79 190 40 2 4 7 1 58 9 .323 .391 .418 .809 112
1929 30 CLE 152 671 90 182 38 3 7 6 6 48 4 .315 .372 .427 .800 103
1930 31 CLE 109 414 44 102 17 6 0 1 4 41 3 .289 .374 .371 .745 87


















CLE (11 yrs) 1513 6580 857 1800 375 63 30 71 67 654 99 .320 .398 .425 .823 111
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/9/2014.

Selected Awards/Leaders

  • Hall of Fame: 1977, Veteran's Committee
  • AL MVP: 3rd, 1925; 4th, 1923; 9th, 1924; 10th, 1927; 12th, 1928; 19th, 1922
  • AL WAR: 5th, 1923-7.5; 7th, 1926-6.0; 10th, 1928-5.4
  • AL WAR Position Players: 5th, 1923-7.5; 5th, 1926-6.0; 5th, 1928-5.4; 7th, 1925-5.2; 8th, 1921-4.9
  • AL oWAR: 4th, 1923-8.0; 5th, 1921-5.3; 5th, 1928-5.0; 6th, 1926-5.5; 8th, 1924-4.5; 8th, 1925-4.7
  • AL dWAR: 1st, 1925-1.4; 2nd, 1926-1.5; 2nd, 1928-1.3; 3rd, 1929-1.4; 8th, 1927-0.7
  • AL Average: 6th, 1923-.353; 10th, 1928-.323
  • AL On Base Percentage: 4th, 1923-.456; 10th, 1921-.412
  • AL Slugging: 8th, 1923-.479
  • AL OPS: 5th, 1923-.935
  • AL Hits: 5th, 1925-204; 7th, 1923-195; 7th, 1928-190; 8th, 1926-187; 8th, 1927-180; 9th, 1924-188
  • AL TB: 10th, 1923-265
  • AL 2B: 1st, 1924-45; 4th, 1927-48; 5th, 1923-41; 7th, 1926-41; 7th, 1928-40; 9th, 1925-37; 10th, 1921-36
  • AL RBI: 4th, 1923-109; 7th, 1924-106; 10th, 1925-98
  • AL Bases on Balls: 2nd, 1923-98; 4th, 1921-80; 6th, 1922-73
  • AL Stolen Bases: 5th, 1926-17
  • AL Singles: 3rd, 1928-144; 5th, 1923-141; 5th, 1925-159; 6th, 1929-134; 8th, 1926-137; 9th, 1927-126; 10th, 1924-134
  • AL OPS+: 5th, 1923-146
  • AL Runs Created: 5th, 1923-119
  • AL Extra Base Hits: 8th, 1924-54
  • AL Hit By Pitch: 2nd 1927-9; 3rd, 1926-8; 3rd, 1930-7; 4th, 1921-11; 4th, 1928-7; 6th, 1929-5; 10th, 1923-7
  • AL Sacrifice Hits: 1st, 1929-41; 7th, 1928-25; 8th, 1927-23; 10th, 1925-23
  • AL Caught Stealing: 1st, 1927-16; 7th, 1922-12
  • AL Assists: 1st, 1924-514; 1st, 1925-535; 2nd, 1923-497; 2nd, 1927-480; 3rd, 1922-497; 3rd, 1928-499; 5th, 1926-463
  • AL Errors: 1st, 1922-52; 1st, 1923-59; 3rd, 1921-47; 4th, 1924-36; 5th, 1926-37
  • AL Putouts as SS: 1st, 1924-349; 1st, 1925-314; 1st, 1926-326; 1st, 1927-361; 2nd, 1921-319; 3rd, 1923-286; 3rd, 1928-297; 4th, 1922-295
  • AL Assists as SS: 1st, 1924-514; 1st, 1925-529; 1st, 1927-480; 1st, 1928-438; 2nd, 1923-497; 3rd, 1921-480; 3rd, 1926-463
  • AL Errors as SS: 1st, 1923-59; 2nd, 1921-47; 2nd, 1922-49; 3rd, 1924-36; 5th, 1926-37; 5th, 1927-33
  • AL Double Plays Turned as SS: 1st, 1928-103; 2nd, 1927-80; 3rd, 1921-75; 3rd, 1923-82; 3rd, 1925-80; 3rd, 1926-86; 4th, 1924-76
  • AL Range Factor/Game SS: 1st, 1924-5.64; 1st, 1925-5.51; 2nd, 1922-5.45; 2nd, 1923-5.19; 2nd, 1926-5.12; 2nd, 1927-5.50; 2nd, 1928-5.37; 5th, 1921-5.19
  • AL Fielding Percentage as SS: 1st, 1925-.967; 1st, 1927-.962; 1st, 1928-.963; 2nd, 1926-.955; 4th, 1921-.944; 4th, 1924-.960
  • AL Putouts as 3B: 4th, 1929-163
  • AL Assists as 3B: 1st, 1929-336; 5th, 1930-184
  • AL Errors as 3B: 4th, 1929-13; 5th, 1930-14
  • AL Double Plays Turned as 3B: 3rd, 1929-28
  • AL Range Factor/Game 3B: 3rd, 1929-3.28
  • AL Fielding Percentage as 3B: 2nd, 1929-.975

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • 7th WAR Position Players (45.7)
  • 6th oWAR (46.0)
  • 10th dWAR (8.1)
  • 9th Average (.320)
  • 8th On Base Percentage (.398)
  • 27th OPS (.823)
  • t-6th Games Played (1513)
  • 7th At Bats (5621)
  • 5th Plate Appearances (6580)
  • 8th Runs Scored (857)
  • 4th Hits (1800)
  • 8th Total Bases (2391)
  • 4th Doubles (375)
  • 16th Triples (63)
  • 6th RBI (868)
  • 8th Bases On Balls (654)
  • 32nd Stolen Bases (71)
  • 3rd Singles (1332)
  • 5th Runs Created (927)
  • 10th Extra Base Hits (468)
  • 3rd Hit By Pitch (67)
  • 5th Sacrifice Hits (234)
  • t-6th Caught Stealing (67)

Cleveland Indians Season Leader

  • t-21st WAR Position Players (7.5, 1923)
  • 12th oWAR Position Players (8.0, 1923)
  • 25th Average (.353, 1923)
  • t-47th Average (.336, 1925)
  • 10th On Base Percentage (.456, 1923)
  • t-48th At Bats (608, 1925)
  • 34th Plate Appearances (699, 1925)
  • t-21st Hits (204, 1925)
  • t-34th Hits (195, 1923)
  • t-43rd Hits (190, 1928)
  • t-49th Hits (188, 1924)
  • t-13th Doubles (48, 1927)
  • t-22nd Doubles (45, 1924)
  • t-45th Doubles (41, 1923, 1926)
  • t-40th Triples (12, 1921)
  • t-48th RBI (109, 1923)
  • t-21st Bases On Balls (98, 1923)
  • 8th Singles (159, 1925)
  • t-26th Singles (144, 1928)
  • t-31st Singles (141, 1923)
  • t-48th Singles (137, 1926)
  • t-26th Hit By Pitch (11, 1921)
  • t-46th Hit By Pitch (9, 1927)
  • t-8th Sacrifice Hits (41, 1929)
  • t-41st Sacrifice Hits (25, 1928)
  • t-48th Sacrifice Hits (24, 1923)
  • t-50th Sacrifice Hits (23, 1925, 1927)
  • t-20th Caught Stealing (16, 1927)

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