By Marty Appel
Talk about stepping into a pressure situation.
Joe Sewell was 21 years old, and in his second year of pro baseball. He had gone to spring training in 1921, but had failed to make much of an impression on Cleveland manager Tris Speaker. So he was farmed out to New Orleans – all 5’7”, 155 pounds of him, playing a position which figured to be manned for years to come by fan favorite Ray Chapman. No one was sure if he’d ever be seen again in a Cleveland uniform, or if he even had major league ability.
He was still pretty raw, although he had played at the University of Alabama and began his career in Triple-A. If anything, he was likely to play for another organization, if he had the goods. Chapman, in his ninth season, was having a second straight .300 year and was a key member of a team fighting for its first American League pennant. Fans thought of him as the heart and soul of the ballclub. They loved him.
And then came that fateful day of August 16 at the Polo Grounds, when the Yankee submarine pitcher Carl Mays delivered one high and tight that struck Chappie in the head. Although he walked off the field, he died overnight in the hospital – an on-field death that sent shockwaves throughout baseball and sent the city of Cleveland into mourning. He was just 29.
Cleveland was in first place at the time of the tragedy, barely clinging to a half-game lead. They had yet to win a pennant in 20 American League seasons. In fact, only four of the eight A.L. teams had won to that point, as Cleveland waited along with New York, St. Louis and Washington.
Would the loss of the beloved Chappie end their quest? The shortstop position was turned over to Harry Lunte, a weak-hitter who by Labor Day was down to .197, and who then suffered a leg injury. Desperate now, the Indians purchased Sewell from New Orleans and Speaker threw him into action, advising him to “just get a piece of the ball.”
Perfect words. That was Sewell’s game.
Joe debuted on September 10 with a single and a triple. He would go on to play the remaining 22 games for the Tribe, hitting .329, as the Indians went 16-6 and hung on to win the pennant by two games. After receiving special permission to be placed on the World Series roster (since he joined the team after September 1), there he was, manning shortstop as the Indians went on to win the World Series.
Sewell had faced the pressure of replacing the most popular player on the team, and at 21, playing a key position in a pennant race. He had met the challenges.
Joe wound up a lifetime .312 hitter over 14 seasons, and was known as a remarkable contact hitter – just 114 strikeouts in over 7,100 at bats – about two strikeouts a month. He played third for the champion Yankees of 1932, and later went on to coach at Alabama. The son of a physician, he raised two doctors himself.
He had the goods, but he also had the fortitude to enter the big stage with no advance warning, walk into a pennant race, and begin a Hall of Fame career with a world championship. He was elected to the Hall in 1977.