Secular Historical Writings
THE JOE SEWELL STORY
[This talk, prepared by John E. Enslen, was previously given to the Wetumpka High School football team on a game day, the Wetumpka Rotary Club, the Elmore County Historical Society, a senior’s banquet at Wetumpka High School, and other groups over the past four years. Enslen’s interest in baseball began early in life as his father, prior to the advent of television, was a devoted radio fan of the Cincinnati Reds. Enslen’s early concentration on football and basketball overshadowed his personal baseball efforts, although he had an 8-0 youth league pitching record. Two of Enslen’s classmates at Wetumpka High School were Ronnie and Dusty Rhodes, Jr., sons of the famed New York Giants home-run hitting star of the 1954 World Series. (Enslen had the privilege of speaking at the funeral of Ronnie Rhodes.) John’s interest as a keen observer of baseball intensified at Clemson University where he developed a close friendship with his fraternity brother, Rusty Adkins, an All-American. He was able to renew his acquaintance with the subject of this story, Coach Joe Sewell, when he attended law school at the University of Alabama. Enslen served as a baseball coach for several years in Dixie League baseball in Wetumpka as his three sons passed through that important character-building rite of passage.]
I have for you today a true story about being prepared for the unexpected opportunities of life that come our way and remaining humble despite success. This story comes straight from my home county, Elmore County, Alabama. It is about a professional baseball player named at his birth in 1898 Joseph Wheeler Sewell, being thus named after one of Alabama’s most famous U. S. Congressmen and a civil war general. I first became acquainted with Coach Sewell, as we called him, in the mid-1960’s when he was age-wise in his late 60’s, and I, because of outstanding teammates, was quarterbacking two consecutive undefeated football teams at Wetumpka High School.
Opportunities Can Come Quickly and Unexpectedly
In June of 1920, Joe Sewell was at the end of his first academic year at the University of Alabama where he was playing baseball. Joe was quite small in stature, 5 ft. 6 inches, 155 lbs., but he had extraordinary eyesight, as well as hand-eye coordination. He had grown up as a barefooted boy in rural Titus, Alabama, roaming over woods and fields, some of which would later be covered by Lake Jordan.
One of his favorite pastimes was tossing into the air with his right hand metal Coca-Cola caps and small rocks, and then hitting them left-handed with a narrow broom stick, although he was otherwise right-handed.
By July of that same year, 1920, he was playing in a summer baseball league in the Birmingham area. It was an industrial league where the teams were sponsored by steel mills, textile mills, and other large industries. This was an era when baseball was king of American sports.
Joe’s talents received some notice, and he was given a chance in early August of that same year to join a farm club team in New Orleans. This team was affiliated with the Cleveland Indians. That was a well-deserved, but somewhat unanticipated opportunity.
But then a very unexpected opportunity came only a couple of weeks later. Hundreds of miles away to the north, the shortstop for the Cleveland Indians named Ray Chapman was at bat. He was hit in the head by a fast ball while batting against pitcher Carl Mays of the New York Yankees. Protective helmets were not yet a part of the game. Ray Chapman tragically died as a result of being hit by the wild pitch.
As part of a frantic search for a replacement, Joe Sewell was called up to the big leagues for a tryout. A two-day train ride put him in Cleveland. As fortune would have it, the Indians were in a three-way, late season race for the American League pennant against the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox. It was soon reduced to a two-way race when the White Sox were disqualified. It was discovered that some of their players had thrown the World Series the preceding year.
Joe watched his very first major league professional baseball game from the dugout on the same day as his arrival. The next morning, he was tested in practice at the shortstop position with some very hot infield grounders, and try as they might, the coaches could not get one past him. And then, they also couldn’t get one past him when he took batting practice. He started at shortstop that same afternoon in his first game as a big leaguer.
In that first game, Joe played errorless ball and hit a standup triple. The job was now his. The Indians went on to win the pennant against Babe Ruth’s Yankees and then to play the Brooklyn Dodgers (known then as the Brooklyn Robins) in the 1920 World Series. Joe played a major role in helping Cleveland to win the pennant and its first World Series ever, batting .329 for that late season stretch after he joined the team.
Just think of it. In June he is a freshman at the University of Alabama. In July he is playing summer ball in Birmingham. In August he is in the minor leagues in New Orleans. In September, he is in the major leagues in Cleveland. In October, he is the star shortstop on the winning team in the World Series. For a speedy rise to professional athletic stardom, there is not another story quite like it.
Joe Sewell played in the pros for 14 years, retiring at age 36. He was traded to the New York Yankees, and for his last three years was a part of the famous Yankee teams that included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Joe had stamina, too. You may recall the record that Lou Gehrig held for such a long time—most consecutive games played, the record that was later broken by Cal Ripkin. Lou Gehrig acquired that record by breaking the record held by Joe Sewell.
After retiring from the pros, Joe served as the University of Alabama’s baseball coach. In 1977, the little guy from Titus, Alabama, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He died in 1990.
Coach Sewell had quite a sense of humor. He grew up in an age when life was slower, and people were less serious-minded. I have talked to some of his players to get a better feel for his personality. One of them told me about the following incident that illustrates Coach Sewell’s sense of humor.
Coach Sewell signed a player I will call Junior from a very small high school out in the sticks of western Alabama. There was no question about Junior’s talent. He could throw a baseball through a brick wall. There was, however, a serious question about his academic acumen.
At the end of Junior’s first semester at the University, Coach Sewell asked Junior to drop by his office and bring his report card with him, something Coach Sewell asked many of his players to do. Junior reluctantly complied. Junior’s transcript indicated four F’s and one D minus. Coach Sewell looked at Junior’s grades, pondered for a moment, and then said, “Junior, I know what your problem is. You are spending all of your study time in only one subject.”
Some of Joe Sewell’s Records
Joe Sewell has numerous records, just like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb, but Joe Sewell is one up on all of them. Joe’s records will never be broken. No one has ever come close to challenging these records.
Just ponder these records still held today by Joe Sewell, the most difficult man to strike out in the history of major league baseball. He is known as the greatest contact hitter of all time.
He once played in 115 consecutive games without striking out.
He had four separate seasons where he struck out four times or less the entire season.
He had a 14-season, lifetime batting average of .312, but his walks put his on-base percentage at almost twice that.
He was just as good with the glove as he was with the bat. As an infielder, he led the American League in both put-outs and assists four different seasons.
I want to tell you where Joe Sewell’s greatness actually lies. Joe Sewell was a humble man. His humility comes out in the fact that he rarely talked about the records he broke and continued to hold his entire lifetime. His humility is reflected by the fact that he is not as well-known as the Ruth and Cobb-type personalities. His humility is revealed in some of the following four quotes from an article he finally wrote late in life about his personal experiences:
“I might have lived my whole life in Titus, Alabama without anybody ever hearing about me, but I was lucky. I’m sure there were any number of boys who would have had fine careers if they had just been given the opportunity.”
“How could I have foreseen all the things that were going to happen to me over the next few months. When Ray Chapman died, it never dawned on me that I was the next man in line for that job. I was still pretty green. I was a bit taken back when the manager in New Orleans asked how would I like to go to the big leagues. I had never seen a major league game, so I wasn’t so sure. You reckon I can do the job, I asked.”
“On the way to Cleveland from New Orleans, a man on the train asked me why I was going to Cleveland. I answered, ‘On business.’ I didn’t tell him I was going to the big leagues. I didn’t think he would believe me. Heck, I still couldn’t believe it myself.”
“One of those years when I struck out four times, I was at the plate in St. Louis with two strikes against me. I took the next pitch which passed around the bill of my cap. In one sentence, the umpire said, ‘Strike three, you’re out, oh my God I missed that one!” He sure had missed it, but I did not say anything. I just calmly turned and walked away. The next day before the game, the same umpire came up and apologized to me. I thanked him for his apology and told him not to worry a thing about it.”