Celebrating 100th Anniversary of Joe Sewell’s MLB Debut

One hundred years ago today, September 10, 1920, Joe Sewell made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians.  September call-ups to give young players a taste of the majors are common, but the circumstances around Sewell’s call-up were extraordinary. Cleveland was reeling from the death of one of its star players a few weeks earlier, and had seen its American League lead evaporate. It was now in the throes of a three-team pennant race with defending league champion Chicago (who was itself dealing with daily rumors that it had thrown the previous year’s World Series) and a New York team that was thriving in its first year with Babe Ruth.

Sewell had finished his final season at Alabama earlier in 1920. Alabama, which had won its fourth consecutive Southern Collegiate Athletic Association title, was loaded with major league talent (8 members of those four SIAA title teams would reach the majors), and Sewell was the star. He’d sign a contract with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, which was then a Double-A affiliate of the Indians. Sewell picked up where he left off at Alabama, hitting near .300 and had New Orleans in contention for the Southern Association title.

Sewell’s path to the majors changed its trajectory dramatically in mid-August. On August 16, Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman was hit in the head by an errant spitball from New York starter Carl Mays. He would die in a New York hospital early the next morning, becoming the first and only major leaguer to die as a result of an on-field incident.

Thought was given to promoting Sewell immediately after Chapman’s death, but the Pelican ownership balked at giving up its star player in the midst of its own pennant race (New Orleans would eventually finish 2nd). Cleveland would initially turn to the only other shortstop the roster, light-hitting Harry Lunte.

Lunte would hold down the position for a couple of weeks, and Cleveland held its ground in the standings. Then on September 6, Lunte suffered a leg injury, and had to be replaced by outfielder Joe Evans. Rather than finish out the season with a converted outfielder playing short, the Indians finally make the move to purchase Sewell’s contract.

Sewell arrived in Cleveland on September 9, as the Indians are starting a crucial series against the Yankees, over whom they hold a half-game lead. Sewell would sit that first day, and would have to even borrow a bat from first baseman George Burns. The following day, Cleveland player-manager Tris Speaker told Sewell that he’d be playing shortstop.

Sewell’s debut game was nothing particularly noteworthy.  He didn’t actually start. He would pinch hit for Evans in the 5th, and would foul out to third base in his first MLB at-bat. He stayed in the game to play shortstop, and grounded out to first base in the 7th.  New York would win that day 6-1, behind Babe Ruth’s then-record 48th home run (he finished the season with 54). The Cleveland loss dropped them into a virtual tie for first with Chicago, with New York a half-game back. The Yankees would beat Cleveland again the next day (with Sewell sitting) to take over first place.

A side note to that first game: the Yankee starting second baseman that day was Del Pratt, who 8 seasons earlier became the first former Alabama player to appear in a major league game.

On September 12, Speaker put Sewell in as starting shortstop for good. Cleveland would then go 16-5 over the last 21 games of the season, and would win the pennant by 1.5 games over Chicago and 3 games over New York. Sewell went 2-4 with a triple in that first start, and he’d hit .338 over that 21 game stretch.

Because Sewell joined the Indians after September 1, he would typically be ineligible for World Series play. Because of the circumstances around Chapman’s death, Brooklyn didn’t object to Cleveland’s request for a waiver to allow Sewell on the World Series roster. Cleveland went on to win the best of 9 series in 7 games.

Sewell’s achievements beyond that season are lengthy enough to warrant a separate article. He’d be a fixture in the Cleveland infield for the next 10 seasons, first at shortstop and eventually at third base. He’d have a streak of 1,103 consecutive games played that was at the time the second-longest streak in baseball history (it’s still seventh-longest today). He’d only strike out 114 times over his entire 14-year career (over 8,000 plate appearances), for a major league record rate of 1 strikeout every 62.8 at-bats. He’d have a 1925 season with only 4 K’s in 599 plate appearances. He’d eventually finish his career with New York, where he’d win a second World Series with the 1932 Yankees, and would retire after the 1933 season.

Sewell would eventually be enshrined in Cooperstown in 1977 after having been selected by the Veteran’s Committe.

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