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"His record stands as a testimony to contact hitting and an inspiration to the little men of baseball."
Larry Dierker, on Joe Sewell

Early Years

Joseph Wheeler Sewell was born October 22, 1898, in Titus, Alabama. He grew up in a middle-class family, the son of the local doctor, and frequently visited the local sandlot to pass the time. He and his brothers Luke and Tommy (both future major leaguers) would spend countless hours playing catch, pickle, and practicing hitting in the expansive dirt lots that surrounded their home.

Upon graduation from high school in 1916, Sewell attended school at the University of Alabama, where he lettered in both baseball (shortstop) and football (linebacker) and was a member of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. In 1920, he joined the farm system of the Cleveland Indians, where he showed much promise at the plate. However, there were several obstacles in his path to the major leagues, the most formidable one being the Indians' current All-Star shortstop Ray Chapman.

"That man was a master of the bat."
Babe Ruth, on Joe Sewell

Unexpected Arrival

On August 16, 1920, Carl Mays threw an inside fastball to Ray Chapman, who failed to move out of the way in time and was hit in the head. He died one day later, becoming the first and only on-field casualty of Major League Baseball. His backup, Harry Lunte, suffered two broken toes two weeks later, and Joe Sewell's ascension to the big show was complete after only 92 games in the minor leagues, albeit surreptitiously. However, Sewell proved that he too could swing the bat as well as Chapman, batting .329 to close out the season and helping the Indians win their first World Series.

"Besides me, nobody swung a bat like Joe Sewell."
Ty Cobb

Major League Career

Through Sewell's entire career, he used only one bat: nicknamed "Black Betsy," it was a formidable piece of wood: 40 ounces of solid hickory, painted jet black. Sewell took the bat with him everywhere he went - to dinner, to the movies, and yes, even to bed.

Sewell was an excellent player in his own right: he led the American League in putouts in four seasons, fielding percentage in 2 more, and at one point in his career played in 1,103 consecutive games - the most ever until Lou Gehrig surpassed him in 1932 (Sewell is still sixth on the all-time list.) Sewell frequently batted .300 and led the Indians in RBIs thrice. He had a lifetime average of .312 and led the league in doubles in 1924, when he finished 3rd in MVP voting.

"What a hitter!"
Wes Ferrell, teammate

Joe's Claim To Fame

However, what makes Sewell one of the most notable players in baseball history was his uncanny knack to not strike out.

  • Over his entire major league career, Sewell struck out only 114 times.
  • After 1924, Sewell played 9 consecutive seasons in which he struck out 10 times or less.
  • Sewell struck out twice in the same game only twice in his career.
  • Sewell had a span of 115 games where he did not strike out in 1929.
  • Sewell averaged one strikeout per 62.6 at bats. By comparison, Babe Ruth struck out once every 6.6 at bats.

In 1930, Sewell was traded to the New York Yankees, where he switched positions to third base. Unfortunately, Sewell's career was cut short by injuries, and he only played 3 seasons with the Yankees, helping them win another championship in 1932 (the year of the Called Shot.)

After Baseball

After retirement, Sewell became a scout for the Indians. In 1964, Sewell took the head baseball coaching job at his alma mater. In 6 seasons, he led them to one College World Series title (1968) and finished with a 125-99 record. In 1977, Sewell was elected by the Special Veterans Committee into the Major League Baseball Hall Of Fame. The following year, the University of Alabama honored their star alumnus by renaming their baseball stadium Sewell-Thomas Field, and was affectionately nicknamed "the Joe."

Joe Sewell, the hardest man to strike out in major league history, passed away March 6, 1990, in Mobile, Alabama.

"I could see a ball leave my bat. A lot of people don't think that's possible. But it sure is."
Joe Sewell

Lifetime Statistics:

 Year Team     G   AB    R    H   D  T  HR  RBI  SB  CS  BB   K    BA
 1920 CLE AL  22   70   14   23   4  1   0   12   1   0   9   4  .329
 1921 CLE AL 154  572  101  182  36 12   4   93   7   6  80  17  .318  
 1922 CLE AL 153  558   80  167  28  7   2   83  10  12  73  20  .299
 1923 CLE AL 153  553   98  195  41 10   3  109   9   6  98  12  .353
 1924 CLE AL 153  594   99  188  45  5   4  106   3   3  67  13  .316
 1925 CLE AL 155  608   78  204  37  7   1   98   7   6  64   4  .336
 1926 CLE AL 154  578   91  187  41  5   4   85  17   7  65   6  .324
 1927 CLE AL 153  569   83  180  48  5   1   92   3  16  51   7  .316
 1928 CLE AL 155  588   79  190  40  2   4   70   7   1  58   9  .323
 1929 CLE AL 152  578   90  182  38  3   7   73   6   6  48   4  .315
 1930 CLE AL 109  353   44  102  17  6   0   48   1   4  41   3  .289
 1931 NYY AL 130  484  102  146  22  1   6   64   1   1  61   8  .302
 1932 NYY AL 125  503   95  137  21  3  11   68   0   2  56   3  .272
 1933 NYY AL 135  524   87  143  18  1   2   54   2   2  71   4  .273
 CAREER     1903 7132 1141 2226 436 68  49 1055  74  72 842 114  .312
* Bold denotes led league. Sewell was not eligible for batting awards in 1930.

Sources:

  • BaseballHistorian.com - http://www.baseballhistorian.com
  • Baseball-Reference.com - http://www.baseball-reference.com
  • University Of Alabama - http://www.ua.edu

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