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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #55 Ray Caldwell

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Remembering a man who was literally struck by lightning during a game... and finished it anyway.

Ray Caldwell
WikiCommons: Library of Congress

Name: Raymond Caldwell
Position: Pitcher
Born: April 26, 1888 (Corydon, PA)
Died: August 17, 1967 (Salamanca, NY)
Yankee Years: 1910-18
Primary number: N/A
Yankee statistics: 96-99, 3.00 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 248 G, 196 GS, 1,718 IP, 803 K, 150 CG, 17 SHO, 99 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 29.0 rWAR, 19.2 fWAR

Biography

Set the clock back to about eight and a half years ago. I had just started college, but like many students, I was distracting myself from assignments. Then I stumbled across a story about a pitcher named Ray Caldwell. It briefly told the tale of Caldwell and how one time in 1919, he was struck by lightning while on the pitcher's mound in Cleveland. It knocked him flat. The website is no longer active, but the text lives on and perfectly captures the subsequent craziness:

Now this is where any responsible meteorologist would say something like "don't stand on a pitcher's mound in the middle of a thunderstorm," but I think most people out there, especially the ones reading this particular blog know pretty well how to avoid getting struck by lightning. The thing that makes this story different though, is that Ray Caldwell was some sort of superhero, and things like "getting tens of thousands of volts of electricity sent coursing through his body" don't really hurt him. If fact, they made him stronger. You see, after getting struck by lightning, he got up, dusted himself off, and went on to finish the game. The next month, he pitched a no-hitter.

I was in stitches. I loved the bizarre nature of the story so much that I posted a note about it on Facebook. It received exactly zero likes and comments because generally, people don't give a shit about long-deceased baseball players, but it was one of the first times I ever wrote about baseball.

The article's author remarked that Caldwell "was a man who definitely was a winner in the Bingo Hall of Fame," and that fits him perfectly. He had tremendous ability that wasn't completely realized, but he lived quite a life in his 79 years on this planet. Nine of those years were spent in New York, and while those Deadball Era Yankees were bad, Caldwell sure gave the fans and sportswriters some memories.

A town lost to history

Given Caldwell's mysterious nature, it should hardly be surprising that not much is known about his childhood. He was born on April 26, 1888 to a man who was barely involved in Ray's life since he was a minister overseas. He grew up in northern Pennsylvania, just south of the New York border in a town called Corydon. It was about 90 miles east of Erie and was essentially destroyed in the '60s when the Kinzua Dam was constructed. Corydon's few residents and hundreds of Seneca Indians were forced out through eminent domain. It was a charming time.

Caldwell was mostly raised by his stepfather, Lewis Archer, who worked in the telegraph industry. The young Caldwell partially made a living in that business as well. Baseball didn't pay much, and given how quickly he seemed to go through money on drinks and carousing, he needed the spare change.

Unlike most players though, Caldwell was not someone who rampantly played the game throughout his youth. He didn't start playing baseball regularly until he turned 20 in 1908, but when he did, his talent was obvious. Caldwell spent the 1909 season bouncing around between Pennsylvania semi-pro clubs in Bath and Kane. He impressed manager Duke Servatius of the Class C Ohio-Pennsylvania League's McKeesport Tubers at an All-Star exhibition, so he joined them in 1910.

Remarkably, the right-hander only needed the one minor-league season to catch the attention of a big-league club. He threw 191 innings with an 18-14 record for McKeesport and was spotted by scout Arthur Irwin. A former shortstop and manager hired by New York Highlanders co-owner Frank Farrell, Irwin saw enough potential in Caldwell that he signed him for $1,500 and immediately had him go off to join the New York club for the end of the 1910 season.

Although Caldwell only got into six games, he had gone from an infrequent baseball player to a major-leaguer in just two and a half years--not bad at all.

Big talent, big problems

Ray Caldwell Library of Congress

Caldwell's career was a story of both success and unfulfilled potential. Writers Grantland Rice and Fred Lieb each once said that Caldwell had the capability to be as good as Christy Mathewson, but he was simply not that dedicated. It was unfortunate, but it's also a testament to Caldwell's ability that he was able to produce a strong 12-year career regardless.

In Caldwell's first full season, 1911, player-manager Hal Chase (a shady figure in his own right, though more on the gambling side) found plenty of opportunities for him to prove his mettle. Caldwell showed off his fastball/curve combo in 26 starts and 15 relief appearances, tossing 19 complete games and notching 5.4 WAR in 255 innings. He was tall for his time at 6'2" and that gave him the common nickname "Slim."

The 1911 season set the tone for Caldwell's tenure though--no matter how well he pitched, he was just one person. The Highlanders were a .500 club and dealt with inner turmoil as well that wrecked the team. The controversial Chase was gone from the team by 1912, and everyone seemed to get worse. Caldwell battled arm and shoulder problems all year, saw his performance dip, and was even fined and briefly suspended for failing to come to Boston on a road trip.

Caldwell was again limited by injuries in 1913, but he did pitch much better under new skipper Frank Chance (of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Cubs fame). He bounced back to a 2.41 ERA in 164 1/3 innings, good for an 81 ERA-. He didn't always get along with Chance though, and in spring training the following year, Chance fined him $100 for staying out past curfew and not showing up to the next day's practice. It was the first of many fines from Chance.

That 1914 season was likely Caldwell's best with the Yankees (they officially changed the name in 1913), as he had a career-best 1.94 ERA in 213 innings, a figure that included 22 complete games. In his first three games of the season, he shut out the 1913 champion Philadelphia A's, the 1912 champion Red Sox, and a more competitive Washington Senators than normal. He was the unquestioned ace, so highly regarded that Branch Rickey wanted to the Yankees to trade him to the Browns and Calvin Griffith gave serious thought to trading the iconic Walter Johnson for him. These were great honors, but Caldwell's talent led to another problem for the team--he wanted more money.

So in mid-August, Caldwell jumped ship. He was sick of the fines and sick of not being properly compensated by management for his efforts leading the pitching staff. The Federal League was trying to assert itself as a third major league at this time, and owners there were happy to lure stars from the AL and NL with the prospect of more money. Caldwell hadn't pitched in a month, but in mid-September, he signed with the Buffalo Buffeds.

Chance was furious, both at Caldwell for abandoning his team, and at ownership for trying to lure him back instead of telling him to get lost. He resigned as Yankees manager and left 23-year-old shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh in charge for the final few weeks as the youngest skipper in MLB history. Eventually, the Yankees gave in to Caldwell's demands and signed him to a three-year deal worth $8,000 per year. Buffalo sued for breach of contract, but the Federal League just wasn't strong enough to fight it; by the end of 1915, they folded.

In a somewhat-amusing twist, all the ownership hand-wringing over Caldwell turned out not to matter much to them. Farrell and his partner sold the Yankees to Col. Jacob Ruppert and Cap. Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston prior to the 1915 season. Caldwell rewarded them with a career-high 305 innings pitched of 2.89 ERA ball, the most reliable member of manager Bill Donovan's staff. On the other side of the ball, he even had a stretch where he homered three days in a row from June 10-12, the first two in pinch-hit roles. It was extraordinary for the Deadball Era and even stranger for a pitcher to do it. A lefty swinger, Caldwell was always a decent hitter, batting .248/.297/.322 in his career, a 78 wRC+.

The next couple years were tumultuous ones for Caldwell and the Yankees. He was pitching reasonably well, but he boozed around more than ever, ultimately earning a fine and two-week suspension from Donovan. Then Caldwell simply vanished. There were some stories that said he had gone to a clinic in St. Louis to treat his alcoholism, and there were others that said he was pitching in Panama. Both could be true. Either way, he was so out of the picture that his wife divorced him, charging him with desertion. Caldwell's alcoholism certainly led to problems with women, as he went through four wives in his life.

1917 and 1918 offered more of the same for the Yankees, who grew more frustrated with Caldwell the older he got and the less effective he became on the mound. He was fined and suspended left and right, albeit while still pitching around league average. Then toward the end of the war-shortened 1918 season, he bolted from the team again. This time, the rationale made a little more sense since players were either drafted or told to get jobs supporting World War I. He joined a shipyard in Hoboken to avoid getting drafted, but he did not inform the Yankees of his plans or finish the season.

This was finally the last straw for the Yankees. Huston was incensed, and new manager Miller Huggins had far less patience for player shenanigans than Donovan. Once the offseason came around, the Yankees accepted one of the many trades offered for Caldwell over the years. On December 18th, he was dealt to the Red Sox in a seven-player swap. A troubled yet acclaimed career in New York had come to an end.

"The trumpets were not sounding for me yet."

Caldwell Cleveland National Baseball Hall of Fame

Caldwell (middle) on the 1920 World Series champion Cleveland Indians

The Red Sox were the defending champions in 1919, so it looked as though Caldwell could at last be on a true contender. Those hopes didn't come to fruition though, as the team struggled to remain around .500. Caldwell continued to slide as well, faltering to a dismal-for-the-Deadball Era 3.96 ERA (128 ERA-) in 86 1/3 innings. He was still carousing as well, and rooming with an up-and-comer named Babe Ruth on the road certainly didn't do much to diminish that. Boston released him on August 4th.

Caldwell's career wasn't over just yet though. The Cleveland Indians picked him up on August 19th, hoping that with a different schedule, his career might surge back. Player-manager Tris Speaker directly told him to get drunk after pitching, take the next day off, and work hard on the other days. It was unorthodox, but with the help of adding a spitball to his repertoire, it worked down the stretch in 1919, as Caldwell had a sparkling 1.71 ERA in 52 2/3 innings. That stretch included two memorable starts.

The first was Caldwell's Cleveland debut on August 24th, the aforementioned day in which he was literally struck by lightning. There had been some light rain in the afternoon, but Caldwell was just one out away from a four-hitter and a 2-1 victory. Then he was zapped. These were Caldwell's thoughts, courtesy of Marty Appel's Pinstripe Empire:

"My first thought was that I was through for all time, living as well as pitching. But when I looked up and saw I was still in the diamond and that fans were in the stands, just as they were before I was hit, I just had to laugh with joy. I never was so glad to be living in all my life, and wouldn't it have been tough luck for me to be stricken just as I had won my first game for a club that was willing to give me a chance when other clubs thought me through. I tingled all over and just naturally sank to the ground. I guess it was almost a minute before I saw Spoke Speaker and the others running toward me and realized the trumpets were not sounding for me yet." - Ray Caldwell

Of course because it was 1919, Caldwell insisted on staying in the game, and Speaker let him. He got the last out, and a nearly unbelievable legend was born.

Just three starts later in the first game of a doubleheader on September 10th, Caldwell faced his old Yankee teammates at the Polo Grounds for the first time in his career. He put the hurt on the team that cut ties with him by spinning a no-hitter, coming just two batters shy of a perfect game (one walk and a Bill Wambsganss error at second base were the only baserunners). Caldwell had his vengeance.

Cleveland played well in the last two months of 1919, but fell 3.5 games shy of Joe Jackson's infamous "Black Sox" White Sox club for the AL pennant. Caldwell returned in 1920, and while he wasn't as dominant as he was in his season-ending stretch the previous year, he still pitcher 237 2/3 innings of 3.86 ERA ball, right around league average. Although Cleveland tragically lost their shortstop, Ray Chapman, to a fatal beanball by Carl Mays in August, they rallied to win the pennant anyway, and then cut down the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series for the franchise's first championship.

Finally, Caldwell had pitched on a winner and could say that despite the rough road, he was a World Series champion. The only downside was that he had not played well in his one Fall Classic appearance, lasting just five batters in his Game 3 start before Speaker removed him with two runs in already. Caldwell was losing steam and subsequently spent most of the '21 season in the bullpen. He fell out of the good rhythm he was in with Speaker as his manager too, who had to briefly suspend him for violating team rules. A 4.86 ERA in 147 innings at age 33 spelled the end of Caldwell's 12-year career.

Caldwell loved pitching and life on the road though, so he kept at it for an incredibly long time. He spent the next 12 seasons plying his craft for a wide variety of minor league teams, spending most of his time in Kansas City, Little Rock, and Birmingham. He didn't throw his last pitch until age 45 in 1933 and was even still effective in part of that campaign. By that point, Caldwell was a grandfather too.

Despite the hard living, Caldwell turned out to be one of the longest surviving Deadball Era players. He and his fourth wife settled down in Buffalo, occasionally turning out for an Old-Timers' Game or two, but mostly sticking to themselves, though he did work as a greeter in Las Vegas and back at the telegraph company for a time. Caldwell had one son, James, but he was very close with the stepdaughters from his last wife, too.

Caldwell finally succumbed to cancer at age 79 on August 17, 1967. To say that his talent was unfulfilled might be true, but it's also a little unfair. The man had a fine career in the big leagues, survived almost 50 years past a lightning strike, and lived a hell of a life. Cheers, Slim.

Andrew’s rank: 63
Tanya’s rank: 39
Community rank: 69.13
WAR rank: 48.5

Season Stats

Year Age Tm W L ERA FIP G GS CG SHO IP H R ER HR BB SO HBP BK WP ERA- FIP- rWAR fWAR
1910 22 NYY 1 0 3.72 2.63 6 2 1 0 19.1 19 8 8 1 9 17 0 0 0 141 103 0.2 0.1
1911 23 NYY 14 14 3.35 3.07 41 26 19 1 255 240 115 95 7 79 145 13 1 6 96 92 5.4 3.4
1912 24 NYY 8 16 4.47 3.08 30 26 13 3 183.1 196 111 91 1 67 95 6 1 6 128 91 1.8 2.7
1913 25 NYY 9 8 2.41 3.15 27 16 15 2 164.1 131 59 44 5 60 87 9 0 1 81 104 3.9 1.4
1914 26 NYY 18 9 1.94 2.65 31 23 22 5 213 153 53 46 5 51 92 4 0 1 70 92 6.6 2.7
1915 27 NYY 19 16 2.89 2.91 36 35 31 3 305 266 115 98 6 107 130 5 0 4 97 97 4.7 3.7
1916 28 NYY 5 12 2.99 3.19 21 18 14 1 165.2 142 62 55 6 65 76 8 0 3 106 113 2.1 1.0
1917 29 NYY 13 16 2.86 2.88 32 29 21 1 236 199 92 75 8 76 102 6 0 0 107 103 2.6 2.3
1918 30 NYY 9 8 3.06 2.78 24 21 14 1 176.2 173 69 60 2 62 59 1 0 1 109 97 1.6 2.0
NYY (9 yrs) 96 99 3.00 2.95 248 196 150 17 1718 1519 684 572 41 576 803 52 2 22 99 98 29.0 19.2

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Deadball Era

Reisler, Jim. Before They Were the Bombers: The New York Yankees' Early Years, 1903-1915. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005. (online)

SABR

Other Top 100 Yankees