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The unluckiest Yankee

After nearly being a historic first, Ben Shields’ baseball career was hampered by unfortunate circumstances.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

When Raul Mondesi came in as a pinch hitter in game three of the 2015 World Series, he became one of just a handful of players to make his major league debut in a playoff game. More than that, he was the first to make his debut in a World Series game. However nearly 100 years earlier, a Yankee nearly beat him to that distinction.

Ben Shields was born in 1903, the seventh of nine children. He was the son of a farmer, and grew up on a farm near Charlotte, North Carolina.

He was pitching in semipro baseball in 1923 when he was discovered by a Yankees’ scout. The scout was there to check out a third baseman, but ended up signing Shields after he struck out said batter.

Shields did not spend much (possibly no) time in the minor leagues, and was sent to New York. He did not play in the regular season in 1923, but was included on the roster for the World Series. Shields did not end up playing in a game in the World Series. In total, the Yankees used just five pitchers in the series, beating the Giants in six games to avenge World Series’ losses in the two previous years. Despite not getting any game time, Shields was given a partial share of money. One of the other people who split the share was young first baseman Lou Gehrig.

The following season, Shields made the team out of spring training and made his major league debut on April 17, 1924. He pitched the final two innings of a game against the Red Sox, allowing four runs in a 9-1 loss. Three days later, he had an even less successful outing. The Senators tagged Shields for two runs on three hits, not recording an out against the Yankees’ rookie.

After those two appearances with his ERA at 27.00, the Yankees sent Shields down to the minors, where he remained for the rest of the season. The following year, Shields spent most of the season with the Richmond Colts of the Virginia League. Near the end of the ‘25 season, he was recalled to New York.

He made one scoreless relief appearance on September 22nd. Two days later, he was given his first start. Shields pitched a 10-inning, complete game, allowing five runs in a 6-5 victory against the White Sox. He had given up three runs in the top of the 10th, but the Yankees came back thanks to a Babe Ruth walk-off grand slam.

Shields got one more start in the remainder of that season, throwing another complete game in a 7-6 win over the Tigers. In the Yankees’ final game of the season, he pitched the final four innings of a 9-8 win against the Athletics. The 1925 season was a disappointing one for the Yankees, as they went 69-85. With a record of 3-0, Shields was one of just two pitchers what had a winning record that year.

Two years earlier after he had first signed with the Yankees, Shields had thrown batting practice to Babe Ruth. One of Ruth’s hits had rocketed back and hit Shields on the chest. At the time, the pitcher had shook it off and continued playing. It took two years, but the injury eventually began to become a real problem.

Near the end of 1925, Shields was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He tried reporting to spring training in 1926, but he clearly was not ready. Shields then spent the next four years out of baseball and getting treatment for the TB. The disease nearly killed him.

Throughout all of the missed time, the Yankees continued paying Shields. The Yankees cut ties with him in 1928. Shields had taken up a job as a taxi driver and it looked like his baseball career might be over

Shields missed 1929, but looked like his baseball career might be able to continue starting in the 1931 season. However he managed to get back quicker than expected, and ended up being ready by May 1930.

Because the Yankees had released him in 1928, Shields was a free agent. That allowed him to then sign with the Red Sox in 1930. In his first game back in the majors after nearly dying of tuberculosis, the first team Shields would face was the Yankees.

He allowed three runs in a relief appearance on May 18th, as the Yankees beat the Red Sox. Shields made two more appearances for Boston in 1930, allowing seven runs in five innings. He played the rest of that year in the minors. He was picked up by the Phillies in 1931, but put up a 15.19 ERA in four appearances there.

Shields spent a couple years playing minor league baseball, but 1931 would be the end of his major league career.

After nearly playing as a 20-year old in the World Series, tuberculosis had robbed Shields of any chance of making a dent in the majors.