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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #38 Bob Shawkey

The first starting pitcher at Yankee Stadium earns his spot on the Top 100.

Portrait of Bob Shawkey Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Name: James Robert “Bob” Shawkey
Position: Pitcher
Born: December 4, 1890 (Sigel, PA)
Died: December 31, 1980 (Syracuse, NY)
Yankee Years: 1915-27
Primary number: N/A
Yankee statistics: 415 G, 274 GS, 168-131, 27 SV, 164 CG (26 SHO), 2,488.2 innings, 3.12 ERA (85 ERA-), 3.52 FIP, 11.4 K%, 8.3 BB%, 29.8 fWAR, 43.4 rWAR

Biography

Traditionally, the New York Yankees as an organization are known for their offensive prowess. The team’s nickname, The Bronx Bombers, emphasizes just this, and the original Yankee Stadium was called “The House that Ruth Built” from the greatest Bomber of them all.

Very quietly, however, the Yankees have a long tradition of ace pitchers who headline the staff and find success despite pitching in the historically high-offense environments of the American League East. Gerrit Cole, the reigning AL Cy Young (48th in our ranking) currently holds the title of staff ace. Before him were Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Andy Pettitte at various times. Long before them, it was Ron Guidry. Long before Guidry, it was Whitey Ford.

And before them all, it was Bob Shawkey, Yankee Stadium’s OG ace.

Early Life

Raised on his family farm in western Pennsylvania alongside his three sisters, Shawkey spent his teenage years working in lumberyards, helping out around the farm. While surviving evidence does not indicate exactly how he got into baseball, we know from yearbook records that he had become quite proficient by the time he turned 20, as he spent the spring 1910 semester playing for the Slippery Rock University state team that lost only one game. The author of the yearbook described him as “notable for the number of people he can strike out in one game.”

Shawkey did not remain with them long, however, for while playing with a semi-pro traveling squad that summer, he was discovered by Pop Kelchner, a Philadelphia Athletics scout whose 86 signed players is believed to be the most in baseball history. He spent two seasons in the A’s farm — initially sent down to work on his control issues, then held down because the Baltimore Orioles (no, not that team, the International League club managed by Jack Dunn that would soon employ a very young Ruth as well) refused to let Shawkey go back to Philadelphia because they needed him for their own pennant run.

At long last, Shawkey finally made his MLB debut on July 16, 1913, as he spun seven innings of two-run ball while the A’s fell to the Chicago White Sox, 5-3.

Bob Shawkey Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Over the next two seasons, Shawkey established himself as a reliable starter for Connie Mack’s Athletics, as they dominated the American League with back-to-back pennants. The 22-year-old earned his first World Series ring in 1913 when the Mackmen dispatched the New York Giants in five games. Shawkey didn’t pitch in that Fall Classic, but made a losing start in 1914, when the 99-win A’s were stunned by the “Miracle” Boston Braves.

Then in 1915, everything came crashing down to Earth for Connie Mack and company. He was losing money and had to bid adieu to stars like Eddie Plank and Eddie Collins, leaving a sagging team in its place. On track for a 43-win season — then the third-fewest in Major League Baseball history, but just the beginning of a horrendous stretch of Philadelphia baseball — Mack continued to sell at midseason. Among many moves, the A’s sold Shawkey to the Yankees, where he would spend the rest of his career. Teammate Frank “Home Run” Baker would join him in due course.

To the Bronx, and then to War

After an uninspiring finish to the 1915 campaign, Shawkey broke out in a big way in 1916. Yankees manager Bill Donovan employed Shawkey as both a starter and a reliever. He started 27 games, notching 24 wins, and finished 24 more, and would be credited with a league-leading eight saves after the stat’s creation in 1969. Although it was standard operating procedure to use rested starters in relief in the early days of baseball, the extent to which Donovan called upon Shawkey out of the bullpen while using him regularly as a starter was astonishing even then.

As a jack-of-all-trades pitcher, the right-hander immediately catapulted himself into the conversation as one of the best arms in the league. Moved (almost) exclusively to the rotation in 1917, Shawkey cemented that status with a strong campaign that saw him record 13 of his team’s 71 wins.

Shawkey’s ascent, however, was halted in 1918 due to America’s entry into the Great War. Because his wife — a socialite named Marie Lakjer, aka “The Tiger Lady,” who allegedly shot her first husband in order to gain his estate — refused to claim financial dependence on him, he was unable to be granted the exemption from enlistment normally given to married men; local newspapers quoted her as saying, “I want him to go to war, the sooner the better.” Eventually, she threw Shawkey, his sister, and their dogs out of their house. Not surprisingly, he filed for divorce that June.

Eager to play for the shipyard baseball teams rather than head to Europe, Shawkey enlisted in April 1918, and he spent the first few months working as an accountant and playing baseball on the Philadelphia base. When on leave at the end of June and the beginning of July, however, Shawkey returned to the Yankees; he appeared in three games, including a complete-game shutout against the Washington Senators on the Fourth of July. Annoyed that he had gone back to his team while on leave, Navy officials transferred him to active duty, assigning him to the USS Arkansas, a battleship in the North Sea.

USS Arkansas Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images

Even if it was meant as a punishment, Shawkey spoke highly of his time at sea. From this experience, he earned the nicknames “Sailor Bob” and “Bob the Gob.”

Opening Ruth’s House

Upon his return to civilian life in 1919, Shawkey picked up right where he left off in 1917, putting together one of the best seasons in Yankee history to that point. His numbers themselves were staggering enough — 20 victories on a ballclub that won only 80, 22 complete games, and a league-leading five saves — but it is the stories about that year that truly make it memorable. Facing his former ballclub on September 17th, he struck out 15 batters, a franchise record that would stand until Ron Guidry’s memorable 18-K performance more than half a century later.

In fact, there was only one batter that Shawkey struggled to shut down in 1919: Boston’s George Herman Ruth. In just one year against him, Ruth hit three of his then-record 29 home runs, including a grand slam in June and the record-breaking homer in September. Not surprisingly, Shawkey was counted among the people most thrilled to see the Red Sox opt to finance a play by selling their star hitter to New York.

Babe Ruth 1927 Yankee Teammates
Waite Hoyt, Ruth, Huggins, Bob Meusel, and Shawkey

With Ruth now driving in runs for him rather than driving in runs off him, Shawkey spun his second straight 20-win season in 1920, leading the league with a 2.45 ERA and 156 ERA+. His only blemish came from a weeklong suspension issued when he swung at the home plate umpire after a questionable ball four call. Arm fatigue forced him to employ a sidearm windup in 1921, leading his ERA to “balloon” to a 4.08; even so, he played a critical role eating innings for the Yankees, as they won their first pennant in team history. The Giants beat him up in the Yankees’ World Series loss to their Polo Grounds landlords, and though Shawkey pitched a hard-fought 10 innings during a 3-3 tie in Game 2 of the 1922 Fall Classic, Huggins’ team lost again.

After serving as the team’s ace for four seasons, Yankees manager Miller Huggins named him the Opening Day starter in 1923 — making him the first pitcher to start a game at Yankee Stadium. Facing the Boston Red Sox, Shawkey spun a complete-game three-hitter, striking out five while allowing just one run, on a Norm McMillan triple in the seventh. He earned the first win at the House that Ruth Built while the slugger himself went yard.

Unfortunately, 1923 would be the beginning of the end of Shawkey’s career. While he was still an above-average starter, cracks were beginning to show: he led the league with 27 home runs allowed, and his 9.5 walk percentage was the highest in his career, his 1918 war year cameo excluded. Take away his starts against the downtrodden Red Sox, in which he went 5-0 with a 1.04 ERA, and those stats look even worse.

Despite these regular season struggles, Shawkey came through when it mattered most. The Yankees won their third consecutive Junior Circuit flag but trailed those nemesis Giants 2-1 in the 1923 World Series. Huggins handed the ball to the veteran in Game 4 to prevent his Yanks from falling to the brink of elimination. Shawkey allowed 12 hits and 4 walks, but showed serious guile in tossing seven shutout innings before three runs crossed off him in the eighth with the Yanks up, 8-0. The Hugmen would win, 8-4.

Game 4 would be Shawkey’s only appearance of the series, but it kicked off a rally. The Yankees won three straight to take the World Series in six for the first of their 27 championships.

US-SPORTS AUCTION-NYC Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Injuries and ineffectiveness plagued Shawkey over the next three seasons, as he began to transition into more of a coaching role; as the veteran of the staff, he took an active interest in mentoring the young pitchers.

Due to this new position, Shawkey remained on the staff through the end of the 1927 season, in which he almost exclusively served as a reliever out of the ‘pen. After notching his second World Series title in New York, he was released by the organization, never to play again.

Grover Cleveland Alexander and Bob Shawkey Shaking Hands Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

The Coaching Carousel

After retiring, Shawkey joined the coaching staff of the Montreal Royals, an International League team, for the 1928 season. Following the season, he joined Ty Cobb and other players on a trip to Japan, where they played on local collegiate teams as the sport took root across the Pacific. Upon his return, he donned the pinstripes once more, taking a job as the team’s pitching coach.

At the end of the 1929 season, disaster struck, as Huggins died suddenly; while Art Fletcher took over to finish out the string, Shawkey took over as manager in 1930. The erstwhile pitcher led the team to an 86-68 third-place finish. Despite support for their former teammate within the clubhouse (outside of Ruth, who wanted the job), Yankees brass opted to take advantage of Joe McCarthy’s sudden availability and hired the former Cubs manager. In hindsight, it’s hard to argue against the decision, since McCarthy led the team to seven championships, but still, it was a bit disrespectful for a man who was, at the time, one of the few Yankees legends. The man himself certainly felt slighted.

After leaving the Bronx, Shawkey took on managerial duties with Jersey City Skeeters and Newark Bears, a pair of Yankees affiliates, as well as the Scranton Miners; in time, he would manage Johnny Allen, George Selkirk and Spud Chandler, as well as his future son-in-law Jimmy Hitchcock. Following the 1935 season, he left the professional dugout permanently, although he did stay in baseball. As he traveled for his other business ventures — which included owning a Canadian gold mine so large that it required its own post office and building radios for General Electric during World War II — he served as a minor league instructor, and from 1952 to 1956, he coached the Dartmouth baseball team.

Retirement, Death, and Legacy

After retiring, Shawkey settled down with his fourth and final wife upstate in Syracuse, where he would live until passing away on New Year’s Eve in 1990. Despite the ignoble end to his brief Major League managerial career, he would sometimes return to Yankee Stadium. In addition to Old-Timers’ Day ceremonies here and there, he made sure to attend important events such as Lou Gehrig’s farewell and Ruth’s final appearance at the Stadium. Shawkey capped off Yankee Stadium’s 50th anniversary by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the celebration in 1973, where he and former teammate Whitey Witt greeted the Babe’s widow, Claire, with a kiss on the cheek.

Mrs. Babe Ruth, whose husband was known to have hit a few ho
Shawkey, Claire Ruth, and Whitey Witt
Photo by Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Shawkey also re-opened Yankee Stadium following the two-year renovation by throwing out the first pitch in 1976. It was an appropriate honor for the man who had helped open the original ballpark all those years ago.

In many ways, Sailor Bob gets lost among a sea of Yankees greats. A quintessential member of the unofficial Hall of Very Good, he ultimately had neither the numbers nor the star power to net him enshrinement in either Cooperstown or Monument Park. Still, he was a key member of the New York teams that began to establish the Yankees as, well, the Yankees, and he ranks near the top of the franchise charts in wins (168, 6th), pitcher rWAR (43.4, tied for 6th with Lefty Gomez), shutouts (26, 8th), and strikeouts (1,163, 10th). His place on the Top 100 Yankees is more than well-deserved, and his popularity with the fanbase is nowhere near where it should be.

Staff rank: 38
Community rank: 50
Stats rank: 32
2013 rank: 32

References

Baseball Almanac — Bob Shawkey

Baseball Reference — Bob Shawkey

Baseball Reference — Bob Shawkey (Manager)

BR Bullpen — Bob Shawkey

Bob Shawkey.” Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame. Accessed December 27, 2023.

Bob Shawkey will wed Tiger Lady.” The Pittsburgh Press. October 3, 1914.

Davidoff, Ken. “Inside Ron Guidry’s 18-K masterpiece, 40 years later.” New York Post. June 16, 2018.

FanGraphs — Bob Shawkey

FanGraphs — Yankees pitchers, 1913-1927

Ferenchick, Matt. “Yankees History: Bob Shawkey’s wild complete-game shutout.Pinstripe Alley. February 10, 2023.

Goldman, Steven. “Forgiving, Forgetting, And Bob Shawkey’s 46-Year Yankees Exile.” Vice.com. April 14, 2016.

Keese, Parton. “Bob Shawkey, Pitcher for Yankees And Later Manager, Is Dead at 90.” New York Times. January 4, 1981.

Larkin, Kevin. “September 27, 1919: Bob Shawkey fans 15 and wins 20th for Yankees.” Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed December 27, 2023.

Rice, Stephen V. “Bob Shawkey.” Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed December 27, 2023.

Smiley, Ron and Jim Sandoval. “Pop Kelchner.” Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed December 27, 2023.

The Anamnisis. Slippery Rock State Normal School Yearbook, Volume 1 (Columbus, Ohio: Champlin Press, 1910).

Previously on the Top 100

39. Paul O’Neill
Full list to date