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More to 1919: The Amazing Story of Ray Caldwell

Midway through this season, I saw a tweet about something that happened "on this date in baseball" from 1919 that I had completely missed when writing about that season. Baseball games started a few weeks late that year as players that served in the Great War were coming back from Europe and reporting back to their teams. It was a short taste of a pitcher named Ray Caldwell, a guy I had never heard of before, which led me into a bit of a research rabbit hole about the game and the man.

In his time, Ray Caldwell was compared to the Hall of Famers of his time. In his ability as a pitcher he was compared to Cristie Matthewson, Walter Johnson and Rube Waddell. He was also, unfortunately compared to Waddell for his off the field exploits. Waddell was a larger than life character who pitched in the league in the first decade of the 20th century, having established the Philadelphia A’s as having one of the great rotations of all-time with fellow Hall of Famers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank. Waddell might have been the best of the trio, with a career 2.16 ERA, but his off-the-field exploits made Babe Ruth Look like a cloistered nun in comparison a couple of decades later.

Today, Waddell might be diagnosed with some combination of ADHD, a personality disorder, a developmental disorder, alcoholism, trauma or something environmental. Apparently, the turn of the century was not an easy time to be alive and also be a stable person. Waddell was known to suddenly leave the stadium to run after fire engines. He loved fire engines. He also loved leading parades and playing marbles with “street urchins.” There was the time he accidentally shot hit friend through the hand, or the time he was bit by a lion, or the time he disappeared for a few weeks to get drunk with show girls, or the time he toured as an actor in a theater show during the season. He had a Hall of Fame Career but only five years after retiring his town was flooding. After hours of sandbagging waist-deep in ice cold water he came down with pneumonia. That pneumonia turned into Tuberculosis and died in 1915 at the age of 37.

As Waddell’s career was ending, Ray Caldwell’s was beginning, but the nickname of “Rube” was passed down from Waddell to Caldwell by the newspaper headlines. By the time Waddell had died, Caldwell had established himself as a great knuckler and spitballer for the Yankees. “Slim,” as Caldwell was also known, established himself as a legendary drinker, “dipsomaniacal” if you will. He was one of the best pitchers in the league and one of the great two-way players of the 19-teens. In 1915 the league leader in home runs hit seven and Caldwell equalled Babe Ruth with four. It was a year that he also had one of his best season’s on the mound, winning 19 games with a 2.89 ERA. Over one three-day span of games he hit a pinch-hit homer in a loss to the White Sox, hit a three-run pinch-hit homer to be the White Sox by one, and pitched and hit a homer in a 9-5 win over the Browns.

Caldwell went to the Red Sox as the Sox were dumping all of their best players (mostly to the Yankees) after the 1918 season. He was traded for pitchers Ernie Shore and Dutch Leonard and Hall of Fame outfielder Duffy Lewis. He didn’t fare well with the Red Sox, and heavy drinking that often made it so that he wouldn’t show up to the park didn’t endear him with his new team.

He was known for disappearing from the team, sometimes to go drinking, and others to play in other leagues. He was a 134 game winner in his Major league career, but racked up 293 total wins over his professional career. It wasn’t as though he was moonlighting and just playing against minor league scrubs, this was a time of barnstorming and the rival Federal League

Some of the times he left the team it was more of a “french leave.” His manager, who was known to find ways to give him a pass, was forced to fine and suspend his star pitcher for a large chunk of the 1916 season. His season was cut short by suspension and he spent a time in the post-season in the hospital for alcohol treatment. He then disappeared, only to be discovered pitching in Panama over the winter under an assumed name. The Yankees would hire private detectives to follow Caldwell to make sure he was on the straight and narrow, but he would often shake his tail and spend a night out on the town.

Late in the 1918 season Caldwell left the team to work at a shipyard in New Jersey with a couple of Yankee teammates. The essential shipbuilding job kept him out of the military draft. Because the season was not quite over when he left, the owner was furious, the last straw after years of suspensions for leaving the team and traded him to the Red Sox. His new manager didn’t want to put up with Caldwell’s bad reputation. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of foresight in this hardline approach to his behavior because his roommate on road trips was Babe Ruth. His ERA ballooned and his relationship with the Red Sox blew up and he was released mid-season. His career appeared to be over.

He didn’t have to wait very long. In mid-August, Hall of Fame player/manager Tris Speaker signed Caldwell to the Indians with a contract that confused him into good behavior.

“After each game he pitches, Ray Caldwell must get drunk. He is not to report to the park the next day. The second day he is to report to Manager Speaker and run around the park as many times as Manager Speaker stipulates. The third day he is to pitch batting practice, and the fourth day he is to pitch in a championship game.”

“Slim looked up ‘You left out one word, Tris,’ he said. ‘Where it says I’ve got to get drunk after every game, the word not has been left out. It should read that I’m not to get drunk.

“Speaker smiled. ‘No, it says that you are to get drunk.’ Slim shrugged his shoulders. ‘Okay, I’ll sign,’ he conceded.” - Detroit News, 1920.

Caldwell never showed up drunk to the park for the Indians in 1919.

He probably could have used a drink after his first game with the Indians. Caldwell made it into the ninth inning when a fast moving thunderstorm came in off of Lake Erie. Ray Caldwell was struck by lightning while standing on the mound, perhaps the electricity was attracted to the metal button on the top of his hat shooting through his body to the metal at the bottom of his spikes, perhaps it was the fact that he was standing in the middle of a field in the middle of a thunderstorm. Accounts of the severity of the lightning strike vary from source to source. Some say he was knocked off his feet, lucky to only have a burn on his chest. Others say he was knocked unconscious, needing to be resuscitated on the field. The railings at the field sparked like Tesla Coils as bolts clustered around the field. “It felt just like somebody came up with a board and hit me on top of the head and knocked me down,” He later said. Regardless of the severity of lightning strike, he got back up, dusted himself off, and retired the final batter of the game to pick up a complete game win against the Philadelphia Athletics.

Seventeen days later he faced the Yankees, his team of the previous nine seasons, and threw a complete game no-hitter. It was only the fourth no-hitter in Indians history, and there have only been 14 such games in franchise history. No Indians pitcher has thrown a no-hitter since May, 1981. After the trade Caldwell went on a tear. He went 5-1 over six starts, with four complete games and a 1.71 ERA. It wasn’t quite enough. The Indians fell short of the White Sox, finishing 3.5 games out of first place.

When the spitball was banned, Caldwell was one of the few pitchers to be grandfathered into being able to legally use the pitch in the future. It didn’t really help him, he was hit hard in 1921, as much of the rest of the league was. At 33 years old he had thrown his last pitch in the majors, his reputation of drinking and erratic behavior catching up to him.

He would spend the next 12 years pitching in the minor leagues. Pitching for the minor league Kansas City Blues, he would lead them to the Little World Series in 1923 against the minor league Baltimore Orioles. Not to be confused with the Little League World Series, which, I assume, they could have also won. With a record of 112-54, the Blues are considered one of the greatest minor league teams ever. He was matched up against future Hall of Famer Lefty Grove (at that time he went by Lefty Groves) in two games, each winning a game. The Blues won the Little Series in nine games. The next spring training Caldwell shut out the Pittsburgh Pirates in spring training, but no offers to pitch in the bigs came out of the gem of a game.

By 1931, Caldwell had traveled around the minor leagues with varying levels of success. He no longer had any zip on his fastball, barely able to strike anyone out, striking out only 57 batters in 248 innings. He could get outs, however, the 43 year old brought his ERA down to 3.45 and led his team to the Dixie World Series for the second time in three years. Caldwell was now married for the third time and had become a grandfather. He was matched up against a future Hall of Famer in the Championship series once again, a nineteen year old Dizzy Dean who had gone 26-10, with 11 shutouts and 303 strikeouts that year. Dean was not too worried to face the new grandpa, saying, “If I don’t beat them Barons, I’ll join the House of Davis and grow a beard and never, never shave it. It would hide my shame.”

Game One of the series was all Caldwell. The game was scoreless in the eighth inning when he showed his hitting versatility once again, notching a hit that set up the winning run. He came back in relief for the ninth inning of Game Four, a game Dean had started to protect a 2-0 lead. With two outs he faced the league’s home run and RBI leader, another future Hall of Famer, Joe Medwick, striking him out to win the Series. Dizzy Dean never did grow that beard.

He would be out of baseball just a couple of years later, pitching until he was 45 years old, although he continued to hope he could catch on with a team once again. He pitched more than 2200 innings in the majors and more than 2400 innings in the minors. He won a total of 293 professional games, 134 in the majors, 159 in the minors, and had a lower ERA in the majors (3.22) than the minors (somewhere around 4.00, not all of their records are reliable). He married one more time, in 1939, and by then he had straightened himself out, remembered as a perfect gentleman. His new family knew him to talk endlessly about baseball, yet he never bragged about his long career, living until 1967 to the age of 79. Whether that lightning strike on the mound required him to be revived or he just brushed off some burns on his chest, Ray Caldwell lived a few lives in his 79 years and his baseball days were lived as wildly as anyone the game has seen.

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