October 31, 2009
The coverage this week of Derek Jeter receiving the Roberto Clemente Award got me to wondering again about how he will be regarded a few decades from now. I’m not questioning Jeter’s qualifications; the performance and the stats are there. But baseball immortality, if that’s the right word, comes in more than one form. Many players of at least Jeter’s ability are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and their statistics are indelibly spread upon the record book, but they are largely forgotten except by people like me who have nothing better to occupy their minds.
Jeter isn’t done, and his career base-hits total promises that his name will come up again and again when that category is open for discussion. But whether he will take on a more transcendent presence in the baseball conversation of the future — especially outside the New York area — is not at all certain.
A player who comes to mind in this regard is Joe Sewell, who was a starting infielder in the American League from 1920 to 1933, the last three years with the Yankees and the rest with the Cleveland Indians. Sewell got into the Indians’ everyday lineup as a replacement for Ray Chapman, who was killed by a pitch thrown by the Yankees’ Carl Mays. A couple of Sewell’s batting statistics compare favorably to Jeter’s. His lifetime batting average was .312 compared to Jeter’s .317, and his on-base percentage was .391 compared to Jeter’s .388. But hidden in that on-base percentage was a factor that made Sewell one of the most remarkable players in history.
Sewell was the hardest man to strike out in the history of the game. Not by a little bit, by a lot. No one else comes close. He came to bat 7,132 times, and he struck out 114 times. Nick Swisher, to pick a convenient example, strikes out more than that every year — 129 times in 2009, for instance. There were four seasons in which Sewell played every day and struck out only four times — only three times in 1932, which is the all-time record. He once went 115 consecutive at-bats without a strikeout — also the record. Over his career, he averaged one strikeout per 63 at-bats. The closest challenger is George Stone who, over seven years in the early 20th century, struck out once in every 50 at-bats.
It’s always risky to talk about sports records that will never be broken, but it’s safe to say that I’ll be shagging flies with Shoeless Joe and “Moonlight” Graham long before anyone makes contact better than Old Whatshisname.