ATI

All-Time Indians: Joe Sewell

Name: Joseph Wheeler Sewell Position: Short Stop
Tribe Time: 1920-1930 Number: 4 & 2
Accolades: Hall of Fame (1977) DOB: 10/09/1898
Accolades: Top 5 MVP (1923, 1925), Top 10 MVP (1924, 1927), Top 20 MVP (1922, 1928)
Stats G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS SB% OBP SLG AVG OPS
Best Season (1923) 153 553 98 195 41 10 3 109 98 12 9 6 60% .456 .479 .353 .935
Indians Career 1513 5621 857 1800 375 63 30 869 654 99 71 67 51% .383 .425 .320 .808
Post Season Career 7 23 0 4 0 0 0 0 2 1 0 2 0% .240 .174 .174 .414

It is possible that no player in Indians history was handed a more difficult situation than Joe Sewell in 1920. The Indians nearly won the AL pennant in 1919, but were surpassed by the Chicago Black Sox and in 1920 in mid-Summer, they looked to have a second chance at their first AL title. On August 8th, the Indians were in first, 4.5 games ahead of the Yankees, but on August 16th against New York tragedy struck when Cleveland’s short stop, Ray Chapman, was struck in the head by a pitch from Carl Mays and died from his injury.

Chapman was an incredible athlete, a great hitter, fielder and base runner and a spark plug for the best team in Indians history to that point. With no other real options at short stop, the Indians used the extremely light hitting Harry Lunte for awhile, but once it was obvious that he wasn’t capable of assuming the role regularly, the Indians purchased the top player in the Southern Association, Sewell, from the New Orleans Pelicans.

When he finally made his Major League debut on September 10th, the Indians had fallen into a tie for first with the Yankees and were in the middle of a three game series with their rivals. Filling the shoes of the fan favorite, Sewell went 0-2 in his debut, but would catch fire for the rest of the season, batting .338 with 12 RBI in the his final 21 games to help the Tribe put both the Yankees and the now scandal stricken White Sox. He would go on to play in all seven of the Indians World Series games that year against Brooklyn (they won five in the best of nine series) and while he didn’t hit as well has he had during the final month of the regular season, he played solid defense and still reached base in 24% of his at bats.

By 1921, Sewell had been embraced by the Tribe faithful and he would ultimately surpass Chapman as the greatest short stop in Tribe history, a title he held at least until Lou Boudreau came around in the late 1930’s. While it was an extreme situation that forced Sewell into the line-up, his numbers in 1921 would prove he belonged there. Hitting at the top of the lineup, he batted .318/.412/.444 with 36 doubles, 101 runs scored, 93 RBI and most incredibly 17 strike outs. This would become a hallmark of his career as every single season of his career he hit more doubles than times struck out and nine times he lead the league in at bats per strike out. For his career, Sewell struck out just once ever 62 at bats, good for second in MLB history by one at bat to Wee Willy Keeler and 17 ahead of Lloyd Waner in third.

After making a name for himself in his first full season, Sewell took a step back in 1922, batting just .299 with 80 runs and 83 RBI, but thanks to his growing reputation, he received his first MVP votes, tying with teammate Charlie Jamieson for 19th while George Sisler won the award by batting .420. Sewell would grab votes in six more seasons including top five finishes both the next year in 1923 and in 1925.

The 1923 campaign was arguably the best of Sewell’s career, although there were a lot of great seasons with similar numbers. It was this year that he set both his career high in runs batted in (109) and average (.353) with 10 triples and just 12 strike outs. He repeated this success in 1924 as well as he knocked in more than 100 for the second and last time, batted .316 and lead the league with 45 doubles. In this period, Major League Baseball played a 155 game schedule and Sewell was out there every day. From his first season in 1921 through his second to last in Cleveland in 1929, Sewell played in at least 152 games each year including all 155 in 1928 at the age of 29.

Always a doubles machine in addition to his other talents, Sewell had at least 40 in five separate seasons for the Indians and currently ranks fourth all time in career doubles by a member of the Indians. While this period of baseball marked a transition in baseball from the dead ball era to the homer happy 1920’s, the Indians as a team focused on two baggers rather than leading the park and particularly impressive was the 1926 season when Tris Speaker set a team record that still stands with 64, George Burns hit 52 on his way to winning the Indians first MVP award and Sewell hit 41 of his own. Only twice before did the Indians have even two players with 40 or more doubles (both involved Speaker, the latter Speaker and Sewell in 1923) and after repeating the feat in 1927 (with Homer Summa replacing Speaker in the trio) they would do so only four more times, none after 1937.

In all, Sewell was simply an incredible hitter. From 1923 through 1929 he batted above .315 each year with at least 37 doubles, 70 RBI and 78 runs scored. Even with the incredible offenses that followed in the 1930’s, 1950’s and 1990’s, Sewell still ranks in the top ten in career runs scored, RBI and walks as an Indian and the top five in hits and doubles. Of course much of this is because he is one of just eight Indians hitters to play in more than 1,500 games.

In 1929, age catching up to him, Sewell was moved full time to third base and stayed there for his final season with the Indians. Jack Tavener played the majority of the time at short in 1929 and Jonah Goldman in 1930 and while neither played particularly well, Sewell continued to produce from the hot corner. At 31 years old in his second season at third, he played just 109 games and batted a career low .289, but was still one of the better hitters. The future was obviously coming, however, as Earl Averill, Johnny Hodapp and Ed Morgan were now the real leaders of the offense.

Heading into 1931, the Indians traded Lew Fonseca to the White Sox for Willie Kamm and with a strong infield of Kamm at third, Johnny Burnett at short and Hodapp at second, Sewell was given his release. He played that season and two more with the Yankees, the same team he made his debut against a decade earlier. He remained an excellent hitter, but only played between 125 and 135 games each of his last three seasons. He would add another 61 doubles with New York to bring his total to 436 in 14 seasons with 114 strike outs, only 99 in Cleveland. In his final season in New York (1933), Sewell would win his second World Series and this time he would play a more significant role, batting .333 with three RBI and four runs scored in four games.

In addition to his own accomplishments, Sewell’s family made a big mark on the game as well with his brother, Luke Sewell, catching for the Indians from 1921 through 1932 (he also came back in 1939), his brother Tommy Sewell playing five years in the minors and getting one MLB at bat with the Cubs and his cousin Rip Sewell pitching for 13 seasons, mostly in Pittsburgh, making three All-Star teams. Of course, none of them would have quite the career of Joe, who made the most of a tragic opportunity.

For his efforts, Sewell was enshrined in the Indians Hall of Fame in 1951 (the inaugural year) and baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1977 by the veteran’s committee, joining his teammates Speaker and Stan Coveleski. Joe Sewell died in 1990 in Alabama at the age of 91.

Joe  Sewell

Joseph Coblitz

About Joseph Coblitz

Joseph is the primary writer and editor of BurningRiverBaseball.com and has been since its inception in 2011. He also writes for The Outside Corner and the Comeback and hosts the Tribe Time Now podcast. He is a graduate of the University of Akron and currently resides in Goodyear, Arizona the Spring Training home of the Cleveland Indians. Follow on twitter @BurningRiverBB

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