Baseball purists still lament how the game has changed for pitchers, with it being increasingly unlikely that hurlers throw complete games. In an age where good pitching is paid for at a premium, it is just no longer a wise financial decision to place pitchers in a position to hurt themselves by having them stretch the limits of their physical capabilities. However, it wasn’t always this way, as evidenced by Ray Caldwell, who was once struck by lightning on the mound during a game, and not only survived but actually stayed in and finished off a complete game victory.
The right-handed Caldwell was a league average (career 100 ERA+) pitcher who had a 12-year major league career with three teams (New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians) from 1910-1921. He compiled a career record of 134-120 with a 3.22 ERA and won over 18 games in a season three times. Despite his modest success, he is perhaps best known for a game on August 24, 1919 against the Philadelphia Athletics where he nearly lost his life, yet somehow turned it into perhaps his best outing of the season.
Earlier in the month, the 31-year-old Caldwell had been released by the Red Sox and was signed weeks later by the Indians, who were battling the Chicago White Sox for the American League pennant. August 24th was actually his first appearance with his new team and he certainly made it memorable.
Pitching in Cleveland, Caldwell clung to a narrow 2-1 edge against the Athletics, entering the ninth inning in his debut on the banks of Lake Erie. Rain had fallen since the middle innings, but play continued to ensure the contest was completed, given how late it was in the season.
With just one out left to go to secure the victory, shortstop Joe Dugan dug in at the plate. As Caldwell went to wind up, a lightning bolt zig-zagged from the sky and struck the pitcher. Harry P. Edwards from the Sporting News described the scene. “The bolts flashed here and there, causing much excitement,” “There was a blinding flash that seemed to set the diamond on fire and Caldwell was knocked flat from the shock of it.”
It was reported that the strike knocked the mask and hat off Cleveland’s catcher Steve O’Neill and the hat off Philadelphia third-base coach Harry Davis.
It was also reported that Davis, “got a second shock, for Cy Perkins came up to feel Harry’s head and see if he was hurt. The lightning had charged Davis’ hair with electricity and his whole frame tingled when Cy touched him.”
“We all could feel the tingle of the electric shock running through our systems, particularly in our legs,” umpire Billy Evans recounted after the game.
Caldwell laid stretched out on the ground for a few minutes before slowly rising to his feet. Inexplicably, he indicated he was able to finish the game, and with one out remaining it was decided to try and play through before lightning had a chance to strike twice.
Caldwell induced Dugan to hit a game-ending grounder and went to the locker room to face a barrage of questions from a wide-eyed press corps. He explained to the Cleveland Press that “felt just like somebody came up with a board and hit me on top of the head and knocked me down.” He was also found to have burns on his chest. Some suggested that the lightning had struck the metal button on the top of his cap and gone down through his body to his metal spikes.
Caldwell pitched again five days later, but was not able to throw another complete game. He went just 8.2 innings that contest in a loss, but reeled off three complete-game wins in a row after that. He went on to have his only 20-win season the following year, and though he was out of the majors following the 1921 season, he continued pitching in the minors until 1933, when he was 45 (finishing with 293 wins in his professional career).
He passed away in 1967 at the age of 1979. Despite his solid and lengthy career, he will forever be remembered for his big strike in Cleveland, which never even crossed home plate.
********************************You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew