Ray Caldwell is famous every August 24 for being the pitcher hit by lightning during a game. That is just a flash in a baseball story.
The right-handed throwing, left-handed batting, Caldwell was a standout semi-pro player when he was 20-years-old. Signed by the New York Highlanders, he made his first appearance with New York in 1910 when he was 22. After the 1912 season, the Highlanders would begin using their more familiar name, Yankees. They were not the powerhouse team related to the Yankees, typically finishing in the bottom half of the eight-team American League. Caldwell had a buzz about him. His fastball was a tick above average with an elite curve and later in his career a spitball. He would also throw an “underhand” pitch reminding people of Christy Matthews.
Caldwell could be as great as Matty or Walter Johnson,
but instead of choosing their careers, he is evidently going
to be another Rube Waddell.
— Grantland Rice, 1914
A Star on the Rise in New York
Washington considered trading Walter Johnson for Ray Caldwell. The period between 1910 and 1914 saddled Caldwell with arm injuries and a lack of run support. Yet the promise was there. In 1914 he showed that promise by going 18-9 with and 1.94 ERA.
Lanky at 6′ 2″ and 190 pounds with an elongated face, he earned the nickname “Slim.” He possessed a big smile and an easy temperate on and off the field. Stardom was there for him to grab ahold.
His 1915 season was just as good. Logging 305 innings with a 19-16 record and a 2.89 ERA. Run support continued to be a problem with the Yankees going five games in August where they only scored one run for him. Slim tripled and scored the lone run during that stretch, a game he won 1-0.
The Yankees started strong in 1916. Slim lost a 3-2 11 inning battle with Walter Johnson early in the season. He bested Johnson 1-0 in another 11 inning battle in July. Ray would miss part of July with a shattered kneecap but would come back later in the month with the Yankees atop the standings. But, by August 15 the Yankees were out of the pennant race.
Flirtation with that which is Amber and Foamy
Sporting Life once wrote the Ray had an “occasional flirtation with that which is amber and foamy.” Other reports would use terms such as, “French Leave”, “breaking out”, “failing to keep in condition.” Yes. Ray Caldwell had a drinking problem. Some of his teammates would state he just had a problem saying no. When Ray would go AWOL for a game or two the team was reluctant to punish him. In mid-August Ray was fined $100 and suspended for 15 days. Caldwell did not report back after the suspension and earning a suspension for the rest of the season. He finished with a 5-12 record and a 2.99 ERA and the Yankees finished fourth.
Ray was welcomed back to the club in 1917 where he finished with the 13-16 record and a 2.86 ERA. His troubles continue. Suspensions and fines for missing curfew continued. In St. Louis, he was arrested and charged with grand larceny for stealing a ring. His wife sued him for the abandonment of her and their child.
Ray’s 1918 season started slowly. Injuries plagued him and he complained about a “lame” arm. Still, he would finish 9-8 with a 3.06 ERA. He managed to go AWOL again in late August. He left the Yankees to join the Tietjen and Long Drydock Company of New Jersey. During World War I shipbuilding was an essential service. Players would sign on to play for the companies baseball teams to avoid the draft.
By 1919 the Yankees were done with Ray Caldwell and trade him to the Red Sox. He compiled a 7-4 record, with a 3.96 ERA during his short stay with the Red Sox. He continued his troubled way with the Red Sox, which was not helped by having Babe Ruth as a roommate. The pairing was a disaster. Boston let him go in early August.
Tris Speaker’s Plan
Out of baseball, Ray Caldwell had limited options. One of those options was Cleveland player/manager Tris Speaker. He contacted Caldwell and agreed to sign him to play for Cleveland. The story goes that when Caldwell read the contract Speaker presented him, there was something wrong. A “not” was missing, as in “not drink.” Speaker laid out his plan for Caldwell. Caldwell would pitch then be free to go out and drink. The day after he pitched and partied he could take the day to sleep off his hangover. The second day after pitching he was expected to show up and run wind sprints for as long as Speaker required. Day three would require him to throw batting practice. Then, repeat.
Caldwell like the idea and without other options agreed to the contract and August 19, 1919. His first game for Cleveland would be a League Park, August 24, 1919. Ray would pitch well against the Philadelphia A’s in that game. Carrying a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning. A storm was coming in and began to rain. Caldwell got two outs. Toeing the rubber Joe Dugan. Then lightning strikes. Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman said he felt electricity in his legs. Caldwell hit with the lightning struck was knocked unconscious. The crowd, alright moving for protection from the rain, scattered. With his teammates convinced he is dead, Slim groaned, got on his knees, and stood up. Speaker runs in from centerfield while teammates offer to help him off the field. Caldwell will have none of it, soon Speaker relents. Caldwell got Dugan to hit into a groundout.
Caldwell would make his next start on August 29, losing 2-3 to the White Sox. His only loss for Cleveland was in 1919.
A Working Plan
On September 10 in the first game of a doubleheader, Caldwell faced his former team the Yankees. In his third start after being struck by lightning he no-hit the Yankees, striking out five and walking one batter. A no-hitter 17 days after being knocked out by lightning. That would be difficult with an athlete in the best o shape. For Caldwell, who I assume that hangover well was present, this certainly is one of the most impressive no-hitters of all time. Clearly, it has to be up there with David Wells’ hungover perfect game.
When the season was over Caldwell would have a 5-1 record with Cleveland and 1.71 ERA. He pitched in six games, had four complete games, missing six complete games by four batters.
It seems Speaker found the right plan for Caldwell.
Caldwell responded with a 20-10 record and a 3.86 ERA. Cleveland won the World Series in 1920. Starting 33 games, he completed 20 games including one shutout. He only lasted 1/3 of an inning in his only World Series start.
The Best Laid Plans…
By 1921, Caldwell was 33-years-old and regulated to the bullpen by Cleveland. In early September Speaker suspended Caldwell as the wheels were falling off the plan. Slim managed 12 starts, four complete games, and a shutout as a starter. He appeared in 37 games total but had a 4.90 ERA. Cleveland would let him go after the season.
He then spent 12 years in the minors, twice winning 20 games, but was never offered a chance to pitch in the big leagues again. But the time he was done, Caldwell logged more than 2,200 innings with 133 wins in the majors and 2,200 innings with 159 wins in the minors. Oh, yea, one lightning strike, and one no-hitter.
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