The pitcher who was struck by lightning and finished the game anyway

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I bet if you asked Ray Caldwell — you can’t, by the way, as he is dead — he’d tell you that baseball players today have it easy. Modern pitchers are pampered. They have things like pitch counts, team planes, million(s)-dollar contracts, and coaches that care about pathetic, disposable parts of their bodies, like whatever the hell a ‘rotator cuff’ is. Back in his day, pitchers were expected to throw until the game was over or until they couldn’t throw anymore.

This would all sound like blustering from a hard-drinking old-timer, if not for a couple things. Firstly, I made it up. Second, Caldwell practiced what he hypothetically preached. Because on August 24th, 1919, he became the first and only pitcher in Major League history to finish a game after being struck by lightning.

Caldwell had spent most of his MLB career with the New York Yankees, but in the 1918 offseason they flipped him, three other players and a $15,000 wad of cash to the Boston Red Sox for Ernie Shore, Duffy Lewis and Dutch Leonard. Here’s what the New York Herald had to say about the deal:

Of the Yankee players sent to Boston the only ones who really will be missed are [Roxy] Walters and [Frank] Gilhooley … Caldwell might have been the Mathewson of the Yankees, but he turned out to be the Bugs Raymond of the local Americans. When in condition he was a wonderful pitcher and also a splendid batter, but his irregular habits destroyed his effectiveness.

Ouch.

Caldwell’s ‘irregular habits’ included drinking too much and going missing. The Herald expressed some hope that Red Sox manager Ed Barrow might sort him out, but the left-hander lasted just 30 starts in Boston, earning his release in early August.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, player-manager Tris Speaker needed pitching, and was willing to put up with some irregularities to get it. His team were battling for the American League pennant against the Chicago White Sox, but their pitching was ‘erratic,’ so Caldwell’s eccentricities could be accommodated* if he could improve their staff. He signed as a free agent on August 19th.

*Apparently these accommodations included allowing him to get raucously drunk after games and giving him a full day to recover, then purging his system by making him run laps.

Caldwell’s first start with his new team came five days later, when they travelled to Philadelphia to take on the Athletics. It was a sticky, humid day in Philly, and an evening thunderstorm was brewing, but the teams tried to squeeze in the game anyway.

The batters seemed insistent on getting home early and beating out the weather — between the two teams there were only seven hits all game — and by the top of the ninth Cleveland were clinging onto a 2-1 lead. The skies, meanwhile, were darkening ominously.

Caldwell got two quick outs, but they weren’t quick enough. As he set to throw to Athletics shortstop Joe Duggan, disaster struck. The Sporting News described the scene:

The game was almost over when a thunderstorm blew up and before players or spectactors could scurry to cover there came a series of lightning flashes and terrific sky cannonading. The bolts flashes 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.

One of Caldwell’s teammates got close enough to touch the stricken pitcher, but upon contact “leaped high into the air,” claiming he was still “crackling with electricity.” But Caldwell was only down for a few minutes. Dazed, but more or less ok, he got back up, dusted himself off and decided to finish the game.

Duggan, whose feelings about continuing to play in a game which had been attacked by Zeus himself are unknown, was forced into a groundout to Larry Gardner at third. After that, the deluge — the clouds parted and the rain fell in sheets. Storm-kissed Caldwell had finished the game just in time.

Surprisingly, the pitcher displayed no ill-effects from his brush with electrical death. Three starts later, he threw a no-hitter against his old friends the Yankees, and his pitching performances kept Cleveland in the hunt for the pennant deep into September. They’d ultimately finish 3.5 back of the White Sox, but their push bore fruit in 1920, when they made it to the World Series.

Caldwell, still with the team as a 20-game winner, started Game 3. He failed to make it out of the first inning, dispatched not by lightning but by Zack Wheat and the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers. (Don’t worry, Cleveland won the series despite him.)



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