In the spring of 1971, Jeffersonian Democrat/Brookville American sports editor Tom White received a letter from one of the previous year’s Brookville Area Sports Hall of Fame inductees.
The Sports Hall was established in 1970, but Sigel native Bob Shawkey was unable to attend the event because of health issues. He was 80 years old and living in Syracuse, N.Y.
Shawkey was an easy selection for the first Hall of Fame class. He won 195 games as a Major League pitcher, starting with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s in 1913 and finishing as a 36-year-old veteran who pitched sparingly on one of the most famous teams of all-time — the 1927 New York Yankees.
In between, Shawkey won 20 games four times and was the Yankees’ No. 1 starting pitcher leading up to their first-ever World Series title in 1923. Shawkey and teammate Babe Ruth teamed up to properly christen the newly-built Yankee Stadium in April of 1923 with Shawkey getting the win on the mound and Ruth hitting the first home run there. Shawkey actually scored the first run in a 4-1 win over the Boston Red Sox.
So yeah, someone who grew up at the onset of the 20th century in the backwoods neighborhood of Sigel was a star pitcher for the Yankees before the Yankees became a famous franchise.
Dear Mr. White and (Jerry) Matthews,
I am planning on joining you on (May 10th). Mrs. Shawkey and I will drive down on the 9th as it is a long trip and can rest overnight for the party.
Would you be kind enough to make reservations for us at one or another motel at your choice and let me know which one. I should get in early afternoon of the 9th.
Please tell me if I get my expenses for the trip or not so I can prepare.
Thanking you both so much and your efforts will be very successful.
Sincerely, Bob Shawkey.
Since Shawkey was unable to attend his own induction ceremony, he was given the opportunity to speak at the second event that included a new group of inductees that included Glenn “Bogie” Lindermuth, Emmett Morrison, Joe Barnett and Rube Bressler posthumously.
White reported that along with him that “Lon Sebring, Al Lefevre and Dick Pitts, all members of the Executive Board of Directors along with Glenn Shaffer had lunch with Shawkey and his wife at the Gold Eagle Monday, the day before the event. Mr. Shawkey proved to be a most interesting talker, and his listeners did so with eagerness. He showed the group his 1927 World Series Championship ring and a special watch which was given him by Joe DiMaggio.
“Shawkey was swamped by young and old autograph seekers both before and after the banquet.”
JAMES ROBERT “BOB” SHAWKEY was born in Sigel in 1890. He had three sisters, and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was 10. The family farm was not located far from “downtown” Sigel just off Route 36. In his teen-age years, Shawkey worked in lumber camps and hauled logs.
After attending Slippery Rock State Normal School the fall of 1910, he was discovered by Connie Mack’s scouts while pitching for a semi-pro team in Bloomsburg and was signed to a contract. He threw two years in the minors before making his pro debut with the A’s in 1913.
That A’s squad went on to win the World Series in five games over the New York Giants. Shawkey didn’t pitch in the Series after appearing in just 18 games and 111 1/3 innings. Mack used just three pitchers in the five games, two of them eventual Hall of Fame pitchers Chief Bender and Eddie Plank.
Shawkey, now 23, joined the A’s regular rotation in 1914 and went 15-8 with a 2.73 ERA, leading the staff in innings pitched with 237. Also on the pitching staff as a 19-year-old rookie left-hander Rube Bressler … from Coder, the same Bressler who was inducted into the 1971 Hall of Fame. He was brilliant, by the way, going 10-4 with a 1.77 ERA in 147 2/3 innings in 29 games, just 10 of them starts.
But in the World Series, the A’s were swept by the Boston Braves, famously called the “Hitless Wonders” who caught fire when it mattered most.
That stretch of A’s domination wound to a close the next season as Mack started to rebuild and the team plummeted to a dismal 43-109 finish. After 17 appearances with the A’s, Shawkey was sold to the Yankees for $3,000 on June 28.
One week after pitching his last game for the A’s and getting the win in a 12-7 decision over the Yankees in Philadelphia, Shawkey made his Yankees debut and lost a 6-5 game to the A’s also in Philadelphia. He finished the season 10-13 overall, 4-7 for the Yankees.
SHAWKEY PITCHED THE FINAL 12 YEARS in Yankee pinstripes and in his first full season with the Yankees in 1916, it was probably his best:
24-14, 2.21 ERA in 53 appearances, 27 of them starts. He finished a league-best 27 games and had eight saves. What that meant was Shawkey was coming out of the bullpen between his scheduled starts. Shawkey threw 276 2/3 innings, striking out 122.
He was one of the top three pitchers in the American League that year. The others:
— Washington’s Walter Johnson, 25-20, 1.90 ERA, 369 2/3 innings, league-high 228 strikeouts. His win total the only one higher than Shawkey’s 24.
— Boston’s 21-year-old Babe Ruth, 23-12, 1.75 ERA, 323 2/3 innings, 170 strikeouts. Ruth led the Red Sox to a World Series title that year.
The Yankees were fourth, sixth, fourth and then third from 1916 through 1919 as Shawkey went 13-15 in 1917 and was limited to three appearances in 1918 because of his service in the Navy in World War I, thus the nickname he got “Bob the Gob.”
In 1919, Shawkey turned in his second 20-win season at 20-11, returning to the staff ace/workhorse status for the next five seasons. In one of the final games of the season, Shawkey struck out 15 batters in a 9-2 win over the A’s and that stood as a Yankees single-game strikeout record until Ron Guidry struck out 18 in 1978.
Shawkey went 20-13 with a league-low 2.45 ERA in 1920, 18-12 in 1921, 20-12 in 1922, 16-11 in 1923 and 16-11 in 1924.
A couple of later-1920 publications described Shawkey’s pitching style as he stood 5-feet-11 inches and weighing around 170 pounds (as per baseball-reference.com):
— Baseball Magazine, 1926: “Shawkey broke into the League as a speed ball pitcher with a world of stuff, but changing conditions brought about a complete readjustment of his hurling methods and he is now generally considered a curve ball pitcher.”
— How to Pitch, by J.E. Wray, 1928: “Shawkey has the hardest arm motion of any major league pitcher. He puts all his body from his waist up into his pitching motion and twists himself on his pivot foot long before he lets the ball get away. The result is a very wide curve that is hard to bat, especially when Shawkey has a good day and his speed is at its highest development. His delivery is not advised for a young pitcher to copy, although his finger positions are all right.”
THE BIG BABE RUTH ACQUISITION from the Red Sox after the 1919 season was the historical turning point for both franchises as the Red Sox, after winning three World Series titles in four years from 1915 through 1918 with Ruth on the roster, went until 2004 before winning another one.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have won a league-record 27 titles. The Yankees, a tenant at the Polo Grounds owned by the N.Y. Giants, lost to their landlords in the 1921 and 1922 Series.
It wasn’t until 1923 that they won their first one, which was also the inaugural season of Yankee Stadium. The day before Opening Day, manager Miller Huggins tabbed the then-32 year-old Shawkey to start the first game.
The day sounded like a typical mid-April good day in the northeastern part of the country, a breezy and raw 49 degrees. The attendance was originally announced as 74,217, but was really about 60,000 with another 20,000 or so turned away. Either way, it was the largest attended game in the history of Major League baseball.
From the New York Daily News:
“Up on the banks of the Harlem River yesterday afternoon “Babe” Ruth opened a new baseball park known as the Yankee Stadium. With something like 65,000 fans –the greatest crowd that ever saw a big league game of ball –looking on, “Babe” in the third inning dedicated the new Yankee home with a four-base drive into the right field bleachers with two mates on.
That decisive blow settled the first ball game of the year beyond a doubt. The Yanks won from the Boston Red Sox, 4 to 1.
If the game had been rehearsed it couldn’t have been staged better. It was first of all, the grand opening of the stadium. The biggest crowd of all time was there. The “Babe” came up in the third inning with two men on, and regardless of apparent batting slump in the spring series, he slammed one into the distant right field bleachers.
“Babe” has hit some resounding home runs during his career, but never did he drive a ball into the bleachers with more power behind it than the one he swatted on the epochal occasion of the opening of his new home. He showed that it could be done and there were about 65,000 fans who let loose with an old-time cheer when the blow was struck.
“Shawkey scored the Stadium’s first run in the third inning, reaching base on a fielder’s choice after he bounced a pitch back to the pitcher. Two batters later, he ran home on Joe Dugan’s single to right field.”
The Daily News gave Shawkey props for his effort as well:
“Old Bob Shawkey was a swell pitcher. During the whole ball game he gave the Red Sox exactly three hits. One of the three was a corking triple to right center in the seventh by McMillan, a former Yankee player. A man was on first at the time. That blow sent home the only run. George Burns got a single in the second and Ehmke punched a single in the sixth.
“No other member of the invading party was able to connect with the veteran Yankee slab artist. In five of the nine innings, he set the boys down three in a row. Old Bob seemed to have something on the ball. He had control, too. Only two men walked. He also had clean cut support from his mates. The only error made was charged to “Babe” Ruth himself when he muffed a fly ball in the start of the fifth inning. It proved to be harmless.”
1923 would be the year for title No. 1. Shawkey was one of five strong starters on the staff with future Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt and Herb Pennock, Sad Sam Jones and Bullet Joe Bush all over 230 innings pitched. Amazingly, Huggins used just three other pitchers all season and the staff led the American League in ERA (3.62) and complete games (101). And in what is a telling number about the era, the Yankees also led the AL in strikeouts with 506, or just over 3.3 per game.
The Yankees took over first place for good on May 5 and built their lead to as many as 18 1/2 games in the final weeks of the season, finishing 98-54, 16 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers. And since there was just a two-league, eight-team setup, it was on to the World Series against, once again, the hated Giants.
The Giants won two of the first three games, 5-4 in Game 1 and 1-0 in Game 3. In a pivotal Game 4 at the Polo Grounds, Shawkey got the start and took an 8-0 shutout into the eighth inning before tiring. In his only postseason win in five starts and eight appearances over five different World Series, Shawkey’s line was 7 2/3 innings, 12 hits, three runs, four walks and two strikeouts. His former A’s teammate Pennock came in and finished things out for a save.
The Yankees won the next two games as well to clinch the Series in six games, 8-1 and then 6-4 in Game 6 at the Polo Grounds as Pennock won his second game. The Yankees were World Series champs, the first of 27.
THE 1920s saw the Yankees continuing their buildup to dynasty status and Shawkey’s career was winding to a close.
In 1924, Shawkey was 16-11 with a 4.12 ERA in still over 200 innings and 38 appearances, but the Yankees fell to second place, two games behind Walter Johnson’s Washington Senators who beat the Giants in seven games.
The Yankees slipped to 69-85 and seventh place out of eight teams in 1925 as the Senators once again won the American League title before losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series in seven games. Shawkey, with just two more seasons ahead, slipped to 6-14 with a 4.11 ERA in 186 innings. And despite rookie first baseman Lou Gehrig emerging on the scene, the season was a forgettable one as Ruth was limited to 98 games and a lowly .290 average with just 25 homers.
But the Yankees were back on top in 1926 and met the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Shawkey, now 35, was 8-7 with a 3.62 ERA in just over 100 innings during the season, but he got the ball to start Game 6 with the Yankees leading the best-of-seven Series, 3-2. It didn’t go well against opposing pitcher and eventual Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander as Shawkey yielded seven runs and eight hits in 6 1/3 innings in a 10-2 loss.
One day later, Alexander famously entered the game in the seventh inning with the bases loaded and two outs and the Cardinals clinging to a 3-2 lead and struck out Tony Lazzeri. Then in the ninth inning in the rarest of endings, Alexander walked Ruth with two outs and Ruth was caught stealing to end the Series.
In 1927, the Yankees returned with a vengeance with a roster/lineup dubbed Murderer’s Row and won 110 games, taking the American League pennant by 19 games over the A’s then sweeping the Pirates in the Series. Shawkey, at 36, pitched in just 19 games and went 2-3 with a 2.89 ERA during the season, but saw no action in the World Series.
However, Shawkey’s keen pitching mind pointed to a future in managing, coaching and scouting. In the Yankees’ 6-2 win over the Pirates at Forbes Field in Game 2, Shawkey helped pitcher George Pipgras navigate through a more than credible Pirates lineup.
In a recorded interview (available on Shawkey’s wikipedia page) with baseball historian Eugene Murdock in 1975, Shawkey recalled going over the lineup with Pipgras before game. And after Pipgras finished his seven-hitter, he remarked to the newspaper reporters around him:
“I didn’t pitch the game, Shawkey did,” Shawkey remembered Pipgras saying, tipping his cap to his veteran teammate.
THE SUDDEN DEATH OF MILLER HUGGINS at the end of the 1929 season signaled the end of an era. Huggins had managed the Yankees for 12 years, but Huggins fell ill in September with just a handful of games left.
While Shawkey was on the coaching staff under Huggins, another coach Art Fletcher took the interim position for the final nine games and the Yankees finished second behind the powerful A’s who won 104 games and then the World Series.
But in the offseason, the Yankees went on a managerial search that eventually landed Shawkey the job. He wasn’t the first choice, probably the third or fourth and none of them were Ruth who desperately wanted to be a manager.
So In 1930, Shawkey took over a Yankees team that featured five Hall of Famers in the starting lineup — Ruth and Gehrig, catcher Bill Dickey and second baseman Tony Lazzeri. In a year known in both leagues as a historical outbreak of astronomical offensively numbers, the Yankees led both leagues in runs scored at 6.9 runs per game.
Ironically, it was the pitching under Shawkey’s watch that did the Yankees in and they slid to third place with 86 wins, 16 games behind the powerful A’s of Connie Mack once again. That wound up being it as a manager for Shawkey as ownership quickly signed Joe McCarthy after he was fired after five successful years with the Cubs.
McCarthy’s managerial run with the Yankees forged a Hall of Fame career as well as he directed the Bronx Bombers to seven World Series titles over the next 16 years.
One important move in the pitching department that Shawkey contributed to the franchise was his insistence on trading for struggling Red Sox pitcher Red Ruffing. Shawkey felt he fell off dramatically after four or five innings because he was “pitching all with his arm” according Don Honig’s “The Man in the Dugout” book. Shawkey helped revamp his delivery and his turnaround was remarkable.
In seven seasons with the Red Sox, Ruffing was 39-96 with a 4.61 ERA. Then in the following 15 seasons with the Yankees, he won 231 games and won seven World Series games, helping the Yankees win six titles. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1967.
Meanwhile, Shawkey kept on coaching, manning several jobs in the minor leagues in Jersey City, Scranton, Newark, Watertown, Tallahassee and Jamestown before Dartmouth College from 1952-56.
In the 1930s, Shawkey loaned some money to a few of his minor leaguers who were mining gold in Quebec, Ontario, and it led to him buying a Gold Mine, which had several productive years before World War II broke out. The “Shawkey Mine” can be still found on the map today.
Shawkey had a daughter to his first wife, who died. He remarried and was married to Jean, a Syracuse native, and that’s where he spent his final years of his life.
SHAWKEY SENT AT LEAST two other letters to White and the Brookville Hall of Fame. In April of 1973 in a typed note, Shawkey wrote in a likely response to an invitation to the induction ceremony:
“Thanks so much for your kind letter of the 12th and always so nice to hear from you. I’m so sorry that I cannot be with you this year and this is the reason. I had a heart attack and just know I’m trying to get back on my feet and my heart is coming along very nicely, but I have to take things very easy for awhile as I still am having dizzy spells. I’m so sorry as I wanted to be with you all this year. Will you be so kind enough to extend my best wishes to all and hope everything goes along just fine, and would like to know who the new members are. Thanks again and I’m very sorry not to be with you.”
It’s not known if Shawkey ever got back to another ceremony, but the last letter White had given me was one dated June of 1977 in handwritten form:
“I sure owe you an apology, but I do hope you forgive me. But I’ll try to explain what happened. I found your letter dated May 3 just a couple of days ago and I sure felt ashamed of myself. I was cleaning my Lazy Boy chair and the letter was under the cushion and that sure hurt. But Mr. White, the last six weeks I’ve been with five doctors trying to help. I’ve lost 15 pounds and they do not know why and Mrs. Shawkey has been ill the last three months after a surgery that hasn’t helped so far. I do hope you understand. Please pardon my mistakes and good luck with the Hall of Fame and you you are well.”
IN 1976, SHAWKEY THREW OUT out the first pitch at newly renovated Yankee Stadium, from the same mound he threw from in the grand-opening game 53 years before that. At that time, Shawkey ranked fourth in franchise history in wins with 168 (now 6th), fifth in innings pitched with 2,488 2/3 (now 6th), fifth in strikeouts with 1,163 (now 10th), sixth in games started with 274 (now 9th), fifth in complete games with 164 (still 5th), and tied for sixth with 26 shutouts (still 6th).
Shawkey appeared in several Old Timers games at Yankee Stadium over the years and his appearance in 1976 was rather fitting. The $100 million renovation project culminated with a re-opening on April 15 in front of over 54,000 fans. Shawkey was one of six members from the 1923 team at the event and as one could imagine, so were many others — Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra among them, and the widows of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. And even former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who fought some famous fights at the stadium in years past.
Then the 86-year-old Shawkey delivered the ceremonial first pitch to Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, who was about 20 feet away.
Indiana Gazette Sports Editor Dave Putnam caught up to Shawkey in the 1970s and wrote what Shawkey had told him.
“My biggest breaks in baseball was starting as a player under Connie Mack and ending my career under Miller Huggins,” Shawkey told Putnam. Mack curbed his temper and wildness and Huggins perfected his pitching.
My initial research on Shawkey began at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1990s and that’s when White sent me the three letters he got from Shawkey some 20 years prior in 1999.
“As you read these letters, you will come to know Shawkey’s humility. He was more concerned about our little Brookville Hall of Fame than he was about what we could do for him. Keep these letters, they are yours,” White wrote. “I hope they give you a greater understanding of not only who he was, but what he was. I only wish you could have met him.”
Shawkey died just under a month after his 90th birthday on New Year’s Eve of 1980.