Ray Schalk: From the Hall of Fame Library player files

Ray Schalk, 1919 (Library of Congress)

Last week, we took a two-part look at Minnie Minoso, a player who should be in the Hall of Fame. This week, we look at a White Sox who is enshrined in Cooperstown despite a very unimpressive case on paper.

Let's just say that sometimes it pays to be clean.

Why Ray Schalk?

Ray Schalk isn't exactly an obscure Hall of Famer, but only because he owns the lowest batting average of any Hall of Famer, with a lifetime clip of .253. Harmon Killebrew is in his neighborhood, but while he hit just three points higher than Schalk, he also outhomered Schalk by a margin of 573 to 11.

He never came close to making it into the Hall through the traditional vote, but one year after falling off the ballot with just 45 percent of the vote, the Veterans Committee placed him into the Hall.

Schalk's reputation was boosted by the fact that he was not a member of the Black Sox, and was rumored to have fought with Eddie Cicotte and Swede Risberg after learning about the scheme. He denied that it came to blows, but he apparently smelled a rat when Cicotte crossed him up in Game 1.

But Schalk also was considered to be ahead of his time when it came to defense. Not only was he unmatched when it came to durability, but he covered more ground than any of his peers.

Also, I'm doing this so winningugly can get off my back.

Coming up

Schalk was born in the village of Harvel, Illinois -- and while he was stuck with the nickname of "Cracker" by his teammates for being the shape of a cracker box, I saw Grantland Rice call him "The Harvel Marvel," and I like that one better.

He rose through the semipro ball ranks quickly. He spent one year playing baseball in the Illinois-Missouri League in 1910, one year playing for the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association in 1911. The White Sox then signed him, along with Lena Blackburne and Bruno Block for a total of $15,000.

Because he was only 19 when he joined the White Sox, he was still quite raw. Daily drills with the manager then-coach Kid Gleason helped form him into a defensive whiz. They worked on throwing and catching fundamentals, simulated game situations, handling all sorts of throws from outfielders, handling bunts and chasing after pop flies hit over his head. "Kid Gleason made a catcher out of me," he said.

Behind the plate

Coming up, Schalk was said to stand 5'7" and 122 lbs., although he would put on about 30 pounds through the course of his career. He was unusually small for a catcher, which led many to believe that he couldn't take the punishment.

He was more than up to the challenge. He caught at least 100 games in 11 straight seasons, and in 1920, he caught an unfathomable 151 games out of 154, setting a record that lasted for 24 years.

This is impressive for a couple reasons. For one, he's the only catcher to start 151 games behind the plate before World War II, and he did it while catching some of the all-time great spitballers, including Cicotte, Ed Walsh and Red Faber. He played through broken fingers, somehow limiting the damage from the unpredictable breaking pitches.

When Ty Cobb was at the end of his career in 1926, he was asked to put together a roster of the game's all-time best. He chose Schalk and Buck Ewing to catch, saying about Schalk:

Of the catchers that I have seen Ray Schalk stands pre-eminent. I have selected him because I don't see how his work could have been improved upon. Schalk has caught for 14 years and got everything out of his pitchers that was possible to get. He has handled every kind of delivery and has made his pitchers win. No other catcher on the Whitesox [sic] could compare with him. Even this year, when Schalk is said to be getting old in the game, you will see a lot of difference in the team when he is not catching. Opposing ball players can feel Schalk checking them at every turn and defeating them. He is a personal force as well as a great mechanical catcher.

Babe Ruth was also a fan, saying in 1948 that Schalk "got more out of his pitchers than any other catcher in history."

All over the field

[Schalk] is a rare type to have back of the bat, facing the field. He not only keeps his pitchers working at top speed, but he injects pepper into the entire play. -- Grantland Rice

The combination of Schalk's tireless work ethic and unusual agility allowed him to expand the catcher's role on the field. He was considered the first catcher to back up the first baseman on throws from the infield, and the third baseman on throws from the outfield.

He used this hustle to record outs at every base. At first, he would sneak behind the runner on a single to right field and wait for him to round the bag too liberally. If he strayed too far, Schalk was ready to take a throw from right field to apply a quick tag.

At third, he had a play that the Chicago Daily News called "The Sucker Special." It involved a runner on first who would take off on a bunt attempt, and then round second and head for third when he thought the third baseman wouldn't make it back to the bag. In this case, the charging third baseman would make sure to look unaware, because he knew Schalk would keep an eye on the bag. This play worked on more than one occasion.

And at second: "The batter hit a looping fly to short center. It fell between the second baseman, shortstop and center fielder, and Schalk saw nobody covering the bag. He covered second and placed the tag for the putout."

A 1917 World Series preview article summed up his defensive skill set:

His method of receiving and throwing the ball at the plate is faultless. Schalk pegs without moving out of his tracks. He likewise possesses an uncanny instinct for diagnosing the play of the rival team, and much of the integrity of the Chicago defense is based upon Schalk's rapid and clear thinking.

Offensive acceptability

Schalk wasn't a bad hitter for a catcher. He didn't hit for average or power, but he could draw a walk. And, as we know, he could run.

He didn't often put all his skills together, but in the few seasons he did, he turned out to be quite a valuable player. When he finished sixth in the 1914 MVP voting (with Eddie Collins, Sam Crawford, Home Run Baker and Shoeless Joe Jackson placing ahead of him), an article summed up his case:

While he did not hit for .300, he nevertheless stood well up in the ranks of the American League batsmen and in the majority of instances his hits were delivered at the proper time and when the safety meant something in the shape of runs. With exceptional speed for a catcher, he ran the bases very successfully, and although he does not figure as a leader in this department, his discretion in pilfering bases when an extra base was needed more than atoned for the greater speed and large number of steals gleaned by more formidable rivals.

Oddly enough, the next season, he went 15-for-33 in the stolen-base department.

End of career, and after it

Schalk made all but two of his 6,217 plate appearances in a White Sox uniform, and he managed the Sox in his final 1 1/2 seasons. However, he stepped down over (wait for it) a money dispute with Charles Comiskey, who cut his pay from $25,000 to $17,000. So he went to the New York Giants to coach under John McGraw, and he made a couple of spot appearances in the uniform, too. Schalk probably couldn't have been surprised about how his Sox career ended, since Comiskey gave Schalk the managing job before he told Eddie Collins he was fired. Comiskey did not do these things very well.

Fun fact: Schalk had a baseball autographed by presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Unlike many of the players of his era, Schalk had no problems transitioning to a post-career career. He ran a successful bowling alley and restaurant in Evergreen Park, and also served as a coach at Purdue University.

Because he didn't need the money, he never really opened up about the Black Sox, although he did think the "faction" of game-throwers could have been overcome if Faber were healthy enough to pitch. He didn't like being crossed up.

And finally, this quote amused me:

"It's hard for me to watch games on television today. I have no patience with pitchers who run the count to three and two on every other hitter, and who walk 10 or a dozen every game. It's boring. It hurts the game and loses fans. There's no sense to it." -- June 2, 1970, Christian Science Monitor.

I'd like to know what he'd think of players stepping out of the box.

Previously in this series:

Minnie Minoso Part 1 | Minnie Minoso Part 2 | Fielder Jones | Luke Appling | Johnny Mostil | Eddie Cicotte

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