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Meet Ray Schalk

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The White Sox backstop seems to have a dubious HOF case, but dig a little deeper into his career and you may be swayed

What Are YOU Looking At? Schalk (pictured here in the championship season of 1917) dashed throughout the diamond donning the tools of ignorance, as the first “fifth infielder” backstop.
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

As we move into the Hall of Fame voting, debating, fussing, defending, pride and outrage time of the season, it seems like a fun idea to have a look at some of the lesser-known and fewer-discussed White Sox who are already proudly enshrined in Cooperstown. A little while back we looked at Urban Faber. Now let’s meet one of his teammates, Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk.

A lot of us first met Schalk watching Eight Men Out. In an early scene, two of the gamblers behind the 1919 World Series fix are talking about which players to approach. When one mentions Schalk, the other replies, “Not a prayer.” Which was astute. Schalk, who slashed .304/.429/.304 in the series, had a reputation as a hard-nosed, stand-up guy. While he claimed to have no direct knowledge of the fix, he knew something was up when pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams repeatedly crossed him up during their starts. But we’ll come back to that later. The Black Sox scandal shouldn’t have the chance to overshadow our appreciation of Schalk’s career. Let’s look at some numbers:

  • Schalk made his professional debut on the day before his 20th birthday. It was the first major league game he had ever seen. He was the starting catcher, facing future Hall-of-Famer Chief Bender, and catching White Sox past and future legends Doc White and Eddie Cicotte).
  • Schalk spent all of his playing career, minus his last five professional games (as a player-coach with the New York Giants in 1929) with the White Sox.
  • From 1913 (he came up to the Sox in August 1912)-1926 he averaged 123 games behind the plate (remember, full seasons were 154 games then, not 162). This includes 1924, when his season was cut short due to injuries and he only caught 57 games. Without that anomaly, he averaged 128 games a year.
  • In 1916, Schalk stole 30 bases, which remained a record for catchers until it was broken in 1982 by John Wathan. He stole 177 for his career, which ranks first all-time among catchers. Some sources list Roger Bresnahan as the career steals leader for backstops, but he also played a significant number of games at a handful of other positions during his career, including, curiously, center field.
  • Schalk’s career slash line was .253/.340/.316 (primarily in the deadball era). He has the distinction of owning the lowest career BA of any player in the Hall.
  • He finished with a career bWAR of 28.6, with five seasons of more than 3.0.

So, Hall-of-Famer? Well, yes.

Schalk was the type of player we are currently lamenting the lack of on the current White Sox. Schalk was considered by most to be the best defensive catcher of his time. And not only that, he was considered one of the most innovative catchers in baseball history, and the prototype of the modern catcher.

John C. Ward wrote in Baseball Magazine in 1920: “Schalk is unquestionably the hardest working catcher in baseball as he is doubtless also the brainiest, the nerviest, the most competent. He presents the unique distinction of performing more work than any other catcher and at the same time performing it better. Both in quantity and in quality of service Ray Schalk is unquestionably the premier backstop in baseball.”

Schalk was a little guy (he was listed at 5´9´´, and at 165 pounds he was trim to the point of slight) playing a position that at the time was overwhelmingly manned by big, hulking bruisers. Among his innovations, Schalk is generally regarded as the first MLB catcher to consider himself a fifth infielder by moving out from behind the plate to back up first and third, and direct the other infielders to cover bases or get in cutoff position when the play was behind them.

Schalk was also a great handler of pitchers. John Sheridan of The Sporting News wrote in 1923, “Schalk at all times insists that his pitcher shall have and use his stuff, that he shall be able to control it, and that he should use it whenever the catcher calls for it. The manner in which Schalk handles his pitchers must be of inestimable value to his team. He, more than any catcher that I can remember, makes a pitcher work up to the mark all the time. No catcher that I have known made or makes the pitcher work right, stand right on the rubber and use a correct motion, hold runners close to base, better than said Schalk. As a manager of young pitchers, Schalk stands head and shoulders above the others of all time.”

So let’s look at some more numbers:

  • Schalk’s fielding percentage was above league average every year of his career, outside of his cup of coffee as a rookie in 1912. He led the league five times, and was in the Top 10 eight other years.
  • He led the league in catcher putouts nine times, and is ranked 48th all-time. He recorded putouts at every base, including second. The little guy got around.
  • Schalk led the league in assists twice, was a Top 10 finisher 10 other times, and is second all-time.
  • He led the league in double plays by a catcher five times, and finished in the Top 10 six other years.
  • In 1925, Schalk caught 61 would-be base stealers, for a 72% caught stealing percentage. His career CS percentage was 52%. He is currently ninth all-time in total CS, 10th in CS percentage.
  • His career fielding percentage was .981, with a RF/9 of 5.62. Remember, this was the deadball era, with lots and lots of bunting, base stealing, and assorted little-ballisms.
  • Many advanced fielding stats are unavailable for Schalk’s era, including the elusive and beloved and sometimes-despised and disparaged pitch framing, but it seems reasonable to assume they would back up the argument that Schalk was among the best, if not the best, defensive catcher of his day.

So, Hall-of-Famer? Yes.

Schalk was voted into the Hall in 1955, by the Veteran’s Committee. Thankfully, Schalk was still alive to enjoy the honor. He was inducted on the same day as a pitcher he’d discovered throwing at Baylor College in 1923 and recommended to the White Sox: Ted Lyons.

Schalk became White Sox player-manager in 1927-28, playing increasingly less each year. Catching more than 100 games a year for 11 seasons does take a toll. Schalk left the Sox prior to the 1929 season in a pay dispute with Charles Comiskey (imagine that), ending his playing career by catching those five games with the Giants, where he was hired as a coach.

After that, Schalk became a baseball life-vagabond. He coached in the majors and the minors, capping his career by coaching 18 years for Purdue University before retiring at the age of 72. Local boy all the way, Schalk was born in Harvell, Ill., grew up in Litchfield, Ill., and made his home, and spent his retirement, in Evergreen Park, Ill.

Much like Faber, Schalk admirably lived a fairly colorless life outside of baseball. Off the field, he was notable for being the most visible of the non-banned Black Sox, who he occasionally ruminated on for public consumption. In a 1940 interview with the Chicago Tribune, he admitted that he “did not disagree with the banishment,” but later portrayals of the eight as vicious criminals bothered him: “As long as I live, I’ll never forget the day Charles A. Comiskey come into the clubhouse and told eight [sic, Chick Gandil had already retired] of the boys they had been exposed and were through forever. It was a shocking scene and my mixed emotions never have been straightened out since I watched several of

the ruined athletes break down and cry like babies. I never have worried about the guys who were hard-boiled, but those tears got me.”

Schalk caught four no-hitters during his career (though one of them was later taken away, due to a change in the rules for scoring no-hitters), and he later was known for sending congratulatory messages, by telephone and telegram, to every catcher of a no-hitter.

Investing his baseball income, Schalk opened a pool hall and bowling alley in his adopted home of Evergreen Park (natch), and like Faber, was one of the founders of Baseball Anonymous, an organization that raised money for former players in financial difficulties. When Faber threw out the first pitch of the 1959 World Series, he threw it to his old catcher, Schalk.

Original caption: Red Faber lets go with his famed spitter as Ray Schalk again catches his old teammate in a touching scene before the start of the ’59 Series. (Note the players all already on the field for the ceremonial first pitch, Sherm Lollar waiting to take his spot at catcher.)
uncredited photo/managing editor’s personal collection

Schalk was married to his only wife, Lavinia, for more 50 years. He died of cancer at age 77 in 1970, and is buried in Evergreen Park. No whiff of scandal was ever attached to his name, despite being in the middle of baseball’s most famous one.

Hall-of-Famer? Yes, indeed.


Side note: Schalk’s nickname was “Cracker,” but likely not for the reason that just popped into your head. The most common theory for where it came from was the compliment/insult “cracker pants,” meaning (loosely) a sawed-off, bantam rooster type, with a take-charge (or take-over) personality.


Sources:

Baseball-Reference

Baseball Hall of Fame

SABR

Southside Showdown

Call to the Pen