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Erik Brady: Remembering Salamanca's own 'Remarkable Ray Caldwell,' who brought the heat and survived the lightning

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Ray Caldwell

Ray Caldwell at the Polo Grounds in New York.

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Think of Ray Caldwell, Salamanca’s own, as the patron saint of complete games.

The other day, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw had a perfect game through seven innings. Of the more than 220,000 major-league games in history, just 23 have been perfect — and Kershaw was six outs from another when manager Dave Roberts lifted him.

What might Caldwell have thought of that? We are going to guess that he would not have approved.

He died in 1967, at age 79, and is buried in Randolph, Cattaraugus County. And he once threw the most astonishing complete game in baseball history.

Pitching for the Cleveland Indians against the visiting Philadelphia Athletics in August 1919, Caldwell had given up four hits and one walk through eight innings when a storm rolled in off Lake Erie. In the ninth, he induced a couple of infield popups. And then, as he toed the rubber in the rain, looking for that last out, a bolt of lightning struck him.

His teammates dove to the ground, then rushed to the mound. They found Caldwell flat on his back, unconscious, arms spread wide. His chest was smoldering, or so his teammates testified.

They thought he was dead.

But Caldwell began to groan. He struggled to his knees, then to his feet. Player-manager Tris Speaker told him they would rush him to the hospital. But Caldwell would have none of that.

“I have one more out to get,” he said.

Speaker objected, but Caldwell’s rejoinder came in high and tight.

“Give me the danged ball,” he said, “and turn me toward the plate.”

Reluctantly, Speaker acquiesced and went back to center field. A’s shortstop Joe Dugan stepped into the batter’s box. Caldwell threw one more pitch, Dugan slapped a hard grounder to third, and Willie Gardner knocked it down and threw to first, just in time, for the final out.

Indians 2, A’s 1.

If that sounds more like legend than fact, be advised that the reporters who covered the game swore it was true. In the press box they, too, had felt the jolt. The Cleveland Press reported that the lightning strike knocked off Steve O’Neill’s catcher’s mask. Umpire Billy Evans said he could feel a shock. Shortstop Ray Chapman said that when he had tried to run to Caldwell’s side, he nearly fell over from the numbness in his legs.

As for Caldwell, this is what he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Felt like somebody came up with a board and hit me on the top of the head.”

That August day was Caldwell’s first game pitching for the Indians. He had good reason to want to impress his new teammates: This was his last chance in the big leagues.

His life leading up to that moment had had its share of thunder and lightning, too, if only in the metaphorical sense.

Caldwell was born in Pennsylvania, near the New York line, and grew up in Salamanca. He took up telegraphy, like his stepfather, and played baseball — throwing right, hitting left. He was 6-2, 190 pounds, and his nickname was “Slim.”

He broke into the big leagues in 1910 with the New York Highlanders, later to be known as the Yankees. He was their starting pitcher, 110 years ago today, in the first game ever played at Fenway Park. (He lasted 3⅓ innings and the Boston Red Sox won, 7-6, on Speaker’s RBI single in the 11th inning.)

By 1914, when Caldwell went 18-9, with a 1.94 earned run average, no less a writer than Grantland Rice suggested that he could well be the next Walter Johnson. Alas, that was not to be. Caldwell had — as the sportswriters of that era gently phrased it — “irregular habits.” Sporting Life said he had “occasional flirtation with that which is amber and foamy.” The Sporting News called him “one of those fellows who cannot say, ‘No.’ ”

Sometimes Caldwell would disappear for a day or two after a night on the town. Yankees manager Frank Chance called it “Broadway training” and fined him $300 three times in 1914. Caldwell was unhappy with that, so he signed with the Buffalo team of the Federal League — known variously as the Buffeds and the Buffalo Blues — in September 1914. He got a $2,500 advance but never showed up.

Caldwell returned to the Yankees in 1915. By then they had a new owner, Jacob Ruppert. (Sporting Life columnist James Isaminger wondered if Caldwell had come back because Ruppert made his money in the beer business.) The Yankees sent $2,500 of Caldwell’s salary back to the Buffeds. And Caldwell told reporters he “had taken a liking” to Bill Donovan, his new manager. (It wouldn’t last.)

Caldwell rewarded the Yanks with a breakout early season, tossing a two-hitter to beat Johnson, Washington’s ace, in April, and then hitting home runs on three consecutive days in June — once as a pitcher, twice as a pinch hitter. (The Slugger of Salamanca was that rare pitcher who could hit well enough to be a pinch hitter and run well enough to be a pinch runner.) But his run support lacked — the Yanks scored just one run for him in a five-game stretch — and he finished that season 19-16 with a 2.69 ERA.

He started well again in 1916, but by late July he was once more going AWOL. Donovan tried fines and suspensions. Then Caldwell disappeared entirely. He, or someone who looked like him, pitched in Panama that winter. Caldwell denied it, but the papers took to calling him the Pearl of Panama.

He entered 1917 in the last year of his Yankees contract. In June, against the Athletics, Caldwell won both games of a doubleheader. He was lifted with a 9-0 lead after six innings of the first game, then pitched a complete game in the nightcap, which the Yankees won, 2-1. But the rest of that season followed the pattern of so many others: Caldwell would play hard on the field, then play hard off of it. He got suspended again in July. And, in August, his wife sued for support for their 7-year-old son.

Miller Huggins came aboard as Yankees manager for the 1918 season. He signed Caldwell to a one-year deal, and the pitcher told the Washington Post that he would win 30 games that season. He actually won nine. Huggins assigned two private detectives to tail Caldwell, but he often eluded them. Huggins traded him to the Red Sox after the season.

Boston, in 1919, assigned him to room on the road with Babe Ruth. (This was unwise — though not as unwise as selling Ruth to the Yankees the following January.) By early July, the Red Sox released Caldwell. It looked like his big-league career was done. But the Indians were in a fight with the Chicago White Sox for the pennant, and they needed another arm. Speaker signed Caldwell on Aug. 19. Five days later, he would pitch his first game for the Indians — and get struck by lightning.

The author Franklin Lewis, in his team history of the Cleveland Indians, lays out the contract that Speaker offered to Caldwell. It said that he was to get drunk after games in which he pitched, and that he was not to report to the team the next day. Then, in the days before his next start, he was to run laps and pitch batting practice. The book offers this exchange:

Caldwell: “You left out one word, Tris. Where it says I’ve got to get drunk after every game, the word not has been left out.”

Speaker: “No, it says you are to get drunk.”

Caldwell: “Okay. I’ll sign.”

He pitched six games for the Indians in the remainder of that season — and won five. Evans, the umpire in the lightning game, wrote a column for the Detroit News after the season that said, “There was nothing more remarkable in the 1919 campaign than the remarkable Ray Caldwell.”

He was known for his good fastball and even better curveball, and that season he added the spitball. That pitch was banned starting in 1920, but he was one of 17 pitchers who were grandfathered in and could continue to throw it legally. Caldwell won 20 games in 1920, and Fred Lieb of the New York Evening Telegram called him “one of the marvels of the age. … He has his old smoke and his famous hop on the ball.”

The Indians won the American League pennant, but suffered a tragedy along the way. In August, Ray Chapman — the shortstop who had felt numbness in his legs after the lightning strike — got hit in the head by a pitched ball in a game against the Yankees. He died 12 hours later.

The Indians dedicated the 1920 World Series to Chapman. And Caldwell got the start in Game Three, with the series against the Brooklyn Robins tied at one. He lasted one-third of an inning and took the loss. But the Indians won the last four games to win the Series, five games to two.

Speaker moved Caldwell to the bullpen in 1921 and at one point suspended him for violating “rules of discipline.” Even with a contract that allowed for nights out, Caldwell could not stay out of trouble. He went 6-6 in 1921, his 12th season in the major leagues — and never played in them again.

But he was a fellow who could not say no: He played 12 more seasons in the minor leagues. All told, he pitched more than 2,200 innings in the majors, with 133 wins, and more than 2,200 innings in the minors, with 159 wins. And then he settled back in Western New York. He had a farm in Frewsburg and worked as a telegrapher for the railroad in Jamestown. He married for a fourth time, and at one point he and his wife, Estelle, worked at the Lakewood Rod and Gun Club. She cooked; he, of course, tended bar.

Caldwell is a member of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. His talent might have taken him to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, too, but for his irregular habits.

“Caldwell is a boy who really likes to play baseball,” wrote Walter Trumbull in the New York World in 1915. “When he is in condition, he is a great pitcher — one of the greatest in the game. … Certain men, such as Ty Cobb and John McGraw, cannot bear to lose. If it is only pitching pennies at a crack, they put their whole heart into it. If the soul of Caldwell ever burns with this flame; if he ever acquires the fierce ambition to be better than the best, he will make a name for himself that will last as long as the game endures.”

His name does not endure even here in Western New York, the place he called home. But for one day, at least, maybe we can change that.

Let’s raise a glass — something amber and foamy — to Ray Caldwell, the patron saint of complete games.

Maybe his soul didn’t burn with ambition, but danged if there wasn’t that one day when his chest did.

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Erik Brady has more than 50 years in newspapers as a paperboy for The Buffalo Evening News, a sports columnist for The Courier-Express and sports reporter for USA Today, where he retired as the last member of the national newspaper’s founding generation.

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