White Sox Hall of Fame catcher Schalk rates a second look
I first became aware of Ray Schalk when I read his obituary.
In those days, when I would scan the sports pages for news about Leo Durocher's Cubs and Don Gutteridge's White Sox, I was learning about the Black Sox, so Schalk's life story fed into my budding curiosity about the scandal.
I would ultimately learn the Sox catcher not only didn't take part in the fix, but even alerted Sox manager Kid Gleason that something was fishy about the pitching of Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams.
Schalk's name popped up again. Monday was the 100th anniversary of the day Schalk became the first Sox player to hit for the cycle, in a game against the Tigers.
He would be the only Sox player to accomplish the feat until Sept. 24, 1977, when Jack Brohamer did it against Seattle.
It is kind of ironic that Schalk's name would resurface in connection with an offensive feat considering the Hall of Famer made his mark for his outstanding defensive skills.
And yet his .253 lifetime batting average that has some calling his Hall of Fame credentials into question.
Brian Cooper, author of "Ray Schalk: A Baseball Biography," published by McFarland & Co. Inc., said those critics are missing the point.
Speaking by phone, Cooper said Schalk was valued for "his defense, his command of the field, his sense of the game. That was what made him a Hall of Famer."
In a career that lasted from 1912 to 1929, Schalk was an iron man behind the plate, rarely missing a game. In 1920, he played in 151 games, and in 1922, the year he hit for the cycle, he made 142 appearances. During the period from 1912 to 1926, he caught 1,737 games.
The work took a toll on his body. Referring to his gnarled fingers, he once said, "I guess I caught more spitball pitchers than any other catcher who ever lived. Guys like (Red) Faber and Big Ed Walsh gave me these fingers."
But Schalk, who was known as "Cracker" for cracking the whip over his pitching staff, was an expert handler of pitchers, including the staff of the 1917 World Series champions.
Cooper said Schalk was an innovator at his position, being one of the first catchers to follow the trail of the batter running to first on a ground ball, so he could back up any wild throws.
Sometimes, on a ball hit into the outfield, the Sox first baseman would purposely stray from his position. The runner, provoked into taking a too-wide turn, would then return to first base only to find Schalk, who had received the ball from the outfielder, standing there to tag him out.
One time, Cooper said, Schalk even made a putout at second base.
If Schalk carried a light stick, he did possess one potent offensive weapon -- his legs. During his career, he stole 177 bases, including 30 in 1916, which stood as a record among catchers until Kansas City's John Wathan broke it in 1982.
One of Schalk's best offensive years was 1922 when he batted .281, stroked 22 doubles, and drove in 60 runs.
By that time, the Sox were wallowing in their post-1919 decline. As the Sox plummeted in the standings, Schalk grabbed headlines with a feat on May 11, 1925 that typified the era of wonderful nonsense that was the 1920s.
Donning a catcher's mitt while wearing a hat and suit, he stood within view of thousands of noonday spectators in the middle of Michigan Avenue beneath the new Tribune Tower as George Kersten, one of the workmen on the Tower, dropped a baseball from a scaffold suspended 460 feet above for Schalk to catch.
It took three tries before the catcher snagged the missile, descending at a speed estimated at two miles per minute.
In 1927, Schalk was given a chance to manage the White Sox. After piloting the Sox to a 70-83 finish and after the team began 1928 with a 32-42 record, Schalk resigned, and Lena Blackburne took over.
Schalk became a coach with the New York Giants in 1929, and played in five games.
In 1930 and 1931, he joined the Cubs coaching staff, before continuing in baseball as a minor league manager.
In 1947, Schalk, who owned a bowling alley in Evergreen Park at the time, was hired as a part-time assistant coach at Purdue University.
In 1955, he and another Chicago catching great -- Gabby Hartnett of the Cubs -- were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Schalk maintained a wall of silence about the Black Sox. Making a rare comment, he once said, that if Faber, who was ailing, was able to play, "(W)e still would have beaten the Reds despite the gamblers."
In 1959, he took his familiar spot behind the plate at Comiskey Park, as former battery mate Faber threw him the ceremonial first pitch prior to the first World Series game in Comiskey Park since 1919.
Of Faber, who won three games in the 1917 World Series with Schalk as his catcher, he said, "They talk about Carl Hubbell, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and the rest of the great ones, but for my money, if I wanted a pitcher to win one game, it would be Faber."