|Sewell was a Real Fox at the Plate|
By L. Robert Davids
There is some irony in the fact that baseball record keepers have been compiling annual leaders of most strikeouts by a batter. This is a negative category; yet, for years these tabulations have been carried right along with the annual leaders in home runs, batting, etc.
A much more positive and meaningful listing would be the season leader with fewest strikeouts per at bat. In other words, a batter with 15 strikeouts in 600 at bat would get recognition over someone who fanned 12 times in 400 at bats because his percentage would be better.
What is the significance of a batter who whiffs say, 20 times a season rather than 100? The player who fans 100 times is making no contribution, he is freezing the action on each of those occasions. The player who fans 80 fewer times is keeping the ball in play. Even by making an infield out he could be advancing runners, possibly even scoring a run.
A review of the batters with fewest strikeouts over the last 65 years indicates that the totals went up and down by era. There was a fair amount of whiffing in the teens, but with the introduction of the lively ball in 1920, there was a general reduction which lasted until about World War II. In the late 1940s and 1950s the totals were up a little, and in the 1960s and even in the present period, the strikeouts per at bat are higher than ever before.
In spite of these ups and downs, there were two players who stood out in their respective eras. They were Joe Sewell in the period 1920-33, when there were fewest strikeouts, and Nellie Fox, 1947-65, who played in an era of increasing numbers. Fox led his league 11 times while Sewell held the title 9 times. While Sewell's yearly totals were about one/half those of Fox, the two were nearly comparable for their eras.
These two players clearly dominated in their particular specialty. Some say Willie Keeler would be in the same category, but strikeout records for batters really were not kept during most of his career. Consequently, there is no sound basis for a statistical comparison. In spite of published reports that in the 1890s Keeler once went a full season with the Orioles without striking out, recent research has proven that inaccurate. Even with incomplete data, at least 2 strikeouts have been found for each of those seasons.
The recent illness and death of Nellie Fox prevented an interview with him on the subject of his few strikeouts. However, contact was made with Joe Sewell at his home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, after a detailed analysis was made of each of Sewell's strikeouts. First the date of each whiff was copied from the game record and then the opposing pitcher was singled out from the play-by-play account. This was done primarily to find out which pitcher fanned Sewell the most times, but the close scrutiny resulted in two other discoveries.
While the official record says Sewell fanned 114 times in his career, one of those strikeouts should have been credited to another Cleveland player. Two independent play-by-play accounts of the June 29, 1923 game between the Indians and the White Sox indicate it was Lutzke, not Sewell, who fanned. Hence, the career total is 113.
Furthermore, by checking the dates of each strikeout, we find that in 1929 Sewell was fanned by George Blaeholder of the Browns on May 17 (third inning), and was not victimized again until Danny MacFayden of the Red Sox set him down in the sixth inning on September 20. In the interim he played in 115 games and went to bat 442 times without whiffing. Heretofore, Fox has been credited with going a record 98 consecutive games without striking out.
On the pitcher analysis, we find that Sewell, who batted left handed, was fanned by southpaws 44 times and righthanders 69 times. On two occasions he was fanned twice in the same game. The first time was on May 13, 1923, when Wally Warmoth, a rookie southpaw of the Senators, set him down both times. The next time was May 26, 1930, and Lefty Pat Caraway of the White Sox did it twice that time.
By that time Sewell was notorious for being tough to strike out, and Caraway's feat received some notice. Joe recalls that it was the white shirts in the centerfield bleachers that threw him off. Anyway, he fanned only three times in 1930, and two of them came in the same game. Joe was so irked he went the rest of the season, from May 26 on, without fanning.
Playing for the Yankees the next season, Sewell recalls that in one game he was again batting against George Blaeholder, who was supposed to have invented the slider.
"Bill McGowan was the umpire and the count was 3 and 2. The next pitch was a fast ball right even with my cap bill. McGowan hollered "Strike three - Oh my God I missed it." All this in one breath. I looked at him but did not say a word. The next day he came over before the game and apologized for missing the third strike in the previous game. He was a good umpire, very capable, and I never held it against him."
In his 14 years of play, Sewell was never fanned by any pitcher more than 4 times. Nine different pitchers accomplished that. They included the aforementioned Blaeholder, Bob Shawkey, Walter Johnson, Urban Shocker, Waite Hoyt, and Earl Whitehill, all long-service hurlers, and three short-time lefties, Bill Bayne, Mike Cvengros, and Ed Wells. Yet, Sewell says it was none of these who gave him the most trouble. "The hardest pitcher for me was Hubert `Dutch' Leonard of Detroit. He was a lefthand spitball pitcher, and he was mean with it."
"I had real good luck against both Lefty Grove (who fanned him only one time) and Walter Johnson. I am almost certain I had better than a .300 average against both of them. I got 5 for S one day off of Lefty Grove, the last one a home run in Yankee Stadium."
Unlike Keeler or Fox, Sewell did not really choke up on the bat. At 5-6½ and weighing only 155 pounds, he was smaller than Fox, but hit more homers and doubles. He usually swung away, and therefore his record for fewest strikeouts is all the more remarkable. He didn't start off particularly well, fanning 17 times in 1921 and 20 in 1922. By 1925 he was down to 4 strikeouts and he never got into double figures again. He had the five best season marks in recorded history, 3, 3, 4, 4, and 4. Those five seasons are balanced on the other end of the strikeout spectrum by free swingers of another era – Bobby Bonds, 189 and 187, Mike Schmidt, 180, Dave Nicholson, 175, and Reggie Jackson, 171.
There follows a list by year of the players with the fewest strikeouts on a frequency basis with a minimum of 350 at bats for the 154-game schedule, and 400 at bats for 162 games.
Career Summary of Batters Most Difficult to Fan
*Career data not complete