As the White Sox celebrate Spirit Day at the ballpark today, it’s also been noted that today is the 126th birthday of Sox Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk.
Schalk is not well known to most White Sox fans. He died in 1970. His number is not retired by the team. With a .253 batting average, he has the lowest career average of any position player who currently sits in the Hall of Fame (Schalk was elected in 1955).
Yet in one of the darkest moments for not only the White Sox franchise but baseball in general, Schalk stood tall.
In 1919, the Chicago White Sox were heavy favorites to defeat the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. However, the events surrounding that World Series have made it one of the most infamous in baseball history.
Several of the White Sox players conspired with gamblers to lose the World Series. While the reasons for this have long been debated – ranging from players feeling underappreciated and underpaid to simply being greedy – there is no doubt that the events occurred. In the falling out, then commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis banned eight White Sox players for life.
In 1963, Eliot Asinof wrote a book about the scandal entitled, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series. 25 years later, Hollywood called and decided to make a movie about the subject. Thus, Eight Men Out was released on Sept. 2, 1988.
During the film’s exposition, we as viewers are introduced to two of the characters responsible for helping to set up the fix among White Sox players – “Sleepy” Bill Burns and Billy Maharg. As the two men talk about which players would be most likely to go along with the scheme, various players are named along with an explanation of why they would or wouldn’t be willing to go along with it. However, when Maharg brings up Ray Schalk’s name, all “Sleepy” Bill Burns has to say is, “Not a prayer”.
By all historical accounts, Schalk played to win the 1919 World Series. Some might argue that it played a role in him getting into the Hall of Fame, as voters may have felt that he deserved extra credit for staying true to being a team player while many around him sought to do otherwise.
Yet even if you were to dismiss the 1919 World Series, Schalk’s production was arguably good enough to warrant a spot in Cooperstown.
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Based on an article written by Brian Stevens of the renowned Society for American Baseball Research, Schalk’s Wikipedia page summarizes that, “He revolutionized the way the catching position was played by using his speed and agility to expand the previously accepted defensive capabilities for his position.” Notably, “In 1916 [sic] Schalk established the single-season stolen-base record for catchers with 30, a mark not broken until 1982, when John Wathan swiped 36 bags”.
Though playing in the Dead Ball Era probably contributed some to his success stealing bases, holding a record for 66 years is generally a sign of some pretty unique talent – especially since catchers are generally thought to not be very quick.
Today, you won’t hear much about Ray Schalk. He lived a relatively quiet life after retirement, never seeking special attention. He’s buried in the suburbs of Chicago – but unlike several legends – fans don’t flock to his gravestone, even when the Sox are playing well. However, in a moment where it can be said many betrayed the sport of baseball, Ray Schalk stood tall. On his 126th birthday, he deserves a little extra recognition for that.