In this regular feature, we will help you acquaint yourself with some of the finest practitioners of the most thankless task in baseball to ever don the “tools of ignorance” for our beloved Chicago Baseball teams. This week we feature Ray Schalk.
When the White Sox assembled their team during the era of World War I that would win two pennants before committing a crime against baseball that eventually spawned a movie that made people think John Cusack could play baseball, their catcher was one Raymond William Schalk of Harvel Illinois, a town in the middle of the state that even now has a population of just over 200.
Schalk grew up as most kids did at the turn of the century, going to school and picking up some scratch as a newsboy in Litchfield, another small town (although compared to Harvel it was probably the big city) that’s basically equidistant between St. Louis and Springfield.
Young Ray left high school after a couple years to go learn the printer’s trade on the East Coast. He returned a couple years later to learn there really weren’t any good gigs in his chosen profession.
So he turned to baseball, playing for a local semi-pro team before turning pro at age 18, in nearby Taylorville, which had a team in D ball. In 64 games there, he hit .387 and slugged .599. Word spread of the young catcher, and he was soon a member of the Milwaukee Brewers in the old American Association. He finished the season in Milwaukee, hitting .237 in 31 games.
The following year, 1912, the 19 year old Schalk started the year in Milwaukee hitting .271 in 80 games before being purchased by the White Sox.
Once he hit the majors, he was there to stay. Despite his youth, he was known as a fiery player with a surly disposition.
Schalk was small for a catcher, even back then. His official height and weight is listed as 5’9, 165, but that’s probably a little charitable. In fact. the Sox were concerned that his lack of size might be an issue with catching spitters, which were still legal at that time.
But he had a reputation for not only being a fiery player during games, but a hard worker as well. He’d work for hours before games with White Sox coach (and later manager) Kid Gleason on perfecting his craft. He also quickly gained a reputation as an excellent handler of pitchers, and the White Sox were building a staff of stars.
His first full season with the White Sox, he hit 244/297/314, and in statistics unheard of for the day he had a 1.3 WAR, good for second among AL catchers. He also finished 20th in MVP voting. the following year, 1914, he slashed 270/347/314 and finished 6th in MVP voting.
While his hitting statistics were unimpressive, even for the dead ball era, he was always among the leaders, if not the leader, in fielding percentage, putouts, and caught stealing percentage among big league catchers.
He was also innovative as a catcher, being one of the first to back up plays at first and third base. In fact, he’s still the only major league catcher to have recorded a putout at every base during his career.
In 1917, the White Sox won the pennant, and caught all six games of the World Series, hitting .263 helping the Sox win the World Series.
The 1918 team was hampered by star player Shoeless Joe Jackson’s being called for induction into the Army, but instead he went to work at a shipyard in Delaware. The Sox finished as Boston won the pennant and World Series, beating the Cubs behind their young star pitcher Babe Ruth.
With the White Sox roster fully intact for the 1919 season, they won another pennant, beating Cleveland by 3 1/2 games. Of course, this was the infamous “Black Sox” World Series. Schalk was one of the only honest White Sox players, hitting .304. But he suspected foul play when pitchers Eddie Ciccotte and Lefty Williams were not throwing the pitches he was calling for.
The scandal meant that the Sox’ two best pitchers, Ciccotte and Williams, their best hitter, Jackson, and starting third baseman – Buck Weaver – were all banished for life. But not before the 2020 season saw the Sox finish second behind Tris Speaker’s Cleveland Indians in what would be the seven accused players’ final season.
The 1921 team, bereft of their star players, finished 30 games under .500. Schalk kept plugging away, catching 128 games and hitting .252.
1922 was Schalk’s best year, hitting 281/379/371 and finishing 3rd in MVP voting. He was well known for being an iron man behind the plate, catching fewer than 100 games once – 1924 – between 1913 and 1925.
In 1925, as part of the celebration for the opening of Tribune Tower, Schalk caught a ball that was thrown from the top of the tower.
For the 1927 season, he was player-manager of the Sox, but the “player” part was more of a technicality, as he only appeared in 16 games. Differences between him and Charles Comiskey led to him resigning in mid-1928, and he joined the Giants for the 1929 season as a coach, and played his final 5 games.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1955, after getting a boost from Warren Brown’s book The Chicago White Sox, where Brown heaped praise upon Schalk. Brown was also a member of the committee that voted to induct Schalk.
His career .253 batting average is the lowest among position players in Cooperstown.