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Who was Ray Schalk?

"'I think he was a ballplayer. From somewhere around here,'" said one softball player to a visitor at Ray Schalk Field in Harvel, Illinois, in May 2007, as chronicled by baseball historian Brian E. Cooper in Ray Schalk: A Baseball Biography.

ray_schalk
August 2009; McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
Schalk, a Harvel native, redefined the role of a catcher through superior defensive skills in a career that spanned the Dead Ball and Lively Ball eras. His journey on the base paths in Major League Baseball began one day before his 20th birthday and ended after 18 seasons with records in games caught, putouts and double plays, while leading the American League eight times in fielding percentage and nine times in putouts. He was the first to catch four no-hit contests and set a record for stolen bases in a season by a catcher (30) in 1916 that was not broken until 1982.

In the first book-length biography of Schalk, Cooper weaves through the stunning career as a player, manager and coach, with historical antidotes and a wealth of photographs to present a complete picture of his life and times. Schalk could have easily carried "The Natural" as a nickname; his first big break occurred at the age of 15 in 1908, when he was a last minute replacement at catcher for a semi-pro club in Litchfield, Illinois. He had no errors and tallied several assists, while scoring a pair of runs and notching two hits in three at-bats.

A high school standout in basketball, Schalk remained a semi-pro baseball star who could be signed for around $2 a game. He entered the pro game at age 18 on May 9, 1911, with the Class D Taylorville Christians in the Illinois-Missouri League. Schalk was batting .398 and had swiped 13 bases by mid-July, but the league was in financial turmoil and Taylorville -- to cut costs -- released Schalk for $1,500 to the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association.

His play with the Brewers drew interest from MLB teams and on August 9, 1912, he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox for $10,000 and two players. Schalk was in the starting lineup two days later. "Until he entered Cooperstown, Schalk classified the afternoon of his first major-league game as his greatest thrill in baseball," Cooper writes.

Schalk then literally grew up in public. Diminutive in stature for a catcher at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, he was often mistaken for a bat-boy in his early years with the ChiSox. He married Lavinia Graham in October 1916, with a daughter -- Pauline -- born in 1918 and a son -- Ray Jr. -- born in 1921.

As World War One gripped the nation, Schalk was a key player -- batting .286 -- in Chicago's American League pennant and World Series victory in 1917. Bright skies were on the horizon for a possible dynasty in the making, but a tsunami of deceit wiped things out in 1919.

"Then there was the Black Sox scandal. Schalk had a unique perspective on the World Series of 1919, when teammates conspired with gamblers and intentionally lost to the Cincinnati Reds," Cooper writes. "Schalk was the first of the honest players - the so-called Clean Sox - to know something was up; after all, he could tell immediately when his pitchers ignored his signals and when they grooved the ball to Reds hitters."

Any lingering anger and frustration stayed inside the heart of the honest star. Cooper cites club owner Charles A. Comiskey trying to prevent the club from being dismantled, while maintaining his iconic reputation in the game, and what happened to Buck Weaver -- receiving a lifetime suspension because he did not report the meetings he attended with his Black Sox teammates -- as major reasons why Schalk maintained his own code of silence.

"Even after the cover-up failed and Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven others received lifetime suspensions, Schalk maintained his silence," Cooper writes. "That to his dying day (Schalk) refused to tell what he knew about the scandal not only frustrated fans and researchers, it diluted his prominence in baseball history."

By 1924, lingering injuries made Schalk a battered veteran at age 32. A 1927 photograph of his gnarled right hand truly tells the story of a player who dons the armor of a catcher. A player-manager for Chicago in 1927 and 1928, he was a coach and player (five games) in 1929 for the New York Giants. Schalk only appeared in 23 games from 1927-1929 and retired with 1,727 regular season defensive appearances out of 1,762 games played.

He stayed in the game as a coach for the Chicago Cubs and manager for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, Indianapolis Indians of the American Association and -- going full-circle on the diamond -- for the Brewers for the last half of the 1940 season before calling it a career at the age of 48.  In 1955, Schalk gained enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum through a vote by the Veteran's Committee. His .253 career batting average is the lowest for an inductee who was a position player.

Schalk's health was declining precipitously by 1969 and the family suffered a tragic loss when Ray Jr. committed suicide in February 1970. On May 19 of that year, Schalk, 77, died of complications caused by cancer of the esophagus.

"He was usually the shortest man on the field, but Schalk was the yardstick against whom other catchers were measured," Cooper writes.

AHP Rating: 4 Balls

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