What happened in the seconds before the homerun became the stuff of legends? Did the batter point to centerfield? Did Babe Ruth “call the shot?” Some said he did, others called it a rude gesture. One of the closest witnesses was his Yankee teammate, Joe Sewell, who grounded out moments before. In the following decades, Sewell maintained that Ruth had indeed “called his shot.”
Elmore County native Joe Sewell came to the University of Alabama in 1916 to prepare for medical school and a place in his father’s practice. However, he excelled at sports, lettering for three years in baseball and football. He graduated in 1920 and signed with the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Cleveland Indians called up Sewell a few months later to replace Ray Chapman who was killed by a pitch. He was the only player ever fatally injured in a major league game.
Sewell batted .329 in his brief rookie season and helped the Indians win the 1920 World Series. During the next decade, Sewell forged a Hall of Fame career. He played in 1,103 consecutive games, the seventh longest streak in baseball history. His batting peaked in 1923 with a .353 average and a .456 on-base percentage. In 1925 and 1929 he struck out only four times.
The Indians released Sewell in late 1930, but he quickly joined the Yankees to play third base. During three seasons, he batted .282 with a .366 on-base percentage. He helped the Yankees reach, and win, the 1932 World Series by only striking out 3 times, or once every 167 at-bats. In Sewell’s 14-year career, he struck out 114 times in 7132 at-bats, or once every 63 at-bats. Both are Major League records that some experts consider among the most unbreakable milestones in sports. While with the Yankees, Sewell and Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig were roommates for road games.
Sewell retired from play at age 35 in 1933 and began another phase of his long, productive life. For two years, he coached with the Yankees and then scouted for the Indians, Yankees, and Mets. He also served as the spokesman for a dairy products company. At the request of Paul “Bear” Bryant, Sewell became coach of the University of Alabama baseball team and served from 1964 until 1969. His 1968 team won the Southeastern Conference championship. He was noted for his generosity, compassion, and love of sharing the lore of baseball.
Joe Sewell lived many of his later years in Tuscaloosa. He died in 1990 at age 91 and is buried beside Willie, his wife of 61 years, in Tuscaloosa Memorial Park.