By various measures, Joe Sewell might rank as the hardest player to strike out in baseball history. The Hall of Famer fanned just 114 times in 8,333 plate appearances lifetime, famous for going full seasons with four or six strikeouts. Lefty Grove, who never struck Sewell out in 96 at-bats, per Retrosheet, called him the toughest batter he ever faced.
I got to wondering recently if Sewell went his entire career without striking out twice in a game. I checked game logs on Baseball-Reference.com, and it’s close: Sewell struck out twice on May 13, 1923 and again on May 26, 1930. Sewell being Sewell, he didn’t strike out the rest of the 1930 season after May 26, finishing the year with three strikeouts in 414 plate appearances.
At the time of the 1930 game, Sewell was getting over a recent end due to illness to an 1,103-game consecutive games streak, second-best in baseball history at the time after Everett Scott according to Sewell’s SABR biography. Interviewed in the 1970s by Society for American Baseball Research founder L. Robert Davids, Sewell said also he was thrown off in the 1930 game by white shirts in the center field bleachers.
One of Sewell’s secrets as a hitter, after all, was his ability to keep his eye on the ball. He also favored contact over power, with just 49 homers lifetime, and he kept a comfortable stance that allowed him to adjust to any pitch.
“I followed the ball all the way,” Sewell said in 1960, while hitting coach of the Cleveland Indians, where he played most of his career. “I could even see it hit the bat. Anyone can– if he concentrates on picking up the ball and not watching the pitcher’s motion.”
That might be a good lesson for today’s hitters. With major leaguers striking out a record 37,441 times in 2014, Sewell’s career strikeout rate looks untouchable. Since 1950, just five players according to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index tool have struck out under 500 times with at least 8,000 plate appearances: Nellie Fox, Jim Gilliam, Bill Buckner, Tony Gwynn and Juan Pierre.
Sewell, who died in 1990, would likely be aghast at today’s strikeout rates. “There’s no excuse for a major league player striking out 100 times a season,” he said in 1960. “Unless, of course, he’s blind.”