SABR

Bill Sherdel

This article was written by Gregory H. Wolf.

Bill “Wee Willie” Sherdel was a durable, rubber-armed starter and reliever who frustrated batters with a mesmerizing slowball during his 15-year big-league career from 1918 through 1932, most notably with the St. Louis Cardinals. Described by a contemporary as “one of the great left-handers” in baseball, Sherdel’s career is defined by a seven-year stretch (1922-1928) when he notched 109 victories and won the pennant-clinching games for the Cardinals in 1926 and 1928.1 A tough-luck pitcher in the World Series, he lost all four of his starts against the New York Yankees despite pitching well (3.26 ERA). As of 2014, Sherdel still held the Cardinals’ record for most victories by a southpaw (153).

William Henry Sherdel was born on August 15, 1896, in McSherrystown, a small town in south-central Pennsylvania close to the border with Maryland.2 His parents, William and Margaret (Stetzer) Sherdel, had emigrated from Germany in the 1880s, met in New York state, and by the mid-1890s had settled in McSherrystown, where William worked as a blacksmith. Young Bill was the second of four children (two boys and two girls). His passion was baseball. “All I did in school,” he said, “was look at [my] watch and count the minutes until … I could play baseball.”3 On local sandlots, the small, scrawny left-hander started off as a catcher and batterymate for his older brother, Frederick. By the time he was a teenager, Bill had a reputation as a hard-throwing pitcher at Hanover High School and in semipro circles.

Known in local papers as the Kid for his exploits on the diamond, Sherdel entered the preparatory department at Gettysburg College in the fall of 1914, but his forte was never academics.4 In fact, he had been dismissed from high school when he and several other teenagers placed a calf in a teacher’s office. But Bill enjoyed a stroke of luck and some good timing when the Class D Blue Ridge League was formed in 1915. Sherdel signed with Billy Starr, manager of the Hanover (Maryland) Hornets, and set the league on fire in his first year of professional baseball. In a short (77-game) season, the 18-year-old posted a 15-3 record and batted .368. Praised as the “marvel of the Blue Ridge league,” Sherdel notched 14 wins against 9 defeats the following season for Hanover (which had changed its name to the Raiders) before Billy Doyle, a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers of the American Association, secured his purchase and transfer in late August.5 Sherdel won just two of seven decisions for the Brewers, but both victories were shutouts.6

Throughout his baseball career, Sherdel fought against the claim that he was too small to make it. Often listed generously at 5-feet-10 and 160 pounds, Sherdel reported his height at 5-feet-8 on a military draft card and was described in contemporary papers as weighing less than 150 pounds.7 Known as a fastball pitcher with Hanover (he once struck out 15 batters in a game), Sherdel recognized that he could not overpower seasoned veterans of the American Association with his heater. Consequently, he began to develop a “slowball” (change-ups and slow curves) after his sale to the Brewers.8

Sherdel got off to a rough start his first full season with the Brewers, in 1917. He was mired in a personal ten-game losing streak while learning to perfect his slowball, and it appeared as if Sherdel would be sold to the Class A Little Rock Travelers had fate not intervened. According to a widely circulated report, St. Louis Cardinals president Branch Rickey was in Milwaukee scouting right-handed pitching prospect Marv Goodwin when he spotted Sherdel.9 Rickey later dispatched scout Pop Kelchner, who signed Sherdel in July.10 The 20-year-old lefty concluded the season on a hot streak, winning 11 straight decisions at one point to finish with a team-high 19 victories (16 losses) in 262 innings.

In 1918 Sherdel reported to St. Antonio, Texas, for his first big-league spring training with the Cardinals, a historically poor team but fresh off just their second winning campaign in the previous 16 seasons. In his debut on April 22 at Robison Field in St. Louis, Sherdel pitched a scoreless inning of relief, surrendering two hits in an eventual 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Six days later he tossed a complete game to earn his first victory by holding the Cincinnati Reds to one run in a weather-shortened eight-inning contest. The season was played with the constant threat of war, which had been formally declared in April. Following General Enoch Crowder’s “work or flight” decree in June, players registered en masse for the war effort. Sherdel reported to his draft board for a physical in July;11 he subsequently returned to the team but sported a dismal 2-10 record at the end of the month as a part-time starter and reliever. In August, the final month of the season, Sherdel demonstrated his potential by completing five of six starts (including his first of 11 career shutouts) and carving out a stellar 1.00 ERA in 54 innings. Sherdel’s 6-12 record was bolstered by his team-high 35 appearances and 2.71 ERA in 182⅓ innings.

The Cardinals were at the onset of transformative changes when Sherdel joined the club. Branch Rickey took over as skipper in 1919; minority owner Sam Breaden acquired the majority stake in the club in 1920; and on July 1 of that year the team played its first game in Sportsman’s Park (which was owned by the St. Louis Browns).

Under Rickey’s guidance, the Cardinals improved their record each season from 1919 to 1921, finishing in seventh, fifth, and a surprising third place. Sherdel established his reputation as a dependable spot starter and long reliever who was capable of warming up at an instant’s notice. As the team’s primary’s left-hander in the bullpen, Sherdel ranked second on the staff in appearances each season, averaging 39 games (including nine starts) and 151 innings during that stretch. He also exhibited flashes of stardom, including a 12-inning complete-game victory over the Philadelphia Phillies in 1920 and a four-hit shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1921.

Sherdel enjoyed a breakout season in 1922. After an excellent spring training in Orange, Texas, he was named Opening Day starter. He responded by tossing a complete game to defeat the Pirates at Sportsman’s Park, 10-1. “Sherdel has come into his own as a pitcher,” wrote John B. Foster of the Syracuse Herald.12 Sherdel ran his record to 6-0 on May 17 when he blanked the Brooklyn Robins on seven hits. He also rapped a career-high three hits (achieved nine times) and knocked in three runs for the first of four times. (For his career, Sherdel batted .233 in 960 at-bats and belted nine home runs.) Newspapers began to refer to Sherdel affectionately as Wee Willie or the ubiquitous Lefty; teammates often called him Sherry.

Sherdel had the uncanny ability to bend but not break. For example, on July 16, 1922, he beat the eventual World Series champion New York Giants 1-0, despite yielding ten hits. He surrendered 11.1 hits per nine innings (tied for sixth highest in the league) for the season, but posted a respectable 3.87 ERA, lower than the NL average of 4.10. In a slugfest on August 4, Sherdel tossed a complete game to defeat the Phillies, 9-7, to give St. Louis a half-game lead in a tight pennant race. The victory also marked the first time in the 20th century that the Cardinals were in first place that late in the season. But the Redbirds struggled in the last two months of the campaign (23-28) to finish in third place again. One of the big surprises in the league, Sherdel set career bests in games started (31) and appearances (47); his 17 wins ranked fourth among NL southpaws, and his 242 innings were good for fifth.

Like the Cardinals, Sherdel struggled in 1923. His season was salvaged by complete-game victories in his final four starts to improve his record to 15-13 while the Redbirds fell to fifth place. Sherdel’s ERA (4.32 in 225 innings) was above the league average (3.99); and he continued to surrender hits at an alarming pace (10.8 per nine innings). It came as no surprise that Rickey actively shopped him in the offseason, but a widely reported trade to the Boston Braves fell through.

Rickey finally lost his patience with Sherdel after the lefty’s abysmal debut in 1924, in which he surrendered 16 hits and seven runs in a complete-game loss to the Chicago Cubs. Sherdel was shunted to the bullpen and started just ten times among his 35 appearances. Nonetheless he pitched two of the most notable games of the season: On May 24 he relieved Jesse Haines with one out in the first inning and pitched 11⅔ innings to earn the victory over the Phillies, 4-3. Cullen Cain, the first full-time baseball publicist, considered Sherdel’s 13-hit complete-game, 5-1 victory over the pennant-bound Giants as the “most remarkable game” of the season.13 With just eight victories in 17 decisions, Sherdel’s future with the team seemed bleak as rumors of his trade swirled the entire offseason.

Following a dismal 65-89 record in 1924, the Cardinals got off to a terrible start in 1925 (13-25), resulting in the dismissal of Rickey as manager. Under Rickey, Sherdel had been buried deep in the bullpen and saw action strictly as a reliever, primarily in mop-up situations; that changed when Rogers Hornsby took over the team. From June through the end of the season, Sherdel emerged as the staff ace. Used exclusively as a starter, Wee Willie went 15-6 and completed 17 of 21 starts (including a career-best 11 in a row). Sherdel “became a changed pitcher under Hornsby,” wrote Cardinals beat reporter Paul A. Rickert.14 Sherdel was quick to praise his new manager: “I was never too sure of myself. Maybe I had a bit of an inferiority complex . . . Hornsby saw that I could pitch and he used me. That gave me my break.”15 Sherdel paced the team with 15 wins and a carved out a sparking 3.11 ERA (the league average was 4.27) in 200 innings. The Sporting News praised Sherdel as a “pitcher of rare grit” and the left-hander was routinely lauded for his courage in light of his small stature.16 His .714 winning percentage (a highly valued statistic at the time) was tops in the league. The team responded to Hornsby’s relentless drive (64-51) and finished in fourth place.

Sherdel’s success and fame resulted from his slow pitch. “The little southpaw,” wrote The Sporting News, “uses a slow ball, then a slower one, and sometimes one which hardly comes to the plate.”17 He also had a deceptive curve and a fastball he used effectively as his “offspeed” pitch to catch batters off-guard. “There’s really no mystery about this slowball of mine,” explained Sherdel to Baseball Magazine in 1928. “I throw the ball with exactly the same motion as I would a fastball, but with this important difference. Just as I let go of the ball, my fingers ‘give’ a bit. I fail to impart to the ball that spinning motion which makes it ‘shoot’ if it’s a fastball. So it comes up to the batter looking as big as a house but not coming as fast as it seems. And just before it gets to the plate it’s apt to duck.”18

A student of the game, Sherdel once recalled that he constantly talked about the art of pitching and batters’ expectations, especially with his longtime roommate Haines and also Grover Cleveland Alexander, his teammate from 1926 to 1929. “Alexander taught me more about pitching than any manager or coach,” said Sherdel.19 Sherdel was also one of the first ex-big leaguers to admit that he regularly threw the spitball after it was banned in 1920. “I think the pitch still should be allowed,” he told sportswriter Bob Broeg in 1962.20

Manager Hornsby counted on Sherdel to anchor the Redbirds’ pitching staff in 1926. “His slowball is poison to sluggers,” said the Rajah.21 Like the rest of the Cardinals, Sherdel was inconsistent all season, but pitched well when the team needed him most. In a year without an exceptional team in the NL, the Cardinals overcame an eight-game deficit to tie the Pirates on August 19 when Sherdel won his sixth consecutive decision against the Brooklyn Robins (all complete games) that season. Brooklyn beat reporter Thomas R. Rice later described Sherdel as “one of the most tantalizing left-handers alive.”22 In the hitherto most important appearance in his career, Sherdel relieved starter Flint Rhem after one inning on September 24 against the Giants at the Polo Grounds with the pennant on the line. Wee Willie hurled eight innings of seven-hit ball, surrendering just one run to earn the victory and clinch the Cardinals’ first pennant since 1888, when the team was known as the Browns and played in the American Association. Sherdel’s 16 wins, 17 complete games, and 234⅔ innings were second most among NL left-handers.

In an attempt to neutralize the New York Yankees sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Hornsby named Sherdel the starter in the opening game of the World Series, in the Bronx. Known for his impeccable control (he surrendered only 2.2 walks per nine innings in his career), Sherdel uncharacteristically walked three of the first four batters he faced, but otherwise yielded only six hits and two runs in seven innings to baseball’s highest-scoring lineup. He was collared with a tough loss as left-hander Herb Pennock (23-11) held the Cardinals to three hits and one run in a 2-1 victory. In a rematch in Game Five in St. Louis, Sherdel couldn’t catch a break. In the sixth inning Cardinals outfielders Chick Hafey and Taylor Douthit collided going after Pennock’s routine fly ball; the pitcher legged out a double and later scored. The Cardinals were positioned for a victory, but shortstop Tommy Thevenow misplaced Gehrig’s high fly ball in the bottom of ninth inning. It dropped for a double and Gehrig scored two batters later to tie the game, 2-2. With one out in the tenth inning, Sherdel intentionally walked Gehrig to load the bases, hoping to induce a double play. The plan backfired as Tony Lazzeri hit a sacrifice fly to score Mark Koenig. Pennock hurled a scoreless tenth to secure the Yankees’ 3-2 victory. Sherdel “had the heart of a lion working against heartbreaking bad luck,” wrote New York Times reporter Wilbert Robinson.23 But the Cardinals, led by Pete Alexander, came back to win Games Six and Seven to capture the title.

The world champions experienced a tumultuous offseason. Hornsby, involved in a contract dispute, was traded to the New York Giants for Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring. During the season the Cardinals were led by the pitching trio of Haines, Alexander, and Sherdel, who combined for 61 wins, but the team missed Hornsby’s offensive production. Sherdel led all NL southpaws with 17 wins, and carved out a 3.53 ERA in 232⅓ innings while the Redbirds finished in second place, 1½ games behind the Pirates.

Under new manager Bill McKechnie (the team’s fourth skipper in as many years), St. Louis got off to a slow start in 1928 before the offense woke up and Sherdel hit his stride. From May 30 to August 3, the southpaw went 12-1, completed seven of 11 starts, and proved to be an invaluable fireman (for the second consecutive season and the third time in his career, Sherdel led the league in saves, a statistic not kept at the time). By late July it appeared as though the Cardinals might run away with the pennant, but a mediocre August (14-13) made for what the Associated Press called the “hottest National race in twenty years.”24 In the exciting last month of the season, Sherdel was the staff’s workhouse, logging 63⅔ innings in eight appearances and winning five of six starts (he also picked up two tough losses in relief). In arguably the best game of his career, Sherdel hurled a career-best 15-inning complete game to defeat Brooklyn at Ebbets Field, 4-3, on September 25 to notch his 20th win of the season and keep the Cardinals one game ahead of the Giants. On short rest four days later, Sherdel held the Boston Braves to six hits and one run over seven innings to clinch the Redbirds’ second pennant in three years. In his career year, Wee Willie set personal bests to lead the Cardinals in wins (21), innings (248⅔), and complete games (20, tied with Haines). His staff-leading 2.86 ERA was almost two runs lower than the NL average (4.70).

Sherdel started Game One of the World Series rematch between the Cardinals and Yankees. He held the Bronx Bombers to four hits over seven innings, but one of them was a towering two-run home run by Bob Meusel to extend the Yankees’ lead to 3-0 in the fourth inning. Those were all the runs the Yankees needed in their home park as right-hander Waite Hoyt (23-7) tossed a three-hitter to earn the victory, 3-1. With the Cardinals on the verge of defeat, down three games to none, Sherdel made his fourth and final World Series appearance in Game Four. At Sportsman’s Park, he labored through six innings, yielding eight hits but only one run, and held a precarious 2-1 lead. In a career-defining moment and one of the most famous in World Series history, Sherdel faced Ruth (who had smashed a home run in his previous at-bat) with one out in the seventh. On an 0-and-2 count, Sherdel went to his bag of tricks and unleashed one of his specialties, a quick pitch without a windup. When home-plate umpire Cy Pfirman made no call on what appeared to be a strike, chaos ensued. Sherdel and other Cardinals players rushed to home plate. After a discussion with other umpires, Pfirman ruled that he had called time, therefore the pitch was moot. The quick pitch (legal in the NL but not in the AL) had been banned for the 1928 World Series. When order was restored, the noticeably angered Sherdel unleashed a fastball which Ruth crushed to deep right to tie the score. Gehrig followed with a go-ahead homer and Tony Lazzeri singled, sending Sherdel to the shower. Sherdel was collared with the loss as the Yankees won the game, 7-3, to secure their second consecutive championship. Given just seven total runs of support, Sherdel lost all four of his World Series starts, despite a respectable 3.26 ERA (in 30⅓ innings) against baseball’s most potent offense.

Sherdel began the 1929 season by winning four of five decisions and hurling a 13-inning, complete-game tie against the Pirates on May 1. But it went downhill from there. Sherdel’s sudden ineffectiveness left managers and fans scratching their heads. Over the rest of the season, he went 6-14, posted an unimaginable 6.64 ERA, and was finally relegated to the bullpen in early September. In three consecutive starts in midseason, Sherdel surrendered 10, 13, and 10 runs; he yielded 10 or more hits in 14 outings, including a career-worst 21 in a complete-game loss to the Pirates, 13-2. In a forgettable season for the fourth-place Cardinals, Sherdel was scorched for a big-league high 12.8 hits per nine innings and his 5.93 ERA (in 195⅔ innings) was the second worst in baseball.

After 13 seasons with the Cardinals, the 33-year-old Sherdel was sent along with right-hander Fred Frankhouse to the Boston Braves for Burleigh Grimes at the trading deadline in 1930. While “Ol’ Stubblebeard” went 13-6 with the Redbirds, helping them to the pennant, Sherdel showed that he, too, could still pitch. For the underwhelming Braves, Sherdel went 6-5 (including two consecutive ten-inning complete-game victories), splitting his time as a starter and reliever. In the “Year of the Hitter” Sherdel rebounded with a 9-7 record and better-than-average 4.71 ERA in 183⅓ innings.

In his only full season with the Braves, Sherdel won six of 16 decisions with 4.25 ERA in 137⅔ innings in 1931. Over a ten-day stretch in August, he tossed three consecutive complete-game victories, which proved to be his last wins in the big leagues.

Sherdel’s professional baseball career came to an ignominious conclusion in 1932 after he was given his outright release three times by different teams, the Braves, the Cardinals, and finally the Rochester Red Wings.

Sherdel finished his 15-year career with a 165-146 record and carved out a 3.72 ERA in 2,709⅓ innings. His 153 victories as a Cardinal rank fourth in club history behind Bob Gibson (251), Haines (210), and Bob Forsch (163). Sherdel’s 109 wins from 1922 to 1928 trailed only Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey’s 126 among NL left-handers. One of the most durable pitchers of his era, he ranked first or second on the Cardinals in appearances in his first 11 seasons (1918-1928), and finished with 513 (including 273 starts and 159 complete games) in his career.

After his playing days ended, Sherdel returned to McSherrystown and his wife, Marguerite Ethel (Strausbaugh), whom he had married in November 1919. They raised two children, Patricia and Bill. Sherdel held down various jobs, including operating a diner and beer garden, and served as a bartender. He was active in the local Moose Lodge and St. Mary’s Catholic parish, and never lost his passion for baseball. A celebrity of sorts in his small town, Sherdel often pitched as a guest star in local semipro and town team leagues, and participated in area youth baseball programs.

Sherdel remained a lifelong Cardinals fan. In 1936 influential syndicated sportswriter Hugh Fullerton named him to the Cardinals all-time baseball team, joining pitchers Dizzy Dean, 19th-century star Bob Caruthers, and Bill Doak.25 Sherdel occasionally attended Cardinals reunions, but after the 25th-anniversary festivities commemorating the team’s World Series title in 1926, his ties to the organization gradually dissipated as the memory of his accomplishments faded.

“My grandfather was a modest man and you’d never have known he was a big leaguer,” John Sherdel told the author.26 “He really didn’t talk much about his career. But he’d get irate when he recalled striking out Babe Ruth (in Game Four of the 1928 World Series) and then having the pitch overturned. He didn’t display any memorabilia around the house, and only wore his World Series ring on special occasions.”

Sherdel’s name resurfaced in 1962 when the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America presented him the Brian P. Burnes Nostalgia award.27 By that time Sherdel was in declining health and had suffered the amputation of a leg the previous summer.

On November 18, 1968, Sherdel died from cerebral anoxia at the age of 70 in McSherrystown. He was preceded in death by his wife (1955), and was buried at Annunciation Cemetery. In 1977 he was inducted posthumously into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

 

Sources

Telephone interview with John Sherdel (Bill Sherdel’s grandson) on January 9, 2014.

Bill Sherdel player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York

Ancestry.com

BaseballLibrary.com

Baseball-Reference.com

New York Times

Retrosheet.com

SABR.org

The Sporting News

 

Notes

1 Al Clark, “The Sports Guy,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph, July 22, 1937, 22.

2 Sherdel’s surname was originally spelled Scherdel and appeared so in early newspaper reports about his pitching accomplishments. After the US entered World War I in 1918, Sherdel Americanized his name, removing the “c” to conceal his German heritage.

3 Neal Russo, “Sherdel Dies; Pitched For ’26, ’28 Cardinals,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 14, 1968, 1.

4 Star and Sentinel (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), September 17, 1914, 1.

5 “Hanover Pitcher Sold to Milwaukee Club,” Star and Sentinel (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), August 19, 1916, 8.

6 “Another Shut-Out,” Adams County News (Adams County, Pennsylvania), October 7, 1916, 6.

7 Draft card, Ancestry.com; “Sherdel Going Good,” Harrisburg Telegraph, August 19, 1925, 13.

8 “With Slow Ball He Nears Fame,” Gettysburg Times, February 12, 1924, 3.

9 “How Sherdel Was Bought,” Gettysburg Times, May 31, 1918, 3.

10 Ron Smiley and Jim Sandoval, “Pop Kelchner,” Can He Play? A Look at Baseball Scouts and Their Profession. Eds. Jim Sandoval and Bill Nowlin (Phoenix, Arizona: Society for American Baseball Research, 2011), 8; “Scherdel Sold to St. Louis,” Star and Sentinel (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), July 28, 1917, 5.

11 “Sherdel to War,” Des Moines News, July 13, 1918, 8.

12 John B. Foster, “Philadelphia Fans Given Real Text But Stand Up Under Opening Day Strain,” Syracuse Herald, April 13, 1922, 43.

13 Cullen Cain, “Sherdel” February 7, 1925. Unattribuited source, from Sherdel’s Hall of Fame file.

14 The Sporting News, November 12, 1925, 6.

15 Al Clark, “The Sports Guy,” Harrisburg Telegraph, July 22, 1937, 22.

16 The Sporting News, January 1, 1925, 5.

17 The Sporting News, August 27, 1925, 1.

18 Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide To Pitchers (New York: Fireside, 2004), 383.

19 The Sporting News, March 5, 1966, 5.

20 Bob Broeg, “Sports Comment,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 1962. Sherdel’s Hall of Fame file.

21 Associated Press, “Confidence Gave Cardinals Title,” Joplin (Missouri) Globe, September 26, 1926, 1.

22 The Sporting News, July 22, 1926, 3.

23 Wilbert Robinson, “Robinson Says Breaks of Game Favored Yankees and Caused Cards Downfall,” New York Times, October 8, 1926, 17.

24 Associated Press, “Cardinals Win Flag as Cubs Beat Giants, 6-2,” Miami (Ohio) News-Record, September 30, 1928, 4.

25 The Sporting News, January 9, 1936, 3.

26 Telephone interview with John Sherdel (Bill Sherdel’s grandson) on January 9, 2014.

27 Broeg.

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