SABR

Wally Schang

This article was written by Don Geiszler.

A switch-hitter who was adept at getting on base, Wally Schang was considered by many of his contemporaries to be the best catcher of his time. Behind the plate, the 5’10”, 180-pounder was one of the most athletic catchers of his day, so agile and alert that he occasionally played third base or in the outfield. An excellent hitter who posted a career .393 on base percentage, second only to Mickey Cochrane among catchers, Schang could hit for power, too: in 1916 he became the first player to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game. The energetic and likeable Schang batted better than .300 six times and caught for seven different American League pennant winners. In his six World Series appearances, Schang batted .287, including a .444 mark for the Boston Red Sox in the 1918 World Series. Yet despite his impressive resume, Schang never received recognition for his accomplishments, earning only 22 votes in five appearances on the Hall of Fame ballot. In the words of one baseball writer, “the only thing Wally’s career lacked is the recognition he deserved.”

Walter Henry Schang was born on August 22, 1889 in South Wales, New York, a small farm community some 25 miles southeast of Buffalo, one of nine surviving children of Frank and Mary Schang. The Schangs owned and worked over 170 acres of farm land in New York, principally raising dairy cows. Despite the daily grind of schoolwork and chores around the farm, young Wally was preoccupied with baseball. As he later remembered, “From the moment I crawled out of bed my thoughts had to do with baseball, with the result that I raced the poor nag to the creamery every morning. I wanted to get my job over as early as possible so I could drive back home, walk the two miles to the school and get in forty five minutes to an hour of baseball before the bell called us to our studies.” Baseball injuries did not excuse Wally from his farm chores. Said Schang: “For a while I had to milk one-handed.” 

Wally was not the only member of his family obsessed with baseball. Indeed, the national game became something of a family passion. Frank Schang, a catcher for the local town team, inspired at least three of his sons to pursue the game professionally. Wally’s older brother, Bob enjoyed a short major league career as a catcher for Pittsburgh, New York and St. Louis in the National League. Another brother, Quirin, spent 20 years as a catcher in the semipro circuit.

While still in high school Wally started playing semipro ball for a team in nearby Holland, New York. He played many positions including shortstop, third base and the outfield before finally settling in behind the plate. Over the next three seasons, Wally garnered a reputation as one of the area’s best semipros, culminating in 1911, when he starred for the Buffalo Pullmans. George Stallings, then skipper of the Buffalo Bisons of the International League, was impressed and picked up Schang’s contract near the end of the season. Appearing in 48 games for the Bisons in 1912, Schang batted .333 and cemented his excellent defensive reputation with 41 assists. Word spread quickly of the young backstop’s talent, and prior to the 1913 season thirteen of the sixteen major league clubs attempted to draft the 23-year-old switch hitter. The Athletics were the fortunate team to land Schang and he traveled to Philadelphia to learn the ropes. 

As the 1913 season opened, Connie Mack knew he had a talented roster. With Jack Lapp and the aging Ira Thomas already on board, Mack allowed the young rookie to observe his major league colleagues and slowly eased him into action. When the season was concluded, Schang had managed 207 at bats, hitting a healthy .266, and ranked first among all major league backstops with three home runs and a .392 on base percentage. Defensively, Schang quickly developed into one of the league’s best backstops, with 92 assists in 72 games behind the plate. “Schang has proved one of the wonders of the year,” veteran sportswriter Hugh Fullerton observed. “Schang is steadier and works with more judgment than he did during the early part of the year, studies batters better, and works better with the pitchers.”

In that year’s World Series against the New York Giants, Schang performed like a seasoned veteran, batting .357 in four games and leading the team with seven RBI, including a Game Three solo home run off Doc Crandall.

With some success and money in his pocket at the conclusion of the 1913 season, the young man focused on his personal life. To cap off a fantastic year in 1913, Schang married a Philadelphian named Marie Aubrey. Wally was ready to settle down financially thanks to his $3,243.94 World Series paycheck, which was a very generous bonus compared to his regular $1,000 annual salary. The couple would have one child, Joan Marie, born in 1926.

The 1914 season was another good one for the Philadelphia A’s, who captured another American League pennant with a 99-53 record. Once again they were aided by the continuing development of Schang, who established himself as the best offensive catcher in the game. Wally led all American League catchers in batting average (.287), extra base hits (22), home runs (3), slugging percentage (.404), and RBI (45). Defensively, Wally struggled as he played through a broken thumb on his throwing hand, and as a result committed 30 errors, tied for the most among AL backstops. 

Like most of his teammates, Schang fared poorly in the A’s shocking four game loss to the Boston Braves in that year’s World Series. Starting all four games, Wally batted just .167 and struck out four times in 12 at bats. When later asked about the A’s poor performance in the Fall Classic, Schang was quoted as saying, “We went into [the World Series] too cocky, and we lived it up too much.” Following the A’s stunning defeat, star pitchers Eddie Plank and Chief Bender departed for the Federal League, slugging third baseman Frank Baker held out the entire season and second baseman Eddie Collins was sold to the White Sox. Virtually overnight, the A’s dynasty evaporated and the team tumbled into last place in 1915, where it would remain for the next seven years.

Schang continued to perform well for the next few years on some miserable teams. Despite Schang’s growing reputation as an excellent catcher, Mack needed to utilize Wally in a utility role, playing him more in the outfield and at third base than behind the plate. Nonetheless, the 1915 Reach Guide described Schang as “one of the most sensational catchers in recent years. He is a remarkably fast runner, a good hitter and a strong thrower.” He finished the season with a .248 batting average, a career-high 18 stolen bases, and a team-high .385 on base percentage. In 1916, Schang led the 36-117 Athletics in home runs, with seven, a figure he reached with the help of his historic performance on September 8 at Shibe Park, when he became the first switch hitter in baseball history to homer from both sides of the plate in the same game.

After the 1917 season, in which he batted .285 in 118 games, Schang, Joe Bush and Amos Strunk were traded to the Boston Red Sox. Schang appeared in 88 games for Boston in 1918, batting .244 with only eight extra base hits, but still posted a stellar .377 OBP. With the entry of the United States into World War I, the baseball season was cut short, and the Red Sox captured their third pennant in four years with a 75-51 mark, 2.5 games ahead of second place Cleveland.

Though that year’s Fall Classic, played in early September, was overshadowed by events overseas, Schang enjoyed a fabulous series, batting .444 over six games and making some key defensive contributions. In Game Three, with th e Sox leading 2-1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Chicago’s Charlie Pick singled putting the tying run on first. Pick stole second and on the next pitch broke for third on a ball that got away from Schang. Wally reacted quickly and fired to third beating the sliding Cub to the bag. But Pick’s hard slide knocked the ball out of third baseman Fred Thomas’s glove. As Thomas argued with the umpire, Pick raced for home. Thomas retrieved the ball and threw a strike to Schang who was waiting for Pick to arrive. The Cub may have had more success running into a brick wall. When the dust settled, Schang was standing over the fallen Cub, ball in hand, having tagged Pick with the final out of the game. In Game Four Schang scored the winning run and in Game Six, his stellar defense, including a pickoff of Les Mann in a key situation, led to the final Red Sox victory. 

Following the 1919 season, in which the Red Sox finished a disappointing fifth, Boston owner Harry Frazee dismantled his team, selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in January 1920. A year later Schang and three teammates were also sent to New York for catcher Muddy Ruel and three other players. Once again, Schang had the good fortune to be traded to a winner. Now in his 30s, Schang put together three excellent seasons in his five years with the Yankees, batting better than .300 twice and appearing in three more World Series. After hitting a disappointing .188 in the Yankees’ 1922 World Series defeat, Schang batted .318 and scored three runs in the Yankees’ first World Series triumph in 1923.

Though Schang remained a productive player, by 1925 his offensive numbers began to decline, leading to rumors that his eyesight might be failing. At the end of the season, Schang was traded to the St. Louis Browns for cash and pitcher George Mogridge. Determined to prove he wasn’t finished as a player, Wally enjoyed one of his best seasons in 1926, batting .330 with a .405 OBP and a .516 slugging percentage in 103 games. Appearing in 97 games for the Browns in 1927, Schang posted a .318 batting average. The following year his average dipped to .286, but he still managed to post a career-high .448 OBP. In 1929, his average dipped still further, to .237, but Schang adjusted by drawing 74 walks on his way to a .424 OBP. Nonetheless, at the end of the season the Browns traded the 40-year-old catcher to Philadelphia for Sammy Hale. Back with Connie Mack and the pennant-bound Athletics, Schang appeared in only 45 games, posting a .174 average. He did not appear in the World Series, and was released by Mack at season’s end. The following year he finished out his major league career with the Detroit Tigers, batting .184 in 30 games. Even at the end, however, Schang’s defensive abilities left an impression on his teammates. As one Tiger observed, “Just to watch him was an education in the art of catching….I’ve never seen anyone so graceful behind the plate.”

Released by Detroit on June 29, 1931, Schang signed two weeks later with the Chattanooga Lookouts of the Southern Association, batting .247 over the remainder of the season. Struggling financially in the early years of the Great Depression, he almost signed on with the House of David in 1932 for $230 per month. At the last minute he was saved by George Sisler, manager of the Texas League’s Shreveport Sports, who offered him a roster spot. Schang batted .214 as the team’s third-string catcher.

Having stretched his playing career as far as it would go, Wally returned to his Dixon, Missouri farm, but the Great Depression continued to bring economic struggles. Since farming and baseball were all Wally knew, he headed back to the latter in 1934, as player-manager for the Joplin (Missouri) Miners of the Western Association, batting .257 in 71 games. In 1935, after trying and failing to land a job as a Pacific Coast League umpire, Schang returned to the Western Association, batting .256 for Muskogee, Oklahoma. In 1936, the Cleveland Indians hired him as a coach, where he helped develop pitchers Denny Galehouse and Bob Feller. In fact he roomed with Feller that year, instructing the young phenom on the nuances of the game. Schang served as player-manager for various minor league clubs from 1938 to 1940. He finished out his career in 1942 with Owensboro (Kentucky) of the Kitty League, reaching base in five of his seven plate appearances at age 52.

In retirement, Schang was often seen at the ice cream shop in Dixon, where he would regale listeners with his stories of Ruth, Collins and other teammates, or on the golf course, where he often played 36 holes even after he was 70 years old. He died at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis on March 6, 1965 at 75 years of age, and was buried in Dixon Cemetery.

Sources

Hirschberg, Al. Baseball’s Greatest Catchers. (NY: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1966)

Total Baseball, The Official Encyclopedia of Major League Baseball (4th Edition) (NY: Penguin Books, 1995)

Jordan, David M. The Athletics of Philadelphia (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1999)

James, Bill. The New Bill James Historical Abstract (The Classic – Completed Revised Edition) (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2001)

Shatzkin, Mike. The Ballplayers, Baseball’s Ultimate Biographical Reference (NY: The Idea Logical Press, 1991)

Sargent, Jim. “Walter ‘Wally’ Schang, the Greatest Forgotten Catcher: 1913-1931”, Oldtyme Baseball News, Volume 6 – Issue 2, 7-11.

Kashatus, B. Connie Mack’s ’29 Triumph (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1999)

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