This article was written by Bill Nowlin
Just five months before Cleveland’s Ray Chapman was hit on the head and killed by a pitch, Chick Fewster had his own brush with death. It was during spring training, in March of 1920. He was in his fourth season with the New York Yankees, still hoping to become a regular but coming off a 1919 season where he’d played in 81 games (both infield and outfield) and batted .283. Manager Miller Huggins had raved, “Chick has everything. I have never seen a greater prospect.”
The Yankees were hosting the Brooklyn Robins in Jacksonville in a March 25 exhibition game. Two players had been hurt before the game, during batting practice. Both Wally Pipp of the Yanks and Clarence Mitchell of the Brooklyns had been knocked out, by a thrown ball to first base in Pipp’s case and a batted ball from a teammate in Mitchell’s. It was already a rough day.
Carl Mays was pitching for the Yankees, and retired Brooklyn in the top of the first. Fewster, playing third base, was the leadoff batter in the bottom of the first, facing Big Jeff Pfeffer. With the count 2-1, Pfeffer’s fourth pitch struck Fewster on the temple. “The impact sounded like a cocoanut shell cracking,” The New York Times reported, “and Fewster went down like an ox felled by an axe. He was on the ground unconscious for about ten minutes before Trainer Woods and a bunch of assistants could bring him.” [New York Times, March 26, 1920] There was immediate worry that he might become gun-shy in future at-bats.
A day later, it was clear that he’d been much more seriously injured than first thought. He lost his power of speech at first and it was clear that the bruising was far deeper than it had seemed. The Sporting News said that his “life hung in the balance for about three days” with a fractured skull and a concussion. [The Sporting News, April 26, 1945] A doctor accompanied him as he was moved to Union Protestant Infirmary in Baltimore, and three days later doctors said he was slowly recovering his speech. It was six days later before it was fully determined that his skull had indeed been fractured and he was bleeding from a hemorrhage. He underwent an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital on March 31 to remove a piece of his skull about the size of a silver dollar and remove a blood clot at the same time. A silver plate was placed in his skull. [Notes by Ford Sawyer contained in Fewster’s player file at the Hall of Fame.] A report the next day was headlined, “Fewster Not Likely to Play Ball Again.” [Washington Post, April 2, 1920]
Recuperation progressed more rapidly than expected, and by April 9 he was able to sit up in bed and speak with some degree of coherency. By April 17 he was reported to be “feeling so well now that he is anxious to get out and play ball again.” [Chicago Tribune, April 18, 1920]
His optimism was not just hollow hope. He rejoined the team and got into his first games on July 5, playing both halves of a doubleheader in Washington. He was hit by a pitch the very next day but hung in there. The Yankees had had a special batting helmet made for him, but he declined to wear it. “But something had gone out of his play; the great prospect of the 1920 training season became just an ordinary player.” [The Sporting News, April 26, 1945]
He saw action in 21 games before the end of the season, with 36 plate appearances. He hit for a .286 average and scored eight runs, though only driving in one. He was walked seven times, perhaps an indication that pitchers were hesitant to pitch too closely to him.
Though widely known as Chick, he was born as Wilson Lloyd Fewster in Baltimore on November 10, 1895. His father was a Marylander, James Fewster, a carpenter by trade. His mother Elizabeth was a native of Ireland who had arrived in the United States in 1884. Wilson was the third of four boys in the family. The eldest, James, was five years older than he, followed two years later by Walter, and then Stanley was born a year after Wilson. By 1910, James was no longer in the picture – perhaps due to death – and Elizabeth was listed as head of household in that year’s census. Her son James was working as a clerk in a grocery store. Two more sons, Russell and Leslie, had both joined the family. Stanley played at least briefly with Portsmouth in the Virginia League, according to the April 26, 1945, Sporting News.
Chick learned baseball on the sandlots of Baltimore, where the trainer of the Richmond Climbers saw him at a tryout and signed him. [Notes by Ford Sawyer contained in Fewster’s player file at the Hall of Fame.] He broke into organized baseball playing second base at Double A with Richmond (International League) in 1915, a team owned by Jack Dunn of Baltimore who had moved the team there (and sold Babe Ruth to the Boston Red Sox) while facing competition from the Federal League team in Baltimore. Fewster hit .253 while playing second base in 48 games. The next two seasons he played for the Orioles (Dunn had moved the team back home after the Federal League collapsed), though only for 18 games (.184) in 1916, at shortstop. Much of the year he had played with the Worcester Busters, in the Eastern League, hitting .233 in 88 games. In 1917, after 22 games with Worcester he was back with Baltimore at second base. He got into 97 games and hit .299 and was brought up to the Yankees in time to debut on September 19. In 11 late-season games, he hit .222, driving in just one run and scoring twice. He played second for the Yankees, a right-hander who stood 5-feet-11 and weighed 160 pounds.
In 1918, he was with the Yankees throughout the season but used only sparingly in five games, going one for two at the plate. As noted above, he hit .283 in 1919, collecting his first home run (his drive into the left-field bleachers at the Polo Grounds won the game against the Tigers on August 1) and scoring 38 times while driving in 15 runs. He played 41 games in the outfield and divided his other work in the field between shortstop, second base, and third base – though he committed 12 errors in 24 games at short.
The year after his injury, Fewster hit a steady .280 in 1921, covering center field much more than any other position, until Elmer Miller took over most of the duties in early August. He was hit by six pitches (when he’d faced Pfeffer at Shreveport in spring training, he reportedly slammed a triple off him). And he appeared in the World Series, taking over for Babe Ruth late in Game Three after Ruth wrenched his knee. Fewster played in four games, with a two-run homer in Game Six off Jesse Barnes of the Giants (in 11 seasons of regular-season play, he only hit six homers). In 13 plate appearances, he got two hits and walked three times, scoring thrice. The Giants won the best-of-nine World Series, five games to three.
It’s of some interest to note that while still with New York, he’d run into a couple of rough spots on back-to-back days, being fined $11 on April 14, 1922 for driving an automobile without a license and then – more seriously – been faced with a lawsuit seeking $50,000. The suit was filed on April 15 by a contractor in Baltimore, Joseph T. Byrne, who alleged that Chick was guilty of alienation of the affections of his wife, Grace C. Byrne. She had kept a boarding house for Chick and two of his brothers some years earlier. When Commissioner Landis was asked if the case came under his jurisdiction as a case involving a stolen car would, he simply said, “Don’t that beat the devil!” [The Sporting News, May 11, 1922] How the suit was resolved is today unknown.
Chick was sent from New York to Boston on July 23 in a big trade. Miller joined him, as did Lefty O’Doul, Johnny Mitchell, and $50,000. In exchange, Harry Frazee sent the Yankees Jumpin’ Joe Dugan and Elmer Smith. They became the eleventh and twelfth Red Sox players traded or sold to New York, and the Yankees ballclub was now largely made up of former Red Sox players. Fewster had been hitting .242 for New York through 44 games, his one home run a game-winning inside-the-park grand slam on May 12. It was the loss of Dugan that upset Boston fans the most. The Boston Herald called it a “disgusting trade” and even charged that Miller, Mitchell, and Fewster were all “tossed in to Boston for camouflage purposes.” Frazee said he thought the trade would strengthen his team, adding for emphasis, “I wish I had six more players with the ‘guts’ and fight of Chick Fewster.” [New York Times, July 25, 1922] About a year later, the Washington Post noted that after Fewster’s recovery, “instead of showing timidity at the bat, he seemed over daring and the pitchers were almost afraid of him. His heart surely was there, and his courage never had been weakened, but the injury left him physically weak and he was unable to play in hot weather” due to dizzy spells when the sun beat down on him. [Washington Post, June 18, 1923]
Chick joined the Red Sox and manager Hugh Duffy in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, where the team played an exhibition game. Continuing his work as a utility player, Chick hit .289 in 83 at-bats.
Boston had a new manager in the spring of 1923 and Boston Globe sportswriter Mel Webb said that Fewster was “the most aggressive player Frank Chance has in his baseball caravan.” [Boston Globe, April 10, 1923] He showed some spunk on the bench, too, trading punches with teammate Val Picinich on the bench during the fifth inning of the July 27 home game in an argument over a throw from catcher Picinich. On August 9, Fewster wrenched his back so badly chasing down a fly ball that he had to be carried from the field. He was out for two weeks. His 90 games in 1923 was his most to date, but his average fell to .236. Early in 1924 (on January 7), he was traded to the Indians for Dan Boone, Joe Connolly, Steve O’Neill, and Bill Wambsganss. Accompanying him to Cleveland were George Burns and Roxy Walters.
Fewster played two years in Cleveland, appearing in 101 and 93 games respectively, hitting .267 in 1924 and .248 in 1925. Manager Tris Speaker told him that the second base job was his for 1925, and he played more there than anyone else, but was still limited to just 83 games at second and 10 at third.
In another January deal, he was sold to Brooklyn in 1926. It wasn’t quite that straightforward, however; the Indians had outrighted him to Kansas City over the winter, but he said he would refuse to report. So something was worked out and Kansas City sold him to Brooklyn on April 8. At first, it again looked like he might have landed a regular job at second base, though he didn’t play quite as much as the season progressed. Nonetheless, he reached a career-high with 105 games, hitting for a .243 average. The Robins brought him back in 1927, but only in pinch roles and not for long. He appeared only four times before he was outrighted to Jersey City of the International League on May 5. On the seventh he rang up some pairs in an 11-7 win over Syracuse, walking twice, singling twice, scoring two runs, stealing two bases, and taking part in two double plays. His sixth-inning steal of home in a game against Baltimore on July 21 won the game.
Jersey City passed him on to Baltimore before the end of the season, and he hit .296 in 422 at-bats for both teams. Moving on to Montreal in 1928, he hit .251 in 338 at bats before he was released in August. Montreal manager George Stallings, who was ill, reportedly recommended Fewster as his replacement. When Eddie Holly was given the job instead, there was “trouble” between the two and Fewster was released. [Atlanta Constitution, August 28, 1928]
In 1929, back in Jersey City with the Skeeters, he batted .233 in 275 at-bats. That was his last season as a player. He played second base throughout his three later years in minor league ball. The Skeeters released him on September 7. On October 10 he announced his retirement to enter the brokerage business. It wasn’t good timing; on October 25, the stock market collapsed as “Black Friday” kicked off the Great Depression.
Apparently beginning sometime in the late 1930s, Fewster operated his own baseball academy in Brooklyn. His obituary in the New York Times says that shortly after Pearl Harbor, he joined the Merchant Marine at the age of 46 and participated in the supplying for the African invasion, even surviving the sinking of his ship in the Persian Gulf on one trip. His death came unexpectedly – he was only 49 – of coronary occlusion on April 16, 1945, in Baltimore. He was survived by his wife Annie and 18-year-old son Wilson Jr., who later became lacrosse coach at Johns Hopkins.
In addition to the sources cited in this biography, the author consulted Fewster’s player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the online SABR Encyclopedia, retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.