August 24, 1919: Ray Caldwell struck by lightning, sparks Indians to win
Dark, ominous storm clouds rolled off Lake Erie and barreled toward League Park. Black sky loomed over the ballyard, and rain, which had been falling lightly since the fourth inning, threatened to become heavier.
The baseball game stirring underneath the clouds on this Sunday afternoon in Cleveland was nearly complete. The Indians led the visiting Philadelphia Athletics 2-1 in the top of the ninth inning.
Ray Caldwell stood on the mound on this warm late-summer day, pitching in his first game with the Indians. Clevelandhad picked up the fun-loving spitballer, whom Boston had released in early July, to bolster its rotation.1
The Indians had needed consistent pitching to become a serious threat to the Chicago White Sox for the American League pennant. “They are fighting hard for every game and have been fairly successful despite the decidedly erratic pitching the team has had,” The Sporting News wrote about the Cleveland club.2
Caldwell was pitching a masterful gameon a day in which the Cleveland Plain Dealer had forecast “showers and cooler (temperatures).”The right-hander retired the first two A’s batters in the final frame as the storm grew menacing.
Looking for the final out, Caldwell readied to pitch next to Athletics shortstop Joe Dugan when…
A game which had featured little action and even less drama, suddenly turned into a frightening spectacle.
The Indians had scored the game’s first two runs in the bottom of the fourth inning.
Ray Chapman and player-manager Tris Speaker, the team’s No. 2 and 3 hitters respectively, walked. First baseman Joe Harris sacrificed the runners over. Third baseman Larry Gardner grounded out, scoring Chapman for a 1-0 Indians lead. Bill Wambsganss then hit a grounder to short. Dugan fielded and threw off target to first. The error allowed Speaker to score from third, giving the home team a 2-0 advantage.3
Despite the run, Caldwell mostly cruised through 8 2/3 innings against the Athletics.
Now, the A’s were down to their final out.
Caldwell readied to throw to Dugan.
That’s when the ruckus happened.
A fearsome lightning bolt zipped from the overhanging clouds. Frightened spectators scurried for cover.
“The bolts flashed here and there, causing much excitement,” Harry P. Edwards wrote in The Sporting News. “There was a blinding flash that seemed to set the diamond on fire and Caldwell was knocked flat from the shock of it.”4
Davis, the Press reported, “got a second shock, for Cy Perkins came up to feel Harry’s head and see if he was hurt. The lightning had charged Davis’ hair with electricity and his whole frame tingled when Cy touched him.”
Teammates also claimed to have felt an “electrical current” from lightning hitting the metal spikes on their shoes.8
Still alive and recovering from the jolt, Caldwellpicked himself up from the dirt. He did a quick inventory of his arms and legs. What a relief. Everything was still attached. One of his teammates touched him“on the head and leaped into the air. He said the pitcher seemed to be crackling with electricity,” a wire-service reporter wrote.9
Is this possible?
“When lightning strikes the ground, the current flows across the surface, creating a step voltage. Someone standing with their feet apart can have current go up one leg and down the other,” Joseph Dwyer, a lightning researcher and professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire, said in an email interview on May 12, 2016. “I would think such a large current through the legs could explain the numbness afterward.”
One Cleveland player who complained of numbness was Chapman, who nearly a year later was killed after being hit by a pitch thrown by Yankees hurler Carl Mays. Running to Caldwell from his short stop position, Chapman nearly fell from the numb feeling in his leg.10
The strike was terrifying for the League Park spectators, too.
Newspaper reports say lightning danced along the ballpark rails near where some fans were sitting and jumped toward the pitcher’s mound.
“Lightning certainly can travel along metal railing,” Dwyer said, a phenomenon he called side flashes.
“When lightning strikes, there is often tens of thousands of amps of current and very large voltages,” the professor said in the email interview. “If some of this current goes into a metal conductor such as fences or railings, the current can travel long distances, causing sparks to other objects along the way.”
Still shocked, figuratively and possibly literally, from the turn of events, players took their positions. There still was one more out to go.
Caldwell pitched to Dugan and “forced him to hit a grounder to Gardner just as the clouds broke and the rain came down heavily,” wrote the Plain Dealer.
Game over. Indians 2, Athletics 1.
Caldwell pitched a complete game and allowed Philadelphia only one run and four hits. He struck out three and walked two.
After the game, Caldwell told the Cleveland Press that the lightning strike “felt just like somebody came up with a board and hit me on top of the head and knocked me down.”11
He assessed the damage and found that he had slight burns on his chest. Speculation was that lightning had hit the metal button on his cap, “surged through his body, and exited through his metal spikes.”12
This, like a direct strike on a person, is unlikely, said Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, founding director of the African Centres for Lightning and Electromagnetics and professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in an email interview on May 11, 2016.
“Lightning only goes through the body for perhaps threeto four microseconds before it flashes over the outside, and that’s not long enough to cause internal burns,” Dr. Cooper said. “It would be nice to know what the chest burns looked like. Was there a linear burn down the middle or sides of the chest where there would be sweat lines that lightning turned into steam, causing burns? Was it where metal was? Did he have a necklace with a cross on it, so that there was a cross shape burned in?”
Dr. Cooper also wondered if the burns could have been fern-like, or Lichtenberg figures.
Going into the contest, the Tribe had rolled off five wins in their last six games, The win over Philadelphia meant the Indians had kept pace with the American League-leading White Sox, who had also won that day, 4-1, over the New York Yankees.
The Indians put together a run through the season’s remaining weeks, including a mid-September streak of 12 wins in 13 games that began with Caldwell pitching a 3-0 no-hitter against the Yankees, one of his former teams. However, the Indians finished 3½ games behind the White Sox, who went on to infamously represent the American League in the 1919 World Series.
Caldwell’s electrifying performance helped spark the Indians’ late-season run. In six games with his new club, the big righty pitched to a 5-1 record with a 1.71 ERA, proving the Indians had made the right move in giving the 31-year-old pitcher another chance to prove himself.
“When Speaker announced, he was going to give Ray Caldwell a trial in the box, lots of persons thought he was crazy,” wrote The Sporting News. “But Speaker now has the last laugh on the doubters, for Caldwell turned in and beat the Athletics easily… not bad pitching for a pitcher thought to be through as a big leaguer.”13
In addition to sources cited in the Notes, the author used the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites and email interviews with Dr. Mary Ann Cooper, founding director of the African Centres for Lightning and Electromagnetics and professor emerita at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Joseph Dwyer, professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire.
1 According to Cleveland.com’s weather history website, the high temperature reached 81 degrees in the city on the day of the game.
2 Henry P. Edwards, “Speaker refuses to be counted out,” The Sporting News, August 28, 1919: 2
3 “Three Hits Off Caldwell: Indians Defeat the Mackmen, 2-1 – Pitcher Felled by Thunderbolt, New York Times, August 25, 1919.
4 Henry P. Edwards, “Speaker Refuses to Be Counted Out,” The Sporting News, August 28, 1919: 2.
5 “Ray Caldwell Does Comeback and Hurls Tribe to 2-1 Victory of Macks,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 25, 1919: 10.
6 Henry P. Edwards, “Speaker Refuses to Be Counted Out,” The Sporting News, August 28, 1919: 2.
7 “Lightning Brings Near Tragedy for Tribe,” Cleveland Press, August 25, 1919.
8 “Ray Caldwell Does Comeback.”
9 “Lightning Knocks Down Hurler, Shocks Infield, Yet Cleveland Wins Out,” San Antonio Evening News, August 25, 1919: 8.
10 “Ray Caldwell Does Comeback.”
11“Lightning brings near tragedy for Tribe,” The Cleveland Press, Aug. 25, 1919.
12 Mike Sowell, The Pitch That Killed: Carl Mays, Ray Chapman and the Pennant Race of 1920 (South Orange, New Jersey: Summer Game Books, 2015), 100.
13 “Indians Still Sing a Song of Victory,” The Sporting News, September 4, 1919.