Jim Sheckard: A Live Wire in the Dead-Ball Era

This article was written by Gregg Dubbs

This article was published in the 1980 Baseball Research Journal


The cold, pallid stone in Columbia, Pa., denotes his final resting place like an old, grey, weather-beaten scorecard. There are no crossed bats; no baseballs engraved on the damp, neglected slab. Nary a whisper of his forgotten fame. Just the stark sentinel and its silent speech:

JAMES T. SHECKARD

1878-1947

The memories have been pushed aside, buried, covered with age. The dusty years have prevailed, sheltering his accomplishments, attempting to seal the cracks of connection with the future, a future that now dotes on Bruce Sutter, Lancaster County’s latest hero.

Samuel James Tilden Sheckard was born to Pennsylvania-German parents on November 23, 1878 in Upper Chanceford Township near Shenk’s Ferry, York County. As evidenced by Jimmy’s name, his father was a staunch, independent Democrat, highly in favor of anti-corruption reform. When Jimmy was ten the family moved across the Susquehanna River to Columbia, Lancaster County, where he could finally round up enough youngsters for a real game of ball.

Sheckard’s first break as a player occurred when the Cuban Giants visited Columbia for a contest with the local nine. Due to an injury to a Columbia regular, Jimmy was asked to fill in for the hometowners. He responded with a triple, his team’s only hit, and left an indelible impression on the touring pros with his all-around play. The following year, while playing sandlot ball in the neighboring river town of Marietta, the 17-year-old was scouted and signed by Portsmouth of the Virginia League. He was reported to have been extremely fast, with an arm like a cannon, and a powerful but smooth left-handed swing. Although it was late in the season, Jim reported immediately, hitting .305 in 26 games as a starting outfielder.

The next year, 1897, while playing with Brockton, Massachusetts of the New England League, Jimmy was converted to shortstop by Mgr. Watch Burnham. The switch vexed Sheckard, a natural in the outfield, but it played an important role in his climb to the National League. Despite this minor problem in communication, Jim led the league in batting (.370) and stolen bases (52), before being sold to the Trolley Dodgers — as a shortstop!

Although Sheck could not fill the glove of aging infielder Germany Smith, he impressed Brooklyn management with his bat, hitting .327 in 13 games. In 1898, with the move of Norwegian outfielder “Honest John” Anderson to Washington, Sheckard became a major league regular at the age of 19. He joined captain Mike Griffin and youngster Fielder Jones in manager “Bald Billy” Barnie’s outfield. Sheck responded with a solid .291 average in 105 games, including four long hits — 3 doubles and a home run — in a late season contest.

The 19th century’s final year brought about a quick change of scenery for the 5′ 9″, 175 pounder. Brooklyn’s new manager, Ned Hanlon, who was also the president of the Baltimore club, brought along future Hall-of-Fame outfielders Willie Keeler and Joe Kelley. In turn, Sheckard was “loaned” to the decimated Orioles. The move, appearing bleak at first, proved to be a tremendous break for Jim as he played in all but one contest for brilliant rookie manager John McGraw and his burly, right-hand man, the fabled Wilbert Robinson.

McGraw, although troubled by the tragic death of his young wife, hit .390, scored 141 runs in only 118 games, and provided inspiring leadership. Robinson masterfully handled the pitching staff, led by 28-year-old rookie Joe McGinnity. “The Iron Man” won 28 games, leaning heavily on his bread-and-butter submarine pitch, “Old Sal”. Despite the loss of three 20-game winners and four .300-hitting regulars to the Superbas, this incredible team finished a remarkable 24 games above .500! The gutsy, McGraw-style play was a natural for Sheckard’s talents. The youngster thrived on aggressiveness, belting .295, scoring 104 runs, stealing a league-leading 77 bases, and exhibiting excellent defensive skills. He placed second in the league in assists (33) and set a National League record which still stands: 14 double plays by an outfielder. These accomplishments were minor, however, compared to the knowledge gained by playing Oriole-style baseball. And Jimmy proved during the sport’s upcoming epoch — the dead ball era — that he had learned his lessons well. He was to become one of baseball’s most intelligent and resourceful players.

Sheck returned to the defending-champion Dodgers in 1900, the league reduced from twelve to eight teams. Franchises fell in Baltimore, Cleveland, Washington and Louisville resulting in major league unemployment for approximately 80 players, and creating fierce competition for the open positions on the remaining teams. Jim played in 85 games, hitting .300, as the Brooklyn squad raced to another pennant, the first of five National League flags during Sheckard’s illustrious career.

Jimmy had his finest slugging campaign in 1901. In that first historic year of the two-league alignment, he led the senior loop in slugging average (.541) and triples (21). In addition, he was runner-up in home runs (11) and total bases (296), placed third in hits (197) and runs batted in (104), and fourth in batting average (.353). His 1902 stats might have been better had he not jumped briefly to the American League Orioles of John McGraw. After only four games he had another change of heart and jumped back to Brooklyn, where he hit only .265.

Sheck bounced back with another great campaign with the Dodgers in 1903, hitting a lusty .332. Amazingly, he lead the league in power, speed and throwing: 9 home runs, 67 stolen bases, 36 assists.

The Dodgers took a backward slide the next two seasons, settling all too comfortably into the basement in 1905. Sheckard’s hitting declined also, prompting the new manager, Patsy Donovan, to trade quality for quantity. Brooklyn’s pilot sent Sheck and his lifetime .295 average to Frank Chance’s Chicago Cubs for four players: Jack McCarthy, Doc Casey, Bill Maloney and Buttons Briggs.

The trade fulfilled Jim’s wildest boyhood fantasies. He became a starting outfielder for the best team in the National League, possibly the best team in the entire history of baseball. Sheckard remained Chance’s left fielder through the 1912 season — the duration of “The Peerless Leader’s” reign at the Chicago helm. Ole Jim, as he was affectionately called by his Cub teammates, won the hearts of the fans with his heads-up, forceful style of play. The ball was dead, the averages down, and his swift wrists were gradually slowing, but Sheckard thrived on the intense competitive survival of one-run baseball. The wily outfielder played an aggressive, devil-may-care brand of ball, blending guts, determination, and mental alertness into a team-oriented, selfless style of play. It was this style that reaped four Chicago pennants and two world championships in a five-year span.

Forty years later as Jim knocked bitterly on death’s door, Associated Press columinst Whitney Martin, an avid supporter of the Cubs in their heyday, recalled his impressions as a youngster:

“Sheckard loomed as large to us then as any of his teammates, but although he was an integral part of those great Cub teams he is virtually forgotten today.”

The immortal Grantland Rice wrote that “Jimmy deserved a place among the game’s greatest outfielders,” and Ring Lardner, an equally famous reporter, novelist and humorist, referred to Sheckard as “the greatest ballplayer in the world” in one of his columns. In his book, Baseball’s Greatest Outfielders, Ira L. Smith lauded Sheck’s defensive skills:

“He was the kind of an outfielder a manager would have if baseball dreams came true. Had the way of a master in everything he did out there on the grassy stretches of major league ballparks. He was a great student of batters . . . played them as well as anybody in the league. Whether charging in or racing back, flashing to one side or the other, was right up there with the best. Throwing arm was a marvel of power and accuracy. Anybody who got an extra base hit in his territory really earned it.”

Although Sheckard fulfilled a major role as the McGraw-style catalyst, the entire Cubs team performed as if possessed by a magical power. Scientific. They compiled the greatest single-season mark in baseball history in 1906, winning 116 games while dropping only 36 — a phenomenal .763 winning percentage! The team also set a long-term record that will never be broken: They won two-thirds (.667 pct.) of their games for a 7-year span, encompassing the entire Sheckard/Chance era (1906-1912).

Sheck led the league in fielding average and in sacrifices (40) in 1906. He led in defensive double plays, runs, walks, and assists in 1911 and repeated in the latter two departments in 1912, earning a peak salary of $4,250 in his final year as a big league regular.

His superb, unselfish play earned Sheckard a position on the All-Time Cubs team as selected by the noted baseball writer Joe Reichler in the Ronald Encyclopedia of Baseball. The selection, a major testimonial to Jim’s career, encompassed the 1 876-1 962 period. Sheckard joined Jimmy Ryan and Bill Lange in the dream-team outfield; Cap Anson, Johnny Evers, Ernie Banks and Stan Hack manned the infield positions, and Gabby Hartnett called the pitches for Mordecai Brown and his lefty counterpart, Hippo Vaughn. The manager: Frank Chance.

Sheckard split an unsuccessful campaign between St. Louis and Cincinnati in 1913; he managed and played in the outfield with Cleveland in the American Association in 1914; and had his last direct involvement in major league baseball as a coach for the Cubs in 1917. This was also Honus Wagner’s final season as a player. Wagner and Sheckard had both joined major league clubs for the first time in 1897, playing competitively against one another for 17 consecutive years. As Sheck said many times later: “Honus was undoubtedly the greatest player I ever saw.”

Jimmy returned to Lancaster County after his brief fling as Cubs’ coach. While managing semipro ball in Columbia, he discovered future Cardinal world series star Lester Bell, a Harrisburg native, and a powerful hitter. Bell, a current resident of nearby Elizabethtown, vividly related the circumstances in a recent interview:

“Jimmy was a fine man. I may not have been a major league player if not for Jimmy. He saw me play and brought me to Columbia for semipro ball. He also contacted the big league scouts to look me over. . . . And you could tell just by talking to him that he was a very smart baseball man. Very fundamental. Bunt, hit and run, stolen base, defense — the way he played the game from what I’ve been told. Even in his early 40s, when I knew him, you could see he was real fast at one time. He was still built like a speedster. As a manager he wore white socks and a white shirt and was always chewing tobacco. He’d hitch his pants at the knees, sit himself down and spit away. Funniest damn thing I ever saw by the end of a game those white socks were always a very distinctly brownish color.”

At various times in the 1930s, Sheck managed the Lancaster team in the Class D Interstate League, the All-Lancaster semipro team, and was head coach at Franklin and Marshall College. Still later he worked as a gas station attendant and a milk truck helper, tossing around 100-pound cans at the age of 60. Arthritis in his left foot, apparently stemming from an old, unmended baseball injury, hobbled him badly.

On a cold Sunday in January 1947, Jim walked to his attendant’s job at a gas station directly across from Stumpf Field, home of the Lancaster Red Roses. As he limped to within view of the ballpark, an auto struck him from behind, knocking him forcefully into the street. Three days later the long ago idol of Chicago baseball fandom, a player who garnered his laurels in the rough-and-tumble era of turn-of-the-century baseball, died of head injuries.

A ceremony was held in his honor at Stumpf Field, Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem presiding. A monument was placed in Lancaster’s Buchanan Park. Eventually the memories turned to dust: wind-blown, irretrievably scattered images. Forgotten.

Sheckard’s records, however, can not be ignored. He ranks in the all-time top ten in major league history in three career categories:

  • Fifth in double plays by an outfielder (81)
  • Eighth in assists by an outfielder (307)
  • Eighth in steals of home (18)

His .275 lifetime average, though somewhat low, compares rather favorably with his contemporaries. When matched against the career marks of his eight most illustrious Cub teammates, all of whom totaled more than 1000 career hits, Sheckard’s average ranks behind Chance’s .297, but ahead of all the others: Kling .27 1, Evers .270, Schulte .270, Hofman .269, Slagle .268, Steinfeldt .268 and Tinker .263.

His great eye and inimitable ability to wait for the good pitch are responsible for his rank as the National League’s premier “base on balls” man of his era. His 147 walks in 1911 set a league standard which stood for 34 years, and remains on the books as a record for lefty swingers. He also holds the all-time league mark for sacrifices in a season with 46. Defensively, Sheck is the only National League outfielder since 1900 to twice record more than 30 assists in a season. Offensively, he was the only player in baseball’s first 50 years to hit grand slam home runs in consecutive games (September 23-24, 1901).

During his career Jim led the league no fewer than 18 times in offensive and defensive categories. Attesting to his multifaceted talents, he led at one time or another in 11 different departments: stolen bases, HR’s, triples, slugging average, runs, walks, assists, double plays, putouts, sacrifices and fielding average. His on-base percentage was an excellent .370; he reached base over 3200 times on hits and walks. His 2091 hits, 1295 runs and 2121 games are all listed among the milestone rankings in Macmillan’s Encyclopedia.

The ultimate tribute to the ability of Samuel James Tilden Sheckard was written by Ring Lardner, whose reflective memories give us a clearly-mirrored account of the dead-ball era, in a note to the ailing John McGraw in 1932:

“Baseball hasn’t meant much to me since the introduction of the TNT ball that robbed the game of the features I liked best — features that gave you (McGraw) and Bill Carrigan and Fielder Jones and other really intelligent managers a deserved advantage, and smart ball players like Cobb and Jim Sheckard a chance to do things.”

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