In the hot summer of 1919, Ray Caldwell was a promising young pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. Known as “The Mighty Mite”, he stood only 5 feet 7 inches tall but weighed 140 pounds and threw up to 95 mph with pinpoint control.
On August 24th, 1919, in one of his first starts against a major league team (the St Louis Browns), something most unusual happened which went down in history as, “The Day the Wind Blew”.
Ray recalls, “(It) felt as if a million little needles were being stuck in my head. The sound was like someone had set off a volcano right next to me!” This is how Ray Caldwell describes one of the most bizarre incidents ever recorded in baseball history. On August 24, 1919, he was struck by lightning while inside a pitcher’s box during an afternoon game against the St Louis Browns at Cleveland’s League Park.
There are thousands of documented cases around the world of people being struck by lightning, but in this instance we have police reports from five witnesses and newspaper accounts documenting this unique case.
Among these is reporter John Hemmingson who wrote about what happened that day for his paper, The Cleveland News. One of the reasons this story is unique is because Ray Caldwell was able to continue pitching until the ninth inning when he gave up one run and finally left the game.
A look at newspaper accounts from other sources show some different names for both team and players, but all stories have been cross-referenced with a program from this game preserved in the Western Reserve Historical Society which lists the lineups: The Cleveland Naps (The ‘Indians’) v. The St Louis Browns (now known as the Cardinals).
Excerpt from The Cleveland News (Mark McGraw) August 25, 1919 “The baseball fraternity was startled yesterday. It needed a jolt as it is facing what looks to be an absolutely dull season. It got the jolt here when Ray Caldwell pitched with his head wrapped in bandages and the five stiches in his skull.
He pitched the ball as well and as hard as ever, but one could not help feeling that perhaps he lost accuracy by reason of the bandages which slightly impaired his vision.”
“First he is struck by lightning and now it appears that while the weather was warm it was cool enough for a sweater. What will next season hold in store?”
Excerpt from The Kansas City Star (W.J. Henderson) September 2, 1919 “Ray Caldwell pitched nine innings at League Park yesterday with his skull bandaged after having been struck by lightning during the Indians’ game against St. Louis three weeks ago.”
“Caldwell went into the box at Cleveland’s League Park last Saturday afternoon with an unusually large white bandage on his head, only to be topped on Sunday when he appeared before the home fans wearing a hat and helmet as well as what served as sunshades over both eyes.”
After being hit, Ray Caldwell felt as if a million little needles were being stuck in his head. The sound was like someone had set off a volcano right next to me! His teammates, fans and opponents were concerned for his welfare.
The Show Goes On
The St Louis Browns’ manager, George Sisler, conferred with the umpire about calling the game but Ray told him that he wanted to finish it out. This is how the Sporting Life reported the incident: “His head swathed like an Egyptian mummy (Sisler) asked that the game be called on account of bad light or unfavorable conditions.
Manager Joe Birmingham (St. Louis manager), who had witnessed this exhibition of courage by Caldwell from behind third base, came down to talk with Tom Jones and Mr. Heydler (umpire).
“He was for calling the game. But Ray begged off, and Birmingham returned to his position with a word of admiration for the young man’s pluck.”
It was after this event that Ray Caldwell found himself deeply in debt. The small insurance policy he had left him unable to pay medical expenses from the injury. He filed for bankruptcy and lost most of his money. His wife divorced him while he was still recovering in a sanitarium.
Ray remained on an unpaid leave from baseball through 1920 when he received $400 per month for half a season, and then $700 per month during part of 1921 before being dropped by the Cleveland Indians who said “he couldn’t pitch well enough.”.
The Kansas City Star’s W.J. Henderson was quoted in a Sporting Life article about Caldwell in 1935 as saying, “Caldwell had more guts than the manager of any team I’ve ever known.” He also said that Joe Birmingham, his manager with the St. Louis Browns referred to Ray Caldwell as “a real baseball player”.
A Legend Is Born
It could have been a career ending injury for another ballplayer but not Ray Caldwell. Despite being very successful up until then, he went on to teach school and raise cattle on a ranch near Bakersfield, California before inventing an automatic meat slicer for which he received $50,000 in royalties (roughly $500 thousand in today’s money) from meat packers.
Ray Caldwell passed away January, 1963 at the age of 71. He is buried in San Ramon, CA.
“Only time I ever saw a pitcher with his head swathed like an Egyptian mummy. …The pitch was as hard and fast as it had been before he was struck by lightning.”
– George Sisler on Ray Caldwell’s return to the mound after being struck by lightning (Sporting Life) 20 Sept 1919.