Meet Baseball's Pitcher Who Got Struck By Lightning Mid-Game -- Then Kept Playing
Old-timey baseball is one of those things that almost always lives up to the legendary aura placed around it in modern times. Just watch five minutes of the first few episodes of Ken Burns Baseball, and you will lose your goddamn mind. Every dude is named something like Dink Sewerwater, and they were known for smoking a pipe through each eyeball during their at-bats. They also got to the ballpark each day by working on a railroad in the morning, before the games that carried a train full of other players directly to the park.
Other players were like Poot Scootfeller and Doot Scootfeller, two guys that were not actually not even related, just happened to have the really common, super 1920s baseball last name of Scootfeller, and were all managed by some hulking behemoth named Dirt McWormly. A man whose coaching style was all about grabbing ballpark pigeons out of the air, crumpling them up, and throwing them at opposing pitchers during their windup.
However, one player rose above the comical nature of just about everybody playing in this time to really stand out, and that ballplayer was Ray Caldwell ...
The Stay Ray Kid
Ray Caldwell was born in 1888 in Nowheresville, Pennsylvania, where every ballplayer was born during this era. Much like in Lord of the Rings and the pits that pump out the Uruk-Hai, dogshit towns in Pennsylvania near the turn of the century were just churning out salty dudes who were bound to become weirdo baseball players.
I'd wager that if you were born anywhere in the Northeast around this time, you popped out with leathery skin and already had about 10 unique ideas for how to cheat in the sport you'd eventually become a professional in. Your first words would be, "Hey, ma! I was thinkin', what if I hollowed out all the balls before the game and filled them with just a shitload of bees so they'd dance and dance and dance on their way to the pitcher, and them umps would be none the wiser?" The mom would cry, tears of true, genuine joy, because her tiny baby toddler with the leathery skin, puffing on his pipe, was truly going to fulfill his Pennsylvania destiny.
Ray's early life beyond that doesn't matter because, as we've established, he was born with the mark of a baseball player, and he, of course, worked his way into the big leagues, starting out with the McKeesport Tubers of the Ohio-Pennsylvania league in 1910.
Yeah, the McKeesport Tubers. Another incredible part of this era was the team names themselves. Before we had major cities and racist mascots to latch onto, a team would just pop up in some shit town, and the owner would look around and name it after the first thing he saw. That's how you'd end up with marquee matchups like the Gravesport Towndrunks versus the Whipperwhistle IDon'tKnowThere'sJustDirtHere ... It'sAllDirt's. But it wasn't until Ray found himself with the New York Yankees that his career -- and his drinking -- really took off.
Boozin' And Spittin'
I think it's reasonably fair to assume that every player back in this time was boozing pretty hard. These were men that got after it. Everyone was drunk all the time, so to really stand out as drunk, you had to be DRUNK DRUNK. That was Ray Caldwell.
Right along the time that he was becoming a regular fixture in the Yankees' pitching rotation, Ray Caldwell was finding out that he really loved to party and drink, too. So much so that it was starting to impact his pitching performances. He'd get on the mound one day and throw a gem, while the next, he'd be an absolute disaster. Everyone who played with Ray at the time thought he was a generational talent, a truly electric pitcher that could hit the shit out of the ball, too. But he was also a generational drinker, a truly electric drinker that could drink the shit out of the bourbon, too.
So Ray's playing career went up and down. His drinking got so bad that he was constantly being fined for being drunk and screwing up games. For which, again, he had to be so, SO drunk. If you took every player off of the diamond in the seventh inning of a 1915 baseball game and had them blow into a Breathalyzer, the guy holding the thing would get insta-cirrhosis. Look at the pictures of these dudes from back then and try to imagine hanging with them at the bar in modern times. You could go an hour with them before you'd be blacked out, and Bing Dickle and Wart Moles would be setting new high scores on the Big Buck Hunter machine despite never seeing a goddamn electronic in their lives.
Ray's career became a series of ups and downs as he struggled to navigate the partying lifestyle with the pitching duties on the mound. Things really got spicy when he took the mound for a game on August 24th, 1919.
His Walkup Song Was "Thunderstruck"
By 1919, Caldwell had been traded to the Boston Red Sox for a modest return, cut by them, and was eventually picked up by the Cleveland Indians. This is best summed up by the New York Herald, saying, "When in condition, he was a wonderful pitcher and also a splendid batter, but his irregular habits destroyed his effectiveness."
Now an Indian, Ray took the mound on a late August day for his start against the Philadelphia Athletics. He tapped into that Ray potential and pitched a solid game, taking a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning. With two outs, the storm clouds started rolling in. Ray set to deliver the pitch and was absolutely goddamn scorched. A lightning bolt touched down right on the mound and sent Ray straight onto his ass. Because, you know, he was just struck by lightning. As one of his teammates rushed over to check on him, he placed a hand on Raiden ... I mean Ray ... and found himself a little zapped, saying that Ray was "crackling with electricity."
So everyone just kind of stood there. Waiting to see if Ray would come to and, I'd presume, were all pretty chill about it. Again, this is an era where men were just built differently. I'd wager over half of them had already seen someone get struck by lightning, so they were probably mostly pissed at Ray for delaying their time at the bar. Ray came to, and the manager and trainers helped him off of the field and got him serious medical attention because he was just struck by lightning in the middle of a baseball diamond. Just kidding: Ray insisted on staying in the game and got the batter to ground out for a complete-game win.
Just imagine being the guy in the batter's box there. In the modern era, the most intimidating thing you could see standing on the mound was, what, Randy Johnson: Bird Exploder?
Here was a man that just turned into a Highlander right before your eyes, ready to deliver the next pitch. Ray walked it off and suffered no significant injuries and just three starts later, went on to throw a no-hitter against his old team, the Yankees.
Just Spitballin' Here
Ray not only survived the lightning game, but he continued to pitch in the Big Leagues for years after, even becoming one of the final players to be grandfathered into the league's new spitballing ban.
In yet another show of how absurd this generation was for the sport, by the time 1920 rolled around, the league had decided to put an end to the spitball. It was a technique used by many pitchers at the time to get a little extra action or leverage with the ball by rubbing their saliva on the thing. But, it was still 1920s baseball, so they couldn't be fully reasonable, so they put together a list of players who would be grandfathered in and be allowed to continue throwing the pitch because, well, it was kind of their thing.
Ray was on that list, and boy, can you imagine what his spitball was like? Heavy globs of whatever last night's poison was and that morning's hangover remedy became mixed together to make the ball dart around with the same physics of the Tic Tac UFOs marauding off of our coastal waters.
Baseball simply made no sense at this time. I mean, just around the same point when Ray was finishing games after getting struck by lightning, Yankees player Ping Bodie was battling an ostrich in a pasta-eating contest. It was this beautiful mash-up of America itself trying to figure out who or what the hell it was while a bunch of young men attempted to do the same. Ray was the ideal fool to be thrown into the middle of all of that, and he lived up to just about every possible stereotype or trope about both the sport, and the players, that came to personify that absurd moment in time.
Ray's Ninth Inning
Ray's career never hit the legendary status that his talent probably should have led him to, but he still managed to win a World Series with the Indians before calling it quits for good. Nowadays, when a ballplayer retires, they go on to become a talking head for a network or shill bogus compression sleeves on infomercials, but that wasn't always the case. When you retired in Ray's day, you didn't actually retire. He did everything from working at a train station to (obviously) ending up as a bartender at a rod and gun club, fully hitting for the cycle in a life that embodies the true American dream.
Someone like Ray Caldwell is a genuine American original and makes you wonder if, in a hundred years, people will be doing the same kind of write-ups and waxing nostalgic about some Twitch streamer who continued their speedrun after having a heart attack from their 16th G Fuel of the day.
Top Image: Library of Congress