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Hall of Famer Ray Schalk Once Caught for the Herd

By: Brian Frank

Former Bisons manager Ray Schalk was one of the greatest catchers in baseball history. He made his major-league debut in 1912 at just 19 years old and went on to play 18 big-league seasons, 17 of which were with the Chicago White Sox. He ranks 11th all-time in throwing out potential base stealers (51.59%), second all-time in career assists by a catcher (1,811), and also participated in more double plays than any catcher in major-league history (222). He also caught three major-league no-hitters, including a perfect game – and caught another game where the pitcher lost the no-hitter in the 10th inning. His 30 stolen bases in 1916 were a single-season record for a catcher, a mark that stood until 1982. He was player-manager for the 1927 and 1928 White Sox, a World Series champion with the 1917 White Sox, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1955.

Schalk almost came to play for Buffalo before he began his illustrious major league career. In 1911, the Bisons had an opportunity to sign the 18-year-old backstop. In an interview published on September 22, 1936, former Bisons president Jacob J. Stein told Bill Abbott of the Buffalo Times: “Once, I had an opportunity to get Ray Schalk for $700. Frank Navin, late owner of the Detroit Tigers, was offered Schalk. He couldn’t use him. Navin suggested Schalk come to Buffalo. We had Bill Killefer at the time. He was a fine catcher. We couldn’t use Schalk. Ray landed with Milwaukee, then went to the Chicago White Sox to become one of the greatest of all-time catchers.”

Schalk catching with the White Sox.

Twenty-one years after the Bisons almost acquired Schalk as a player, he came to Buffalo to be the team’s manager. In his first season at the helm of the Herd, he took a squad that had lost 105 games and finished in last place the previous season and guided them to a 91-75 record, good for a third-place finish. To honor their new manager’s success, the Bisons held “Ray Schalk Day” on September 4, 1932. The highlight of the day was that that the 40-year-old Schalk was scheduled to start at catcher.

Approximately 5,000 fans turned out at Bison Stadium (later renamed Offermann Stadium) to watch Buffalo take on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Ray Schalk Day. Prior to the start of the contest, Schalk came out to home plate with players from both teams and was presented with a “chest of silver, a traveling bag, and a handsome portrait while the crowd roared its approval.”[1] The adoring crowd “got a great kick out of Schalk’s contribution to the big day.”[2]

The Bisons came out swinging, scoring four runs on five hits in the first inning. The bigggest blast was a three-run home run by Ollie Carnegie, his 36th homer of the season “and one of the best of the lot.”[3] Schalk, batting eighth, came to bat in the first inning – and “the cheering broke out again” when he “smote an infield hit.”[4]

Seemingly motivated by their manager taking the field, the Bisons kept pouring it on, scoring three more runs in the second inning. In the third inning, Buffalo sent 10 batters to the plate and tacked on five more runs. W.S. Coughlin wrote in the Courier-Express that Schalk’s “presence became the inspiration for a flock of infuriated slugging that brought the Bisons a dozen runs in the first three frames…”[5]

Schalk managed more games than anyone in Bisons franchise history.

The Bisons manager showed that he hadn’t missed a beat behind the plate. Coughlin wrote: “Performing as spiritedly as he did in his halcyon days, Schalk looked all over the regular catcher and stuck to his post for six full innings without making the slightest deviation from top caliber baseball.”[6] He added, “Schalk kept barking at his thrower in the third with two men on and one out until he fanned the next two hitters to retire the side and wound up the game with seven strikeout victims.”[7]

Not to be outdone, Maple Leafs manager Lena Blackburne also took the field. Blackburne was a former teammate of Schalk with the White Sox. His last major-league action came with the White Sox in 1929, when he was the team’s manager and played in one game. The 45-year-old former infielder hadn’t played regularly since playing for Little Rock in the Southern Association in 1926. On Ray Schalk Day, Blackburne played third base for the first five innings. Coughlin reported that “the old war horse was not as supple as he might be around the bag and a couple of balls got by him for base hits without being very seriously challenged, but he whacked out a neat hit at the plate and just missed another.”[8]

Meanwhile, Schalk stayed in the game for six innings and finished 2-for-3 with a run scored.

Bisons starting pitcher Horace Lisenbee was at his best when his manager was catching him – tossing shutout ball when Schalk was behind the dish. As Coughlin noted, “Lisenbee twirled fine ball for six innings, but relented some in the last few rounds and the Leafs wound up with thirteen safeties (hits), including long homers by (Stu) Clarke and (Red) Howell.”[9] However, the Leafs late rallies weren’t enough to catch the Bisons, who tacked on two in the seventh and one in the eighth, to come away with a 15-6 win.

Ray Schalk Day was the only time Schalk played for the Bisons. However, he made his mark in Buffalo baseball history another way – as one of the most successful managers in team history. He managed the Herd from 1932 to 1937 and returned for part of the 1950 season, managing more games in his career (1,052) than anyone in team history. He guided Buffalo to an International League pennant in 1936, and Governors’ Cup Championships in 1933 and 1936. Schalk was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990.

[1] W.S. Coughlin, “Bison Pilot Works Behind the Bat Six Innings, Gets Two Hits; Carnegie Clubs 36th,” Buffalo Courier-Express, September 5, 1932.

[2] Coughlin.

[3] Coughlin.

[4] Coughlin.

[5] Coughlin.

[6] Coughlin.

[7] Coughlin.

[8] Coughlin.

[9] Coughlin.


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