York County native Jimmy Sheckard was the star of the last Cubs team to win the World Series — in 1908
Heading into Thursday’s action, the Chicago Cubs are 36-15 and off to one of the best starts in baseball since the 1985 Detroit Tigers (39-12), the 1998 New York Yankees (38-13) and 2001 Seattle Mariners (39-12) through the first 51 games.
Not only do the Cubs have the best record in baseball, but they also have reached a point where nothing short of a World Series victory would determine a successful season.
That in itself is newsworthy. After all, even casual sports fans know that it’s been a long time since the Cubs won the World Series. Actually, it’s been more than a long time. If the Cubs pull it off this year it will be 108 years between World Series victories and their first appearance in the Fall Classic since 1945.
In other words, a 12-year-old kid’s parents, grandparents and probably great grandparents weren’t even born the last time the Cubs won the series.
So yeah, the Cubs are due.
The last time the Cubs won the World Series, they were remembered for the infield of Frank Chance, Johnny Evers and Joe Tinker, the famous Tinker to Evers to Chance double play combo, the famous double-play combination that become fodder for poetry.
But arguably the team’s best player was the team’s leftfielder and leadoff hitter, who was born in Chanceford Township, Pa.
That player from York County, Samuel James Tilden Sheckard, was described by famous writer Ring Lardner as, “the greatest ballplayer in the world.”
No, Jimmy Sheckard was not the greatest ballplayer in the world in 1908, nor in any era. In fact, Sheckard is not even a member of the baseball Hall of Fame or regarded as one of the greatest players for Brooklyn or Chicago, the hometowns of the ballclubs he made his fame. Sheckard might not even be the best player from York County or Lancaster County, where he moved at the age of 10.
But Sheckard was a terrific ballplayer by any standard. Moreover, he has the rarest of distinctions of any player…
Sheckard was a member of the only two World Series champion teams in Chicago Cubs’ history.
Think about that for a second… the number of people who have World Series rings with the Cubs is probably the most select group in the game. There was Tinker, Evers and Chance, as well as pitchers Orvall Overall and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Matched up against Ty Cobb’s Detroit Tigers in 1907 and 1908, the Cubs won eight out of nine World Series games and were viewed as the greatest teams in the early history of the game.
But how many Cubs’ players have come and gone since that last title? Before the Billy Goat and Bartman and the black cat of 1969; before Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Kerry Wood and Sammy Sosa—hell, before Wrigley Field… there was Jimmy Sheckard in left field for the Chicago Cubs.
“Sheckard was one of the brightest ball players in the business,” Hall-of-Fame teammate Johnny Evers said. “He was a bigger cog in the old invincible Cub machine than he ever received credit for being.”
From 1906 to 1910, Sheckard was the left fielder for the juggernaut Cubs teams that went to the World Series four times and won the title in 1907 and 1908. Here we are in 2016 and the Cubs haven’t come close since Sheckard held down left field. In fact, a good modern-day comparison for Sheckard might be Johnny Damon circa 2004 with the champion Red Sox. Sheckard was a leadoff man extraordinaire, a Gold Glove-caliber fielder and a power threat in the Dead Ball Era.
Also like Damon, Sheckard was known as a bit of a zany dude on and off the field. A prankster and a singer in a barbershop quartet, Sheckard also carried some of his quirky behavior onto the diamond. For instance, there was a game in Pittsburgh where the Pirates’ hitters had a knack for spraying line drive all over left field far out of the reach of Sheckard. So rather than position himself in the outfield traditionally, Sheckard spun around in circles in the outfield, tossed his glove up in the air and decided he’d position himself where the glove landed.
That game was stopped so Cubs’ pitcher Orval Overall could re-position Sheckard back into the middle of left field instead of on the foul line, but the outfielder wouldn’t budge. When Overall gave up trying to position his outfielder and went back to the mound, his next pitch was hit directly to the unconventional Sheckard playing left field practically in foul territory.
Sheckard also boasted that he would bat .400 in the 1906 World Series against the White Sox, but instead went 0 for 21 and did not hit the ball out of the infield as the Cubs were upset in six games. Two years later, on the eve of the 1908 World Series, Sheckard was almost blinded in his left eye from a fight with teammate Heinie Zimmerman. During an argument, Sheckard threw something at Zimmerman, who in turn fired a glass bottle of ammonia at Sheckard prompting a clubhouse melee. In a way, the Cubs’ brawl kind of sounds like the stories about the combative 1970s Oakland A’s — minus the bottle of ammonia, of course.
Needless to say, Sheckard was very popular with the fans. This was despite the fact that Sheckard was a bit flaky when choosing a team to play for. Early in his career, Sheckard had a penchant for abruptly switching teams in the middle of the season. From 1899 to 1902, Sheckard jumped back and forth from the Brooklyn Superbas— the forerunner to the Dodger s— to the Baltimore Orioles and back again, four times. Finally, after being traded from Brooklyn to the Cubs before the 1906 season, Sheckard found his home.
Oh, but Sheckard could field his position without the silly antics, too. In Bill James’ Historical Baseball Abstract, the author lists Sheckard on the gold Glove team of the 1900s as well as the No. 24-rated left fielder of all time in the 2001 edition of the book.
But Sheckard’s play, as well as his inability to pick a team, was marked by inconsistency. Actually, if Sheckard’s playing career could be defined properly, it was his consistency at being inconsistent. Or, perhaps, Sheckard was focused on one aspect of the game. He led the league in slugging one season and stolen bases in another. Actually, Sheckard’s superlatives are downright wacky:
• NL record for sacrifice hits in a season with 46 (1909)
• NL record for walks in a season in with 147 (1911)
• NL on-base percentage leader (1911)
• NL slugging percentage leader (1901)
• NL runs leader (1911)
• NL triples leader (1901)
• NL home runs leader (1903)
• NL bases on balls leader (1911 & 1912)
• NL stolen bases leader (1899 & 1903)
• 100 RBI seasons (1901)
• 100 Runs scored seasons (1899, 1901 & 1911)
• 50 stolen bases seasons (1899 & 1903)
As James wrote in the Historical Baseball Abstract:
Sheckard drew 147 walks in 1911, which was the National league record until Eddie Stanky, and is still one of the highest figures on record. He also hit as high as .354 (1901), stole as many as 77 bases (1899), and led the National League at various times in triples, home runs, runs scored, walks, sacrifice hits, stolen bases, base runner kills (outfield assists), on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Sheckard had sort of a Toby Harrah-type career. He did a lot of things well, but not necessarily at the same time. The first half of his career he was a middle-of-the-order hitter, and a good one; the second half of his career he was a leadoff man, and a very good one.
With Sheckard, the only big leaguers to lead the league in home runs and stolen bases in different seasons during the modern era are Ty Cobb, Chuck Klein and Willie Mays. Only Sheckard has led the league in homers in one season and sacrifices in another.
It is in that cemetery where we stumbled upon a simple grave stone marked that read:
JAMES T. SHECKARD
1878 — 1947
That’s it. Nothing about the Cubs or the World Series or even the major leagues. Nothing else about the fact that at the age of 10, Sheckard’s family moved from just over the river from York County to Columbia where he was discovered as a baseball prodigy.
In fact, Sheckard’s grave was as austere and plain as his legacy in his hometown until a monument with his name and accomplishments was placed in Columbia’s Gladfelter Park.
And it was back to Columbia where Sheckard settled after his playing days ended following the 1913 season. By that point, at age 34, Sheckard was a .194 hitter for the Reds and Cardinals though he retained his keen batting eye. One has to figure that there are not too many players in big league history that had a sub-.200 batting average in 99 games, but still were able to have a .368 on-base percentage.
Nevertheless, Sheckard had settled into retirement, spending some time in the Navy in World War I as well as a stint as a coach for the Cubs. Home, however, was Columbia and it was there in 1929 when he lost everything in the stock market crash. Fortunately, his status as a former big leaguer made the search for work a little easier. He found a job hauling giant milk containers for farmers around Lancaster County. He also worked at a gas station in Lancaster, which was conveniently located across the street from Stumpf Field.
Travel to Lancaster today and you will still find Stumpf Field in its original location. It was there where the Lancaster Red Roses of the Interstate, Piedmont and Eastern leagues played as an affiliate for the White Sox, Tigers, Philadelphia Athletics, Cubs, Cardinals and Dodgers. In 1932, Sheckard managed the Lancaster Red Sox for a season at Stumpf Field, as well as the college team nearby at Franklin & Marshall and some semi-pro teams in the area.
As it turned out, Sheckard’s quirky behavior didn’t end when he stopped playing in the big leagues. Les Bell, an infielder from Harrisburg who went on to play for the Cardinals, Braves and Cubs, told a researcher about Sheckard’s fun with tobacco:
“As a manager he wore white socks and a white shirt and was always chewing tobacco,” Bell said. “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.”
Shortly after his stint on the bench with the Lancaster Red Sox, Sheckard inexplicably turned down an offer from Connie Mack to manage the A’s farm team in the Eastern Shore League. Who knows… it could have been his path back to the big leagues.
Instead, Sheckard kept working and living in Lancaster and Columbia. But in January of 1947 near that gas station located across the street from Stumpf Field, Sheckard was hit from behind by a car. Three days later he died from head injuries at age 68.
Since then memories of Sheckard have faded some. His friends held a memorial for him at Stumpf Field and the city of Lancaster placed the stone monument in his honor at Buchanan Park, located three blocks from James Buchanan’s former estate. Coincidentally, the then candidate Barack Obama spoke at a rally just steps from the memorial 61 years after it was placed in the park.
Once, he was “the greatest ballplayer in the world.” Today, only a few folks remember the Pennsylvania Dutchman and York County native who was an integral member of the only two Cubs teams to win the World Series.