Local son becomes ‘winningest left-hander’ for Cardinals
MCSHERRYSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — John Sherdel remembers catching pop flies from his grandfather at their home in McSherrystown.
Bound to a wheelchair and decades removed from his professional baseball heyday, Bill Sherdel had quite the story to tell. Before tossing baseballs to his grandchildren, he did it on the nation’s biggest stages against players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
But Sherdel would not talk about those days unless he was prompted, according to his grandson. He was far too humble.
“He wouldn’t go around and say, ‘I did this, I did that,’” John said. “If you didn’t ask him, you didn’t know it.”
John’s grandfather, best known as “Wee Willie” Sherdel, will now have the story of his illustrious professional baseball career told through the new book written by Penn Township resident John Coulson.
Entitled “Wee Willie Sherdel: The Cardinals’ Winningest Left Hander,” the book launched on Wednesday with an event at the Knights of Columbus in McSherrystown. The book explores Sherdel’s pitching career from 1917 to 1932, a span which saw Sherdel compete in two World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, winning one in 1926.
And John Sherdel, 65, has the ring to prove it.
‘A labor of love’
A love of baseball was ingrained in Coulson, 67, at a young age. He joked that he held a baseball bat before he held a pencil, and the ball diamond was his babysitter growing up.
Coulson’s father, a baseball coach, told him about the Hanover minor league baseball team from years ago, the Hanover Raiders. It wasn’t until Coulson’s father passed away that he began to gather information on the team.
“The more research that I did, the more impressed I was,” Coulson said.
That led to Coulson’s first book, “Hanover Raiders: Minor League Baseball in Hanover, Pennsylvania,” which included a chapter on a man who got his start on the team: Bill Sherdel.
When he was working on that first book, Coulson contacted John Sherdel, a “cold call” of sorts. In his family, John was the keeper of Bill Sherdel’s memorabilia.
The two kept in touch, aided in part by their grandsons playing together on a traveling baseball team.
About two years ago, Coulson was looking for a new project and decided that the story of Wee Willie, a record-setting Cardinals pitcher, needed to be told.
“People don’t know the story,” Coulson said. “They don’t know a lot about him, and even if they knew the story, there is so much that I uncovered that’s in the book that’s interesting that people will find out about.”
Coulson began his research after getting John Sherdel’s approval.
“I was happy he wanted to do it,” John said, adding that his grandfather is a source of pride.
Calling the book “a labor of love,” Coulson dedicated the book to the Sherdel family as well as the people of Midway, Hanover and McSherrystown. Sherdel was born in Midway, attended school and played baseball at Hanover High School and moved to McSherrystown and spent the rest of his life there after getting married.
To this day, Sherdel’s descendants live in the house he built on Ridge Avenue.
“Just about all of us live around here,” John Sherdel said of his family.
The genesis of ‘the wee one’
The book covers Wee Willie Sherdel’s career, including his beginnings after he was picked up by the Milwaukee Brewers from the Hanover Raiders in 1916.
Branch Rickey, the Cardinals manager at the time, was scouting the team and saw Sherdel fresh off his 10th straight loss. Rickey saw something he liked and paid the Brewers to keep Sherdel on the roster instead of shipping him off to a farm team so the Cardinals could bring him in at the end of the season.
Sherdel worked mostly in relief at the start of his career, but Coulson noted that sports writers revered him. They called Sherdel “Rickey’s ready relief.”
Coulson pondered if Sherdel would have achieved better statistics if he was a starter earlier in his career.
That happened after the Cardinals replaced Rickey with Rogers Hornsby.
“He was doing very well in relief, but he always wanted to be a starter, and he finally got more of his wishes when Horsnby took over,” Coulson said.
Once the switch was made, Sherdel produced. He pitched well as a starter and gained a lot more recognition, according to Coulson.
Sherdel was known for the “slow ball” he developed, a change of pace pitch that even the likes of Babe Ruth would struggle to hit. Coulson compared Sherdel’s delivery to the submarine pitchers of today.
Coulson joked that Sherdel had a “slow ball, a slower ball and a slowest ball.” Being a lefty at a time when there were few southpaws in the game was an additional advantage.
Coulson praised Sherdel’s competitive nature and resiliency. He was known for not giving up many runs even if he allowed some hits.
During the 1926 World Series, a throw from the catcher hit Sherdel in his index finger, causing it to turn “black and blue,” Coulson said. Sherdel kept pitching through the rest of the game, fighting until the very end.
At 5 feet, 10 inches and 160 pounds, Sherdel was not as diminutive as his nickname suggested, but standing among the other pros, his size stood out. As a result, sports writers dubbed Sherdel “the wee one.”
Sherdel did not seem to mind, as he would sign autographs as Wee Willie Sherdel.
John Sherdel recalled that, after his grandfather’s retirement, he would sign autographs for anybody who reached out, and he would send back a letter thanking them as well.
John Sherdel, who keeps his grandfather’s memorabilia, found himself discovering new things about him through Coulson’s efforts.
“A lot of the stuff he found, I had no idea about,” he said. “That helped me a lot to know who my grandfather really was.”
Sherdel’s impressive feats
Coulson’s book highlights the peaks and valleys of Sherdel’s life and career. That includes some personal tragedies, like dealing with the deaths of some close teammates and a daughter.
But the book also uncovered some lighter tidbits, like the rumors from McSherrystown residents that Babe Ruth stopped by the town to pay a visit to Sherdel. Many of Sherdel’s Hall of Fame teammates also visited.
“It’s been actually a lot of activity at that house that should be pretty impressive,” Coulson said.
The Cardinals achieved their first World Series victory the year before Charles Lindbergh accomplished a different first when he flew the Spirit of St. Louis solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Lindbergh was the one who gave the Cardinals their rings in the ceremony following their victorious season, meaning that Sherdel received his ring from a national hero.
Sherdel also succeeded in a considerable performance in relief. Coming into a game with two men on base, Sherdel managed to the retire the side with a single throw — the batter’s bunt attempt was caught by the first baseman, who threw to get the runner on second out, and then a triple play was completed to get the runner on first out.
When the game story was printed in the newspaper, the writer remarked that it was a story that Sherdel would one day tell his grandchildren. Reading that, Coulson couldn’t help but think of John Sherdel.
Sherdel shared a habit of his grandfather’s that will stay with him. Having lost a leg in 1961 to an infection, he still would manage to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner before baseball games.
Bill Sherdel died in 1968 at the age of 72.
It took John, who was 16 years old at the time, a while to grieve, as his grandfather was “more like a dad” to him at times growing up.
Cardinals’ Hall of Fame?
Coulson is hopeful that his book will spread the word about Wee Willie Sherdel.
As the Cardinals’ winningest left-handed pitcher, and fourth-best all time, Coulson believes Sherdel should be elected to the team’s Hall of Fame.
“That’s quite an accomplishment, and it stood all this time,” Coulson said.
Sherdel received a couple Most Valuable Player votes during his career and an honorable mention in the 1953 Baseball Hall of Fame voting.
Sherdel was trusted as the Game 1 starter in the 1926 World Series, facing the New York Yankee’s famed Murderers’ Row lineup.
In his two World Series bids with the Cardinals, Sherdel started four games. He never got a win, which Coulson attributed to bad luck, but he took the losses in stride and soldiered on.
His reward for his efforts came in Game 7 on Oct. 10, 1926 when, with the Yankees down 3-2 with two outs in the ninth inning, Babe Ruth was tagged out trying to steal second base.
Sherdel’s ring would stay in his family. It’s a prized heirloom John Sherdel wouldn’t even think to sell.
“You have your grandfather’s history right here, and that’s where it belongs,” Coulson said.
Information from: The Evening Sun, http://www.eveningsun.com