The forgotten hero of the champion Cubs & Columbia, Pa.

Jimmy_sheckard Back when the Continental Congress was figuring out where to locate the permanent capital, a little town in Pennsylvania called Wright’s Ferry decided to lobby for the gig. Figuring its location along the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River that separates York and Lancaster counties was perfectly located and easy for delegates from the other colonies, Wright’s Ferry challenged for the privilege to be capital.

First things first…

Wright’s Ferry had to do something about its name. It needed something catchy or something that befit a burgeoning nation. Therefore, in 1789 Wright’s Ferry changed its name to Columbia. Perfect, huh? With a name like Columbia, how could the little town on the western edge of Lancaster County go wrong?

Location? Check.

Infrastructure? Check.

People of influence on its side like George Washington? Check.

Name? Done, done, done and done.

Nevertheless, southern states Maryland and Virginia carved out a rectangle of unwanted swamp land along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers not too far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Next thing the folks in Columbia, Pa. knew the District of Columbia had edged it out by one vote and the rest is history.

Some influence that George Washington had, huh?

Anyway, since it had the name and the location, Columbia attempted to become the capital of Pennsylvania. Again, it had the location, the name but maybe not the influential supporters. Instead, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania went with the more centrally located Harrisburg to be the seat of its government.

Since then, Columbia became most well known for burning down the bridge connecting it to Wrightsville in York County (called the Wright's Ferry Bridge) to ward off the approaching Confederate Army in 1863. As a result of this act, the Confederates and Union armies got together in a little town that not many people had heard of called Gettysburg.

Columbians, meanwhile, petitioned the U.S. government to replace the bridge only to be denied for more than 100 years.

The act of burning the bridge kept General Robert E. Lee’s army from attacking Harrisburg, Pa. from the east while it gave the Union army enough time to protect Harrisburg, Lancaster and Philadelphia as well as confront the Confederates in what was to become the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

These days, though, Gettysburg is as synonymous with American liberty as much as any landmark in the nation’s history. Because of that, tourists flock to the little burg in south-central Pennsylvania and spend millions in restaurants, hotels and whatever else travelers like to buy.

Columbia, on the other hand, is a struggling industrial town with no real claim to anything in American history aside from a century’s worth of near-misses of historical fame. 

***

36F There are no parks named for Jimmy Sheckard in Columbia, Pa. and as far as we could tell, there are no statues or other public memorials for the man, either. In Lancaster city’s Buchanan Park, beneath a copse of trees near a statue of James Buchanan, the 14th president of the United States, there is a stone plaque with kind words for Sheckard and his career in baseball. But aside from that, there really isn’t anything else in Lancaster or Columbia to remember Samuel James Tilden Sheckard.

That’s certainly a unique way to remember a hometown ballplayer once described by writer Ring Lardner as, “the greatest ballplayer in the world.”

No, Jimmy Sheckard was not the greatest ballplayer in the world 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. 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 Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, the famous double-play combination that become fodder for poetry 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 2011 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 in 2004. 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.

The 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 and went back to the mound, his next pitch was hit directly to the unconventional Sheckard playing left field practically in foul territory.

He also boasted that he would bat .400 in the 1906 World Series against the White Sox, but instead went a Burrell-esque 0 for 21 and did not hit the ball out of the infield as the Cubs were upset in six games. Before 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 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 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 seems as if Columbia’s biggest moment came when it burned down that bridge to thwart Lee’s army from launching an attack on Harrisburg. Meanwhile, as the civil War raged, a Columbia native named Stephen Atkins Swails had left his job as a waiter in Cooperstown, N.Y. and, with 17 other men from Columbia, joined up with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Swails started as a private, received a commission and became first sergeant. After the battle at Fort Wagner in 1863, Swails took over as acting sergeant-major when the platoon’s commander was killed. Then in a whirlwind three months, the Columbian was injured in battle at Olustee and received a promotion to Second Lieutenant.

Swails was the first African-American promoted to officer rank during the war.

Parts of his story were copped and told in the movie Glory, the story of the all black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that earned Denzel Washington his first Academy Award.

Swails never returned to Columbia, instead taking the rare path of a free black man to settle in the south. After the war he was a lawyer, mayor and state senator from Kingstree, S.C. However, as a black man in the south after the Reconstruction, life wasn’t exactly easy for Swails. When a mob attempted to assassinate him, Swails gave up politics and found a job through the Republican party with the U.S. Postal Service and the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C.

Like with Sheckard, there isn’t much left in Columbia to memorialize its hometown hero. However, some members of Swails’ unit are buried in town at a hillside cemetery near the high school.

***

36E It is in that cemetery where we stumbled upon a simple grave stone marked that read:

HUSBAND

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.

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 though 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. So Sheckard spent years 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 to the big leagues.

Instead, Sheckard kept working and living in Lancaster and Columbia. It was in January of 1947 near that gas station located across the street from Stumpf Field when he was hit from behind by a car. Three days later he died from head injuries at age 68.

And that was pretty much it for Sheckard. 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 the former president’s estate. Coincidentally, a future president spoke at a rally just steps from the memorial 61 years after it was placed in the park. Then again, Buchanan Park isn’t exactly the size of Central Park.

Once, he was “the greatest ballplayer in the world.” Today, only a few folks remember the Pennsylvania Dutchman who was an integral member of the only two Cubs teams to win the World Series.