The incredible story of Ray Caldwell, the MLB pitcher who survived a lightning strike to finish a game

Illustration by Ross MacDonald

ON AUG. 24, 1919, Ray Caldwell puts on a Cleveland uniform for the first time. The weather is brutally hot but clear -- for now -- and none of the 20,000 or so fans at League Park has any idea that they're about to see something that defies belief. A story of desperation, terror, survival and redemption, all channeling through Caldwell over the next two hours.

The crowd roars as he takes the mound, and the cheers only get louder as it becomes obvious that Caldwell has his best stuff today. Cleveland fans know the stakes for the right-hander: He has just been waived by the Red Sox, and the pulse of his once-promising career had all but flatlined prior to that day. This is his last gasp.

Five years earlier, he'd had been regarded as a transcendent talent, perhaps one of the greatest pitchers ever, before drinking problems moved him to the outskirts of baseball. Cleveland player/manager Tris Speaker, in a push for the playoffs, wanted to give Caldwell another chance, which looks like a genius move this afternoon.

Players call Caldwell "Slim" because of his 6-foot-2, 190-pound frame and how he leverages every ounce of it to produce an above-average fastball and elite curve. But he mostly falls back on his devastating out pitch: one of baseball's best spitballs. The pitch is still legal, and Caldwell has incredible command on this day against the Philadelphia Athletics; the A's are flummoxed for two hours, managing four hits and a walk through eight innings.

But then the clouds roll in -- fast -- off Lake Erie. Cleveland's players, who have grown accustomed to the lake-effect weather mood swings, take their positions and hope to grind out three more outs before the skies really open up.

So he hurriedly toes the rubber as the rain picks up. He gets two easy infield popouts to open the inning. One more to go. Now the wind howls, the storm fully upon the field.

Just as he gets set, a flash from the sky explodes down into the middle of the field. Shortstop Ray Chapman feels a surge of electricity go down his leg, and the violence of the lightning strike causes players to dive for the ground. "I took off my mask and threw it as far as I could," Cleveland catcher Steve O'Neill says later of his metal mask. "I didn't want it to attract any bolts toward me."

Five seconds after the bolt hits the ground, everybody looks around. The eight Indians position players are OK, but their newest teammate is not. Caldwell is on his back, arms spread wide, out cold on the mound. The lightning strike had hit him directly.

Players rush to Caldwell, but the first man who touches him leaps in the air, saying he'd been zapped by Caldwell's prone body.

So everybody steps back and just stares. Caldwell's chest is smoldering from where the bolt burned it. They're terrified to touch him, and nobody does.

All of them wonder: Is Ray Caldwell dead?

FROM THE FIRST time he picked up a baseball, Caldwell was a breathtaking talent with a knack for landing in no-way-that-really-happened situations. At a time when divorce was rare, Caldwell's parents split up. His dad was a minister and moved to Europe -- historians aren't sure what kind of relationship the two had. His mom got remarried, to a telegraph operator, and Caldwell grew up enamored with his stepfather's profession. Even when he got to the big leagues, Caldwell worked most offseasons doing the telegraph for railroads.

Caldwell pitched right-handed and hit left, and his stock soared from the minute he signed with a semipro team as a 20-year-old. Two years later, in 1910, he was pitching for the New York Highlanders, who became the Yankees a few years later. He went 32-38 his first four years, playing for bad New York teams. Even in the dead ball era, historians say Caldwell's run support was historically pathetic -- at one point, Caldwell threw 52 consecutive scoreless innings ... in which his teams didn't score, either.

But in 1914, at age 25, Caldwell finally had learned to harness his powers. He went 18-9 with a 1.94 ERA for New York, and was tabbed as an emerging superstar over the next few years. Grantland Rice once said Caldwell could be as great as Christy Mathewson or Walter Johnson. And in fact, Washington once considered trading Johnson for Caldwell when both were in their primes, but the American League president at the time warned the team it was a bad move -- because Caldwell had too much potential. "Early in his career, Caldwell looked like he could be an all-time great," says John McMurray, chair of the dead ball era committee of the Society for American Baseball Research. "He had that level of talent."

That's about when the wheels began to fall off for Caldwell. He had significant drinking issues, which newspaper columnists of that era gently called "irregular habits" or "outbreaks of misbehavior." He'd been repeatedly fined, suspended and released for his alcohol abuse. At one point in 1916, Yankees manager Bill Donovan was so exasperated that he fined Caldwell and suspended him for two weeks, which turned into six months after Caldwell failed to return. Nobody, even his family, knew where he went. Caldwell resurfaced the following March, and it was later reported that he'd gone to Panama and pitched under an assumed name for the rest of his suspension.

Ray Caldwell was a handful. The Yankees took him back for the 1917 and '18 seasons, though his continued off-the-field troubles got so bad the team decided to hire two detectives to trail Caldwell 24 hours a day. When he consistently managed to slip his tail, the Yankees gave up and released him.

He signed with Boston in 1919 and went 7-4 with a 3.96 ERA through three months of the season. On road trips, the Red Sox inexplicably had Caldwell room with a 24-year-old superstar who also would develop a penchant for "outbreaks of misbehavior," Babe Ruth. The team quickly realized that the pairing was a disaster and cut Caldwell in early August.

When Speaker summoned him a few weeks later, Caldwell would have signed just about any contract put in front of him. And good thing for that, because Cleveland offered him a deal historians now say ranks among the most bizarre in baseball history.

The deal said that on game days, Caldwell was to pitch and then go get plastered. According to historian Franklin Lewis in his book "The Cleveland Indians," Caldwell was perplexed looking at the contract.

"You left out one word, Tris," Caldwell said as he looked at the document. "Where it says I've got to get drunk after every game, the word not has been left out. It should read that I'm not to get drunk."

Speaker smiled. "No, it says that you are to get drunk."

Speaker then explained a very specific regimen Caldwell was to adhere to every week. On game days, he'd pitch and then perform his mandated drinking duties. He was then free to skip coming to the ballpark the next day and sleep off his hangover. But two days later, Speaker wanted him at the ballpark early to run as many wind sprints as the manager thought he needed. Three days after every start, Caldwell was to throw batting practice. Pitch, drink, sleep, run, BP, rinse and repeat.

Historians believe Speaker, a true innovator as a player/manager, thought Caldwell's talent was worth the strange risk, and that by giving him a free pass day of unrestrained drinking, Caldwell might be able to stay on track the other three days of a pitching cycle. "I never heard of anything like that," says dead ball era expert Steve Steinberg. "And I can't imagine anybody offering a deal like that today."

Caldwell shrugged. "OK, I'll sign," he said.

Five days later, Caldwell took the mound desperate to make an impression.

RIGHT AROUND THE time everybody on the field is ready to pronounce Caldwell dead, the 31-year-old pitcher starts groaning and crawls back to his knees, then his feet.

Teammates rejoice, but still, everybody keeps their distance from the guy whose chest was just on fire. They offer to walk with him off the field as he heads to the hospital. But Caldwell is incredulous.

"I have one more out to get," he says.

He's insistent enough that eventually Speaker walks back to center field and lets him stay on the mound to try to finish his complete game. Caldwell looks at Chapman and says, "Give me the danged ball and turn me toward the plate."

Umpires Brick Owens and Billy Evans remain flanked around the mound for a minute as players get back to their positions. A's shortstop Jumping Joe Dugan digs in at the plate, just waiting for the umps to signal the game could pick up again. Eventually Owens and Evans look at each other and shrug. Play ball, they say.

Fans had scattered in the pandemonium of the lightning strike -- it's believed to have splintered, hit Caldwell and connected with the press box, too, sending people running everywhere. Many leave the game immediately, but for the brave ones who stick around, they settle into their seats again.

Caldwell grooves his first pitch and Dugan takes a big cut, connecting on a hard grounder to third baseman Willie Gardner, who can't handle it cleanly. He knocks it to the ground in front of him, snags it and rushes a throw to first just in time. Dugan is out, and the Cleveland fans still in attendance are as shocked as the players on the field: Ray Caldwell survived a lightning strike and just finished a complete-game win in the most important game of his life.

Even Evans speaks to the media that day. "We all could feel the tingle of the electric shock running through our systems, particularly in our legs," he says.

Caldwell is short and sweet with the media afterward: "Felt like somebody came up with a board and hit me on top of the head and knocked me down," Caldwell tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

It's hard to know whether Caldwell was hustling to get to the bar after one of the most incredible pitching performances the game has seen, but by all accounts, he perfectly fulfilled his contract obligations in 1919.

SURE, THIS SOUNDS like a century-old tall tale. Could a man really survive a lightning strike, then get one more out?

The answer is, yes.

Lightning is one of nature's strangest phenomena. People often ask whether lightning strikes from the sky down or the ground up because so many vivid images of strikes seem to show the bolt shooting up from the ground. The truth is, lightning strikes from the sky and the ground.

Think about it like Wi-Fi. The same way Wi-Fi reaches through the air looking for a device to connect to, lightning also requires a partner from the ground. The charge from a thunderstorm blasts downward but must locate an opposite charge from the ground, called an "upward leader." Many strikes end up finding multiple partners in the same area, spreading the charge (somewhere between 100 million and 1 billion volts of electricity) around to whatever upward leaders it can find -- flagpoles, trees or, yes, people who are nearby. That's why many visuals of lightning strikes show them splintering, rather than one huge bolt, with some looking like one arm reaching up from earth and the other reaching from the skies.

When lightning expert John Jensenius assesses what happened to Caldwell, he thinks it was probably an upward leader strike. Direct strikes are rare, especially in a crowded area situation such as a city's baseball stadium. That means other things in the area likely absorbed some of the voltage from the bolt that hit Caldwell. "People survive those kinds of lightning strikes," says Jensenius, a longtime National Weather Service employee affectionately known as Dr. Lightning. "But I don't know that they wake up and get the last out of a baseball game."

Jensenius says most of the lightning-specific details ring true -- except for the players saying they touched Caldwell and felt a jolt. "The human body is not a battery," Jensenius says. "It cannot conduct electricity."

He also says that rain and sweat could have bolstered Caldwell's likelihood of becoming a lightning receiver. And what if the pitcher was covered in spit and other liquids he used to doctor baseballs? "I'm not sure that would make much of a difference," Dr. Lightning says.

He pauses for a second. "I guess if he was covered in a lot of spit and other fluid," he says. "Did pitchers really do that back then?"

The answer, again, is yes.

By 1919, baseball was embroiled in a debate that sounds a lot like the one we're having today. Pitchers had become too dominant, with the ability to make the ball do unnatural things in a way that changed the game. They had many other advantages back then -- namely, roomy stadiums and managers who loved playing small ball -- but perhaps nothing stymied offense quite like the way pitchers were allowed to doctor baseballs.

Scuffing, cutting, spitting, repeatedly sanding down one side of the ball, you name it: all legal. Caldwell never revealed his own personal spitball recipe, but the most popular blend at the time was spit mixed with slippery elm tree bark. Pitchers would suck on the elm bark, producing spit with an extra layer of goopiness. Among the other frequently used ingredients were petroleum jelly, tobacco juice, licorice and even mud.

Caldwell and the other spit wizards of the game could work on a ball for practically an entire game without any penalty. Back then, owners whined so much about having to pay for extra baseballs that it was illegal for fans to keep foul balls or home runs. (The average number of balls used per game? Two.)

But fan frustration mounted about the lack of offense, so owners attempted to ban the spitball in 1920. Spitballers lobbied hard, though, and convinced owners to pass a baffling compromise: Starting in 1921, the remaining 17 spitballers were grandfathered in. They could doctor baseballs, but nobody else could.

"There are some eerie parallels to the conversation we're having now," says Steinberg, who has written extensively about the dead ball era and specifically Ray Caldwell. "Is baseball going to take some current superstars and change rules or enforce new rules and ruin their careers? Owners had a very difficult decision to make back then. Stick with what they already announced, or cave in to the pressure?"

Back then, the owners somehow managed to do both.

IN 1919, THE rebirth of Ray Caldwell is off to a roaring start with Cleveland.

Three weeks after getting hit by lightning and somehow finishing the win, Caldwell adds to his lore by throwing a no-hitter against the Yankees. He finishes the 1919 season 5-1 with a 1.71 ERA, and the Indians have the pieces for what they hope could be a 1920 playoff run.

In 1920, he and fellow spitballer Stan Coveleski give Cleveland a lethal 1-2 punch. They combine to go 44-24 with 46 complete games and Cleveland beats the Brooklyn Robins for their first World Series title.

But the following year, Caldwell starts to slide. Speaker tries him in the bullpen, but the manager later ends up suspending Caldwell for what local media call alcohol issues. The team lets him go later that year. "Whether it was maturity or alcohol or whatever, he couldn't quite string it together," says team historian Jeremy Feador. "But he had that fantastic last go in Cleveland."

Caldwell bounces around the minor leagues for 12 more years, winning 140 games and making a nice living on the fringes of pro baseball. By his last stop, in Keokuk, Iowa, of the Mississippi Valley League, he's a 43-year-old grandpa on his fourth marriage. When he retires for good in 1933, he has earned $49,400 from baseball. He spends his later years running his farm, working as a telegrapher, teaching baseball clinics for kids and working as a greeter at a casino.

Caldwell died in 1967 but to this day remains a favorite subject of baseball historians. His wild career encompasses 292 wins in 4,400 innings of pro and minor league baseball, a brief stint as Babe Ruth's bunkmate, the strangest contract in MLB history, a disappearance to Central America for half a year and, of course, one epic lightning strike. "He's certainly one of the more colorful, complicated guys I've ever written about," Steinberg says. "And he was basically unhittable for a few years."

DURING NON-PANDEMIC TIMES, one of Feador's favorite duties as Cleveland's team historian is doing road shows. He gets invited to libraries, museums, a historical society or two. His presentations are usually 45 minutes, with 15 minutes of question-and-answer afterward. The crowd tends to be a little older, but Feador is often pleasantly surprised at the number of 10-year-old baseball fans staring at him.

He tells the story of Cleveland baseball chronologically, starting at the beginning in 1869 and working his way up through the sad-sack days of the late 1800s -- the team went 20-134 in 1899 after brothers Frank and Stanley Robison basically sent all of Cleveland's best players to the other team they owned, in St. Louis, because they wanted to boost attendance there.

That gives him a cinematic runup to the glory days of 1919 and '20, when Speaker was emerging as a legend whose outside-the-box thinking helped build a quirky, great team around him. He's credited as the first manager to try platooning players, and his decision to take broken-down pitcher Smoky Joe Wood and try him in the outfield was unheard of at the time.

Feador gets to the 1920 World Series title about 10 minutes into his presentation, but he likes to have Ray Caldwell in his back pocket for the nine-minute mark, just in case anybody's attention is beginning to wander. That's when he takes 60 seconds to mention Speaker's risky attempt at reviving Caldwell's career, the bizarre contract he signed, the brilliant talent that never quite came to fruition and the prevalence of the spitball at the time.

Then he drops it on them: "Boom, you hit 'em with that lightning bolt, and that spices things up. That's the kind of story that gets kids excited about history."

Jaws always hit the floor and people sit up straight, and Feador rides that wave into the glorious 1920 World Series season. Then he works his way through the story of Cleveland baseball. He spends quite a bit of time on great feats and doesn't shy away from discussing the many name changes of the franchise, including the often-criticized history of using "Indians" as a team name. He's looking forward to talking about the recent intended switch to Guardians.

When Feador is done, everybody usually stands up and claps. Then the hands start popping up with questions. Fans always want to hear more about how the team could have possibly traded Shoeless Joe Jackson to the White Sox in his prime, and they ask for any great Jim Thome or Kenny Lofton stories he might know.

And then somebody inevitably takes the mic and says something like, "The lightning strike guy ... did that actually happen?"

Feador always laughs and says yes, it definitely did. He talks about how many media members wrote about the game immediately afterward, and how Philadelphia and Cleveland players talked about ol' Slim Caldwell's burning chest for decades.

And he often ends his answer by quoting the plaque that he helped write, the one that hangs along a brick wall along the third-base line at Progressive Field: "Caldwell had perhaps the most electric debut in Cleveland Indians history."