Striking out “The Sultan of Swat”: Joseph Shaute
Almost every kid who steps onto a baseball field dreams of playing in the major league one day. One graduate of Mansfield State Normal School achieved that dream and now has a baseball field named in his honor.
Joseph Benjamin “Lefty” Shaute (1899-1970) of Peckville near Scranton was a natural athlete, but he is most remembered for his exploits on the baseball diamond. As a high school hurler, he recorded 21 strikeouts in a single game.
Shaute attended Mansfield State Normal School for two-and-a-half years and earned a teaching certificate. Mansfield did not offer four-year degrees until it became a teacher’s college in 1926. At Mansfield, Shaute played on the baseball, football (a sport he learned quickly), and basketball teams, according to university records. That might have been the end of it, but for a fortunate event.
According to the book Diamonds in the Coalfield by William C. Kashatus, Shaute was a substitute teacher in his hometown when he was approached by a recruiter from Juniata College. Shaute agreed to enroll and played baseball.
According to the book, Shaute pitched a three-hit shutout and fanned 15 batters in a game against West Virginia University. His play impressed Charles Hickman, the mayor of Morgantown, host city of WVU, and a former pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. The book claims that Hickman contacted his former team and Shaute was drafted by the Indians. While playing minor league baseball in Chattanooga, he amassed a 7-2 record and a 2.43 ERA.
Shaute made his major league debut July 6, 1922. The first batter he faced was Babe Ruth, the player with the third most career homeruns. Shaute struck out “The Babe” on either three or four pitches. Various sources make differing claims. According to Diamonds, Shaute received the following advice from Cleveland manager Tris Speaker, “Don’t get nervous just because the big guy’s up, Joe. Just pitch to him like you would pitch to any other homerun hitter…carefully.”
Shaute would go on to strike out Ruth more than 30 times in his career and pitched three seasons before Ruth even got a hit off him.
However, Ruth would take his revenge. Ruth smashed home run number 318 off of the former Mansfield player May 13, 1926 at Yankee Stadium. In 1927, Ruth hit three more homers off of Lefty. Those home runs were number 388 on July 12 at League Park, number 396 on Aug. 22 also a League Park, and number 408 on Sept. 13 in New York. That was also Ruth’s legendary 60 home run season. Also that season, Shaute faced fellow Mansfield alumnus, Mike “Gazook” Gazella, who played third base for the Yankees. (Mansfield also honors Gazella by awarding a scholarship in his name.)
Ruth also took Shaute yard for homerun number 436 on June 7, 1928 and again on Aug. 12, 1929 for number 501. Both of those were in Cleveland.
Shaute could not have felt too bad, though. Rube Walberg gave up 17 homeruns to Ruth, more than any other pitcher.
Besides his record against one of baseball’s all-time greats, Shaute did have a solid career. He amassed a record of 99 wins, 109 losses, and 18 saves playing with the Indians from 1922-1930, the Brooklyn Robins/Dodgers between 1931 and 1933, and with the Cincinnati Reds in 1934.
Shaute posted a 4.15 ERA, and threw five shutouts while appearing in 360 games. That included 1,818.1 innings pitched in which he gave up 2,097 hits, 1,043 runs, and 75 homeruns. He also recorded 512 strikeouts, 534 walks, 34 wild pitches, 24 hit batters, and three balks. Unlike many modern-era pitchers, Shaute also had success at the plate; he posted a solid .258 batting average and a .302 on base percentage.
His best season was 1924, when he went 20-17 and was the first pitcher to win 20 games that year. That year he also recorded two of his shutouts and hit his only homerun.
According to Diamonds, another Northeastern Pennsylvania player, catcher Steve O’Neill of Minooka deserves part of the credit for his performance that year. O’Neill, who played nearly every game with Shaute that year, helped the southpaw from Peckville to decoy his pitches and throw more effectively. Despite Shaute’s efforts, the Tribe finished sixth in their division that year and “Lefty” never had a better season.
He was traded to Brooklyn in 1931 and played three seasons there before ending his major league career in Cincinnati in 1934. Following that, he found his way home and played for both the Scranton Minors of the old New York-Penn League (now Eastern League). That year, he led the league with a 2.84 ERA. He would later play for Wilkes-Barre and manage Scranton. He retired from the game in 1942.
While playing and managing, Shaute got involved with local politics. He won the 1939 race for Lackawanna County Commissioner, running as a Democrat. Later he was elected county treasurer.
Shaute passed away Feb. 21, 1970 in Scranton. In 1976 Mansfield State College named the baseball field in his honor.
Writer’s note: Shaute and Gazella are two of 21 players profiled in a book titled “Diamonds in the Coalfield” by William C. Kashatus, professional historian at the Chester County Historical Society. The book profiles players, umpires and managers from Northeastern Pennsylvania.