photo: Bill Sherdel
This week’s St. Louis Cardinals Blast from the Past recognizes the lengthy career of a left-hander notable for his slow pitching that confounded batters left and right. A small man, reported to be 5-foot-8 and around 150 pounds, he was nicknamed “Wee Willie”.
William Henry Sherdel was born on August 15, 1896 in Midway, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby Hanover, the son of William and Margaret Stetzer Sherdel. Bill was the third of four children, two boys and two girls, born to the Sherdels, who were German immigrants.
Sherdel started playing baseball on local sandlots as a catcher for his older brother Frederick. Bill attended Hanover High School, where he pitched. Sherdel attended Gettysburg College briefly in 1914 but left in 1915 to play baseball in the newly formed Class D Blue Ridge League. As a pitcher for the Hanover Hornets, the 18-year old Sherdel posted a record of 15-3 in 77 games. Known as the “Marvel of the Blue Ridge League,” Bill returned to pitch for Hanover the next season, winning 14 games.
A scout for the Milwaukee Brewers, then a minor league team in the American Association, purchased Sherdel’s contract in August 1916. Bill was a fastball pitcher in Hanover but developed a “slowball” (changeups and slow curveballs) in Milwaukee to better overpower the more veteran hitters in the American Association.
The development of his slowball in Milwaukee was a setback for Sherdel in his first season with the Brewers. Enmeshed in a 10-game losing streak to begin the 1917 season, Bill was in danger of being sold to a Class A team in Little Rock. As luck would have it, Cardinals president Branch Rickey was in Milwaukee to scout another player and spotted Sherdel. Rickey offered to purchase Sherdel for the same price as the Brewers would get from Little Rock, provided Bill was allowed to finish the season in Milwaukee. The Brewers agreed and Sherdel ended the season on a hot streak with 11 consecutive wins and a team high 19 for the year.
Sherdel debuted with the Cardinals on April 22, 1918 in a 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bill pitched a scoreless inning of relief, giving up two hits. On April 28, he made his first start, pitching in an eight inning rain shortened game against the Reds. Bill earned his first big league win in that 4-2 victory in Cincinnati.
The 1918 season was played with the threat of war looming. Sherdel reported to the draft board in July for a physical and after his return, things went south as he ended the month with a 2-10 record. He bounced back in August, the final month of the season, posting a 1.00 ERA in 54 innings.
The 1919 season began with Rickey acting as manager. In 1920, Sam Breadon bought the club and the team moved from Robison Field to Sportsman’s Park. From 1919 to 1921, Sherdel pitched primarily out of the bullpen with stints as a spot starter along the way. He averaged 39 games and 151 innings during that period. Sherdel led the league in saves with six in 1920
Bill broke out in 1922 with 31 starts over 242 innings pitched, but he struggled in 1923, as his ERA ballooned to 4.32 in 225 innings. Rickey actively shopped him during the offseason, but a potential trade to the Boston Braves fell through. In his first start in 1924 against the Chicago Cubs, Sherdel gave up 16 hits in a 7-4 loss. Rickey sent Bill back to the bullpen, and he finished the season with only 10 starts in 35 appearances.
Rickey was removed as manager in 1925 after a 13-25 start, replaced as skipper by Rogers Hornsby. Bill blossomed under Hornsby, and from June to the end of the season, Bill was the ace starter, finishing the season with a 15-6 record and an ERA of 3.11. His .714 winning percentage led the league.
Sherdel’s 1926 was inconsistent, but he pitched well in important games. Bill’s sixth win was on August 19 against the Brooklyn Robins, a win that put the Cardinals in a tie with the Pirates. On September 24, Sherdel relieved starter Flint Rhem after one inning. Bill allowed only seven hits and one run in eight innings against the Giants to clinch the pennant.
Bill was named the Game 1 starter in the World Series against the Yankees. He walked three of the first four batters, but then surrendered only six hits and two runs in seven innings. The Cardinals nevertheless lost the game 2-1. Game 5 was a comedy of errors. A collision between Chick Hafey and Taylor Douthit and a misplayed Lou Gehrig fly ball by shortstop Tommy Thevenow led to a 2-2 tie. In the 10th inning, Sherdel intentionally walked Gehrig but the maneuver backfired, and the Cardinals lost 3-2. The Cardinals came back to win Games 6 and 7 to take the series, however, despite the woes of Sherdel.
Bill had strong seasons in 1927 and 1928 under new manager Bill McKechnie (Hornsby had been traded to the Giants in the 1926 offseason). The Cardinals once again faced the Yankees in the 1928 World Series. In Game 4, Sherdel faced Babe Ruth, and quick pitched him (the quick pitch was legal in the NL but not the AL and was therefore banned in the Series). The pitch was a strike, but the umpire made no call as he ruled that he had called time. An angry Sherdel sent Ruth a fastball on the next pitch which Ruth blistered over the fence in right field to tie the game. Gehrig followed with a home run and Sherdel was done. The Cardinals lost the game 7-3 to give the Yankees the 4-0 series win, and Bill was tagged with the loss.
Sherdel’s 1929 season did not go well. He finished with a record of 10-15 and a career high ERA of 5.93. In June of 1930, Sherdel was traded to the Boston Braves for Burleigh Grimes. After a year and a half in Boston, Bill was released by the Braves in May of 1932 and signed with the Cardinals as a free agent. He pitched in only three games for the Cardinals before being sent to the Rochester Red Wings to end his 15-year baseball career.
Sherdel returned to Pennsylvania, where he operated a diner and also served as a bartender. He remained a local hero of sorts, pitching in local semipro and town leagues. He and his wife Marguerite raised two children.
In 1962, the ailing Sherdel (his leg was amputated the previous year) was honored by the St. Louis BBWAA with the Brian P. Burnes Nostalgia Award.
Sherdel passed away on November 18, 1968 from cerebral anoxia at the age of 70. He was inducted posthumously in 1977 into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
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