The Lost Career of Ralph Sharman

The death of a young person is not just tragic for the loss of life but for the loss of a future. In major league baseball, one of the more tragic losses was that of Ralph Sharman, one of the casualties tangentially related to World War I.

Ralph Edward Sharman was the last of five children born to English immigrants John and Hannah (Ette) Sharman, arriving on April 11, 1895. The Sharmans married in England, then arrived at Ellis Island aboard the Arizona with a child in tow in May, 1883. They first settled in Pennsylvania, then moved to Ohio. Ralph, named after John’s brother, was born in Cleveland shortly before the family moved near Cincinnati in the late 1890s. John Sharman sold insurance and was active in the community, serving as a Norwood city councilman. Their lives were comfortable and socially busy, as John or Hannah might appear in the social columns of the Cincinnati Enquirer from time to time.

Ralph was an athlete – slightly above average in height (5′ 11) and solidly built (his weight was variously listed as 175 and 195). And, he grew up in a city that had been a baseball town for some fifty years by the time he earned notice as an amateur centerfielder for the U.S. Printing baseball team and later as a member of the Norwood city team. He earned the nickname “Home-Run” Sharman while at Norwood. In 1914, after getting a brief tryout with Portsmouth in the Ohio State League, he clocked two triples and a long homer off of former major league pitcher Jesse Tannehill, who was now throwing for amateur teams in Cincinnati.

While Sharman didn’t stick the first time with Portsmouth, he was given a second chance for the 1915 season – and this time he was more than equal to the task. Keeping with his “Home-Run” nickname, Sharman hit the longest ball ever seen at Springfield, Ohio breaking a mark thought to be held by Buster Keene.

But fans, a new mark was set in over-the-fence drives yesterday, Sharman’s wallop that cleared the enclosure was a longer drive than Keene’s. It was nearer center field, which increases the distance as left field is shorter. Candidly, Sharman’s hit will go down in the baseball archives as the longest home run ever uncorked in the River City. The pill landed this side of the Dardanelles.

“Wrests Honor From Keene,” Portsmouth Daily Times, May 20, 1915: 10.

When the season closed, Sharman led the Ohio State League with a .374 batting average, was tops in hits, third in runs scored, and just five stolen bases behind the leader with 31 thefts. The New York Giants took an interest in the young outfielder and sent Portsmouth a $500 check for his rights. The following spring, Sharman joined the Giants in Marlin, Texas for spring training.

Sharman, a humble sort known to have shared his paycheck with his family back home, was modest in describing his chances to stick with the Giants. He told a scribe that he didn’t think he would make it with the Giants and expected to be sent to a Class AA or Class A club for more seasoning. “Better have another year in the minors and be sure of success in the big show afterwards,” says Sharman, “than to go into the majors too green and score a failure.”

Sharman was right. Soon after arriving in Texas, Sharman contracted blood poisoning in his foot – he blamed it on wearing his cleats too tight – and was dispatched to Memphis in the Southern League. Things didn’t get better there – he injured himself a second time, tearing a tendon in his leg while making a mighty swing. With Memphis, Sharman got just five hits in thirty-eight at bats and was once caught napping by the hidden ball trick. By mid-May, Sharman was optioned to the Galveston Pirates in the Texas League.

Finally, Sharman got things squared away. It took a few weeks, but by late summer his batting average had snuck back over .300. He finished the 1916 season with 104 hits in 106 games, good for a .277 batting average. A quarter of his hits were for extra bases. He played well enough for Memphis to exercise their option and have Sharman return there for spring training in 1917.

Maybe he didn’t like the food. Once again, Memphis dispatched Sharman to Galveston, but he wouldn’t stay there long. Galveston was removed from the Texas League and his rights were then acquired by the Fort Worth Panthers. After a particularly good game against former major leaguer Dode Criss (five hits, with two doubles and a triple), the Fort Worth Star-Telegram read the tea leaves and predicted that 1917 would be the year Sharman made it to the majors.

“At the rate Ralph Sharman has been going since joining the Panthers it seems that he intends to make this his last year in the minors. The former Pirate had his hitting togs on Thursday and laced Buff hurlers, Criss and Glenn, for two doubles, a single and a triple in five trips to the plate. He covers as much territory as any outfielder in the league and sports an arm that makes it dangerous to take any kind of chances on the pathways.”

“Kike’s Komment,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 13, 1917: 10.

Ralph SharmanBefore Sharman would win the Texas League batting crown (.341, with 203 hits – 42 doubles), he began attracting the notice of scouts, including those of the Cubs and Athletics.  Connie Mack won the bidding war, purchasing his rights from Fort Worth in August and agreeing to let Sharman join the Athletics once the Texas League season ended. 

Sharman made his debut in the first game of a doubleheader against the Yankees on September 10. The Yankees got out to an early lead, so Mack starting putting in the kids – Sharman replaced Amos Strunk in center field in the third inning. In the seventh, Sharman beat out a grounder to the shortstop for his first major league hit in his second at bat. Then he got a couple of pinch running or pinch hitting chances before sitting down for two weeks to watch the regulars. But this wasn’t a good Athletics team – it wouldn’t quite win 36% of the games in 1917 – so for the last ten days of the season, Mack sat the regulars to let the rookies play.

The player who best took advantage of that opportunity was Ralph Sharman.

After a game with two walks and no hits, Sharman would hit in each of his remaining seven starts, getting ten hits in thirty trips before the season ended. Sharman finished with a .297 batting average, adding a couple of walks and three extra base hits. One was a triple that was launched way over the head of Ty Cobb, but Cobb’s speed and accurate throw to Donie Bush, who then made a perfect relay to home, was able to nab Sharman at the plate.

It was an impressive finish to the season. Fans likely looked forward to seeing the young kid getting a chance to prove himself in 1918, especially after Mack moved Amos Strunk to Boston and right fielder Charlie Jamieson hadn’t exactly earned a guaranteed job in right field with his powerless .267 batting average. (Jamieson hit .202 in 1918 – he might not have played that much if Sharman were around.)

However, that would have to wait. With World War I raging in Europe and the United States committing resources to the Allies, Sharman enlisted in the United States Army, joining Battery F of the 136th Ohio Field Artillery. He spent a week in Fort Thomas, Kentucky before being sent to Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, Alabama. Camp Sheridan’s encampment had a large “Buckeye” contingent in the field artillery batteries.

Sharman’s training included sports. After being promoted to Corporal, Sharman was placed in charge of the Camp Sheridan baseball team. The Cincinnati Reds trained there – convenient given the large number of Ohioans nearby – and Sharman’s team would play practice games against Christy Mathewson’s spring training teams.

While thousands of these soldiers would see battle in Europe, Sharman was not to be one of them. However, he would be a casualty to the war effort. On May 24, 1917, during a break from training, Sharman was swimming in the Alabama River when he got caught in a whirlpool and was pulled under the surface. While more expert swimmers were brought over to try to rescue Sharman, the effort proved unsuccessful and he drowned; his body not recovered until hours later into the night. After a funeral at the camp, his body was returned to Ohio and buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati.

There is no guarantee that Sharman would have played another game for the Athletics. Camp Sheridan was hard hit by the 1918 flu pandemic and thousands of its soldiers who were sent to Europe were killed or wounded in battle. However, he MIGHT have survived and became a regular American League outfielder. One of his Portsmouth teammates in 1915 was Austin McHenry, who had a nice major league career until he, too, died way too young. Instead, we are left saddened by Sharman’s death; we can only wonder what his future might have been.

Sources:

Baseball-Reference.com
Retrosheet.org
FindAGrave.com

1900, 1910 US Census
World War I Registration Card
OH Marriage Records
NY/Ellis Island Passenger Lists
Ohio Roster of Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, World War 1917-1918

“Norwood,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 10, 1910: 4-5.

Box Score, Cincinnati Enquirer, June 14, 1914: 18.

“Amateur Baseball,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 19, 1914: 23.

“Ralph Sharman,” Portsmouth Daily Times, May 10, 1915: 10.

“Wrests Honor From Keene,” Portsmouth Daily Times, May 20, 1915: 10.

“Local Players are Paid Off in Full,” Portsmouth Daily Times, August 19, 1915: 9.

“$500 For Sharman,” Portsmouth Daily Times, October 2, 1915: Sports, Pg. 1.

“Sharman is Modest,” Portsmouth Daily Times, October 19, 1915: 10.

“Ralph Sharman Boss Hitter in Ohio State,” Portsmouth Daily Times, October 25, 1915: 10.

“Sharman is Better,” Portsmouth Daily Times, March 9, 1916: 10.

“Recruit for Memphis,” Knoxville Journal and Tribune, March 20, 1916: 9.

“Giants’ Colts Beat Regulars For Title,” New York Times, March 24, 1916: 12.

Ed F. Balinger,”Pirate Pickups From Tennessee,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 5, 1916: 10.

“Sharman Injured,” Portsmouth Daily Times, April 19, 1916: 10.

“Fine Boost for Ralph Sharman,” Portsmouth Daily Times, April 27, 1916: Sports. Pg. 2.

“Waivers on Sharman,” Portsmouth Daily Times, May 9, 1916: 8.

“Old Army Game Worked on Sharman,” Portsmouth Daily Times, May 12, 1916: Section 2, 2.

“Memphis Turns Back Sharman to Giants,” Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, May 23, 1916: 12.

“Ralph Sharman With the Galveston Club,” Portsmouth Daily Times, June 7, 1916: 10.

“Sharman Clubbing Pill,” Portsmouth Daily Times, July 24, 1916: 10.

“Minor Circuit Clubs Exercise Player Option,” St. Louis Star and Times, September 15, 1916: 12.

“Memphis Club Has Many Texas Lads,” Shreveport Journal, March 23, 1917: 9.

“Chicks Sell Sharman to Galveston Club,” Chattanooga News, April 5, 1917: 12.

“Kike’s Komment,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 13, 1917: 10.

“Sharman is Sought By Major Clubs,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 7, 1917: 8.

“Sharman is Bought By Connie Mack,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 12, 1917: Page 19.

Karl Bettis, “Sharman and Bernsen League’s Best Polers,” Fort Worth Record-Telegram, September 2, 1917: 11.

“Tigers Put Check on Rookies’ Rush,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 29, 1917: 14.

“Mack Loses Another Player,” Kansas City Times, November 6, 1917: 8.

Cincinnati Enquirer, March 15, 1918: 8.

“Ralph Sharman of 136th Field Artillery Drowned Friday,” Montgomery Advertiser, May 25, 1918: 3.

2 thoughts on “The Lost Career of Ralph Sharman

  1. Great research Paul! Coincidentally, I’m working my way through stories about ballplayers buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, and Ralph is on my list as well!

    • First – thanks for stopping by!

      I need to find a way not to step on your projects (even if coincidentally)… Besides, you are the much better writer!

      Cheers!

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