Grave Story: Ralph Sharman (1895-1918)

Here lies Ralph Sharman, who briefly reached the major leagues with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1917. About eight months after making his major-league debut, he died in a training accident while in the Army.

Ralph Edward Sharman was born in Cleveland on April 11, 1895. His parents, John and Hannah Sharman, had emigrated from England with their oldest son, Herbert, in 1884. Ralph was the youngest of five children, and as of the 1900 Federal Census, John and Herbert were employed as insurance agents. John Sharman became a councilman in Norwood, a suburb of Cincinnati, before he died at the age of 59 in September of 1913.

Ralph Sharman began playing ball in his teens. In 1913, he was on a team called the Norwood Blues, which then became the Walnut Hills team the following season. Nicknamed “Home Run” Sharman, he played for a different team called the Norwoods in 1914. He hit 2 homers to help defeat the Shamrocks in an April contest between the two local teams. Sharman seemed to be the major source of power for the club. He was away from the Norwoods for a time in the summer to play for Portsmouth of the Ohio State League, and when he rejoined them in July, he immediately hit 2 triples and a home run off former major-leaguer Jesse Tannehill.

Source: Fort Worth Record Sun, September 2, 1917.

Sharman rejoined Portsmouth for the 1915 season, and he demolished the Ohio State League’s pitching. He hit .374 to lead the league in hitting, and he had 33 doubles, 8 triples and 5 home runs among his 147 hits. He also finished third in the league with 31 stolen bases and third in runs scored with 75 (behind Portsmouth teammate Pickles Dillhoefer’s 83). He was the top outfielder of the league, which contained a fair number of future major leaguers. At the end of the season, his contract was sold to the New York Giants, but the young slugger was modest about his chances to reach the majors. “Better have another year in the minors and be sure of success in the big show afterwards, than to go into the majors too green and score a failure,” he told the Portsmouth Daily Times.

The one thing that kept Sharman from reaching the majors with the Giants was, of all things, his socks. He spent the week prior to training camp in a Memphis gymnasium working out, and the dye from his gym socks seeped into open blisters on his feet and caused blood poisoning. A similar thing happened to Nap Lajoie, and if you ever wondered what it would be like to live in the early 20th Century, keep in mind that death by stockings was a distinct possibility. At any rate, Sharman was too hobbled to impress anyone at camp. The Giants sent Sharman to the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association in 1916, with a hearty recommendation from manager John McGraw, who called him one of the most promising prospects he’d seen in a long time. He got off to a slow start due to his illness and was sent to Galveston of the Texas League. Sharman quickly regained his form, hitting .277 in 105 games.

Sharman stayed in the Texas League for 1917 and pounded pitchers to the tune of a .341 batting average, while playing for the Galveston Pirates and Fort Worth Panthers. While he hit just 3 home runs, he led the league with 203 hits and 42 doubles. As was common of the era, a sportswriter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram took to verse to lionize the young outfielder:

With the bludgeon you’re an ace
Ralph Sharman,
You can surely go the pace
Ralph Sharman,
You’re showing ‘em at last
That you cannot be outclassed
That you wield a wicked mace
Ralph Sharman.

Sharman started the season with Galveston, and when the team folded, his contract was purchased outright by Fort Worth, severing his ties to the New York Giants. Fort Worth then sold Sharman to Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics for $4,000. His final honor was being named to the League’s All-Star Team as a center fielder, as chosen by Wilson Matthews, “The Dean of Texas League Umpires.” At the end of the Texas League season, Sharman headed north to join his new team and make his major-league debut.

The Philadelphia Athletics had been one of the top teams in baseball, having won the World Series in 1910, 1911 and 1913, and the AL pennant in 1914. The team Sharman joined was far, far removed from those glory days. Mack, as he had to do frequently in his long career, had sold off every useful player for cash and was in the middle of seven consecutive last-place finishes (1915-1921). The 1917 A’s were actually a fair bit better than previous teams, as they lost “only” 98 games. Needless to say, Mack was looking for young and inexpensive ballplayers who might stick, so Sharman was given a decent chance to play over the final few weeks of the season.

Sharman made his debut on September 10 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Yankees. After the Yankees exploded for 7 runs in the second inning, Mack inserted Sharman into center field, replacing Amos Strunk. He singled off New York’s Ray Fisher in the seventh inning, which was one of just 5 hits Fisher allowed in a 10-1 win. Sharman came to the A’s with a bruised heel, so he spent a few weeks on the bench. By September 25, he must have been feeling fine, because he was put in the starting lineup for nine of the last 10 games of the season. He collected hits in seven of them. He picked up 2 hits, including his first major-league double, off the Browns’ Dave Davenport in a 4-0 win on September 26. He was 3-for-4 in the first game of a doubleheader against Detroit on September 29, driving a run with a sacrifice fly and another with an RBI single.

In his 13 games with Philadelphia, Sharman slashed .297/.366/.405, with 11 hits that included 2 doubles and a triple. Baseball Reference credits him with 2 RBIs, but it appears that he may have had as many as 4, judging by the box scores. He also scored twice and stole a base. He had 17 chances in the field and made 1 error for a .941 fielding percentage. Sharman also had a .317 lifetime batting average across three seasons in the minor leagues, with 7 home runs.

Mack hardly had time to treasure his new prized prospect. On November 5, Sharman enlisted in Battery F, Third Ohio Field Artillery, stationed at Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Ala. His decision was held up as an example to those other ballplayers who were hesitant about joining the armed forces in the midst of World War I. “On the threshold of a major league career that promised to be most brilliant, Sharman has cheerfully put his ambitions and his hopes of success in the big show behind him in order that he may do his part in the world war,” reported the Baltimore Sun. “Sharman may never play ball in the big leagues, but his name is one that should be long remembered by fandom.”

Once at Camp Sheridan, Sharman was named the captain of the Army’s baseball team. The Cincinnati Reds spent their 1918 spring training there, and the two groups played several games. In the one game recap I could find, the Reds squeaked out a 4-3 win over the Buckeye Division. Sharman, playing center field, had a walk and a single and scored a run off Cincinnati starter Dutch Ruether.

Corporal Ralph Sharman of the 136th Field Artillery drowned on May 24, 1918, while swimming in the Alabama River near Camp Sheridan. Reports stated that he was caught in a whirlpool and was swept away as his comrades watched. Even the group’s expert swimmers were unable to save him. He was 23 years old. Sharman’s body was recovered later that evening, and he was sent back to Cincinnati to be buried at Spring Grove Cemetery.

Hannah Sharman died at the age of 65 on October 29, 1919, a little over a year after the death of her son. The 136th field artillery was deployed to France in June of 1918, less than a month after Sharman’s death. According to Wikipedia, they fought at Meuse-Argonne and Ypres-Lys. A total of 794 men were killed in action, and another 4,593 were wounded.

Sharman is one of eight ballplayers known to have died in World War I, either from combat, accident or illness. You can read about Tom Burr elsewhere on this website.

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