Yankee history is filled with athletes who made a bigger mark on the gridiron than they did the baseball diamond. George Halas blew his shot at becoming a starter in the Yankee outfield before he went back to Chicago and began his Hall of Fame playing and coaching career with the Bears. Fifteen years after Papa Bear took off the pinstripes, a USC football star named Jess Hill put them on and became New York’s starting center fielder for a while until Joe DiMaggio showed up. Hill would then become a successful football coach, eventually returning to his alma mater where he coached the Frank Gifford-led Trojan teams from the early fifties. Yankee fans my age remember when the former Ole Miss quarterback, Jake Gibbs replaced Elston Howard as New York’s starting catcher in 1967. George Steinbrenner had a special affinity for those who played with the pigskin. He drafted and signed John Elway, Deion Sanders and Drew Henson to Yankee baseball contracts. With the exception of Gibbs, great football talents did not translate into very productive Yankees and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant represents both extremes.
Charlie Caldwell was born on August 2, 1901 in Bristol, Virginia but he grew up in Yonkers, NY, where he became a legendary high school athlete. He expanded upon that legend at Princeton, lettering a total of seven times in the three major sports. He earned All-American status as a Crimson Tide pitcher and in 1925, he signed a contract to pitch for the New York Yankees. Manager Miller Huggins gave the right-hander three chances to make an impression during that ’25 season and unfortunately for Caldwell, the results were not good. In those three appearances, Caldwell pitched a total of two and two-thirds innings, gave up seven hits, five earned runs, and three walks. His ERA was just a shade less than seventeen. But before Huggins sent him home, Caldwell did throw one pitch that would dramatically impact the course of Yankee franchise history. It was a pitch Caldwell threw in batting practice. The hitter was the Yankees’ star first baseman, Wally Pipp. The ball sailed and hit Pipp squarely on the temple, forcing the player to the bench for that afternoon’s game. Pipp’s replacement at first base was Lou Gehrig. Gehrig of course would remain in that position without missing a game for the next thirteen seasons.
As for Caldwell, that errant pitch certainly helped seal his fate as a Yankee failure. He returned to Princeton and became an assistant football coach. In 1928, he was hired as the head football coach at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he would remain for the next 17 seasons. He then accepted the position of head football coach at his alma mater and became one of the school’s most successful coaches of all time. His Princeton gridiron teams went undefeated in 1950 and ’51, when Ivy League teams still played top tier football programs from around the country. Caldwell was famous for playing a traditional single wing offense at Princeton when every other school in the country was switching to the T-formation. He was also a champion of treating college football players as college students first and was one of the earliest advocates of reducing the influence of money and commercialism on the college game. Caldwell died from cancer in 1957, while still head coach at Princeton. He was just 56-years-old.
Caldwell shares his birthday with the first Latino to ever play for the Yankees.