Gavvy Cravath

Clifford "Gavvy" Cravath

The Arizona Diamondbacks scored 13 runs against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, June 12. Imagine that! Not only did they score 13 runs, they won, too! The final score was 13-1. It looks like the D-Backs embarrassed someone else for a change. If they keep this up, they may be (gasp!) respectable this year!

They’ve fallen below .500, but at least they’re not in last place. As I noted before, given how bad they were last year, 70 to 75 wins would be quite an improvement.

The D-Backs aren’t my major topic for this week. Instead, I want to tell you about a great player from the past you may not have heard of:  Clifford “Gavvy” Cravath.

Who was he, you ask? Well, he was the premier power hitter of the “dead ball” era prior to 1920. When Babe Ruth set a new record for home runs with 29 in 1919, it was Cravath’s record of 24 from 1915 that he broke.

Cravath won six National League home run titles from 1912 to 1919. He’s tied with Mel Ott and Harmon Killebrew for fourth in the number of league home run titles. Ralph Kiner had seven, Mike Schmidt had eight, and Babe Ruth had 12.

Born on March 23, 1881 in Poway, Calif., Cravath’s family moved to San Diego just before the turn of the 20th Century. He played semi-pro ball in San Diego, where he got the nickname “Gavvy” after a ball he hit killed a seagull. “Gaviota” is Spanish for seagull.

His powerful swing got him noticed, and he turned pro with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. He helped them win four pennants in five years. After the 1907 season, he was sold to the Boston Red Sox.

Cravath was bounced around from one team to another because his hitting style didn’t fit in with the practices of the day. Sent back to the minors, he became a star with the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. In 1911, his 29 home runs were the most any player had hit anywhere at any professional level.

In 1912, his contract went to the Philadelphia Phillies. He hit 11-.284-70 and proved he belonged in the big leagues. He also displayed a strong, accurate throwing arm, as he led the National League’s outfielders with 26 assists.

His best season may have been 1915, when he hit 24 home runs and had 115 RBI to lead the Phillies to their first pennant. He didn’t have a good World Series against the Red Sox, and the Phils lost, 4 games to 1.

Some said the short and high right-field fence at the Phillies’ ballpark, Baker Bowl, was the reason Cravath hit so many round-trippers. The right field corner was just 270 feet from home plate. He replied the wall didn’t help him that much, as many line drives that would’ve been doubles or triples in other parks bounced off that wall for only singles.

At age 38, Cravath had his final home run title in 1919 when he hit 11 of them in just 214 at-bats.

Following his retirement, Cravath returned to California, where he had purchased property in Laguna Beach. He was active in the real estate business, and later became a judge. However, it was something of a fluke that he wound up on the bench. He and two friends didn’t like the sitting judge, so they decided Cravath should run against him.  To his surprise, and with no formal legal training, he won the election and became a judge.

Cravath became known as a tough but fair and practical judge. He earned the respect of his peers in the courts. He said he based his decisions on the principles of sportsmanship he learned as a player.

He served many years on the bench before he retired at age 82. He died on May 23, 1963 in Laguna Beach.

The Society of American Baseball Research offered this quote from Cravath on his playing philosophy: 

“Short singles are like left-hand jabs in the boxing ring, but a home run is a knock-out punch,” he asserted. “It is the clean-up man of the club that does the heavy scoring work even if he is wide in the shoulders and slow on his feet. There is no advice I can give in batting, except to hammer the ball. Some players steal bases with hook slides and speed. I steal bases with my bat.”

As the man who first showed the world what home runs could do, Gavvy Cravath is a player who deserves to be remembered. All the great sluggers who followed him owe him a debt.

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