Before Babe Ruth, there was Gavvy Cravath

Gavvy Cravath, MLB all-time home run leader…before Babe Ruth.

(Editor’s Note: Gavvy Cravath was an Escondido native, perhaps the first Major League Baseball star from San Diego County. Patrolling right field at the historic Baker Bowl for the Dead Ball Era Philadelphia Phillies, he led the National League in home runs six times in the years just prior to Babe Ruth’s arrival on the scene.

Later, a Laguna Beach municipal judge, the crusty Cravath, known by the appropriate nickname “Cactus,” didn’t like the flamboyant Ruth whom he considered a “hot dog.”  Local attorneys were well advised to steer clear of any mention of Ruth should they enter Cravath’s courtroom.)

Municipal Judge Clarence Cravath’s reputation for crustiness led California lawyers to avoid certain topics in his Laguna Beach courtroom.

Mentions of foreign law or Washington bureaucrats could ignite the prickly temper that decades earlier earned Cravath the nickname “Cactus.” And any attorney who mentioned Babe Ruth’s name risked not just his case but his well-being.

“He wasn’t much of a fan of Babe Ruth,” his granddaughter, Ginger McMillian, told the New York Post in 2000. “He didn’t like Babe’s style. He thought he was a hot dog.”

He had good reason to feel that way.

Aided by the tightly wound balls A.J. Reach’s Fishtown factory began manufacturing in 1920, Ruth had an unprecedented ability to hit home runs that transformed the way baseball was played and perceived. His mind-boggling numbers quickly overshadowed stats and stars from the Deadball Era, when “small ball” had been prized over the long ball.

Among those forgotten heroes were a few sluggers and, as it happened, Judge Cravath, known as “Gavvy” in his baseball days, had been the best of them all.

In fact, in his own way, Cravath was as revolutionary as Ruth.

One hundred years ago this summer, when the Sultan of Swat was a rookie Red Sox pitcher, Gravath set a post-1900 homer record in helping the 1915 Phillies win their first National League pennant.

Wielding one of the heaviest bats ever, a 48-ouncer, the stocky cleanup hitter was a modern, swing-from-the-heels bopper. This hitting heretic disdained the day’s Punch-and-Judy style and instead took dead aim at Baker Bowl’s 272-foot right-field wall.

“Short singles are like left-hand jabs in the boxing ring,” Cravath said. “A home run is a knockout punch.”

Cravath KO’d many NL pitchers in his nine-year Phillies career. In that 1915 season, he led the league in homers, RBIs, runs, walks, total bases, on-base, and slugging percentage.

“Led” is too tame a verb.

Cravath’s 24 homers – a total bested by only three other teams – were 11 more than the NL runner-up, 17 more than the American League champion’s, seven more than topped the short-lived Federal League. His 115 RBIs were 28 more than any other NL hitter, his .510 slugging percentage 53 points higher than anyone else.

Gavvy Cravath baseball card.

Gavvy Cravath baseball card.

Two years earlier, he’d set a modern RBI record with 128. He won six NL homer titles. Had he played in contemporary conditions, a statistical expert calculated in 1998, Cravath’s career total might have been 706, not 119.

Those numbers are more impressive when you consider the baseballs he had to hit, objects one writer described as “soggy eggplants”.

“[They were] soft as a squash toward the end of a game,” he told the Sporting News in 1941. “I mastered a trick that helped in late innings. I’d slant my bat and deliberately foul a black apple into the grandstand. Then we’d get a new one, and I’d still be at bat. Maybe the pitcher would be tired and couldn’t put everything he had on the ball and – woppo! – I had another over the fence.”

Fifty-two years after his death, Cravath and the balls he belted onto Broad Street are almost entirely forgotten. In the minds of many who do recall both, they are diminished by Baker Bowl’s dimensions and Ruth’s legend.

In 2004, after Ken Jennings roared past his record for consecutive victories on the TV game show Jeopardy, a downcast Tom Walsh referenced Cravath.

“I feel like ‘Cactus Gavvy’ Cravath. Do you know who that is?” Walsh asked a Washington Post reporter who did not.

“Nobody does,” he added. “He’s the guy who had the home run record before Babe Ruth came along.”

Cravath’s anonymity isn’t a recent phenomenon. While Hall of Fame-eligible in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Southern California native never garnered more than 1.2 percent of the writers’ votes.

But increasingly among some whose passion is more carefully parsing the game’s history and statistics, he has found a new respect.

Historian Bill James, for example, in ranking the best rightfielders of all-time, between the ages of 32 and 36, put Cravath third.

The two ahead of him?

Ruth and Hank Aaron.

Origins of power

Born in 1881 in Poway, Cal., 15 miles northeast of San Diego, Clarence Carlton Cravath would be one of the earliest professional ballplayers raised in an area now fertile with talent.

His father was Escondido’s first mayor. Cravath was working as a crop fumigator and playing semipro baseball when the future Phillies star earned his unique nickname.

According to his Society of American Baseball Research biography, during an early 1900s game near the Mexican border, a ball hit by Cravath struck and killed a seagull. Some fans began yelling “Gaviota,” the Spanish word for the bird, and before long the outfielder was “Gavvy.”

(The “Cactus” would be appended later, apparently the result of his prickly demeanor and Western upbringing.)

Until he was 27, Cravath went unnoticed by the big leagues. California was a continent away from baseball’s East Coast heartland and he was neither a great fielder nor a fleet runner.

“They call me wooden shoes and piano legs and a few other pet names,” Cravath once said. “I do not claim to be the fastest man in the world, but I can get around the bases with a fair wind and all sails set.”

Sultan of Swat before the Sultan of Swat.

Sultan of Swat before the Sultan of Swat.

Still, his power-hitting made him a Pacific Coast League star for the Los Angeles Angels, who won four titles in five seasons. The Red Sox finally noticed and signed him in 1908.

Never able to crack Boston’s outfield, he was traded to the White Sox in 1909. A flop there, he was shipped to Washington. After just four games with the Senators, he was demoted to their triple-A Minneapolis Millers.

The Millers’ Nicollet Park would be the perfect staging ground for his Philadelphia career, its right- field fence 279 feet from home plate. Cravath, a righthanded hitter, altered his swing to take advantage.

He hit 14 homers and batted .327 in 1910. A year later, he led the International League with a .363 average, and his 29 homers were the most anyone had ever hit in an organized-baseball season.

Correctly assuming such opposite-field power would translate well in Baker Bowl, the Phillies purchased his contract for $9,000.

A 31-year-old newcomer in 1912, he hit .284 with 11 homers and 70 RBIs. Cravath emerged for the second-place 1913 Phillies, collecting a major-league- best 19 homers, .568 slugging percentage, and 128 RBIs, that last total an astounding 42 better than the runner-up’s.

In his history of the Phillies, author Max Blue noted that no one in baseball at the time “hit balls further.”

Duffy Lewis, Dutch Leonard, & Harry Hooper of Boston AL; Ed Burns & Gavvy Cravath of Philadelphia NL (baseball) by Bain News Service.

Duffy Lewis, Dutch Leonard, & Harry Hooper of Boston AL; Ed Burns & Gavvy Cravath of Philadelphia NL (baseball) by Bain News Service.

 Reaching the Series

In 1915, 19 of his 20th- century-record 24 homers came at home, though a 40-foot-high wall meant those opposite-field shots had to be hit well.

“That fence isn’t always a friend,” Cravath said. “I’ve hit that fence a good many times with a long drive that would have kept going right on for a home run or triple if it hadn’t been there. There are always two sides to every fence.”

The ’15 Phillies, who had added future Hall of Fame shortstop Dave Bancroft and others that offseason, won their first eight games, 11 of their first 12. With the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Cravath as their intimidating cleanup hitter, they were in first place for all but 51 days.

“It’s the cleanup man of the club that does the heavy scoring work even if he is wide in the shoulders and slow on his feet,” Cravath said.

President Woodrow Wilson throws out the first pitch at the 1913 World Series.

President Woodrow Wilson throws out the first pitch at the 1915 World Series.

On Sept. 29 in Boston, with Grover Cleveland Alexander tossing a one-hitter and Cravath belting a three-run homer, the Phillies, founded in 1883, finally clinched a pennant.

He hit just .125 in his only World Series, but was involved in one of its oddest moments.

A loss away from begin eliminated by Boston, the Phils loaded the bases in the first inning of Game 5. Then with a 3-2 count on Cravath, manager Pat Moran inexplicably ordered a bunt.

Moran later said he was looking to surprise the Sox. Instead, he surprised Cravath. He bunted into a double play as the Phils lost a fourth straight game and the Series.

His last league-leading homer season was 1919, when he hit 12. He retired in 1920, still the record-holder for career homers with 119. Ruth, who had hit a record 29 in 1920, eclipsed that total a year later.

Cravath managed briefly in the minors and served one season as a scout before retiring to Laguna Beach, Calif. Though a high school dropout without a law degree, he was overwhelmingly elected municipal judge in 1926 and held the job the rest of his life.

By all accounts, he was a no-nonsense jurist, one lawyers described as having no time for “legal niceties.”

An English-born attorney, Moresby White, frequently annoyed Cravath by citing English common law. One day, the judge had heard enough.

“It may be the common law of England, but it ain’t common sense,” Cravath told White, according to a 1963 California law journal article.

During World War II, he refused to provide names of convicted speeders to the War Rationing Board as regulations required.

“I’m not going to be a stool pigeon,” he said.

A fisherman and passionate lawn-bowler, Cravath died of a heart attack at 82 in 1963. When his obituary ran in the local newspaper, many residents were surprised to read that Judge Cravath had been one of the Phillies’ greatest sluggers.

“He never talked much about baseball,” McMillian said.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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Frank Fitzpatrick

Frank Fitzpatrick

 (Editor’s Note: Class act. That’s an apt description applying to author and subject in the case of Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist Frank Fitzpatrick. A 30-year writer for Philly’s daily paper, Fitzpatrick has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose awards include first place from Associated Press Sports Editors in the Best News Story category. Fitzpatrick’s take on Cravath’s eclectic and energetic life re-printed by permission. For more from the desk of Frank Fitzpatrick, visit: http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/frank_fitzpatrick