09/19/12 11:45 AM ET
'Cactus Gavvy' was Phils' version of Babe Ruth
By Larry Shenk / Special to MLB.com
Who was the single-season home run leader and the player with the most career homers until Babe Ruth came along?
Here's a clue. It happened a long time ago.
The answer: Phillies slugging right fielder, Clifford "Gavvy" Cravath, a native of California. According to The Ballplayers baseball encyclopedia, Cravath was a "tobacco-chewing, cussing bruiser, also called 'Cactus' for his prickly personality." What fun today's media would have covering such a character.
Cravath led the National League in home runs six different seasons: 1913 (19), '14 (19), '15 (24), '17 (12, tied for first), '18 (8) and '19 (12). The club record belongs to Mike Schmidt with seven seasons.
Cravath's 24 homers during the Phillies 1915 pennant-winning season broke the record of 21 set by Frank "Wildfire" Schulte of the Chicago Cubs in '11. The 24 homers stood until '19, when Babe Ruth hit 29. Ruth was with the Boston Red Sox that season, but he was traded to the Yankees after the season ended, a deal that still haunts the Red Sox.
While Cravath's numbers aren't astronomical, they were high for an period of time known as the "dead ball era."
One reason was that pitchers were allowed to throw spit balls -- that pitch was outlawed in 1921. The biggest reason, though, belonged to the fact that baseballs were used over 100 times in a game. Thus, the balls got dark, hard to see and soft from being hit so often. After Ray Chapman was fatally beaned in '20, baseball began changing the baseballs much more often during a game.
Cravath was 31 years of age when joined the Phillies in 1912. In '08-09, he played for three different American League clubs: the Red Sox, White Sox and Senators. In 117 combined games, he hit three homers.
After being hitless in six at-bats with Washington in 1909, Cravath was sent to the Minor Leagues and was the star of the Minneapolis Millers. He hit 29 homers in '11, setting a Minor League record. The Phillies purchased his rights for $9,000 after that season. With the Phillies in '12, he hit 11 homers, tops on the club.
During his nine-year career with the Phillies (1912-20), he also led the league in RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage twice, as well as runs, hits and walks once. Defensively, he led the league in assists three times, including a career-high 34 in '14.
Cravath served as the team's player-manager in 1919-20 (91-137 record). He finished his Phillies career with a .291 average for 1,103 games. His 119 career homers stood as a major league record, but for only one year, as the Babe passed him in '21.
During the 1915 World Series, he drove in the Phillies' first run in the first game but didn't have another RBI, as the Red Sox won the Series, 4-1.
Following his career, he was elected a judge in Laguna Beach, Calif., in 1927, and spent 36 years on the bench. He died at age 82 on May 23, 1963.
Larry Shenk is the vice president of alumni relations for the Philadelphia Phillies. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.