“Cactus Gavvy” Went East, Young Man

"Gavvy" Cravath led the N.L. in home runs six times as one of the Deadball era's top sluggers.

“Gavvy” Cravath led the N.L. in home runs six times as one of the Deadball era’s top sluggers.

By Glen Sparks

There was a time when southern California was a far-out place. Clifford “Gavvy” Cravath knew all about that place. And, it had nothing to do with “groovy, man.”

This was a time when southern California was a wild, still largely rural, place. Jackrabbits and coyotes ran through foothills, free from unknown suburbia. Million-dollar homes and twisting roads were still to come.

Families arrived—dusty–by wagon, later by train, after traveling past mountain passes and through scorching deserts, across some of the hottest, driest country on Earth. It was a dangerous, sometimes deadly, trip to the sea.

Cravath grew up in just this sort of southern California, born on this date in 1881 in Escondido (Some sources say he was born in nearby Poway.), outside San Diego.

Cliff’s dad served as Escondido’s first mayor. Later, he left that job to become San Diego County Sheriff. Cliff, meanwhile, made his name as one of the county’s top athletes. In 1898, he competed on the losing side of the Escondido High School vs. San Diego High School football match-up, the first gridiron prep game ever played in San Diego County. During the spring, Cliff caught for Escondido High’s baseball team.

Following graduation, Cliff went from job to job, from ballfield to ballfield. The young man swung hard. He aimed for the fences at a time when most players simply wanted to place the ball. Home runs were thought of as showy, not very gentlemanly. Maybe Clifford Cravath, playing on the far-flung west coast, didn’t know that and simply swung how he wanted.

He acquired the nickname “Gavvy” around the turn of the century. One time, so the tale goes, his swing turned lethal. He smashed a liner that dropped a seagull dead. Mexican fans screamed “gaviota!,” Spanish for “seagull.” Teammates liked it. They thought it was funny. “Gaviota.” Yep, Cliff, that’s what you killed. The name stuck, shortened to “Gavvy,” the bird killer.

Later, people called him “Cactus” or “Cactus Gavvy,” a moniker fit for a pistol-packing, hot-tempered cartoon character, but which in reality honored Cravath’s western heritage and made comment on his sometimes prickly personality.

Word got around that Gavvy could handle a bat. The Los Angeles Angels signed him to a deal, and the money paid off. The Angels won four Pacific Coast League pennants over the next five years, thanks in large part to the hard hitting of Cactus Gavvy.

Did Gavvy dare to dream about a life in the majors? What did he even know about big league ball? Baseball at its best was a long haul away. The closest team to California was the St. Louis Cardinals, nearly 2,000 miles from southern California. Was that too far?

Head East

It was the Boston Red Sox, though, a team based 3,000 miles from Cravath’s hometown, that finally signed the minor-league slugger. The Cactus was 27 years old.

Now, Gavvy didn’t exactly start racking up one big hit after another in the majors. You get the feeling that clubs didn’t quite know what they had in “Cactus Gavvy” Cravath. He was slow afoot at a time when teams liked plenty of speed on the basepaths. He was a power hitter in the era of Cobb. Managers had to scratch their heads a bit and wonder, “Who is this guy?”

The Californian got to bat 277 times for the 1908 Red Sox. He hit just .256 with only one home run, but he smashed 11 triples. Apparently, the guy could run a little bit faster than some people thought. Boston, though, shipped him to the Chicago White Sox in February 1909, where he went 9-50 (.180). Later that season, the White Sox dealt Cactus to the Washington Senators, where went hitless in six at-bats. (A young player, who also employed a mighty swing, would arrive in Boston just a few years later. Babe Ruth was on the way.)

Over the next few seasons, Gavvy regained his reputation as a power hitter, albeit as a minor leaguer. This time, he crunched baseballs in the upper Midwest for the Minneapolis Millers.

Gavvy smashed home runs and windows in record numbers. Nicollet Park near downtown Minneapolis had a short porch in right field, just 279 feet from home plate. The right-handed batting Cactus took a look at that and learned how to lift flyballs the opposite way. He hit 14 home runs in 1910 and set an organized baseball record in 1911 with 29, to go with a .363 batting average. And, the Cactus didn’t hit a bunch of cheapies, either. He ripped some completely out of the yard. Once, he broke the same window on Nicollet Avenue three times in one week.

In 1912, the Philadelphia Phillies paid $9,000 for the services of Cactus Gavvy. What, they must have asked, can this guy do while playing half his games at the Baker Bowl, a park similar to Nicollet. The right-field wall at the Bowl stood 280 feet home plate. It was a nice target for Gavvy. He was 31 years old.

Quickly, the San Diego guy turned into a star. He led the National League in home runs six of the next eight seasons. His first big year was 1913, his second year in Philadelphia. He clubbed a league-leading 19 home runs and set a major league record with 128 RBI. He also finished atop the leader board in slugging percentage (.568), OPS (.974), OPS+ (172), total bases (298) and hits (179). He ended up second in batting average (.341), nine points behind Charles “Babe” Adams of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Cactus still only wound up as runner-up in the MVP voting to Brooklyn’s Jake Daubert, who didn’t have nearly as good a year.

He followed up that season with another league-leading 19-homer season in 1914. The next year, he set the 20th-century record with 24 (the most since the Washington Senators’ Buck Freeman knocked 25 in 1899) and led his team to its first pennant. After finishing second in home runs in 1916 (11 home runs, good for second in the league), Cactus came back and led the league with 12 in 1917, eight in 1918 and 12 in 1919. He retired at age 39 after getting off to a slow start in 1920.

Cactus left the game with 119 career home runs, No. 4 on the all-time list at the time. He was the first player to capture more than five home run titles. Over his career, he batted .287 with a commendable .380 on-base percentage due to his good eye at the plate. Cravath only played 11 seasons, in part because he grew up so far from the heart of big league action. … Would he have signed a major league deal at a much younger age had he hailed from Pennsylvania or Ohio? But, would he have been the same type of player?

He hit most of his home runs at home; the most he hit on the road in one season was five. That might be one reason this early baseball slugger is not in the Hall of Fame. Shouldn’t he get some credit, though, for taking advantage of the short porch available to him at the Baker Bowl? And, the dimensions were the same for everyone. It was Cactus Gavvy, though, who lead the league in home runs all those years, not any of his teammates.

Gavvy did some coaching after his playing days. He spent much of his time amid the lovely weather of seaside Laguna Beach. There, he also was elected a judge. Gavvy Cravath died May 23, 1963, at the age of 82.

He once said this of his mighty swing. “Short singles are like left-hand jabs in the boxing ring, but a home run is a knock-out punch. 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.”

Spoken just like the Babe.

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