Any player/Any era: Gavvy Cravath

Posted: 2nd June 2011 by Graham Womack in Gavvy Cravath

What he did: Gavvy Cravath may be something of a forgotten man today, and I’ve confused him with Gabby Hartnett and Gabby Street before. Mostly, Cravath can be remembered as a name that shows up again and again on the National League home run leader boards of the Deadball Era. His 24 homers in 1915 was, to that time, a big league record. But he was slow in the field and played just seven full seasons in the majors. One of my baseball books suggests Cravath was born 55 years too soon, that he could have played into his 40s had the designated hitter position existed in his day. That’s an interesting thought, which I’m happy to expand on here.

Era he might have thrived in: The DH position debuted in 1973 when the New York Yankees made Ron Blomberg baseball’s first full-time hitter. Seeing as Cravath was born in 1881, moving his birth date up 55 years would seem insufficient to extend his career much or boost his Hall of Fame case. He’d perhaps be little more than a glorified version of another slow-moving slugger Frank Howard, who was born in 1936 and got just one season at the end of his career to DH. But if Cravath had been born in say, 1951, he might have been baseball’s first superstar DH.

Why: Cravath’s problem wasn’t that he couldn’t stick in the big leagues once he finally had a starting position. It’s that it took him until he was 31 to get it.

A native of Escondido, California, Cravath began playing in the Pacific Coast League and was 27 when he debuted with the Boston Red Sox in 1908. But he couldn’t penetrate Boston’s vaunted outfield of Harry Hooper, Tris Speaker, and Duffy Lewis, one of baseball’s greatest, and Cravath bounced to a few other American League clubs before returning to the minors. When Cravath finally earned a starting spot with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1912, he quickly made up for lost time and took advantage of his cozy home park, the Baker Bowl, leading the National League in home runs six of the next eight seasons.

Cravath’s 119 home runs were a record when he retired at the dawn of the Live Ball Era in 1920, even if Babe Ruth quickly set this aside. But in the modern era, Cravath could make the majors as a full-time DH in his early 20s, last 15 or 20 seasons, and maybe hit 400-500 home runs. I’m guessing his 1915 season alone, when he clubbed 24 homers, unheard of for those days, might be good for 50 today. And seeing as Cravath played until he was 40, when few lasted that long, I wonder if he’d have even greater durability with modern medicine. The man exuded strength, becoming a no-nonsense judge after baseball. Even his name sounds tough.

Granted, playing in recent decades, Cravath wouldn’t have the 279-foot right field limits of his old stomping grounds, the Baker Bowl, which closed in 1938. Still, as a right-handed hitter with the ability to go to the opposite field, Cravath might thrive in old Yankee Stadium. He’d certainly trump Blomberg who, even with the chance to DH starting at 24, had 52 home runs lifetime and played his final game at 30.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Carl Mays, Charles Victory Faust, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Eddie Lopat, Frank Howard, Fritz MaiselGeorge Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel BrothersTy Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays

 

  1. stevebogus says:

    Cravath was a unique player, but he took enormous advantage of his home park. His home/away splits are ridiculous, with 92 of his career HRs in the Baker Bowl and just 27 elsewhere. This was a case of a player developing a particular skill well suited to his home park. By the way, the Phillies got him after he hit 29 HRs in 1911 for the Minneapolis Millers. That team played in Nicollet Park which was 279′ down the rightfield line.

    Also the baseballs today are essentially the same as 1912-1919. The cork-centered ball was introduced in 1911, and it was livelier than the rubber-cored baseballs before it. At the major league level this caused an across the board increase in hitting. In the minor leagues we begin to see 20+ HR seasons at this time. The next big leap in offense was due to the spitball/scuffball ban in 1920, and enhanced by an effort to keep clean baseballs in play after the beanball death of Ray Chapman.

  2. Cliff Blau says:

    There is no reason to suppose he would have thrived in Yankee Stadium 1. It was a neutral park for left handed hitters.

    It is hard to say what Cravath could have done if he’d been born later. On the one hand, his skill set was unappreciated at the time he played, and probably wasn’t appropriate to the dirty ball era. In a later era he would have played more in the majors at an earlier age. Maybe he would have had a Jay Buhner type career. OTOH, outside of Baker Bowl he wasn’t much of a hitter; maybe he would have had a Mike Aldrete type career.

  3. Brendan says:

    Jay Buhner or Mike Aldrete… or maybe Oscar Gamble or Carlos May?
    Projecting Cravath as a young DH candidate in 1973 probably leaves him limited opportunities, since most AL teams in the first year of the DH went the route of using an aging slugger to fill that role. The parallel to Blomberg is apt, but while he was the first DH he was not the Yankees’ leading DH in ’73. Listed below are team leaders in starts at DH in 1973 and their ages. Only Gamble and May fit the mold of a young, emerging player, similar to what a 22 year-old Cravath would have been if he had been born in 1951.

    BAL – Tommy Davis (34)
    BOS – Orlando Cepeda (35)
    CAL – Frank Robinson (37)
    CHW – Carlos May (25)
    CLE – Oscar Gamble (23)
    DET – Gates Brown (34)
    KC – Hal McRae (27)
    MIL – Ollie Brown (29)
    MIN – Tony Oliva (34)
    NYY – Jim Ray Hart (31)
    OAK – Deron Johnson (34)
    TEX – Alex Johnson (30)

  4. Bob B says:

    Nice little write up on Cravath. He’s certainly a player whose career has intrigued me because of the “what if” factor. Frankly, I don’t know about park effects et al, but I agree with you that it seems he’d fare better in the DH era.

    One complaint, though: Cravath was NOT the career home run leader when he retired. Wasn’t it Roger Conner whose mark was eclipsed by Babe Ruth?

  5. Fred Antczak says:

    Even his NICKNAME was tough: “Cactus”!

  6. Angus Macfarlane says:

    Am I correct in assuming that you are saying Gavy’s home runs were just 279 feet long? Or that they went over a fence that was 279 feet from home plate, but nobody can say for sure how far beyond the right field wall the ball traveled before coming to earth, so the default distance is 279 feet?

    Obviously you’re ignoring the basic fact that there is a trajectory involved in the flight of a ball. No one, not even Gavy, ever hit a ball that cleared a fence and then dropped 90 degrees to the ground just after clearing the barrier. There is ALWAYS a descending trajectory, just as there has to be an ascending trajectory. Simple physics.

    Now, are you aware that the 279-foot wall in Baker Bowl was in reality a 60-foot high barrier that had to be cleared for a home run? Again, the physics of baseball: a simple descending trajectory of a ball clearing the 60-foot wall would carry it an ADDITIONAL 60 feet beyond the fence–thus at least a 340-foot home run over the “short” 279-foot right field wall (plus a 60-foot tall barrier). Balls clearing the wall at higher points would land correspondingly farther from the wall.

    So, definitely NOT cheap home runs.

    Finally, not all of Gavy’s home runs went over the “short” right field wall. His distribution of home runs at Baker Bowl was LF 32%; LC 3%; CF 23%; RC 7%; RF 32%; unknown 6%. This was taken from reports in the Philadelphia Enquirer of all of Gavy’s home runs.

  7. Angus, thanks for your comment.

    I took another look at Cravath’s SABR bio. It said 78 percent of Cravath’s career home runs came at the Baker Bowl, which would be 93 of his 119 HRs if my math is correct.

    It seems ludricous to suggest there wasn’t some kind of home field advantage at work for Cravath, though I’m open to suggestions.

  8. Angus Macfarlane says:

    “There was some kind of home field advantage at work for Cravath [because he hit 78% of his home runs at Baker Bowl].”

    What are the possibilities?

    First of all, what did Gavy do? He hit more home runs during the Dead Ball Era (DBE) than any other slugger. He was the ONLY DBE slugger to hit 100 home runs exclusively during that time. When hitting 20 home runs a season was rarer than hitting 60 homers is now, he averaged 20+ homers for three seasons (1913-1915) the only one to do so till Ruth. In terms of dominance over his contemporaries, Gavy’s home run rate (AB/HR) was six times greater than the MLB average of his DBE contemporaries. The only player with a greater degree of dominance over his contemporaries was The Babe at 7.9 times greater than average. (Aaron, Bonds, Mays, etc. are all clustered at a two-to-three times greater than average rate.)

    How did he do it? The easy, dismissive answer is “home field advantage”. Or did he use PEDs? Or voodoo? Let’s be reasonable and eliminate PEDs and voodoo and look at “home field advantage”. What was it precisely? Gavy hit 78% of his homers at Baker Bowl. OK. During his career he hit 92 round trippers at Baker Bowl and that is a home field advantage. It must have been since ALL of the visiting players over the same time span hit a COMBINED total of 157 homers. ALL of the other players—nine men per team—hit 65 more long flies than a ONE batter: Gavy. That’s a home field advantage all right. In 1915, when he hit 19 out of Baker Bowl, the opposing batters managed only 18. Certainly that’s the definition of a home field advantage.

    Not far behind Gavy in “home field advantage” was “Home Run Baker” of the A’s who hit 70 of his 96 homers at home for a 73% “home field advantage”.

    Mel Ott, a dead pull, line drive hitter was made for the Polo Grounds and its short (257) right field with a low (12’) wall. He hit 323 of his 511 swats at home for a 63% home field advantage. By the way, did you know that of his last 119 homers (same as Gavy’s career total) Mel hit 96 of them at the batter-friendly Polo Grounds? That’s a whopping 81%. A real ludicrous, home field advantage wouldn’t you say?

    Or was there something else going on regarding Gavy and his numbers? The real story perhaps.

  9. Angus, I can do without the sarcasm or condescension.

  10. Angus Macfarlane says:

    None intended and my apology is sincerely offered.

    It’s easy to look at uni-dimensional stats and assume they hold all the answers and provide all the explanations. Three centuries Galileo was excommunicated and sentenced to house arrest because the Pope refused to look through a telescope to see what revolutionary sights Galileo beheld. To do so would have upset the dogma of the church at the time. Same with Gavy. For a century he has been the victim of the Big Lie that he had been the beneficiary the “batter friendly” Baker Bowl and the myth that all of his homers went a mere 280 feet, thus disparaging the man and his career.

    There are numbers, there are statistics and there is critical analysis of the numbers and statistics. Each represents a deeper layer of understanding and critical thinking. I’m trying to stimulate that in you and your followers, not demean you or them. Just how open are you to suggestion?

  11. Angus, I appreciate the apology.

    I’m open to feedback. To be honest, my apprehension through our discourse hasn’t had that much to do with Cravath. Writing about the Hall of Fame much as I have over the past few years, I’ve gotten used to people going off about random players. Their reasons for favoring them are generally fairly irrational and have more to do with justifiying their personal biases. It’s made me skeptical anytime someone lobbies hard for a long-retired player.

  12. Baseball-Reference has this neat stat called tOPS+, or “OPS for split relative to player’s total OPS”. It’s on the splits pages. We only have splits for Cravath for age 35 on, but all those years were in the Baker Bowl. I wondered what his home/road splits looked like compared to Larry Walker.

    Walker: 120 home tOPS+
    Walker: 80 road tOPS+

    (Remember, these should add up to 100 since they are relative to Walker’s overall OPS, not to league averages.)

    Cravath: 125
    Cravath: 79

    Why don’t these add up to 100? Probably because there’s a significant plate appearance difference. 53.3% of Cravath’s PAs at that time came on the road, as opposed to Walker’s 50.2%.

    So, Cravath’s home-field advantage was a bit more sharp than Larry Walker’s. Walker is getting killed for it in the Hall of Fame voting. I don’t think that’s what really hurt Gavvy, though. What hurt him was not becoming a full-time player until age 31. As a result, he has just 1134 hits. That’s incredibly light, especially given the makup of the Hall at the time (it hadn’t been Frisched yet).

    Also, Cravath’s average was “just” .287. That was much more important early on than his .380 OBP.

    Want to see something scary? Compare Gavvy Cravath’s post-age-31 Philly career to Chuck Klein’s insane Baker Bowl-aided years (through age 28) that got him in the Hall:

    Klein: 3710 PA, 289 Rbat, 31.9 WAR, 191 HR, 160 OPS+
    Cravath: 4239 PA, 228 Rbat, 29.3 WAR, 117 HR, 153 OPS+

    Not that far off, huh?

    Of course, Klein hung on to get 2000 hits and 300 home runs, despite just 9.6 WAR from his final 11 seasons (oof). He’s certainly on the weaker side of the Hall of Fame. Cravath is simply Klein, in an earlier era (that suppressed power numbers), without the longevity.

  13. Angus Macfarlane says:

    Gavy was the unfortunate victim of greed and stupidity at both ends of his career. Graham is in possession of a document I sent him that summarizes how he was essentially held captive for two years while with the Millers of the American Association. The AA had visions of becoming a third major league and the Association clubs were loathe to let go of their star players in case that pipe dream came true. Only a clerical error freed Gavy from that situation.

    At the other end of his career the baseball barons, to save money under the guise of patriotism, shortened the 1918 season by, in Gavy’s case, 31 games. It was to help the war effort they claimed. In 1919, with no war though still full of patriotic fervor, the barons cut the season short by a team average of 15 games. Over those two shortened seasons everyone’s stats would have seemed to tank, though Gavy still led the NL both years in homers with 8 and 12 respectively.

    A cursory glance at Gavy’s last two years (1919 and 1920) and especially 1920 would lead one to conclude that the old horse was ready for pasture. In truth what happened in 1919 and 1920 was the biggest blunder in baseball till Ruth went to the Yankees. On July 9, 1919 Gavy was named manager of the Phils. At the time he was batting .366, slugging .666 and led the majors with 9 homers. For the rest of the shortened season, while he tried to manage a team on the verge of anarchy, he was a bench manager instead of being a player manager. Over the remainder of the season he went 6 for 31 in pinch-hitting roles. Three of his hits were pinch-hit homers, giving him 12 to lead the NL. Over in the other league, Ruth, who had just 8 homers when Gavy changed caps, hit 29 for the Red Sox. Interestingly, only 9 were hit at Fenway.

    Gavy was tasked with the impossible and he couldn’t do it. William Baker, who didn’t know anything about the game, fired Gavy at the end of the 1920 season because the team did so poorly. Why did the team do so poorly, resulting in Gavy’s dismissal from baseball? Because the team’s best player wasn’t allowed to play. Ironic.

    Three other things happened in 1920: the live ball was introduced, doctored balls were outlawed, and Ray Chapman was killed. Chapman’s death resulted in more frequent introduction of fresh balls into the game rather than keeping a darkened, softened, misshaped sphere in play, a real boon to the batters. Gavy probably had a couple of good years still left, but he wasn’t able to pick the fruit from the live ball tree.

    Chuck Klein, of course, played during the live ball era when the Baker Bowl really became a cigar box, and he clearly benefited from the dimensions.

    Gavy’s lifetime average of .287 needs to be looked at in the context of the times. It was 30 points higher than the MLB average during his years, and if that final season and a half had gone differently there would be no debating Gavy’s credentials.

  14. Angus, I didn’t mention it in the article, but after it got linked to at Baseball Think Factory a couple of years ago, I heard someone bring up Cravath’s contract situation with Minneapolis. Interesting stuff. A similar thing happened to Lefty Grove about a decade later with Baltimore in the International League, with his owner holding onto him for a few years beyond the normal sell-point for a young prospect to extract the best possible deal for him. It’s one of those things that’d never happen in baseball today.

    I don’t think Cravath was strictly a victim of what happened in Minneapolis. He still would’ve been in his late 20s when he arrived there after having previously played in the bigs. Partly he was a late bloomer, in the same vein as Lefty O’Doul or Cecil Fielder.

    Adam brings up an interesting stat. What it means is that Cravath’s total adjusted offensive production was about 25 percent better than league average at home and 21 percent worse than league average on the road. That’s meaningful to me.

  15. Actually Graham, I was saying something different. At home, Cravath was 25 percent better than HIS OWN OPS, not league average. Pretty substantial difference, particularly for a high OPS guy like him. Same deal with Larry Walker.

    I don’t doubt Gavvy Cravath would have been a Hall of Famer given a more complete career. But there are also a lot of people I can say that about. Pete Browning, Dave Orr, Charley Jones, Mike Donlin, Lefty O’Doul and Harry Stovey come to mind. Those seven ranked by Hall Rating:

    Harry Stovey 95
    Pete Browning 92
    Gavvy Cravath 63
    Charley Jones 63
    Dave Orr 62
    Mike Donlin 56
    Lefty O’Doul 51

  16. Angus Macfarlane says:

    In 1884 baseball removed all restrictions on pitchers’ delivery allowing them to pitch overhand from 50 feet away. In 1883, when the pitchers could only throw underhand, the home run rate was 1 for every 232 at bats. In 1884, after they were allowed to pitch overhand, the rate increased to 1 homer for every 102 at bats, a 228% jump.

    Intuitively one would believe that there should have been fewer homers, not more. Clearly there were some unintended consequences. Perhaps the rule makers overlooked simple physics? The ball was now coming at a greater velocity and the batter’s swing transferred the greater velocity in the opposite direction, sending the ball farther and creating more home runs. Makes sense, right?

    In 1885 the home run rate dropped to 1 homer for every 179 at bats, a 43% decrease over 1884. Were the laws of physics repealed?

    That’s the problem and danger of looking at numbers superficially and linearly. The increase and the subsequent decrease in the rate of home runs had nothing to do with physics. In 1883 the Chicago club played in a park that had ludicrously short fences. That year balls hit over the fences were ruled to be doubles. In 1883 Chicago hit a total of 13 homers—11 at home and 2 away. Their pitchers gave up 21 homers—6 at home and 15 away. Thus, the Chicago park accounted for 17 of the league’s 124 home runs or 14%.

    The next year the Chicago club declared all balls going over the fences would now be home runs. Consequently, in 1884 Chicago’s supermen hit 142 big flies (a number not matched till the 27 Yankees) —131 at home and 11 away. The pitchers gave up 83 round trippers—66 at home and 17 away. In 1884 Chicago accounted for 197 of the league’s 321 homers or 61%. 1884 also gave us the aberration of Ned Williamson’s 27 homers (25 at home, including MLB’s first 3-homer game) and three other Chicago players hitting 20 or more homers (including Cap Anson who also hit three in a game and set a yet-to-be broken of 5 in two consecutive games)—a feat not duplicated till the 1938 Yankees had four players hit 20 or more homers.

    In 1885 Chicago moved to a new facility and normalcy returned. In 1888 the league instituted the minimum-distance rule that fences be at least 210 feet from home plate.

    Unquestionably Chicago’s field was a home run factory and everybody benefited. The primary sin against Gavy is that he, and he alone, somehow benefited from some aspect of Baker Bowl. But what? He did what no one else could do but is condemned for it. Why? Balls did not fly out of Baker Bowl at an unreasonable rate—except those hit by Gavy. And NOT that many over the notorious right field wall that, with its 60-foot fence, had to be at least a 340-foot drive.

    Bill Veek admits to lowering and raising the outfield fence when he owned the Minneapolis Millers (after Gavy) and moving the fences in and out when he owned the Indians, but these shenanigans weren’t at play during Gavy’s career. Gavy’s career is unique and unprecedented. Has being unique and unprecedented become a criterion for DISqualification?