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 Maisel, George 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 Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken 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 Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Wally Bunker, Willie Mays