Moose Clabaugh: A Home Run Every Other Game

 

So, after writing the stories of the three modern single-season home run leaders, I decided there were too many great tales surrounding the guys who held the record prior to Hauser, Crues and Bauman. In the coming weeks I’ll bring to life Bunny Brief, Big Boy Kraft, Tony LaZerre and today’s featured slugger: Moose Clabaugh…

It was two hours until game time, and the sportswriters in shirt sleeves migrated down to the empty seats behind home plate to watch the newest Brooklyn recruit take his cuts in batting practice. Besides the scribes, a few dozen early birds – salesmen, office workers playing hooky and the neighborhood urchins who snuck in without a ticket – dotted the Ebbets Field bleachers. Unlike the usual nameless, unheralded rookies who always appeared on big league clubs at the end of each season, this one came with credentials that piqued the interests of even the most cynical Brooklyn fan.

The newcomer was a rangy six-footer who had just stepped off the train from Texas where his 62 home runs made headlines coast to coast. After a brief, but savage, legal battle between four ball clubs, Brooklyn had wound up with the western phenom’s contract.

Down on the field, the new guy unlimbered his broad shoulders and adjusted his new wool uniform to his liking. Fixing his cap over his eyes to block out the midday sun, he stepped into the box. After lining a few long shots that sent the outfielders scurrying, the rookie began hitting ball after ball over the right field wall and into Bedford Avenue. Then, as if to prove correct the rumors of his reported power, he hit a tremendous drive that rose high on an arc out towards the right field wall where a large clock was mounted above the bullpen. The ball crashed into the face dead center, freezing time, at least on that clock, for all eternity.

This was Moose Clabaugh, new owner of the single season record for home runs.

Moose was born John William Clabaugh in Albany, Missouri in 1901. His father William Clabaugh was a farmer, and John, commonly called “Johnnie,” was the youngest child born to he and his wife Katie. William died when Johnnie was 13, and as soon as he turned 18 he left Albany to join the Navy. Johnnie honed his skills playing baseball in a service league and he matured into a lean, 6-foot tall man. Upon his discharge in 1921, Johnnie returned to Albany and enrolled in Palmer College, playing both basketball and football. 

In 1923 Clabaugh was signed by the Topeka Kaws of the Class C Southwestern League. (For those of you who are asking yourselves “what the heck is a “Kaw”, the Kaw people are a Native American tribe originally from Oklahoma and Kansas.) With an average hovering around .250, Clabaugh was dealt to the Hutchinson Wheat Shockers of the same league midway through the summer. The change of scenery didn’t help, and he finished his first season of organized baseball with a .254 average. (For those of you who are asking yourselves “what the heck is a “Wheat Shocker”, that’s the name of a person who carries the harvested stalks of wheat.)

When the books opened on the 1924 season, Clabaugh was a new man. Playing in the Class C Western League, he first took the field for the Bartlesville Bearcats who relocated over to Ardmore halfway through the season. The sophomore posted a .354 average with 11 home runs in 70 games. The next year he had a dispute with the Bearcats manager who punished Clabaugh by demoting him to the Paris Bearcats of the lower-level East Texas League. In July he was hitting .385 when the Cleveland Indians bought his contract from Paris and shipped him to the Decatur Commodores. In the higher Class B Three I League Clabaugh hit .264. It was in Decatur that his sub-par fielding became evident. When his outfield work proved to be a down right liability, the Commodores moved him over to first base where his horror-story of a record there led the Indians to give up on him by season’s end. 

The one positive thing Clabaugh took away from his 1924 season was a nickname worthy of a future home run champ: “Moose.” One might think that he was given this moniker due to his large size or tremendous power with a bat, but according to a 1931 article in the Albany Capital, the origin stems to a day on the links. When one of Clabaugh’s drives traveled for what seemed like a mile down the fairway, his partner exclaimed “Say you big moose, you really hit that one!.” And that’s how Johnnie became Moose.

Each winter Clabaugh returned to his studies at Palmer College. He also kept in shape by playing basketball, first in a local recreational league, and in later years with semi-pro barnstorming and industrial league teams. In February, 1926, he married Juanita Clayton, daughter of a Palmer College professor.

During the winter the Tyler Trojans of the East Texas League purchased his contract. (For those of you who are asking yourselves “what the heck is a “Trojan” – just kidding…) By the time he and Juanita arrived in Tyler, the local sports pages were brimmed with expectations for “Moose” Clabaugh. He didn’t let the locals down.

In a pre-season exhibition game against the Corsicana Oilers, Moose performed one of baseball’s most elusive feats: the unassisted triple play. With runners on second and third and no outs, Moose fielded a hot grounder and stepped on first base for the first out. Them, he ran towards the plate to tag the runner trying to score from third – two outs. Turning, Moose then reversed course and tagged the last runner who was trying to get to third base. Three outs. Not bad for a guy who was dumped by Cleveland for sub-par fielding.

Once the season opened, it was Clabaugh’s bat, not his fielding that made headlines. The newcomer began hitting home runs at a pace never seen before. by midsummer he was averaging a four-bagger every other game. The previous year Tony Lazzeri had set the professional baseball single season home run record with a Ruthian 60 blasts. Lazzeri played for the Salt Lake City Bees of the Pacific Coast League, a higher level of play than the East Texas League, just a rung below the majors. However, Lazzeri had the much longer 200 game PCL schedule to hit his 60 home runs, while Clabaugh had only a 120 game season to work with. Also, Salt Lake City’s Bonneville Park was located 4,226 feet above sea level, so balls simply flew out of the park due to the elevation. Moose was also aided by a friendly home field. Though Tyler’s elevation was just 544 feet above sea level, Trojan Park had a cozy 250 foot right field wall over which the left handed Clabaugh sent most of his home runs. Indeed, of the 62 home runs Clabaugh slugged in 1926, on 23 were hit on the road. 

On August 20, Moose hit his 60th home run to tie Lazzeri’s record. With two home games left, Clabaugh hit a homer in each to set the new single-season record at 62. The closest anyone in the league came to Clabaugh’s home run total was Longview’s Randy Moore who hit 30 home runs. Besides running away with the home run title, Clabaugh’s .376 average and 164 RBI also topped the league, earning him the East Texas Triple Crown, and his .851 slugging percentage beat Ruth’s best by 4 points. Clabaugh’s home run race took the sting out of the Trojans miserable season, finishing in fourth place, 25 1/2 games out of first.

Now came the expected bidding war for the Moose. On the day Clabaugh hit number 62, the Brooklyn Robins announced they had purchased the slugger from Tyler, delivery due ASAP. As soon as that news hit the wires, no less than three other teams claimed they had rights over Moose. Commissioner Landis studied the claims made by Brooklyn, the Mission Bells of the PCL, the Denver Bears of the Western League and the Waco Cubs of the Texas League and ruled no one owned the rights to Clabaugh – effectively making him a free agent. Brooklyn offered $15,000 – part up front and the remainder due if he stuck with the big league team after April 8, 1927. Clabaugh was on the next train east – destination Ebbets Field.

Clabaugh’s arrival in Brooklyn was met with a mixture of expectation and trepidation. Ever since Babe Ruth had made home runs exciting in 1920, it seemed like each season featured a late season debut of “the next Babe Ruth” discovered in some far off bush league. In 1923 it was Mose Solomon who hit 49 home runs for the Hutchinson Wheat Shockers, only to be a bust with the New York Giants. Even former record holder Tony Lazzeri proved to be a disappointment when he debuted with the Yankees in 1926, hitting “just” 18 home runs and leading the American League in strike outs. So, while Moose’s arrival in Brooklyn was met with some glowing praise, other articles made sure to mention that “many of the 62 drives were hit in small parks.”

On August 30, 1926, Moose Clabaugh made his big league debut. Facing the New York Giants at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson sent Clabaugh in to pinch hit in the eighth inning. With a runner on first, Moose promptly hit a scorching liner off Hugh McQuillan which was caught by Bill Terry who stepped on first for the double play. The inning ending bang-bang play caught Moose by surprise. He stood motionless at the plate, his bat shattered by the blast.

Four days later Robinson sent Clabaugh in to pinch hit against Philadelphia. A sacrifice earned him an RBI but he was still hitless. The next afternoon, Clabaugh was again tabbed to pinch hit, and he connected for a double, sparking Brooklyn’s dramatic 9-run 9th inning comeback to beat the Phils, 12-6. 

Up to this point, Wilbert Robinson kept Clabaugh out of the field. Brooklyn already had two quality first basemen, Jack Fornier and Babe Herman, and the Robins manager had been spooked by the ineptitude Clabaugh showed when he tried to shag balls in the outfield during batting practice. Still, on September 15, Moose was sent out to play left field as a late inning replacement. When a ball was sent out to him, Moose amazed the spectators by zig-zagging all over the field in pursuit, only to have the ball pop out of his glove, turning a sure out into a triple. Robinson gave him one last chance in left field, but he again committed a horrific error. In his five chances in two games, Clabaugh had committed errors on two of the plays. In the two games he appeared at first base, Moose performed flawlessly, but as already stated, Brooklyn already had Fornier and Herman.

Despite his ugly performance in the field, Clabaugh’s hitting in batting practice continued to impress. On September 22 the Cardinals were in Ebbets Field, and manager Branch Rickey told reporters that Clabaugh had the best follow-through in his swing that he had ever seen. However, when the season ended, Brooklyn returned the paperwork on Clabaugh and shipped the home run champ back to the Tyler. Some sportswriters thought despite Clabaugh’s poor showing, he deserved a chance to make the team in spring training the next season, but Brooklyn stood fast, saving themselves from having to pay the balance of his $15,000 price tag to the Trojans.

Moose’s Tyler homecoming was short lived. Clabaugh felt he deserved a paycheck worthy of his status as the reigning home run champ. Declaring his salary demands as “fabulous,” Tyler’s president D.M. Maynor put Clabough on the trading block.

Now Moose embarked on a decade-long tour of the minor leagues, each season signing with a different club in the hope that another year like 1926 would get him another shot at the majors. He hit 21 home runs for the High Point Pointers before he was dealt to the Jacksonville Tars at the season’s end. With the Tars again in 1928 he hit 15 homers, then was sold to Mobile at the end of the summer, hitting a pair of homers for the Bears. His mediocre play with Mobile may have been caused by several distractions off the field. The first was the birth of he and Juanita’s first child, a son named John, Jr. in August. The other was the early symptoms of appendicitis, as he had to have the troublesome organ removed on early October.

He started 1929 with Mobile but was again traded, this time to Birmingham of the same league. Clabaugh hit ten home runs and helped the Barons win the Southern Association pennant. In the Dixie Series against the Dallas Steers, Clabaugh’s steal of home won the first game, and another steal of home in the 6th game proved to be the winning run in Birmingham’s 4 games to 2 triumph over Dallas. 

1930 found Clabaugh with the Quincy Indians in the Three-I League where he returned to his old form, hitting .354 and leading the loop with 30 homers and 154 RBI. Meanwhile on the east coast, Joe Hauser of the Baltimore Orioles was making headlines as he matched and then one-upped Clabaugh’s home run record with 63 clouts. Hauser would eventually break his own record by hitting 69 home runs in 1933, setting the single-season record until Joe Bauman hit 72 in 1954. 

In 1931 Moose was back in the Southern Association with the Nashville where he became the first player in league history to win back-to-back batting crowns. His .378 and .382 failed to elicit any interest from the majors, who were undoubtedly still spooked by his fielding reputation. He was unceremoniously put on the trading block by Nashville after the ’32 season due to his ongoing difficulties with Vols manager Charlie Dressen.

At this time Moose and family wintered in Jacksonville, Florida where he worked for Ford Motor Company and played basketball for the company team. This off-season activity kept Moose in top condition and undoubtedly proved to be a big factor behind his long baseball career. Moose’s mother Katie often joined the family in Jacksonville, providing a nice extended family environment for the brood which now consisted of two boys, John, Jr and David.

In 1933 Moose was purchased by Baltimore in a straight cash deal with Nashville. The once proud Orioles franchise that prided itself on discovering new talent which was then sold to the majors at great cost (Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, Jack Bentley, Tommy Thomas, Joe Boley…) now relied on aging minor league journeymen to fill their line up. Besides Clabaugh, the Orioles of the 1930’s featured bush league home run champs Joe Hauser, Buzz Arlett and George Puccinelli who all took advantage of Oriole Park’s comfy dimensions. Although Moose hit International League pitching for a .336 average, he hit just 16 home runs and the following spring was dealt to the Galvaston Buccaneers of the Texas League. When Moose held out for a bigger contract, Galveston passed him to the Atlanta Crackers who in turn sent him to the Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League.

Still dogged by his poor fielding, Clabaugh took a brave step for 1934 by wearing glasses on the field. Although he was the only player in the PCL to wear spectacles, Clabaugh felt that they helped him judge fly balls, and in fact 1934 and 1935 saw him record two of his best fielding percentages.

After four good seasons in Portland in which he averaged .323 and led the league with 56 doubles in 1935, Moose abruptly quit when Beavers president E.J. Schefter failed to meet his salary demands. If the Beavers thought that by playing hardball they could force Moose to return, they were wrong. The ballplayer joined the Oregon State Police, telling reporters “I know I can’t play forever and this job is just what I’ve always wanted.” Moose also played semi-pro ball in Portland and then joined an independent league in Canada in 1939. For appearing in this “outlaw” league, Clabaugh was black listed by organized baseball. His banishment didn’t last long as he was welcomed back to the Beavers for 1940. Unfortunately the magic just wasn’t there, and Portland released the 38 year-old slugger after just 14 games. He caught on with the Salem Senators of the Class B Western International League but he requested his own release mid season. Clabaugh finished out the season as one of the league’s umpires and then returned home to plan his post-baseball life.

Clabaugh’s brief law enforcement career got him a job as a guard at the Bonneville Dam. He steadily rose through the ranks before finally being named chief of guards for Dalles Dam in 1956, responsible for the overall security of the $260,000,000 Corps of Engineers project. By this time Moose and Juanita had two sons, John, Jr. and David, and the old ballplayer spent his leisure time fishing and laying golf, the sport that earned him his nickname back in the 1920’s. He retired to Arizona where he passed away on July 11, 1984 at the age of 82.

As with Bauman and Crues, good photos of Moose Clabaugh are hard to come by. Luckily, after futile searching, I found a good head shot from his Birmingham playing days and was able to do my illustration. But that was only the start. I then had to find the uniforms worn by the Tyler Trojans in 1926. I consulted some Spalding Guides from the period and was able to glean enough from the grainy team photos to figure out what they looked like. Don’t ask me to explain the heart on the sleeve motif – I have no idea what the significance is besides being a cool looking element I was able to use in my illustration some 92 years later. While his photos were a challenge, Moose’s story was pretty easy to research. He and his wife kept in touch with friends and relatives in Albany, Missouri and over the course of his life the local paper printed many articles on their favorite son.

 

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