SABR

Cliff Melton

This article was written by Jack Zerby.

Cliff Melton stormed through the 1937 National League as a rookie pitching sensation for the New York Giants and even received consideration as a possible Game One World Series starter over future Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell. But Melton’s insistence that Hubbell teach him to throw a screwball, the rarely used pitch featuring an outward flip of the wrist that puts unnatural pressure on the elbow, figured prominently in the inconsistency which plagued the rest of his once-promising major-league career.

The skinny six-foot-five southpaw, plucked from then-Class AA Baltimore as an intriguing 24-year-old prospect set adrift by the Yankees, emerged early from Manager Bill Terry’s 1937 bullpen to post a 20-9 record and provide a solid one-two punch with Hubbell, the Giants’ long-time “Meal Ticket.” Hubbell, also a lefty and the game’s pre-eminent screwballer, recalled that he worked with Melton during the 1938 season; Melton said he learned the pitch in spring training, 1942. Whenever it happened, it’s clear that Melton adopted Hubbell’s screwball and suffered agonizing bouts of elbow trouble and ineffectiveness in and after 1938, annually failing to match his 1937 productivity.

Melton pitched 248 innings in his rookie year but didn’t reach that total again until 1946 in the extended-season Pacific Coast League--after not pitching in 1945. His 20 wins in 1937 were nearly a quarter of the 86 he logged in eight major league seasons, all with the Giants. Annually, the NL New Yorkers looked to Melton as a rotation bulwark, but through 1938, ’39, ’40, and ’41, he failed to live up to preseason expectations. He was definitely using the screwball and was briefly resurgent when he made the National League All-Star team in 1942 before losing the rest of that season to elbow surgery. His last major-league pitch came at age 32 in 1944 after Melton spent most of the summer in the minors.

Still Giants’ property but a captive of the reserve clause, he held out a year in the face of a salary cut and then was dealt to the Pacific Coast League in 1946. Melton soldiered on for six top-level minor-league seasons, winning 17 twice amid regular arm trouble and other injuries. But “the boys were back” and no major league team wanted his once-so-effective left arm, an arm that had buoyed spring hope for the Giants even as late as 1944, when Hubbell, then a scout, predicted before spring training, “Cliff Melton should come back strong.” He didn’t. Melton pitched only 64 innings and went 2-2, but the promise he had so often shown flashed briefly once again as he labored to a ten-inning, complete game, one-run loss against Pittsburgh on September 24, 1944, his next-to-last start in the majors.

Clifford George Melton was born January 3, 1912, in Brevard, a village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and seat of Transylvania County. Cliff’s parents were Charles D. and Callie Melton, of the pioneering English-Irish stock that arrived in western North Carolina by way of the Shenandoah corridor and North Carolina Piedmont. Charles was a farmer, and by 1920 he had moved the family--Callie, Cliff, and his older brother William--40 miles northeast to another small Blue Ridge town, Black Mountain, in Buncombe County.

Cliff worked in a grocery store as a boy, learned to play the guitar and to sing the old-time songs of the Appalachians, and participated in the usual sports--his 1929 Black Mountain High School baseball team reached the state playoffs. Neither of his parents was especially tall, but Cliff shot up to six-foot-five and excelled at basketball. He was good enough to draw several college basketball scholarship offers but opted instead to sign a contract for the 1931 baseball season with the local Asheville Tourists (unaffiliated; Class C Piedmont League) on the prompting of Dan Hill, a league executive. Cliff got 100 innings under his belt there and moved up a notch to the Yankees’ Class B Erie Sailors (Central League) for 1932. He fashioned a 6-2 record under the tutelage of Chief Benderi and one of his catchers--Willard Hershberger--was also destined to reach the majors, but came to a tragic end eight years later.ii

The unaffiliated Baltimore Orioles of the International League thought enough of the 20-year-old to acquire him for 60 innings of work at the end of the 1932 season and kept him on in 1933. Melton logged 258 innings, went 16-10, and returned for 1934.

Cliff found a home for the rest of his life in Baltimore. On October 17, 1933, he married Mary Angela Anello, daughter of a Baltimore Italian-American family. They spent winters in the city during Melton’s baseball journeys, raised their three children--Mary, Clifford Jr., and Stephanie--in Baltimore, and retired there.

Melton’s first brush with the inability to meet preseason expectations came in 1934. The April 12 Sporting News declared him “coming through nicely” in spring games against major league teams, but on September 6, after he posted a 6-20 record and 6.80 ERA in 209 innings, the same publication deemed his season “dismal.” Season-end rumors circulated that Melton would be sold to the Yankees. Washington was also reported to be interested.

The rumors about the Yankees proved accurate. Melton signed for $2,400 and went to 1935 spring training with the big club, where he promptly encountered more problems. His jug-ears were prominent, to put it nicely, and as he became the target of fierce major league bench jockeying in an early exhibition game against the Cubs, Gabby Hartnett quickly dubbed him “Mickey Mouse.” The taunting caught on, escalated, and distracted Melton. He argued with pitch selection by his veteran catchers, and was summarily farmed out to Binghamton (Class A). The Yankees’ deal with Baltimore was for $20,000, payable only if Melton was with the club in June. Even though he worked his way up to Double-A Newark, the Yankees, soured by what they viewed as attitude problems, exercised their right to return Melton to Baltimore. Advised of the Yankees’ decision, Melton snarled, “Hell, I’m giving my arm to Baltimore now.” He was a combined 7-15 with Newark and Baltimore in 1935.

Cliff loved Baltimore and its fans and enthusiastically participated in a 1935-36 off-season “good-will Chautauqua tour” organized by Orioles’ business manager Johnny Ogden. As he, other players, and Ogden traveled around the city and Maryland environs, Cliff “enthralled with mountain hill-billy songs as he twang[ed] on his ‘gittar’,” according to The Sporting News. Thus arrived the Melton nickname--“Mountain Music”--one he much preferred to the odious “Mickey Mouse” sobriquet Hartnett and the Cubs had hung on him earlier.

Melton enjoyed a productive, uninterrupted 1936 season with Baltimore, finishing 20-14 in 32 starts and 271 innings. By midseason, his success again attracted attention from the major leagues. The Giants signed him on July 27, but they were on the way to the National League pennant and didn’t need mound help, so Cliff stayed in Baltimore. The Orioles were in a pennant race of their own, and when “Mickey Mouse” taunts increased, Johnny Ogden bypassed field management to propose a solution: Ogden would give Melton $100 every time he punched an offender. Cliff obliged twice, both times in the International League playoffs and against opposing managers. The first victim was Ray Blades of Rochester; then came Ray Schalk of Buffalo. The latter dustup required police to quell the ensuing brawl. Baltimore won that game, but Buffalo won the series and the International League pennant. Melton “won” $200 and showed opponents how he was prepared to handle taunts in the future. It worked, as The Sporting News explained. “His timidity [has] been supplanted by a self-reliant attitude that [makes] a different sort of pitcher out of him. They can’t ride him out of the game anymore.”

One finds few subsequent “Mickey Mouse” references to Melton, and those that appear are jocular or apologetic, replaced for the most part by variants of his favored “Mountain Music” and the other nicknames he picked up along the way: “Slim,” “Cliff The Curver,” and one coined and apparently used only by Grantland Rice: “The Carolina Catapult.”

The 1937 Giants Melton joined were a solid enterprise, if not the toast of New York City. Under Bill Terry they had won the 1936 National League pennant by five games, but lost a six-game Subway Series to the cross-town Yankees. Their pitching was anchored by reigning NL Most Valuable Player Carl Hubbell, but was right-side heavy. Al Smith, at 14-13 in 1936 for a club that won 92 games, was the only other lefty on the staff. This set up a nice spot for Melton, tabbed by The Sporting News as “standing the best chance among the new hurlers,” as the Giants opened camp in Havana, surely an exotic place for the guitar-picker from Transylvania County. Terry liked Melton’s fastball, and by March 25 The Sporting News was of the opinion that with the arrival of “the long, lean, and willowy lefthander from Baltimore . . . it is almost a dead certainty that one of the older hands will have to go.”

Cliff got his first headline treatment in The Sporting News with a Page 1 article on April 8: “Melton As No. 2 Lefty More Than Hubbell Understudy.” Terry assembled Hubbell, Melton, Hal Schumacher, and Clydell “Slick” Castleman as his starters. The four remained essentially intact as a rotation as the season settled, with Harry Gumbert also in the mix.

Living up to his preseason press in a big way, Melton started the Giants’ fourth game of the 1937 season at the Polo Grounds against the Boston Bees. He set a National League rookie record that stood until 1954 with 13 strikeouts, but, in what would seem to happen so many times over his career, was a complete-game losing pitcher. In the first inning, the Giants staked Cliff to a one-run lead, the only one they would get for him. He carried a tie through the fifth and into the ninth when Boston eked out two runs, one of them unearned, for a 3-1 win. After four more starts through May 16, none disastrous, Melton found himself in the bullpen, but by June 20 he was back in the rotation and the Giants were the better for it. “The long southpaw stands out as the chief factor in the success of the New Yorkers. Melton’s developed out of a clear blue sky,” sportswriter Dan Daniel opined on July 29. Tom Meany of the New York World-Telegram chimed in on September 2, “When the Giants made their mid-August drive to get back into the pennant race after trailing badly, it was Melton and Hubbell who carried most of the pitching burden. [Melton] looks like a regular wild and wooly southpaw, yet his control is exceptional.”

The Giants won the pennant with the Cubs three games back. Games in late September at Wrigley Field in the heat of the race were typical of Melton’s all-around contribution. On September 22, Melton had started and won, 6-0. The next day the Giants clung to an 8-7 lead for Schumacher, Hubbell, and Gumbert, but the Cubs had the bases loaded, one out, in the bottom of the ninth as Melton was called to relieve. The Wrigley crowd roared for blood through his entire trek from the bullpen to the mound, but when Terry handed the ball to Melton and told him to “get ‘em,” Cliff drawled, “After that ovation, Skip, nobody in the world could hit me.” Melton got the outs for a true save, one of an NL-leading seven he cobbled together that year while pitching in relief.3

Although he’d won 22 games to Melton’s 20, Hubbell hadn’t been rock-solid down the stretch while Melton had been especially sharp. That fueled press speculation that Melton might get Bill Terry’s call to start Game One of the second consecutive Giants-Yankees World Series. Babe Ruth, now two years out of the game, checked in with his opinion that Melton had “more of a chance to beat” the Yankees than Hubbell, and writers worked the angle of Melton’s short, unpleasant stay with his now-opponents. Dan Daniel couldn’t wean a direct quote from Cliff, but raised the point by attribution in The Sporting News: “Melton now says the Yankees treated him shabbily. He insists nobody ever gave him a tumble or exchanged the time of day with him. He has sworn a vendetta.”

Bill Terry had indeed considered his rookie for the opener, perhaps to disorient the Yankees with an unfamiliar pitcher, but he went with Hubbell instead. Hubbell worked ineffectively into the sixth as the Yankees won, 8-1, behind Lefty Gomez.

The rookie got the Game Two assignment against Red Ruffing. The Giants scored a run in the first, but Melton yielded two in the fourth and was gone. Gumbert and Dick Coffman mopped up poorly in another 8-1 Yankee win as Melton took the loss.

Melton pitched two innings of scoreless relief in Game Three at the Polo Grounds the next day, but the Giants were in a hole, losing again. Behind Hubbell, they rebounded to stay alive in Game Four and set the stage for Melton in a do-or-die Game Five.

This time he went five innings, yielding Joe DiMaggio’s first-ever World Series home run. The Giants were down, 4-2, when he was lifted. There was no comeback. What had been such glowing promise a week before now faded to the reality of an 0-2 record for a team that had just lost its second consecutive World Series.

But Melton had impressed one young fan, 10-year-old George Plimpton, who saw Game Two with his father. “What I remember most was the Giants’ pitcher, a tall left-hander named Cliff Melton. I had an excellent view of something I had never seen before: an adult throwing the ball at unbelievable speeds . . . At school we were studying mythology . . . that is, we were reading about the Greek gods and their ability to throw thunderbolts and such things, and Mr. Melton, though earth-bound, seemed in my mind surely to belong in their galaxy; to put it simply, he was a god in my eyes, a small-‘g’ god.”

Whatever doubts Giants fans had about Melton after his struggles in October were dispelled as he won seven of his first eight starts of 1938 with uncharacteristically good run support. By June 30, though, he had lost four in a row and The Sporting News reported, “[Bill] Terry wonders what ails the southpaw.” By August 4 Dan Daniel was citing a “sophomore jinx” and venturing that “something mental has happened to the tall left-hander.” Melton missed starts between July 26 and August 5, serving a Terry-imposed two-game suspension without pay “for repeated violations of the team curfew after continued warning.” Late in the season Melton suffered the indignity of being the first major-league pitcher to yield back-to-back home runs to brothers as the Waners--first Lloyd, then Paul--connected in the Polo Grounds.

In the midst of this comes Carl Hubbell’s 1981 recollection: “We had a new kid on the Giants, a big left-hander, Cliff Melton. The year before he’d won 20 games for us--a hell of an achievement for a rookie--but he wanted to be even better. He begged me to show him the screwball, so I did, and by the Fourth of July he’s well on his way to 20 again. But against Boston that day [July 3, 1938], breaking off a screwball, he grabbed his arm and kind of stumbled off the mound in great pain. I don’t think he lasted more than five or six more years. A great shame. I’ve been reluctant ever since then to work on the screwball with anybody.” Closer in time, Hubbell had told The Sporting News in 1949, “Cliff Melton didn’t need a screwball but he worked on it and finally got a good one and was having a great year when suddenly it got his arm.”

Hubbell himself had required elbow surgery for a bone chip after his August 18 start that season, and in discussing how Bill Terry managed him the following year, Warren Corbett notes in the Fall 2011 Baseball Research Journal, “The Giants manager had no clue how to handle a fragile arm.” Whether Melton’s 1938 problems stemmed from a screwball-damaged arm and a manager who didn’t know how to deal with it, a sophomore jinx, or “something mental,” there was clearly something wrong--Melton slipped to a 14-14 record in only five fewer innings than he pitched in 1937, and his WHIP4 jumped from 1.093 to 1.346. After two straight NL pennants, the Giants finished third, eight games back.

Both the club and Melton continued to slide from 1939-41 as the Giants dropped below .500 in the latter two seasons and Melton posted losing records all three years. Each spring the press heralded him as the savior of the Giants’ staff as Hubbell got less and less production from his aging, damaged arm. But as each season wore on, the early hope faded: “Cliff Melton looks promising, then he’s belted out . . .”, “ . . . the mountain musician may flop again next month or the month after,” and “the old familiar pattern for the Melton blowup was a base on balls and then down the groove with the four-base pitch.” In sum: “The big disappointment on the Giant staff is Cliff Melton.”

Bill Terry was on his way out, and the Giants were focused on rebuilding in August 1941 when The Sporting News reported that Melton was subject to trade. Between seasons New York acquired sparkplug third baseman Bill Werber from Cincinnati, and it was clear the Giants still saw value in Melton--the Reds had wanted him in exchange for Werber, but the Giants demurred and satisfied Cincinnati with “cash in the neighborhood of $20,000,” according to Sporting News reports.

New manager Mel Ott and the Giants still pinned hope on Melton’s “undeveloped potentialities” for 1942, and he got off to his best start since 1938. He told New York World-Telegram writer Joe King on May 4, “There wasn’t a time . . . this spring that I wasn’t experimenting, but I didn’t say a word about it. The main thing I had to learn was Hubbell’s screwball, which I practiced day after day. I think I have it under control now. It is an easy pitch for me to throw and I use it quite a bit.”

The screwball, whether Cliff learned it in 1938 as Hubbell recalled, or 1942, by his own contemporary account, probably gave him a boost as he joined three other Giants--Ott, Johnny Mize, and Willard Marshall--on the 1942 NL All-Star team. Although the July 6 classic was played at the Polo Grounds, Cliff didn’t pitch because just two days earlier he had pushed his record to 11-5 with a complete-game win.

But a badly swollen arm soon thereafter indicated something was wrong. It was serious enough that The Sporting News reported on August 13 that Ott had sent Melton to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where “. . . his left elbow was found to be full of bone chips.” By August 27 reports were that the required surgery had gone well, with four chips removed. Melton missed the rest of the 1942 season, a more drastic impact than in the latter part of the “turbulent and depressing” 1938 season, when he faltered but continued to pitch.

Hope springs eternal, though. The Giants and their fans remembered 1937 and the first halves of the 1938 and 1942 seasons. So they had reason for optimism when The Sporting News reported in the spring of 1943 that Melton’s arm was in shape, with no after-effects from the surgery and “Melton looks as if he might return to the grand form he had in his opening season at the Polo Grounds.” Melton was indeed the ace of the 1943 Giants staff, but at 9-13, he was an ace by default. The team used 13 starters, Hubbell struggled through his last season, and the club sagged to eighth place, 49 ½ games out.

By 1944, the powerful Hubbell-Melton southpaw punch of 1937 had been reduced to Melton and Ewald Pyle. The Sporting News dubbed the pair of lefties “clever” on April 20, but Melton, clearly suffering arm trouble, pitched only 64 innings in the majorsiii and spent most of the summer at Double-A Jersey City pitching only sporadically.

A December 28, 1944, report predicted Melton to still be a part of the Giants’ plans for 1945, but when the club tendered a “hefty” salary cut, Cliff held out the entire season. He worked out in the spring with the hometown Orioles and his ailing arm got some needed rest while he spent the season as a prisoner of the reserve clause. On December 29, 1945, the Giants sold his contract to the San Francisco Seals (Pacific Coast League, Class AAA). Melton departed the majors after eight seasons with an 86-80 record and 3.42 ERA in 1,454 innings, never having duplicated his 1937 rookie success.

Lefty O’Doul, managing the Seals, got a tough competitor in the 34-year-old Melton, who won 17 games in 1946 despite a six-week layoff due to a torn ligament. He had been taken on a “look-see” basis because of his suspect arm and 1945 hiatus, but was a significant factor as the Seals captured the Coast League title. He won another 17 in 1947 for San Francisco.

Sixteen more wins for the Seals followed in 1948, and Cliff’s arm was healthy enough after 215 innings for him to start the Venezuela League season with Magallanes. He left ten games into the season with a 1-1 record though, probably due to a government takeover by the Venezuelan government, reported as “peaceful,” but which briefly disrupted the league schedule.

Melton returned to San Francisco for 1949 but tailed off due to a broken toe. Then, in 1950, with his arm bothering him again, he managed just an 11-18 record for a club that finished .500. In early 1951 the Seals sold his contract to the Kansas City Blues (American Association, Class AAA). With the move, Cliff found himself back in the Yankees organization after 16 years and a teammate of 19-year-old Mickey Mantle. One 9-8 season did it in Kansas City.

Now 40, Melton descended the minor league ladder for a stop at Class AA Beaumont in April and May 1952. He signed with Class B Tyler (TX) in June, but never pitched. Opening Day, 1953, found him pitching and co-managing for unaffiliated Harlan (KY) of the Class D Mountain States League, but he was released in May. Cliff hooked up with the now-major-league Baltimore Orioles organization as a co-manager at Class D Cordele-Americus (GA) for 1954.

He didn’t pitch there, but hit .375 in limited plate appearances, well above his .164 average in the majors. But Cliff wasn’t cut out for managing or pinch-hitting in the low minors. He was released in June, returned to Baltimore, and signed on as the brand-new Orioles’ batting practice pitcher for the rest of 1954. His 23-year baseball odyssey was over.

Cliff and Mary Angela stayed in Baltimore. He watched Cliff Jr., quarterback the Baltimore City College football team, played as much golf as he could fit in, and worked until retirement for a lumber company operated by Lou Grasmick, a teammate with the 1950 Seals. He died of cancer on July 28, 1986, in Baltimore. He was 74 years old.

Richard Kucner of the Baltimore News-American asked in an October 1969 Baseball Digest article: “Was [Melton] a flash-in-the-pan or a good pitcher with the misfortune of being a tough-luck loser?” “Tough-luck loser” is a misleading characterization. Cliff Melton did encounter adversity over much of his career and, on balance, may have been better off without the screwball, since by all accounts he had his 1937 success without it. But rather than a “loser,” he was a gritty competitor. While he did indeed lose games--often complete games pitched through pain--he persevered for eight seasons in the major leagues and five more in the post-war Pacific Coast League, always trying to improve himself, ready to take the ball when his spot in he rotation came up or when he was needed in relief. The 1937 season that lifted hope wasn’t a “flash-in-the-pan.” It was pure Cliff Melton, for one season unhampered by all that had, and would, haunt so much of his pitching career.

 

Sources

Bill Ballew, A History of Professional Baseball in Asheville (Charleston: The History Press, 2007).

George Plimpton, George Plimpton on Sports (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2003).

Dan Schlossberg, Baseball Bliss (New York: Alpha Books/Penguin, 2008).

Dennis Snelling, The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012).

Fred Stein, Mel Ott, The Little Giant of Baseball (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999).

Warren Corbett, “Hubbell’s Elbow: Don’t Blame The Screwball,” Baseball Research Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2, Fall 2011, 23-26.

Richard Kucner, “Cliff Melton, A Giant Who Won 20 Games,” Baseball Digest, October 1969, 66-69.

New York Evening Post, March 28, 1945.

New York Sun, September 23, 1937, May 25, 1943.

New York World-Telegram, Various issues, 1937-1944.

Bob Oates, “Hubbell, The Pitcher Who Perfected The Screwball,” Baseball Digest, August 1981, 60-66.

Spokane Spokesman-Review, December 30, 1945.

The Sporting News, Numerous issues, February 1933, through August 1986.

Christopher Tomkins, “The Giants’ Twenty-Game Freshman,” Baseball Magazine, December 1937, 319.

BaseballLibrary.com

Baseball-Reference.com

Retrosheet.com

A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Excerpts from Cliff Melton player file (Accessed by Gabriel Schechter, SABR).

Transylvania County, NC, Library, Local and NC History Collection.

Victoria Allen (Cliff Melton’s granddaughter), Telephone interview with author, August 8, 2005.

 

Notes

i Charles Albert (Chief) Bender won 212 games in 16 major league seasons, primarily with the powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics teams of the early 20th century. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1953 by the Veterans Committee.

ii Willard Hershberger remained in the Yankee organization until December 1937, when he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. There, he backed up future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi and, by early July 1940, with Lombardi injured, was catching daily. As the Reds pursued a second consecutive National League pennant, each game weighed heavily on the intensely-private Hershberger. He was found dead, a suicide, in his room in the team’s Boston hotel after the Reds lost 4-3 in 12 innings on August 2.

iii Saves did not become an official MLB statistic until 1969, although sportswriter Jerome Holtzman and The Sporting News published saves data earlier. The criteria for a "save" have evolved over the years, and resources such as Baseball-Reference.com include retroactively-calculated statistics for saves. By these calculations, Melton led the 1937 National League with seven saves.

iv WHIP: Walks plus Hits divided by Innings Pitched, a common statistic today also retroactively calculated and included by Baseball-Reference.com and other resources for seasons before it came into Sabermetric vogue.

v On April 30, 1944, before his demotion to the minors, Melton participated in an MLB oddity when he started against his cousin, Reuben Frank (Rube) Melton, in the first game of a Giants-Dodgers doubleheader at the Polo Grounds. Clearly a relative at six-foot-five and just over 200 pounds, with ears nearly equal to Cliff’s in prominence, Rube was born February 17, 1917, in Cramerton, Gaston County, North Carolina. He debuted with the 1941 Philadelphia Phillies after a stint in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system. In the April 30 Melton vs. Melton game Cliff didn’t figure in the decision, but Rube took the loss as the Giants romped, 26-8.

 

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