Moose Clabaugh

This article was written by Stephen V. Rice

Before the designated hitter, the major leagues had little use for a slugger who could not field, such as Moose Clabaugh. One of the greatest hitters in minor-league history, Clabaugh received only a “cup of coffee” in the big leagues – 15 plate appearances with the Brooklyn Robins in 1926. That opportunity came after he set a single-season professional baseball record by clouting 62 home runs for the Tyler Trojans of the East Texas League. But once the Robins recognized Clabaugh’s defensive deficiencies, they lost interest in his potent bat.

Ignored by major-league teams, Clabaugh collected more than 2,500 hits over 16 minor-league seasons with a .339 career batting average. Per 162 games played, he averaged 36 doubles, 8 triples, 27 home runs, 100 RBIs, 113 runs scored, and 19 stolen bases. And when he retired in 1940, his 346 minor-league home runs ranked fourth all-time.1

John William Clabaugh was born on November 13, 1901, in Albany, Missouri, about a hundred miles north of Kansas City. He was the youngest of five children born to William H. and Catherine “Katie” (Patchen) Clabaugh. William, a farmer, died when John was 13 years old.2

John enlisted in the Navy as an 18-year-old and played baseball in a Navy league. Upon his discharge from the service in 1921, he attended Palmer College in Albany and played football and basketball there. His performance on an Albany baseball team in 1922 led to his first opportunity in professional baseball, as an outfielder and first baseman on the 1923 Topeka (Kansas) Kaws of the Class C Southwestern League.3

The Hutchinson (Kansas) team in the same league acquired Clabaugh in midseason. His combined numbers for Topeka and Hutchinson were unimpressive – a .254 batting average in 335 at-bats4 – but he shined the following year, hitting .357 for the Bartlesville and Ardmore (Oklahoma) teams of the Class C Western Association. He began the 1925 season with Ardmore, but after a disagreement with the team’s manager, he was demoted to the Paris Bearcats of the Class D East Texas League.5

Clabaugh was big for the era, 6-feet tall and 180 pounds. A left-handed pull hitter, he batted .385 and slugged 31 home runs for the Bearcats. “Big Train,” as he was called, was popular in Paris, Texas; after one game-winning homer, the fans took up a collection of $42.50 to reward his efforts.6

The Cleveland Indians acquired Clabaugh in July of 1925 and sent him to the Decatur (Illinois) Commodores of the Three-I League. But he struggled with Class B pitching, hitting only .264 with one home run in 163 at-bats, and his fielding disappointed. “How an outfielder could [advance this far in the minors and] look as bad as John has at various times is a mystery,” said the Decatur Review.7 The Decatur Herald claimed his fielding at first base was even worse.8 The Albany Capital frequently gushed about the hometown lad but admitted he was “never a great fielder, [and] possibly he never will be.”9 The Indians gave up on Clabaugh and sold his contract to the Tyler Trojans of the East Texas League.10

In the offseason Clabaugh returned to school at Palmer College, and in February of 1926, he married Juanita Helen Clayton, who was secretary to the college president and the daughter of a college professor. Charming and vivacious, she was a fine singer, a soprano who performed at college recitals.11 John and Juanita would have two sons, John William Jr. (1928-1980) and David Lee (1932-2010).

Though Clabaugh was known as “Johnny” in Albany, the Tyler Courier promoted the arrival of “Moose” Clabaugh in the spring of 1926.12 In an exhibition game against the Corsicana (Texas) Oilers on April 4, he played first base and pulled off an unassisted triple play. With men on second and third in the fifth inning, he grabbed a groundball and stepped on first base for the first out; he ran to the lead runner between third and home and tagged him for the second out; and he tagged the remaining baserunner, who was trying to reach third base.13 In Tyler’s victory over Longview (Texas) on May 8, he “performed with all the skill of a time seasoned veteran, at first base, taking the ball from all angles and exhibiting nifty foot-work.”14 Perhaps Clabaugh wasn’t such a bad fielder after all.

And he hit home runs like never before. Facing pitcher Chief Hogsett in Marshall, Texas, on July 17, Clabaugh blasted his 38th home run of the season, “one of the longest ever hit out of the local park, clearing the high score board in right center.”15 The next day he belted a homer that “went a block out of the park for the longest hit ever seen” in Tyler.16 His 50th home run was a grand slam in Texarkana on August 6. He smacked his 57th a week later in Tyler, a “torrid line drive”17 over the fence in right center, his 16th home run in 17 days. And on August 20, his eighth-inning home run “easily cleared the fence” in Tyler; it was his 60th of the season and tied the record set by Tony Lazzeri in the Pacific Coast League the year before.18

The Trojans had two games remaining in the 1926 season, and both were at home against the visiting Paris Bearcats. In the first of these, on August 21, the left-handed Clabaugh broke the home-run record with a drive off Lefty Emmons that sailed high over the right-field fence; it was his third homer of the season off Emmons. His 62nd home run came the next day, the last day of the season, which was fittingly celebrated as “Moose Clabaugh Day” in Tyler. He again victimized a southpaw, Noel Haynes, who had been his “left-handed Paris nemesis” during the season.19

It was a monster year. Clabaugh won the East Texas League Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average (.376), home runs (62), and RBIs (164). He also led in runs scored (106) and total bases (378), and his .851 slugging percentage was the highest in a full season in professional baseball history. (Babe Ruth’s peak was .847 in 1920.) Clabaugh hit 62 home runs in only 444 at-bats; Lazzeri needed 710 at-bats to clout 60 in 1925. Despite Clabaugh’s heroics, the Trojans finished in fourth place in the six-team league.

Nearly two-thirds of Clabaugh’s 62 home runs were hit at Trojan Park in Tyler, so people naturally wondered about the ballpark’s dimensions. Indeed, he was helped by a close fence in right field; the distance from home plate to the right-field foul pole was only 250 feet.20

News of Clabaugh’s remarkable season was reported nationally, and four teams claimed the rights to him: the Brooklyn Robins of the National League; the Mission (California) Bells of the Pacific Coast League; the Denver Bears of the Western League; and the Waco Cubs of the Texas League. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis stepped in and voided all claims, returning Clabaugh to the Trojans. The Tyler team then sold his contract to the Robins for $15,000. Part of the money was paid up-front with the remainder due if the Robins kept Clabaugh after April 8, 1927.21

The Robins acquired Clabaugh sight unseen. In their view, anyone who could hit the way he did, even at the Class D level, was worth taking a chance on. The Brooklyn Eagle noted that “nothing whatever is known of Clabaugh’s fielding ability.”22 But Charley Barrett, the savvy St. Louis Cardinals scout, had formed an opinion: Clabaugh was the “worst looking outfielder he had seen anywhere this year.”23 In 1926 Clabaugh divided his time between first base, left field and right field. He made 10 errors in 479 chances at first base for a .979 fielding percentage, and 7 errors in 96 chances in the outfield (.927).24

Clabaugh arrived in Brooklyn in late August of 1926. Sportswriter Tommy Holmes of the Brooklyn Eagle described him as “a clean-cut, collegiate-looking chap, big and broad-shouldered.”25 Clabaugh demonstrated his hitting ability in batting practice at Ebbets Field, driving several balls over the right-field fence and into Bedford Avenue. Years later, Holmes recalled that one of Clabaugh’s line drives made time stand still: “The timepiece at Ebbets Field used to be on the right-field wall past the foul line, above the bullpen. Clabaugh ... muscled a smash that struck the dial dead center. ... They never did get the clock working again that season.”26

Of concern to Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson was that Clabaugh had trouble gauging fly balls in fielding practice. Robinson already had two first basemen, veteran Jack Fournier and rookie Babe Herman, and hoped to use Clabaugh in left field. But how could he? Clabaugh’s ineptitude in the outfield was plain to see and would surely embarrass both Clabaugh and Robinson. So Robinson used Clabaugh as a pinch-hitter.

On August 30, 1926, Clabaugh made his major-league debut by pinch-hitting with one out and a man on first base in the eighth inning at Ebbets Field, with the Robins trailing the New York Giants, 8-1. Facing pitcher Hugh McQuillan, Clabaugh laced a screaming liner that was caught by first baseman Bill Terry, who adroitly stepped on the bag for a quick inning-ending double play. Holmes described Clabaugh’s reaction: “There stood Clabaugh. He hadn’t moved out of his tracks. He just stood, looking down at his hands with a puzzled expression. In his hands was an eight-inch piece of wood, all he retained of a broken bat.”27 His bat was abbreviated as his major-league career would be – sawed off before he could get started.

At the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia on September 9, the Robins scored nine runs in the top of the ninth inning, in a 12-6 come-from-behind victory over the Phillies. During the rally, Clabaugh contributed a pinch-hit double off the right-field wall for his first and only major-league hit.

His first appearance in the field came on September 15, as a late-inning replacement in left field with the Robins trailing the Cincinnati Reds, 5-1, at Ebbets Field. It was not pretty. Clabaugh’s “ridiculous muff” of Curt Walker’s fly ball allowed Walker to reach third base.28 According to a Brooklyn sportswriter, “Moose took a zig-zag course after the ball, thought he was under it and then added a skip and a jump. Finally ... the ball landed in his glove and jumped out.”29

Clabaugh’s second and last appearance in the field came four days later, also at Ebbets Field. He played left field and was hitless in four at-bats facing the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Ray Kremer, who won his 20th game of the season. In the ninth inning, Clabaugh was charged with an error when he fumbled Walter Mueller’s single, allowing Mueller to take an extra base.30

The Robins released Clabaugh after the season. Rather than pay the money still owed, they simply returned him to the Tyler Trojans. Holmes lamented his departure. “We wish to go on record right here as suspecting that the Brooklyn club might have been a trifle hasty in its speedy disposition of the ‘Moose,’” wrote Holmes.31 Some observers felt, like Holmes, that Clabaugh deserved a spring trial, and that with expert instruction might improve defensively.

Clabaugh continued his trek through the minor leagues, and everywhere he went, he hit. But he would never again receive a trial from a major-league team.

In 1927 Clabaugh hit 21 home runs for the High Point (North Carolina) Pointers and led the Class C Piedmont League with a .363 batting average. The next year he hit 15 home runs for the Jacksonville (Florida) Tars and led the Class B Southeastern League with a .366 mark.

At the Class A level in 1929, Clabaugh hit .316 with 10 home runs for the Mobile and Birmingham teams of the Southern Association,32 and he helped Birmingham win the postseason Dixie Series against the Dallas Steers of the Texas League. In the first game of the series, he stole home on the front end of a double steal for the only run of the game, and he made two outstanding defensive plays in right field.33

Clabaugh dominated the Class B Three-I League in 1930, batting .337 for the Quincy (Illinois) Indians. He led the league with 30 home runs and 154 RBIs. He also scored 130 runs and stole a career-high 40 bases.

As a member of the Nashville Volunteers, Clabaugh won consecutive Southern Association batting titles, hitting .378 in 1931 and .382 the following year. He hit a combined 55 home runs over those two seasons with 211 runs batted in. But his fielding woes continued. In 1932 he committed 23 errors in the outfield for an .894 fielding percentage. When he was in right field on April 18, 1932, a fly ball “leaped out” of his glove, “jumped up and hit him in the head.”34 Oh, golly!

“Moose doesn’t get that necessary jump on the ball and he hasn’t mastered the art of going back,” noted the Baltimore Sun in the spring of 1933.35 Clabaugh played for the Baltimore Orioles of the Double-A International League that year and hit .336 with 16 home runs. He began the season at first base and struggled, and the Orioles tried him at third base with no success. “The Moose is not an infielder,” stated the Baltimore Sun succinctly.36 So he played right field for the Orioles, with a .940 fielding percentage.

The Orioles traded Clabaugh to the Galveston Buccaneers of the Texas League, but after he held out for more money, he was sold to the Atlanta Crackers of the Southern Association. He played briefly for the Crackers in the spring of 1934 before getting traded to the Portland Beavers of the Double-A Pacific Coast League. He enjoyed considerable success with the Beavers from 1934 to 1937.

In 1934 Clabaugh began wearing eyeglasses on the baseball field and felt they helped him to judge fly balls. The Los Angeles Times said he was “probably the only Coast League ball player who wears spectacles while playing.”37

Clabaugh left the Beavers over a salary dispute and played for two independent teams: the Toledo (Oregon) Lions in 1938, and the Trois-Rivières (Quebec) team in 1939. He returned to the Beavers in 1940 but was released at the end of April. He then joined the Salem (Oregon) Senators of the Class B Western International League. He played for the Senators in the first half of the 1940 season, umpired in the league during the second half, and retired from professional baseball after the season.

In 1941 Clabaugh became a security guard at the Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia River east of Portland, and in 1956 he was promoted to chief of security at The Dalles Dam, also on the Columbia. He retired in 1965, and he and his wife moved to Tucson, Arizona, where they enjoyed playing golf. He was an accomplished left-handed golfer and played in tournaments for lefties. By 1976 he had made nine holes-in-one.38

In 1937 Ted Williams was a teenage outfielder on the San Diego Padres. When the Padres played the Beavers, he would “say how he wished he had muscles so that he could hit a ball like Clabaugh.”39 Williams was thrilled to meet Clabaugh in the 1980s. Clabaugh would “swing big, and when he hit ’em, they went long, deep to right,” said Williams. “He was the type of hitter that I aspired to be.”40

The Moose died on July 11, 1984, in Tucson at the age of 82.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Len Levin and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Sources

National Baseball Hall of Fame file.

Ancestry.com.

McConnell, Bob, ed. Going for the Fences: The Minor League Home Run Record Book, Second Edition (Phoenix, Arizona: SABR, 2014).

 

Notes

1 Through 1940, the top four in minor-league home runs were Buzz Arlett (432), Nick Cullop (416), Joe Hauser (374), and Moose Clabaugh (346). Some sources give Clabaugh’s total as 326, but records in his Hall of Fame file document 346.

2 1910 US Census; Albany (Missouri) Capital, January 14, 1915.

3 Albany (Missouri) Ledger, January 1, 1920; August 11 and October 20, 1921; June 22 and July 6, 1922; Albany Capital, March 8, 1923.

4 The Sporting News, November 29, 1923.

5 Albany Capital, May 28, 1925.

6 Albany Capital, May 28 and July 30, 1925.

7 Decatur (Illinois) Review, August 23, 1925.

8 Decatur (Illinois) Herald, December 22, 1925.

9 Albany Capital, July 30, 1925.

10 Albany Capital, August 26, 1926.

11 Albany Ledger, March 4 and May 6, 1926.

12 Albany Ledger, March 25, 1926.

13 Corsicana (Texas) Daily Sun, April 5, 1926.

14 Tyler (Texas) Daily Courier-Times, May 9, 1926.

15 Shreveport (Louisiana) Times, July 18, 1926.

16 Longview (Texas) News-Journal, July 19, 1926.

17 Longview News-Journal, August 14, 1926.

18 Galveston (Texas) Daily News, August 21, 1926.

19 Corsicana Daily Sun, May 15, 1926; Galveston Daily News, August 22, 1926; Springfield (Missouri) Leader, August 31, 1926.

20 Patrick Whitham, “Tyler’s Minor League Baseball Parks,” Chronicles of Smith County, Texas, Volume 33, Issue 1, Summer 1994.

21 Waco (Texas) News-Tribune and Brooklyn Eagle, August 29, 1926; Pittsburgh Press, November 15, 1926.

22 Brooklyn Eagle, August 31, 1926.

23 Decatur Herald, September 4, 1926.

24 Pittsburgh Daily Post, November 16, 1926.

25 Brooklyn Eagle, August 31, 1926.

26 Tommy Holmes, Dodger Daze and Knights (New York: David McKay Company, 1953), 51-52.

27 Ibid.

28 Cincinnati Enquirer, September 16, 1926.

29 Springfield Leader, September 22, 1926.

30 Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 20, 1926.

31 Brooklyn Eagle, December 10, 1926.

32 Marshall D. Wright, The Southern Association in Baseball, 1885-1961 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2002), 273.

33 Shreveport Times, September 26, 1929.

34 The Tennessean (Nashville), April 19, 1932.

35 Baltimore Sun, March 17, 1933.

36 Baltimore Sun, June 19, 1933.

37 Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1935.

38 Tucson Daily Citizen, December 21, 1976.

39 Ed Linn, Hitter: The Life and Turmoils of Ted Williams (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 60.

40 John B. Holway, Ted the Kid (Springfield, Virginia: Scorpio Books, 2008), 34.