SABR

Harlond Clift

This article was written by Ralph Moses.

Harlond Clift was the major leagues’ first modern third baseman, an outstanding defensive player who also possessed power, production, and patience at the plate. Until Clift came to the majors in 1934, third basemen – with the notable exceptions of Home Run Baker and Pie Traynor –were primarily thought of as being similar to second basemen and shortstops. Most teams were satisfied to have the hot corner manned by a good glove man, even if he wasn’t much of a hitter. At 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds, the right-handed-hitting and -throwing Clift changed that way of thinking, and future third basemen including Eddie Mathews, Al Rosen, Ron Santo, and Ken Boyer carried on what Clift started in the 1930s and early ’40s.

For all of his accomplishments and pioneering efforts at third base and as a hitter, Clift had the misfortune to have played his entire 12-year major-league career with the St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators, two of the least successful franchises. The teams Clift played on had a won-lost percentage of just .423 and they finished in the first division only three times in a dozen seasons. As a result, Clift’s solid and sometimes excellent career went virtually unnoticed. He was selected for only one All-Star Game, and The Sporting News (based in St. Louis, where Clift played most of his career) never chose him for its postseason major-league all-star team.

Harlond Benton Clift was born on August 12, 1912, in El Reno, Oklahoma, to ranch-owning parents. When he was 3 years old, his parents, Mr. and Mrs. A.B. Clift, sold their ranch and purchased land in the Pacific Northwest near Yakima, Washington. A city of 18,000 situated in the Yakima Valley and southeast of Mount Rainier National Park, Yakima is known for being one of the best apple-producing areas in the world.

Reflecting on his childhood in later years, Clift remarked, “When I was just a little shaver, my grandfather decided there was more money in apples than farming and he traded his property for an orchard. … No one ever has struck oil on that farm and retired a multimillionaire. But say, have I had a share of picking and throwing apples?  Ever since I was able to climb a ladder I have picked those big juicy apples the folks back east rave about. And I guess it was throwing apples that caused me to break into baseball for it enabled me to develop a good throwing arm.”i

While in high school in Yakima, Clift played on the baseball team. At the age of 17, after he left school, he joined the town semipro team. While playing for the team he attended a tryout camp run by the Browns and impressed Willis Butler, a Browns scout. During the tryout, the anxious but determined 18-year-old broke his collarbone fielding a ball. Despite the injury, Butler recognized Clift’s ability, signed him to a contract with the Browns’ organization, and Clift broke into professional baseball in 1932 with the Wichita Falls Spudders of the Texas League. The team, which moved to Longview, Texas, in May, was managed by former Browns catcher Hank Severeid. Clift began the season playing shortstop before being moved to his permanent position at third base. In 127 games he batted .282 with nine home runs.

The next season the Browns hooked up with the San Antonio Missions in the Texas League, and Clift again played for Hank Severeid. At third base the entire season, he batted .273 with seven home runs.

In 1934 the Browns invited Clift to spring training in West Palm Beach, Florida. Manager Rogers Hornsby recognized Clift’s talent and potential. In an exhibition game against the New York Giants on March 22, he hit a grand slam off future Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell. Clift also exhibited a “good pair of hands” at third base.The Browns, who had finished the 1933 season in last place with a record of 55-96, placed the 22-year-old Clift on their Opening Day roster.

According to Bill James in his Historical Baseball Abstract, Clift was given the nickname Darkie by teammate Alan Strange, also a rookie, who thought Clift’s first name was Harlem. The moniker, with its racial overtones, stuck. Also, the rookie was so reluctant to talk that he did not correct anyone who thought his name was Harland rather than Harlond.

Clift made his major-league debut on Opening Day, April 17, when he pinch-hit for Bobo Newsom in the seventh inning against the Cleveland Indians and singled. He started at third base the next day and was the Browns’ leadoff hitter for the rest of the season. He hit his first major-league home run on May 9 off the New York Yankees’ Russ Van Atta, helping the Browns defeat the Yankees 9-8 at Yankee Stadium. On the 11th he went 4-for-6 and scored three runs as the Browns beat the Senators 4-3 in Washington. Clift hit the first of his six career grand slams on May 31 as the Browns defeated the Detroit Tigers 11-3. Clift was batting .291 on June 8 but went into a slump that saw his average drop to .257 by the end of the month.

On July 31 Clift had a double in four at-bats as the Browns lost to the visiting Chicago White Sox, 5-2. That day the soon-to-be-22-year-old player also found time to marry Cora Douglas, 21, at the Fifth Street Methodist Church in St. Louis. The couple eventually became parents of two children.

Clift ended his rookie season with a .260 batting average, 14 home runs and 56 RBIs. He also proved to be a very effective leadoff hitter for the Browns, scoring 104 runs and walking 84 times for an on-base percentage of .357. The Browns, given a boost by their rookie third baseman, and led in hitting by Sammy West (.326) and Rollie Hemsley (.309), improved to a sixth-place place finish with a record of 67-85.

In 1935, again managed by Rogers Hornsby, the Browns slipped to seventh place with a 65-87 record. Clift started slowly, batting only .227 by the end of June. On July 10 he had a breakout game with four hits against the Philadelphia Athletics. Clift hit his first home run of the season the following day off the Athletics’ Roy Mahaffey. He went on to bat .295 with 11 home runs, 69 RBIs, 101 runs scored, 83 walks, and an on-base percentage of .406. Although he committed 27 errors, Clift was becoming a steady-fielding third basemen for the Browns.

The Hornsby-led Browns finished in seventh place again in 1936. However, their 23-year-old third baseman was coming into his prime as an outstanding but overlooked performer. Clift raised his batting average to .302, slugged 20 homers, drove in 73 runs, and scored 145 runs (second best in the American League). He drew 115 walks, contributing to an on-base percentage of .424. His slugging average was .514 and his fielding percentage improved to .951, third best in the league. On June 2 Clift went 5-for-6 with a double and a triple in a game against the Senators. He homered twice against the Red Sox on June 20. Despite his breakout season, Clift was left off the American League team for the All-Star Game, and The Sporting News chose Pinky Higgins (.289/12/80) of the last-place Athletics as the third baseman on their postseason all-star team.

The Browns finished dead last in 1937. Rogers Hornsby was fired after the team got off to a 25-52 start. His replacement Jim Bottomley, another future Hall of Famer, was no better, with the Browns going 21-56 under him. At a final mark of 46-108, the Browns finished 56 games behind the pennant-winning Yankees. In the midst of this dreadful season, Clift was one of the Browns’ few shining lights. He went 5-for-5 on Opening Day against the White Sox with a double and a homer. He hit two homers on May 31 against the White Sox and had another two-homer game on June 13 against the Yankees. Clift had a career-high 20-game hitting streak from August 11 to August 29, going 32-for-81 for a .395 batting average. He finished the season with a .306 batting average, 29 home runs (a new major-league record for third basemen), and 118 RBIs. He made 34 errors but his 405 assists and 50 double plays were both records for third basemen that lasted until 1971. This time he was selected for the American League team in the All-Star Game, along with teammates Beau Bell and Sammy West. Unfortunately for Clift, and a number of other American League All-Stars, Joe McCarthy, the manager of the American League squad, started five of his Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Red Rolfe, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and Lefty Gomez. All but Gomez played the entire game, which the American League won, 8-3. Clift spent the day on the bench, a nonparticipant in his lone All-Star contest. (Rolfe, DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Dickey played the entire game, as did Clift’s teammate Sammy West, Charlie Gehringer, Earl Averill, and Joe Cronin.) Though Clift made the All-Star Team, he was passed over again by The Sporting News when it picked Red Rolfe for its all-star team after the season.

The 1938 Browns escaped the basement, finishing seventh with a record of 55-97 under managers Gabby Street (53-90) and Oscar Melillo (2-7). Clift had perhaps his finest season, both at bat and in the field. He was batting .264 at the All-Star break, but caught fire in the second half of the season, homering twice in five separate games. Clift enjoyed the best month of his career in August, batting .333 with 15 homers and 34 RBIs. On September 18 at Sportsman’s Park, in the second game of a double-header, Clift pounded the pennant-bound Yankees with two home runs, a triple, and six RBIs. One of his homers was a grand slam off ace reliever Johnny Murphy, who was starting this day.

Clift finished the season with a .290 batting average and broke his third basemen’s home-run record of the previous year, with 34. Again, he drove in 118 runs. He led American League third basemen in putouts and fielding average. Once again, Red Rolfe (.311/10/80) was the major leagues’ best third baseman, according to The Sporting News.

From 1939 to 1941, playing under manager Fred Haney (replaced by Luke Sewell during the 1941 season), the Browns remained deep in the second division. Clift put up consistent offensive numbers each year, averaging 17 home runs, 85 RBIs, and a .266 batting average. While his slugging decreased, he maintained an impressive on-base percentage. After eight seasons with the Browns, Clift had hit 160 home runs and had a .281 batting average. He was only 29 years old, and his future appeared bright.

But starting in 1942, Clift’s power dried up. While still a reliable defensive third baseman, he managed only seven homers, 55 RBI, and a .274 batting average. The Browns, under Sewell, finished in third place with an 82-69 record, their best season since Clift joined the club in 1934.

As many ballplayers went off to fight in World War II, the Browns returned to the second division, finishing in sixth place in 1943. As the father of two, Clift was not drafted and remained in baseball. However, he was not around at the end of the Browns’ season. After playing 105 games and hitting .232 with just three home runs and 25 RBIs, he was traded to the Washington Senators on August 18 along with pitcher Johnny Niggeling in exchange for pitcher Ox Miller, infielder Ellis Clary, and cash. The Senators were in the pennant race, eventually finishing in second place. Clift got into just eight games for the Senators with no home runs, four RBIs, and a .300 batting average.

For the only time in their 52-year history in St. Louis, the Browns won the American League pennant in 1944. Having been traded to the Senators the previous season, Clift missed the opportunity to finally play on a pennant-winning team. To make matters worse, he developed testicular mumps from apparently being around his children and did not play a game for Washington until July 16. After just 12 games, he was injured when thrown by a horse, and his season came to an abrupt end.

The 32-year-old Clift was the Senators’ regular third baseman for most of the 1945 season, but his skills had eroded. Washington finished in second place, but Clift contributed only eight homers, 53 RBIs, and a .211 batting average in 119 games. A big chunk of his offense came in a July Fourth doubleheader in Chicago. Clift homered in the first game, then hit two more home runs, including a grand slam, and drove in seven runs in the second game. The three Independence Day homers were the last of his major-league career. On September 20 Clift played what turned out to be his final game in the majors, going 0-for-4. The next day during batting practice, he was hit on the head by a pitch and suffered a concussion. The Senators released him on February 9, 1946. He returned to Yakima, where he caught on with his hometown team, the Yakima Stars of the Class B Western International League, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Against the less-skilled competition, Clift regained his batting eye and his home-run stroke, batting .312 (19 home runs) in 1946 and .337 (seven home runs) in 1947. Clift also managed the 1947 Stars, who finished the season in last place.

In his 12-year major-league career, Clift had 1,558 base hits, 178 home runs, 829 runs batted in, a batting average of .272, an on-base percentage of .390, and a slugging percentage of .441. He scored 100 or more runs in seven seasons, drew 100 or more walks six times, and hit 20 or more home runs in four seasons. Perhaps not a Hall of Fame career, but certainly a respectable, even memorable one.

Except few did remember. Clift coached in the Pacific Coast League and scouted for the Detroit Tigers before returning to the Yakima area for good in the early 1950s. His son, Harlond Jr., played minor-league baseball from 1957 to 1960. After the 1953 season, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles. The Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins in 1961. Clift reportedly was heartbroken that the only two Major League franchises he had played for both ceased to exist. He said, “I have no ballclub anymore.” ii

Clift tended to the family farm of 50,000 acres. Eventually, however, he lost it all. He admitted that he had made many mistakes dealing with cattle ranching, “where you never know how it’s gonna go.” By the 1980s, Clift was widowed and living alone in a mobile home in Yakima, getting by on his Social Security checks and a small pension from the Association of Professional Ball Players of America.

Clift was remembered twice for his career as a ballplayer. He reportedly broke down and cried when he received an invitation to an old-timer’s game at New York’s Shea Stadium, so surprised was he to be remembered at all.iii Then in 1977, Clift was inducted into the Washington Sports Hall of Fame.

Clift died at the age of 79 on April 27, 1992, at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Yakima. He was buried in Yakima’s Terrace Heights Memorial Park.

 

Sources

Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 563.

Mike Robbins, Ninety Feet from Fame:  Close Calls With Baseball Immortality (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004) 102-104.

The Official 1981 Baseball Dope Book (St. Louis: The Sporting News, 1981).

Harlond Clift’s statistics from Baseball-Reference.com.

Special thanks to Bill Francis of the National Baseball Hall of Fame for providing a copy of Clift’s clip file.

 

Notes

i Comment distributed by American League Service Bureau, February 3, 1935.

ii Mike Robbins, Ninety Feet From Fame:  Close Calls with Baseball Immortality, 103.

iii Robbins, Ninety Feet From Fame, 103-104.

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