Only starting in his major-league debut because shortstop Rabbit Maranville missed his morning train to the ballpark, Jeff McCleskey is a peculiar footnote for the 1913 Boston Braves.
Jefferson Lamar McCleskey was born on November 6, 1891 in Americus, Georgia, the third of four children of Jefferson Lamar McCleskey Sr. (1862-1895), a railroad brakeman, and Emma Duke McCleskey. The elder McCleskey’s brother, James, attended the Georgia Military Institute, then the University of Georgia. James McCleskey later became an attorney, then Methodist minister in many communities in Georgia. Another of the elder McCleskey’s brothers, Lucius, was a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, and was “in the trenches in and around Atlanta during the siege in the summer of 1864.”1 He worked for the Southern Railway Company.2 Jefferson had two brothers, Lucius and Lamar, and one sister, Mary.
The elder McCleskey passed away when young Jeff was three years old. Research has not uncovered anything substantial regarding Jeff’s youth in Americus. Both father and son attended the University of Georgia in Athens.
The younger McCleskey was the “new man” who “did well” at shortstop for the university’s 1909 Bulldogs.3 However, by 1910, McCleskey had left Athens, relocating to Rome, Georgia, with the 1910 census showing him as an apprentice at a local cotton mill. The next year, 19-year-old McCleskey latched on with the Rome Hillies of the Class-D Southeastern League, batting third and playing third base.4 It’s impressive that four Hillies from 1911 eventually reached the majors: Sam Lanford, Milt Reed, Jack Reis, and McCleskey.
McCleskey returned to Rome, now called the Romans, as the starting shortstop for 1912. His “sensational one hand catch and double play” were the fielding highlights of the second game of a doubleheader for the Romans over the Gadsden Steel Makers on June 15.5 McCleskey had a triple on August 4 in a 5-4 Rome victory over the same Steel Makers, the last-ever game of the first iteration of the Southeastern League (1910-1912).6 After the league disbanded, McCleskey played second base for Albany (Georgia) of the South Atlantic League.7
For 1913, McCleskey started back with Albany, batting in the leadoff spot the first couple of weeks for the Babies. The 5-11, 160-pound left-handed hitter didn’t exactly hit the cover off the ball, hitting .253 for Albany. McCleskey also struggled in the field at times. His throwing error at third base accounted for both Columbus runs in a 2-0 victory over Albany on July 5.8
Nonetheless, on August 12, McCleskey was one of a “brilliant quartet,” which included Oscar Dugey from Waco and two outfielders from Dallas, bought by Boston Braves manager and fellow Georgian George Stallings.9
McCleskey was the featured hitter on the last day of the season, September 1, in a doubleheader sweep over Columbus (Georgia), his last games for Albany.10 Fellow Albany hurler Wild Bill Luhrsen was also assigned to the majors, going to the Washington Senators.
Third base had been a trouble spot for the Braves in 1913, as Opening Day starter Art Devlin, in his last year in the majors, hit .227 before being traded to Rochester on August 25th for George “Iron” Davis. Promising youngster Tex McDonald hit .359 in 31 games for Braves, before also moving to Rochester, being sold by Boston on September 2. So, rookie infielder Fred Smith, hitting .213 at the time, again assumed the mantle at the hot corner as the calendar turned to September. Thus, there was an opening to seize if McCleskey shined during his final-month audition.
On September 5, McCleskey joined the Braves.11 There was anticipation that he, along with other rookies, would see some playing time, with Boston firmly entrenched in the lower half of the National League. Stallings and the Braves had also recalled former Yankees pitcher Jack Quinn and as well as first baseman Butch Schmidt. Rain earlier in the season necessitated the scheduling of three straight doubleheaders for the Braves against the Philadelphia Phillies. The paper reckoned that “another new man who will probably play in the series will be McCloskey (sic), a third baseman from the Albany, Ga. team of the Southern Atlantic League.”12
McCleskey didn’t see action either Friday or Saturday. Sunday was the customary day off, and Jeff probably wasn’t penciled into the lineup for the Monday doubleheader against the Phillies either. However, on that Monday morning, Rabbit Maranville missed the morning train back from his hometown of Springfield.13 He didn’t arrive at the Braves’ home field South End Grounds until close to the end of the first game. Therefore, third baseman Fred Smith slid over to shortstop in the first game, and McCleskey was inserted at the hot corner.14 The Boston Globe declared that the “youngster from the South Atlantic League…played all right”15 although “Smith was lost at short, naturally, and had a very bad game.”16 McCleskey flied out in the second inning, drew a walk in the fourth, made an out later in the game, and committed an error, in the 13-0 shutout by Tom Seaton and the Phillies.
McCleskey saw limited action in one more major-league game, on September 13 at Cincinnati. Again it was in game one of a doubleheader. He entered the game in the 10th inning, before making an out in the 11th inning, a game in which the Braves lost, 5-4. He, along with pitcher Win Noyes, were released to the Rochester Hustlers before the end of the Braves season in order to be placed on the Hustlers’ offseason reserve list, which was due to the National Association on October 1.17
In the 1913-14 offseason, McCleskey returned to attend classes at the University of Georgia to complete his degree. When baseball ramped up again for 1914, he was back with the Hustlers, at their training camp in Anniston, Alabama.18 He led off and played shortstop (with newly-acquired Wally Pipp from Detroit as his first baseman) in an April 17 exhibition against Elmira from the New York State League.19 The local paper proclaimed that the infielder was “a sticker” and a “violent hitter just now who makes a deep impression.”20 Manager John Ganzel quipped that, in McCleskey, “he’s no gold brick.”21
Unfortunately, by mid-May, lack of production forced the Hustlers to say goodbye. McCleskey was sold to Elmira in the New York State League (Class B).22 Rochester was reluctant to actually release McCleskey, because Dee Walsh, their new infielder secured from St. Louis, was hesitant in reporting.23 Reports had Walsh even going to the Federal League. But after several days, Walsh finally stepped into Rochester manager John Ganzel’s local billiard parlor, and the deal was consummated.24
McCleskey reported to Elmira and Colonels manager Wid Conroy, and was immediately inserted as the new shortstop. Within a month, however, McCleskey lost his job to Otis Johnson.25 (Johnson, who played for the New York Highlanders in 1911, tragically died in a hunting accident in November 1915.26)
According to a report from September 1914, McCleskey had been “heralded as the last word in the national pastime as far as the shortfield position is concerned in the minors. But alas! McCleskey would not do.”27 Elmira released him in June after he’d batted .184 in 25 games.
He was returned to Rochester for a short stint.28 Then in July, he signed with the Portland (Maine) Duffs of the Class B New England League. McCleskey’s journey for 1914 ended with the Lowell (Massachusetts) Grays in the same league.
Lowell invited McCleskey back for 1915.29 Yet by June, he was released. He signed with the Worcester (Rhode Island) Busters of the same league for the remainder of the season, where he played mostly first base and hit .254 for the year.
Curiously, McCleskey started 1916 in the New York Giants spring training camp in Columbus, Georgia. However, Montgomery Rebels team president Frank Hurley and manager D.T. Bowden traveled to Columbus searching for an outfielder. Giants manager John McGraw tasked star pitcher Christy Mathewson with coordinating which of the farmhands to let Montgomery have. A day later, McCleskey boarded a train to Alabama.30 He started as the opening day left fielder for the Rebels, of the South Atlantic League, hitting .500 in the opening week.31 His hitting was “a big factor” in Montgomery’s victory over Jacksonville on May 16.32
McCleskey returned to Macon for 1917, but after nine games and a .182 batting average, he was released. Jeff then tried to hook on with the Asheville Tourists of the North Carolina State League. He was actually signed, but manager Doc Ferris did not have room for him on the bare-bones 12-player roster.35 McCleskey was quickly let go, then caught on with the Greensboro Goats.36 Newspaper accounts show that he played four games in mid-May for Billy Laval’s squad, going 7-for-19. In his final game for the Goats, he committed two errors at third base.37
That would be it. Asheville and Raleigh both disbanded operations a day later; their players were dispersed throughout the league, leaving McCleskey without a roster spot. The league ceased operations just over a week later.
Later in 1917, McCleskey registered for the military draft, but requested an exemption because of a “blood disease affecting head and eye.” He eventually became a private in the 5th Regiment of Georgia National Guard.
After the war, the still-single Jeff lived with his brother Lucius for a while. Jeff McCleskey became a bookkeeper, first in the wholesale grocery business, then later at a family operation, McCleskey Cotton Oil and Peanut Mills in Americus, Georgia. He also played semipro ball locally for the Americus squad, which also included his brother Lamar.38
As of 1930, McCleskey was still single; his mother Emma was living with him. On August 24, 1933, Jeff married Bernice McArthur (1904-1984), who was 12 years his junior. They had a daughter named Mary.
Jeff McCleskey passed away on May 11, 1971 in Americus. He is buried at the Oak Grove Cemetery there.
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and MyHeritage.com.
1 “Colonel McCleskey Appointed” Lincoln (North Carolina) County News, July 13, 1909: 1.
2 Judge Robert L. Rodgers “’The Old Boys of ‘65’ Rapidly Passing Away” Atlanta Constitution, June 6, 1909: 8.
3 “Cincinnati Defeats Georgia Ball Team,” Atlanta Constitution, March 26, 1909: 4.
4 “Standing of Southeastern Clubs,” Huntsville (Alabama) Times, September 7, 1911: 8.
5 “Romans Take Two,” Montgomery Advertiser, June 16, 1912: 15.
6 “Rome 5, Gadsden 4,” Gadsden Times, August 5, 1912: 3.
7 “Babes and Indians Play to 2 to 2 Tie,” Tampa Tribune, August 11, 1912: 6.
8 “Albany 0, Columbus 2,” Tampa Tribune, July 6, 1913: 6.
9 “Stallings Snaps Up Brilliant Quartet,” Tampa Tribune, August 13, 1913: 6.
10 Tampa Tribune, September 2, 1913: 7.
11 Boston Globe, September 6, 1913: 6.
12 “Two with Phillies Today,” Boston Globe, September 5, 1913: 6.
13 “Quinn Put Out in Jig Time,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1913: 7.
14 Boston Globe, September 8, 1913: 7
15 Boston Globe, September 8, 1913: 7.
16 Boston Globe, September 8, 1913: 7.
17 “Stallings Hands Rochester Two More Men,” Buffalo Times, September 30, 1913: 10.
18 “Sixteen Players Corraled (sic) in Hustler Training Camp,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), March 17, 1914: 21.
19 Democrat and Chronicle, April 18, 1914: 22.
20 Democrat and Chronicle, March 18, 1914: 21.
21 “Sixteen Players Corraled (sic) in Hustler Training Camp,” Democrat and Chronicle, March 17, 1914: 21.
22 Democrat and Chronicle, May 15, 1914: 31.
23 “Elmira Gets McCleskey, Expected Here Tonight,” Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) May 14, 1914: 7.
24 Star-Gazette, May 14, 1914: 7.
25 Star-Gazette, June 12, 1914: 8.
26 “Man is Injured in Hunting Accident,” Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), November 9, 1915: 7.
27 Star-Gazette, September 11, 1914: 8.
28 “‘Jeff’ Gives Elmira Boost for Pennant,” Star-Gazette, June 13, 1914: 9.
29 Boston Globe, January 24, 1915: 15.
30 “President Hurley Buys Outfielder from New York,” Montgomery Advertiser, April 6, 1916: 11.
31 “McCleskey Leads Montgomery Players in Batting for Week,” Montgomery Advertiser, April 24, 1916: 6.
32 “Montgomery Wins See-Saw Game by Timely Hitting,” Montgomery Advertiser, May 17, 1916: 11.
33 “Peaches Swap About,” Tampa Tribune, August 11, 1916, 8.
34 “Another Player is Signed by Tourists,” Asheville Citizen-Times, May 8, 1917: 8.
35 “Greensboro Plays Asheville Today,” Asheville Citizen-Times, May 11, 1917: 9.
36 Asheville Citizen-Times, May 16, 1917: 8.
37 Greensboro Daily News, May 21, 1917: 2.
38 “Americus Champs Defeat Ellaville in Opening Battle,” Atlanta Constitution, July 10, 1920: 11.