This article was written by Cort Vitty
This article was published in The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)
During a five-week span in 1932, minor-league legend Buzz Arlett accomplished the Herculean feat of twice blasting four home runs in a game.
That season, he wore the uniform of the International League Baltimore Orioles and led the loop with 54 round-trippers. It happened in the year immediately following his one and only bittersweet trip to the major leagues. It was also the year when he made his last desperate attempt to earn a trip back to the big show. Russell Loris Arlett was born in Elmhurst, California, on January 3, 1899; he was the youngest of four baseball-loving brothers. Oldest brother Al was a member of the Oakland Oaks in 1918, when Russell arrived one spring day as a walk-on. Urged by his mom try out, he took the mound and proceeded to mow down veteran hitters with a dazzling spitter, fast ball, and curve. His ability to “buzz saw” through the opposing lineup earned him his nickname. The 6 3 185-pound youngster was signed, and from 1919 to 1922, the right hander blossomed into the ace of the Oakland staff, posting an overall 95–71 record. In 1920 alone, he won 29 games, while toiling 427 innings.
By 1923, the massive workload—nearly 1,500 innings in four seasons—had irreparably damaged his pitching arm. Arlett was considered one of the betterhitting pitchers in the league, so he was shifted to the outfield. Because his bad right arm inhibited his swing, he learned to switch-hit, and posted a .330 average. But he was slow to learn the intricacies of playing the outfield, and a reputation as a poor glove man would persist throughout his career. Buzz’s fielding would improve when playing for a winner; on a losing team, his concentration would drift. Scouts noticed this phenomenon and referred to it as his “lack of gameness.”
The Buzzsaw continued to put up big numbers, hitting .382 with 25 home runs in 1926. In 1927, Buzz led Oakland to the PCL pennant with 123 RBIs, 30 home runs, and a .351 batting average. Toward the end of that season, Oaks manager Ivan Howard commented that Buzz made perhaps the greatest play he had ever witnessed. After a long run in right field, Buzz dove, made the catch and rolled several times before triumphantly rising to his feet with the ball secured in his glove. The year 1928 marked another fine season; Buzz hit .365, poked 25 home runs, and added 1 3 runs batted in. The ’29 campaign was even better; in the 200-game PCL season Buzz chalked up 270 hits for an average of .374, with 39 homers, 189 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases. Movie-star handsome and popular with fans, the cordial Arlett was clearly a major star in the minor leagues; he earned a high salary, and when big-league suitors hovered, “the Oakland club set a prohibitively high price on his services.”
Early in 1930, Buzz was reportedly as good as signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers when an altercation with umpire Chet Chadbourne resulted in a serious cut above his left eye. Brooklyn needed a healthy player and withdrew its offer. Buzz recovered and returned to the Oakland lineup, to hit .361 with 31 homers and 143 RBIs.
With the initiation of the major-league draft, the Oaks realized they’d better entertain any legitimate offer for their aging star and ultimately sold his contract to the Philadelphia Phillies late in 1930. After a poor spring, Buzz started strong when the 1931 season opened. The 32-year-old rookie became the most talked-about player in all of baseball. Newspapers across the country carried stories about the career minor leaguer finally being given his big chance. Six weeks into the season, Arlett led the league with a .385 average and placed second with 1 homers. It looked as if he’d proven his worth as a major leaguer—until injuries dragged him down. His performance deteriorated, and his old lackadaisical attitude returned. He probably sealed his fate on a hot August day, when he misplayed a routine fly to right. Pitcher Jumbo Jim Elliot was livid with the miscue and recommended an on-field rocking chair for the aging player. Buzz had ballooned to 230 pounds, and playable drives hit in his direction often dropped for hits.
Arlett finished 1931 with a .313 batting average, 18 homers, 72 RBIs, and a slugging percentage of .538, but Philadelphia placed the big outfielder on the waiver list. Phillies star Chuck Klein had played out of position in left field, and management wanted to move him back to his natural spot in right, making Arlett expendable. Depression-era owners decided to cut rosters from 25 to 23 for 1932, further limiting the value of an aging, out-of-shape player. Phils manager Burt Shotton bluntly explained why he agreed with the move: “He would have to hit .613 to be any use in our park.” Add Buzz’s high salary into the mix and the Phillies made an understandable business decision. After no other big-league club claimed him on waivers, Buzz was traded to the International League Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Russell Scarritt.
Unhappy at being “railroaded” out of the majors, Arlett worked hard to get into top shape for the 1932 season, stating that “he intended to prove his worth as a major leaguer.” Off to a fast start, he exhibited his power in Buffalo on May 5, when he reportedly hit a drive that sailed over the right field fence and through the window of a home where neighborhood ladies had gathered for an afternoon of bridge. The unsuspecting homeowner was struck on the head by the towering drive. Arlett reportedly once hit a homer that rocketed out of the park and through the front window of a house where a funeral was in progress. It’s said that the deceased was a baseball fan, and the ball ultimately stopped rolling at his casket.
On Wednesday, June 1, 1932, Buzz enjoyed a fourhomer day at Reading, Pennsylvania, hitting three from the left side and the last one right-handed, as the O’s posted a 14–13 victory over the Keys. Arlett scored five runs and batted in seven. He hit his first three round-trippers off of right hander Clayton Van Alstyne. His last homer, served up by lefty Carroll Yerkes, was the game-winner. All four homers were hit over the right-field fence.
He followed this outstanding performance with another explosive day at the plate that gave new meaning to Fourth of July fireworks. The big slugger again destroyed the Reading Keys with a four-home-run outburst. In the first game of a doubleheader, Buzz initially struck out. Then in the second inning, he hammered a grand slam from the right side of the plate, against Carroll Yerkes. He hit his second dinger of the day off of right hander Emery Zumbro in the fifth inning. His next two homers were also hit lefthanded, served up by right-handed pitcher Buck Newsom. The Orioles defeated the Keys 21–10.
As an encore, in his first at-bat of the second game, Arlett again connected off righty Clayton Van Alstyne, giving Buzz a total of five circuit blasts for the day. He later added a double, providing the offense leading to the Orioles’ sweep of the Keys. This gave Buzz an amazing 41 homers after only 82 games. The major leagues started to call again; this time it was the New York Giants showing interest in the big slugger, but it was not meant to be.
On August 1 against the Newark Bears, Arlett caught his spikes while racing in to catch a pop fly hit by Red Rolfe; Buzz fell and landed heavily on his shoulder, putting him out of the lineup. Despite missing almost a month, Arlett’s totals during the 1932 campaign included league-leading numbers in home runs at 54, runs at 141, and runs batted in with 144. His batting average stood at .339. Buzz stayed with the Orioles until the end of 1933, posting a league-leading 39 home runs and contributing 135 runs scored, while hitting .343.
In 1934, his contract was purchased by the Minneapolis Millers of the American Association. Buzz entertained the Minneapolis fans on May 27 with his hitting and fielding. Buzz smacked a homer and two doubles to lead the club to victory over the Toledo Mud Hens at Nicollet Park. But it was a spectacular running barehanded catch that earned him several minutes of deafening cheers. The Minneapolis Tribune noted that this was “from a man whose fielding supposedly kept him out of the big leagues.” In 1934, he led the loop with 41 homers, while batting .319.
Age and injuries caught up with Buzz, and by 1936 and he was relegated to part-time status with the Millers. His last appearance as a player came with the Syracuse Chiefs in 1937, when he went hitless in four plate appearances as a pinch hitter. After his playing career he managed in the low minor leagues and scouted for the Yankees, Reds, and Dodgers.
In retirement, Buzz operated a successful restaurant in Minneapolis. He passed away on May 16, 1964, after suffering a heart attack. All told, during his minorleague career, he hit 432 home runs in 2,390 games, with a .341 lifetime batting average. He was clearly one of the game’s most talented switch-hitters and the first major-league player with significant power from both sides of the plate. In 1984, the Society for American Baseball Research voted him the all-time greatest minorleague player. Contemporary Lefty O’Doul once offered a sobering commentary on Buzz’s career: “Had Arlett been in the big show, five years earlier, he would’ve been the Babe Ruth of the National League.”
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