Thursday, February 15, 2018

239. Big Boy Kraft: Fifty-Five and Out


This week we'll continue to go backwards through baseball history and examine the single-season home run leaders of the pre-steroid era. Preceding Tony Lazzeri as the Minor League Single-Season Home Run Leader was Clarence "Big Boy" Kraft. Big Boy was the power behind the 1919-1924 Fort Worth Panthers, one of the finest minor league teams of the pre-war era. His 55 homers in 1924 was the highest recorded in the minors up to that time and only second to Babe Ruth's major league record of 59 he set in 1921. As could be expected, after that 1924 season, everyone wanted a piece of Big Boy...

Clarence Kraft, 
Waco, Tex.

Would you consider playing for the Reds for 1925 season? 
Wire reply.

Jack Hendricks, 
Redland Field, Cincinnati, O.

Clarence Kraft folded the telegram and slid it back into its yellow envelope. After a moment he thought better of it, took it out, smoothed it flat with his big palm and left it on his kitchen table, face up. He already knew the answer to its question - he'd asked himself the same one many times over the years - but wanted to relish that moment of uncertainty a little longer before his answer was final.

It had taken Clarence Kraft over a decade to claw his way back to the big leagues. He began his career as a hulking Indiana farm boy with a blazing fastball back in 1910. Six-foot tall and close to 200 pounds, Kraft looked every inch like his nickname "Big Boy." His 13-2 ledger in the Kitty League set the scouts tongues a-waggin' and he signed with Cleveland. Spring camp with the Indians made it clear he wasn't yet ready for The Show, so he dutifully did his tour of the low minors: Flint Vehicles, Toledo Mud Hens, New Orleans Pelicans, Clarksville Swamp Angels. He transitioned from the mound to everyday player where his potent bat could be more useful, a-la Babe Ruth. After he hit .362 to lead the Southern Association in 1913, Sporting Life magazine called him the circuit's "best natural slugger since the days of Joe Jackson."

The Brooklyn Superbas drafted Kraft off the Nashville roster and then dealt him to the Boston Braves. Kraft singled in his very first at bat, then was used as a pinch hitter a few more times before he was sent back to Nashville. The thing was, Big Boy refused to go.

The Boston Braves were a pennant-bound team and Nashville was a Southern Association team - two or three rungs below the majors. Kraft felt that if he was going back to the bushes, it should be to a higher classification league. The rookie appealed to the Baseball Players' Fraternity, a proto-union formed in 1912. By new rules agreed upon by by the Baseball Players' Fraternity and the National Commission which governed organized baseball, a player released from a major league team must be offered to a Class AA (today's AAA classification) club first. Sending Kraft to Nashville was against the new rules but the Commission didn't care, disregarding the Class AA Newark Indians interest in Kraft and awarding him to Nashville instead

In ordinary times, there wouldn't have been a damn thing Kraft could do about his predicament, but 1914 wasn't ordinary times. Because of the threat posed by the upstart Federal League in 1914, the Baseball Players' Fraternity enjoyed a good amount of pull over the National Commission. So, when the Baseball Players' Fraternity threatened to strike over Kraft, the Commission convinced Nashville to sell the rebel ballplayer's contract to Newark, which they did.

Kraft bounced around the Class AA leagues for a few years and again kicked up controversy when he and two other players refused to report after being traded to Milwaukee in 1916. The players demanded a signing bonus which they were reluctantly given. By 1918 Kraft was thirty years old, had made himself a nuisance to baseball's ruling class and was slipping down a minor league rung each season. Then Uncle Sam came calling.

Kraft had been a gearhead since he was kid back on the farm in Indiana, and the Army put him to good use in the Motor Transport Corps. After six months in France he returned home and married his girlfriend, Dorothy Goessling. With baseball booming again, Kraft signed with the Fort Worth Panthers of the Texas League. Now into his thirties, Big Boy figured he'd wring a few more bucks out of the game before his legs went, earning enough cash to buy into a business when he retired. It was a solid plan, but it didn't quite work out like he figured.

Fort Worth had a juggernaut of a ball club in 1919. The team was assembled by owners W.K. Stripling and Paul LaGrave who acted as president and general manager respectively. The two men carefully built a core team that meshed well under the watchful eye of legendary Texas League manager Jake Atz. Fort Worth management made it a point to pay their players higher wages than was the norm for a Class A club. Not only did this led to players actually turning down promotions to a higher level league to stay in town, but spending those fat paychecks with Fort Worth merchants endeared the team to its citizens, creating a rabid fan base. After the war, Stripling and LaGrave signed an agreement with Detroit who funneled their promising players south for seasoning. In 1919, eleven of the guys on the Panthers either had time in the majors or would so very soon. 

Fresh from driving ammo trucks in France, Kraft only hit .275, but his 11 home runs was the Texas League's second best. Fort Worth won one half of the split season schedule but lost to Shreveport in the playoffs. Kraft figured he'd give it another season, but Kraft wasn't much help in 1920, hitting a miserable .258 with 6 lousy home runs. Now obviously at the end of his career, Kraft signed with Fort Worth for 1921, both parties not expecting much out of the old ballplayer. Both were wrong.

Somehow, someway, Big Boy had stumbled on the secret to home run hitting. In one game early in the 1921 season, Kraft went 5 for 5 with three home runs, and never let up all summer. By the time 1921 ended, Kraft had set Texas League records for most hits (212) and total bases (376) in a season. He won the batting crown with a .352 average and smashed 31 home runs, second in the league, as Fort Worth cruised to another pennant. 1922 was almost a carbon copy of 1921 except that Kraft led the league with 32 home runs and 131 RBI. Then he and the Panthers came back and did the same thing in 1923 - Fort Worth sweeping the pennant and Kraft leading the league in homers with 32.

As the team's elder statesman, Kraft helped the younger players navigate the ways and means of a bush leaguer, offering such sage advice as "you always want to get your name in the paper. If you're walking down the street and you haven't been getting enough publicity, hit someone in the face."  Thankfully for Fort Worth pedestrians, Big Boy Kraft's 95 home runs in three years garnered him enough ink in the sports pages without having to slug anyone.

In 1924 it was the opposing Texas League pitchers that wanted to slug Kraft and the other Panthers. The team won 109 games to finish 30 1/2 games in front, their incredible record was fueled by Big Boy's bat. The 37 year-old vet not only set new Texas League records for RBI (196) and total bases (414), but his 55 home runs was the best in all of baseball since Babe Ruth's 59 in 1921. He also hit a nice .349 for the pennant winners.  

Since this was 1924, the age of Babe Ruth, it was Kraft's 55 home runs that really got people interested, and that's what initiated the telegram that arrived from Cincinnati.

At thirty-seven, Kraft knew he'd never be more than a novelty in the majors. Sure, maybe he'd knock a few out of the park, but he'd never approach what Babe Ruth was doing. There were other offers on the table, including a rare for the time multi-year contract from Fort Worth at $5,000 a season. That was a lot of money, but like the question posed by the Reds, Big Boy Kraft already knew his answer.

Fifty-five and out.

With the forward thinking usually associated with todays' players, Kraft used his baseball savings to capitalize on his local popularity. Still every inch the gearhead he was back in Indiana, Kraft bought a Ford dealership in downtown Fort Worth. At first, his plan seemed to work - the showroom was flooded with people. Unfortunately, they were all there to shake Big Boy's hand and talk baseball. Kraft finally had to post a notice in the local paper: you buy a car first, then we talk baseball. Kraft's business sense was acknowledged when the Panthers hired him as the team's president in 1932. The Great Depression had all but wiped out the club financially and Kraft was able to stabilize the ailing franchise in a few years. Job finished, he returned to his dealership which did well until World War II ended new car production. By this time Kraft had made the transition from former jock to respected businessman. He was elected a county judge for three terms, specializing in revamping the probation department and attempting to curtail juvenile delinquency. He retired in 1948 and enjoyed a decade of tranquility with his wife Dorothy and their three children before suffering a stroke in 1957. Several months later it took pneumonia and a heart attack to finally do to Big Boy what Texas League pitchers failed do back in 1924

Although most of Kraft's records were eventually broken, the big fella's total of 196 RBIs is still tops in the Texas League record books for highest single season totals.

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