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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Gavvy Cravath: From Slugger to Hard Hitting Judge

Before Babe Ruth, perhaps the most feared power hitter in baseball history was outfielder Gavvy Cravath. Leading his league in home runs in six of his nine full major league seasons during the Dead Ball Era, the right-handed hitter struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers across baseball. Despite his near-Hall of Fame career, it turned out to be his work as a judge after his playing days were over that ended up most defining the intimidating slugger.

Born Clifford Carlton Cravath in 1881, he turned to semi-pro ball in California after high school. He allegedly earned the nickname of Gavvy after hitting a ball in a game so hard that it killed an unfortunate seagull who dared to get too close to the game action. Mexican fans shouted “gaviota” (Spanish for seagull), which English speaking fans mistook for a cheer, and the name stuck.

He broke into the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox in 1908 at the age of 27 and the following year bounced around between the Chicago White Sox and Washington Senators. It wasn’t until he landed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1912 that his career finally took off. Over the next nine years, he led the National League in home runs six times, including a high of 24 in 1915. He also led in RBIs twice and was generally a .280-.300 hitter, making him one of the premium offensive players of his day.

Gravath retired following the 1920 season, having accumulated totals of a .287 batting average, 119 home runs—which set the record for most homers of any player at that time—  and 719 RBIs in 1,220 games, just as the career of Ruth was starting to soar into the hemisphere. As it turned out, the man known as the Cactus” during his playing days couldn’t stand the Bambino. His granddaughter told reporters years later that “He wasn’t much of a fan of Babe Ruth. He didn’t like Babe’s style. He thought he was a hot dog.”

Despite his star turn in baseball, he came to gain even more renown later in life during his time as a judge. In 1927, Cravath was in his mid 40s and living in Laguna Beach, California. The story goes that he and some of his friends did not like the local magistrate judge, so they drew straws to see who would run against him in the next election. Depending on the perspective, Cravath won/lost the draw, threw his hat in the ring and beat the incumbent in a landslide. He wound up spending the final 36 years of his life in law.

Although he had no legal education (or even a high school degree) or training, the former ballplayer adapted quickly to his new role, admitting that he applied many of the principles he learned in baseball to his decisions. He rapidly gained a reputation as a prickly and snappy arbiter.

Some of his judiciary exploits included:

-Being asked by the town’s mayor to resign in 1932 because of his aversion to enforcing fines that helped balance the city budget. Cravath apparently believed such relative slaps on the wrist to be petty instead of punitive

-During World War II, he declined to pass along the list of convicted speeders from his docket to the War Rationing Board as required, explaining, “I’m not going to be a stool pigeon.”

-Keeping in line with his disdain for the tattling of others, he once fined a man two pennies for catching over the legal limit of abalone. The sole reason for the exceedingly light punishment was Cravath found the game wardens’ stealthy use of binoculars as unsavory as the actual crime.

-During pre-trial preparations for a man accused of stealing, the prosecutor wanted to present jury members with instructions on how to handle the case. Cravath took them from the jury and told them, "The defendant is charged with theft. If you are so dumb you don't know what it means to steal, you shouldn't be on the jury. Now, if you find that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, convict him. If not, acquit him."

-At another theft trial, two young men who were accused of stealing asked to be allowed to join the military in lieu of a harsher sentence. This did not sit well with Cravath, who promptly denied the request, explaining "When I see a man in uniform walking down the street, I look at him with pride. You haven't earned the right to wear such a uniform bearing the honor of our country. Six months in county jail."

-Another judge once told the story of a man who was not well liked by Cravath went to him to file a lawsuit against another man for calling him a vulgar name. “Well, you are (insert vulgar name),” the judge told him, putting an end to the suit then and there.

Cravath passed away at the age of 82 in 1963. He is remarkable not only for his accomplishments in baseball but also because of the legacy he left behind with his gavel and quick wit.

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  1. Sounds like the judge was kind of an ass.

    1. I'd say he sounds like a pretty good judge, not bogged down in lawyer-speak and whitewash. Understanding the petty nature of those fines, we need some of that now.