As the post yesterday might have told you, I’ve been looking at third basemen recently. I’ve discovered a few things that I find interesting. You probably already know that there are less of them in the Hall of Fame than any other position (10 or 11 depending on where you put Paul Molitor). In 1924 Fred Lindstrom made his Major League debut. In 1943, George Kell made his. So? Well, no third baseman who began his career between those two dates is a Hall of Famer. Not a single one. That’s a 20 year gap. There’s no comparable gap at any other position. Were the third basemen of the era really that weak or did something else happen to change the nature of the position? It is, as you might suspect, a combination of things. All of which brings me to Harlond Clift.
Clift was from Oklahoma and arrived in the majors in 1934. He was a good enough player, but he had two strikes against him when he arrived: he played for the St. Louis Browns, and believe it or don’t he hit for power. The Browns were an awful team that ended the 1934 season in 6th place then went south, next getting back to 6th in 1940. In 1941 they made a run that put them in the first division, then slid back in 1942. In ’43 Clift developed mumps, saw it worsen, got traded to Washington, which did well in 1943, but his illness restricted Clift to eight games. In 1944 they were dead last with Clift playing in only 31 games. He closed out his career in 1945 by helping the Senators to a second place finish, the highest his team ever stood when a season ended. The mumps, and injuries, derailed his career and he was through by age 32. He died in 1992.
For his career his home run totals are as follows: 14, 11, 20, 29, 34, 15, 20, 17, 7, 3, 3, 8 for a total of 178. OK, you say, not bad, but nothing special for the era. Agreed, except in one way they are special. Here’s the highest total of home runs in the American League for the same period (1934-1941, Clift’s productive years) by any third baseman not named Clift: 16 (Higgins), 23 (Higgins), 14 (Hale), 10 (Lewis), 26 (Keltner), 14 (Rolfe and Tabor), 21 (Tabor), and 23 (Keltner). For the period, Clift is the only consistent power threat at third base. Others will have short periods where they will challenge him, but not will be there year after year. Ultimately none of them will surpass him in total home runs.
What Clift did was to demonstrate that third base was not just a fielding position where if you hit for a decent average you were elite. He showed it could be a year-to-year power position. In that he is a precursor to the change at third base that allowed, in the 1950s, for a new kind of third baseman, one who hit for great power. He is the godfather of players like Bob Elliott, the first third baseman to win an MVP award. As you might guess, third base is the last fielding position to have an MVP awarded. Al Rosen, Eddie Mathews, and Mike Schmidt, power hitting third basemen who could win MVPs, home run titles, and lead their teams to pennants are his linear descendents.
I’m not suggesting Clift is a Hall of Fame caliber player. I am suggesting he is the prototype of a new kind of player at his position. We ought to tip our cap to his memory when we watch the new generation of third basemen we see play today.