June 26, 2017

From the Archives: Cup of Coffee—Cliff Lee

April 23, 2017 by · 3 Comments 

If you’ve hung around this site you’re no doubt familiar with our “Who, You Ask?” series of articles which celebrates the careers of largely forgotten ballplayers who fashioned excellent careers but slipped through the cracks of our collective memory. Every once in a while, however, I run across players who I’m unfamiliar with whose careers intrigued me enough to want to find out more. More often than not these players had brief stays in the majors and don’t warrant full-length articles, so I’ve created a category specifically for them called “Cup of Coffee.”

While researching a book I’m writing, I ran across a Cleveland outfielder named Cliff Lee (not to be confused with the current Indians pitcher of the same name), who toiled in the majors for eight years from 1919 to 1926, but appeared in only 521 games and averaged less than 200 at-bats a season. Lee caught my attention because he had a very good 1922 campaign at the age of 25 while playing for the Phillies (he played for Cleveland later in his career) and followed that up with a solid 1923 season. Those two seasons comprised 44% of his playing time. He never reached 500 at-bats in a season; he batted 400 or more times only once in his career and had more than 300 at-bats in a season only twice. So I started to dig for information to find out why a hitter whose slugging percentage (.540) was higher than all but two National Leaguers (Rogers Hornsby and Ray Grimes) in 1922 couldn’t crack a starting lineup.

Lee, a native of Lexington, Nebraska, began his career in the Central Association in 1914 without much fanfare and kicked around the Midwest for a few years, before landing in Portland of the Pacific Coast League early in 1918. Lee was apparently the property of the Cleveland Indians at that point, but the Indians admitted to the National Commission that they would most likely send Lee to the minors and that Portland had established the “strongest moral right to the player” and should be awarded Lee’s services. After spending a season in Portland, Lee was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in September of 1918.

The Sporting News gave the first glimpse of Lee’s abilities when it wrote on October 3, 1918:

“Cliff Lee, catcher and outfielder, was drafted from the Portland club. He came originally from the Central Association. Cleveland took him from that circuit, and later turned him over to Portland, where he did work that was considered high class. He is said to be not only a good catcher, but a clever hitter and a fine all-around performer.”

Lee joined the service during World War I, but was out in time to join the Pirates roster in 1919. The 6’1″, 175-pounder batted only .196 in 112 at-bats while backing up Walter Schmidt behind the plate and played sparingly in the outfield where he fielded at a .917 clip and recorded a range factor well below league average.

He was penciled into Pittsburgh’s lineup in 1920 as the second string catcher behind Schmidt, but he failed to hit again (.237/.275/.316) and was relegated to only 37 games and 75 at-bats, losing playing time to Bill Haeffner. Despite his less than stellar performance, Lee was courted by an independent league who offered him a $2,000 bonus and a higher salary than what he’d made with Pittsburgh, but he rejected the offer and stayed with the Pirates. Pitcher Johnny Meador jumped to the new league, prompting Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss to declare: “I will make no offer to get any player back who jumps his contract. He simply burns his bridges behind him, and I won’t have a contract jumper on my team.” Meador never appeared in a major league uniform again.

Despite his loyalty, Lee was released by Pittsburgh on April 8, 1921 and was claimed off waivers by the Phillies, who moved him from behind the plate and put him at first base and in the outfield. The move from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia had a positive impact on Lee’s batting—He hit .308 with four homers and 29 RBIs in 286 at-bats—but the shift to first base didn’t guarantee a starting job. The Sporting News reported in early July:

“Cliff Lee, obtained earlier this year from Pittsburgh, is now playing first base, but the Phils are looking for a sturdier hitter to cover that post. They have been flirting with Big Ed Konetchy of Brooklyn, but it seems impossible to get Koney unless pitcher [Red] Causey is sent to Brooklyn, and this Bill Donovan will not do.”

Konetchy was selected off waivers from Brooklyn not long after and Lee was sent to right field to fight for a job with eight other players, including Irish Meusel and Casey Stengel. While Lee had been an adequate first sacker, he was a terrible outfielder, posting a fielding percentage of .933 and a range factor of 1.56, which was well below the league average of 2.24.

Lee entered the 1922 season as a valuable reserve who could play three positions, but he wasn’t expected to break into the Phils outfield of Bevo LeBourveau, Cy Williams, and Curt Walker, all of whom were speedsters who once starred for their college track teams. But, while Williams and Walker were two of the league’s better hitters that season, LeBourveau couldn’t parlay his wheels into success at the plate or in the field. Lee had served as a fourth outfielder and pinch hitter until May 29 when he was suddenly thrust into a starting role in left field. He went hitless that day and was batting only .189 with a home run and two runs batted in on the season heading into the Phillies’ May 30 doubleheader against the Giants at Philadelphia’s cozy Baker Bowl. From there the right-handed slugger took off.

Facing right-hander Jesse Barnes in the first game, Lee went 3-for-4 with two doubles, a run, and an RBI and was intentionally walked in the bottom of the ninth. It was in the second game that Lee opened everyone’s eyes, however. Facing southpaw Art Nehf, Lee homered twice in five at-bats and drove in five runs, and his first homer of the game, a two-run shot in the first, was one for the ages. Wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer about the round-tripper:

“Cliff Lee caught one of Art Nehf’s left-handed shoots right on the seams in the first inning and the ball soared high and far into the air then disappeared over the left field wall into Lehigh avenue for the greatest home run ever hit on a Philadelphia baseball field. It was the first time a ball has ever been driven over that brick barrier in left field in a game and when the vast crowd realized that this substitute outfielder had turned a feat which great stars of the past and present have never achieved they gave him rousing recognition when he crossed the plate.”

It would take another nine years before another batter would accomplish the feat (Boston’s Wally Berger homered off Clise Dudley in the second game of a double header on May 30, 1931).

From June 1 until the end of the season, Lee hit .328 with 14 homers and 70 RBIs in his last 372 at-bats and finished the season at .322 with 17 circuit clouts and 77 runs batted in. Based on today’s minimum criteria Lee didn’t qualify for any titles, but there were no minimum requirements in the early days of baseball (it was all subjective) and Lee would have been considered one of the N.L.’s top batters in 1922. He finished third in slugging (.540), third in OPS (.912), tied for third in home runs, and placed among the top 10 in adjusted OPS+ (125) and extra-base hits (52). Only Hornsby and Williams homered at a better pace than Lee.

But a closer look at his numbers shows why he had a difficult time becoming a regular. Later in his career, newspapers often reported that Lee would get most of his playing time against southpaws, leading one to believe that he was either especially potent against lefties or couldn’t hit righties well enough to earn more at-bats against them. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. Lee was, in fact, better against southpaws, batting .323 with a .367 on-base average and a slugging percentage of .595 from 1921 to 1922 (the only years for which we have stat splits). But he wasn’t bad against right-handed pitchers, batting .301 with a .336 OBA and a .451 SLG.

The problem is in Lee’s home/road splits. The Baker Bowl was one of the best places to hit in baseball and may have fattened offensive numbers more than any other park in baseball history. In 1922 the Baker Bowl had a HR factor of 258—131 points higher than the next best home run park in the National League, the Polo Grounds. The Phillies hit 95 homers at home, but only 21 on the road. Lee hit all 17 of his homers at home and batted .388 with an OPS of 1.122. He batted only .227 on the road with an OPS of .602.

Despite Lee’s prowess at the plate in 1922, no mention was made of him prior to the 1923 season as all the attention went to Art Fletcher, who’d replaced Kaiser Wilhelm as manager of the Phillies. When Wilhelm departed so did Lee’s starting spot in left field. Fletcher gave it to 27-year-old former Texas League star Johnny Mokan, who rewarded Fletcher with a solid campaign in which he hit .313 with 10 homers and 48 RBIs and finished second on the team in OBA (.401) and OPS+ (117). Lee outhit and outslugged Mokan, batting .321 with 11 homers and 47 runs batted in in almost 50 fewer at-bats. But Mokan was far superior in the field, displaying above average range and a strong arm that produced 16 assists in only 105 games, while Lee continued to plod along with less than impressive results.

The Sporting News gave another indication as to why Lee may have fallen out of favor with Fletcher, writing about his “usual retiring disposition” and that he wasn’t planning on doing any work until Spring Training began. At 6’1″, 175-pounds, it’s difficult to imagine Lee getting out of shape, but his work ethic apparently left something to be desired. Only a day later it was reported that the Reds and Dodgers were working on a deal that would send Lee to Cincinnati, who would then trade him to St. Paul for third baseman Chuck Dressen, but the deal was never completed. Instead the Phillies sold Lee to Cincinnati in mid-June.

Lee fell off the radar again until August 4, 1924 when Ford Sawyer celebrated Lee’s 28th birthday by writing a piece about him in the Boston Globe, in which he opined that Lee was one of the best pinch hitters in the majors. A few days later Sawyer listed Lee among his August All-Stars (great players born in August), putting him in the outfield with Harry Heilmann, Baby Doll Jacobson, and Harry Hooper, pretty heady company for a guy who couldn’t even start for the last place Phillies and batted only six times for the fourth place Reds, before being shipped to St. Paul.

Cleveland purchased Lee from St. Paul in October 1924, earning applause from The Sporting News a couple weeks later.

“Lee’s return to fast company, of course, was expected by everyone. Just why 15 clubs waived on Cliff Lee and allowed him to go to the American Association is one of the political mysteries of the game. He hit over .400 in that league, and Cleveland did wisely in picking him up. “

Again Lee was expected to be a reserve who could provide punch off the bench and he did just that, batting .322, slugging .491 and driving in 42 runs in only 230 at-bats for an Indians team that finished in sixth place in the American League. Only manager and center fielder Tris Speaker finished the season with a higher OPS+ than Lee, yet most of the right field playing time went to Pat McNulty who was a decent hitter and a superior defensive player.

In December The Sporting News opined that much was going to be expected of Lee in 1926. Two months later the Washington Post speculated that Lee would platoon with McNulty in right field, earning most of his playing time against southpaws. But he batted only .175 in 21 games and was shipped to Newark on September 30, 1926 in a deal that sent infielder Lew Fonseca to Cleveland.

Lee’s major league career was over.

He played for Newark until the end of May 1929 when his new manager, Tris Speaker, released him. It was the second time in three years that Speaker had parted company with Lee. In 1930 Lee landed with the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League and batted .296 with only one homer in 233 at-bats. Not even in the minors could Lee break into the starting lineup.

In 1937 the 41-year-old Lee appeared in a tournament sponsored by the Denver Post that featured former big league stars such as Rogers Hornsby, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Sammy Hale, among others.

The trail grows cold from there.

Lee passed away in Denver on August 25, 1980 at the age of 84.

Comments

3 Responses to “From the Archives: Cup of Coffee—Cliff Lee”
  1. vinnie says:

    Very nice piece.
    I did note that you said he was 37 in 1937, yet died in 1980 at the age of 84.After looking him up, he was indeed born in 1896 which made him 41 in 1937.

    Best regards,

    Vinnie

  2. Mike Lynch says:

    Vinnie,

    That’s why I’m a writer and not a mathematician. ;)

    Thanks for the heads up and compliment. I really appreciate it.

    The error has been fixed!

    Mike

  3. Cliff Blau says:

    I know my partial namesake as an outfielder, and didn’t know he started out as a catcher. Interesting article, Mike.

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