Gavvy Cravath and Philadelphia’s tiny Baker Bowl

Helmar Oasis featuring Gavvy Cravath

In 1914, Gavvy Cravath played 71 games on the road and hit no home runs. In his 78 home games at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia he hit 19 home runs. That was an extreme season, but it was pretty much like that every year: for his career, Gavvy hit 92 career home runs at tiny Baker Bowl, and 27 on the road. 

The Baker Bowl, for those of you not 125 years old, was (by far) the most bizarre ballpark to ever host major league baseball. For more than 51 years the Phillies played in this odd-shaped, decrepit building that was shoehorned into the Huntington Street neighborhood of Philly.

Built in 1887, the Baker Bowl was actually called the Philadelphia Base Ball Grounds, but it didn’t take long before it was known by a series of nicknames, most of them derisive. It was called the “Cigar Box” and the “Band Box.” It was simply called “That Place” by frustrated pitchers. The dimensions were very favorable to hitters: only 280 down the right field line and 300 to right-center. A tall wall loomed over right field, serving as a barrier to cheap home runs. Originally it was about 30 feet, but it eventually grew to 60 feet, nearly twice the height of the Green Monster in Fenway Park. It was supposed to reduce the number of home runs, but hitters like Cravath who could aim for the right field corner were able to exploit the cozy shape of the park.

Twice during the life of the ballpark, sections of seating collapsed, killing 12 people. There were numerous fires, and while none of them destroyed the park, they left charred reminders. It was unofficially named after team owner William F. Baker, a scrooge who sold star pitcher Pete Alexander rather than pay him what he was worth. Baker was so cheap that he used sheep to keep the grass low and he refused to have plumbing in the park until the late 1920s. Fans and ballplayers had to use ramshackle outhouses.

Cravath led the National League in home runs six times, poking the ball down the right field line. He’d learned that skill in the minor leagues when the right-handed hitter played in Minneapolis, which had a short right field porch.

Cravath started his major league career late, he was 27 when he debuted for Boston. He was 31 by the time he became a member of the Phillies. That’s because he was a California ballplayer and content to stay on the coast where he made good money in the game. While playing in California, Cravath reportedly picked up his nickname of “Gavvy” by hitting a ball that killed a seagull (“gaviota” in Spanish) in flight. The reporters spelled the nickname “Gavvy” to emphasize that it rhymes with “savvy”, but Cravath himself spelled it “Gavy.” 

Cravath was considered one of the slowest runners of his era. But it didn’t faze him. “They call me wooden shoes and piano legs and a few other pet names,” Gavvy said. “I do not claim to be the fastest man in the world, but I can get around the bases with a fair wind and all sails set. And so long as I am busting the old apple on the seam, I am not worrying a great deal about my legs.” 

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