Melton, Cliff

Primary Position: Starting pitcher
Birthplace: Brevard

First, Middle Names:  Clifton George
Nicknames: Mickey Mouse, Mountain Music

Date of Birth:  Jan. 3, 1912     Date and Place of Death: July 28, 1986, Baltimore, MD  Burial: Most Holy Redeemer Memorial Park, Baltimore, MD

High School: Black Mountain High School, Black Mountain, NC
College: Did Not Attend

Bats: L Throws: L        Height and Weight: 6-5, 203
Debut Year: 1937        Final Year: 1944          Years Played: 8
Team and Years: New York Giants, 1937-44

Career Summary
G          W        L          Sv        ERA     IP             SO         WAR
272    86      80       16        3.42     1453.2  660      15.3

Awards/Honors: All-Star, 1942; Boys of Summer Top 100

Cliff Melton seemed destined for stardom after the big lefty struck out a record 13 batters in his major-league debut in 1937 and then won 20 games in his initial season. Those victories, however, would amount to almost a quarter of the career total that he would accumulate over the next seven years as Melton became another promising pitcher whose arm gave out.

Carl Hubbell, Melton’s teammate on the New York Giants, shouldered  the blame. The kid pestered King Carl, a future Hall of Fame pitcher, to teach him his signature screwball, which required severely rotating the elbow to throw effectively. “He begged me to show him the screwball,” Hubbell said. “So, I did, and by the Fourth of July [1938] he’s well on his way to 20 again. But against Boston that day, breaking off a screwball, he grabbed his arm and kind of stumbled off the mound in great pain. I don’t think he lasted more than five or six more years. A great shame. I’ve been reluctant ever since then to work on the screwball with anybody.”[I]

New York Giants’ ace Carl Hubbell took the blame for his teammate’s arm woes.

The records and Melton’s own recollections don’t support that narrative, but more on that later. In any case, Hubbell should have been easier on himself. The notion that a particular type of pitch, no matter how physically taxing, ruined Melton’s career ignores the history of professional baseball, littered as it is with the bones of pitching arms gone bad. Whether they threw fastballs, curves, changeups, or, yes, screwballs, pitchers often had their careers shortened or ended when they reached the limits of their arms’ endurance. The type of pitch probably meant less than the number thrown. In Melton’s day, that was routinely 150 pitches a game, maybe 4,000 in a season. Few arms met such a rigorous challenge year after grinding year.

Though he never matched his rookie season or became a star, Melton went on to have a respectable major-league career, despite the constant pain during the later years and a trip to the operating room. He was named an All-Star in 1942 and ended his career with 86 victories and a 3.42 earned-run average, which is good for 12th place among North Carolinians with at least 500 innings pitched in the major leagues. He is 43d on the list of the Tarheels Boys of Summer Top 100.

Born in 1912, Clifton George Melton and his older brother, Wilco, spent their earliest years on a farm near Brevard, North Carolina, in Transylvania County. A few years later, their parents, Charles and Callie, took the family about 40 miles to Black Mountain, North Carolina, where Charles worked for a construction company, eventually becoming its foreman.

As a freshman in 1928, Melton played the three major sports at Black Mountain High School but, fearing an injury, he later dropped football. Though he won two-thirds of the games that he pitched and reached the state playoffs in his sophomore year, he was better known on the basketball court. The lanky, six-foot, five-inch senior was considered among the best prep centers in the state and attracted scholarship offers from several colleges.

The 1940 Beacon Blanketeers. Cliff Melton played for the semi-pro team more than a decade earlier. Photo: NC Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, NC

Melton, however, had been making money playing baseball since he was 17 years old when he was the star pitcher for Beacon Manufacturing’s semipro team in nearby Swannanoa, North Carolina.[1] In the midst of the Depression in 1931, he opted for a paying job and signed with the Tourists, an unaffiliated minor-league team just up US 70 in Asheville, North Carolina. A few weeks later, the high-school kid took the mound to face the New York Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in an exhibition game. He allowed one hit in five innings and struck out Ruth. The minor-league Baltimore Orioles signed him at the end of the season for $2,000, or the equivalent of about $35,000 in 2022.

Melton joined one of the most-storied franchises in the minors.[2] The Class AA Orioles had won seven consecutive International League pennants, starting in 1919, with teams that are now considered among the best in minor-league history. Sixteen Orioles had gone to the major leagues by the time Melton arrived. Six would continue on to Cooperstown, including Ruth and Lefty Grove.[3] The Orioles had sold Grove to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1924 for the princely price of $100,000 ($1.6 million). He was the most-dominant pitcher in baseball in Melton’s day, and major-league general managers and scouts had their eyes on the next prized, Orioles’ southpaw.

After a year of seasoning in the Orioles’ minors, Melton won 16 games for Baltimore in 1933. Though he stumbled and lost 20 the following season, the Yankees bought his contract for $2,400 ($50,000).

He reported to the team’s spring training camp in 1935 and took the mound against the Chicago Cubs, whose catcher Gabby Hartnett took one look at Melton’s jug ears and dubbed him “Mickey Mouse.” Because it angered and distracted Melton, the taunting escalated throughout the spring and into the new season, which he started in the minors. Showered with insults from the opposing dugout, he seemed to lose his concentration, especially with men on base. He bellowed at umpires and argued pitch selection with his catchers. The Yankees’ deal with the Orioles required that Melton make the big-league club by June. When the deadline passed, they gave him back to Baltimore where he ended the season.

While on a goodwill tour of the city that winter for the Orioles, Melton showed off his considerable skill on the guitar, which he had learned to play as a child, and entertained crowds with traditional mountain songs. “My Bucket Has a Hole in It,” “Under the Double Eagle” and “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” were audience favorites.[4] “Mountain Music” Melton, they started calling him, a nickname he much preferred over Mickey Mouse.

By then, he had made Baltimore his adopted home. He married a local woman, Mary Anello, in 1933, and they would raise three children there

Melton had his breakout season in 1936, winning 20 games for the pennant-winning Orioles. The Giants, who would win their own pennant that year, bought his contract in midseason for $27,500 ($556,000), but they didn’t need another starter just then and allowed Melton to finish the season in Baltimore.

Opposing teams in the International League playoffs rode Melton unmercifully about his ears. To put an end to it, Jack Dunn, the Orioles owner, offered him $100 for every offender he punched. Melton obliged twice, hitting the manager of the Rochester team and then the skipper of Buffalo, which led to a brawl that police had to quell.

The New York Giants pitching staff that won the 1937 pennant, from left: Hal Schumacher, Dick Coffman, Carl Hubbell and Cliff Melton. Photo: Detroit Public Library.

As the most-expensive rookie in the National League in 1937, Melton was a fixture on New York sports pages when the season began. “The North Carolina hillbilly with the auto-fender ears” made his first start against the Boston Bees on April 25, a cold and dreary Sunday at the Polo Grounds in New York.[II] He fanned the first batter he faced and had seven more strikeouts by the end of the fifth inning, 13 by the end of the game. No pitcher had ever fanned than many in a debut, a record that stood until 1954.[5] Though the Bees won 2-1 on an unearned run, Melton had made a statement.

He could be an intimidating presence on the mound with a deceptive fastball that was unleashed by an easy, loose windup that ended with a long stride that seemed to put the big guy on top of the batter. He was the most consistent Giants’ starter that season, winning 10 of 12 games in a two-month stretch. He and Hubbell, who won 22, carried the team to its second-consecutive National League pennant, becoming in the process the best southpaw pair since Grove and Rube Walberg tossed for Connie Mack and the Athletics in the late 1920s.

As they did the previous season, the Giants would again face their neighbor across the Harlem River, the Yankees, in the World Series. Melton didn’t have fond memories of his brief time with the Yankees. Maybe he was embittered by all the taunts, arguments with catchers, beefs with umpires. Maybe he thought he didn’t get a fair shot to make the team. Whatever the source of his angst, Melton apparently carried a grudge. After winning his 18th game in late September, a 6-0 whitewash of the Cubs, to clinch the pennant, Melton used the occasion in front of the assembled scribes in the clubhouse to slam the Yankees. “They don’t use their brains. They get up and swing,” he said. “If they connect – O.K., they win. If they don’t, they’re licked.”

Bill Terry, his manager, or one of his teammates should have shoved a sock in his mouth at that point. A team that had beaten them the previous year and would win 102 games with a lineup that included Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, and Tony Lazzari didn’t need a fire lit under it. But, no, Melton proceeded to throw fuel on it. “We mix up every batter. We pitch with our brains,” he said of his Giants. “We hold meetings between innings. It’s like a game of chess. It’s an intelligent man’s type of baseball. I think guile will beat brawn.”[III]

Joe McCarthy, the Yankees’ skipper, was a quiet man who rarely spoke to reporters. He let his teams do the talking for him out on the field. They spoke loudly, winning eight American League pennants and seven World Series in 12 years while punching McCarthy’s ticket to the Hall of Fame. Marse Joe, as the newspapers called him for his firm grip on the team, had rules he expected his players to follow. They were champions and had to deport themselves as such in hotels, on the team train, out on the field. They wore suits and ties while they traveled, didn’t get into bar brawls, respected their opponents and umpires. Rookies didn’t mouth off to reporters. “The fact is Melton wasn’t ready. He was a couple of years off and everybody but himself knew it,” a diplomatic McCarthy said on the day the Series started. “I was the one who had to decide whether he was worth $25,000 plus several players. I didn’t think he was…. If I thought Melton would have won us some ballgames, I would have kept him.”[IV]

New York Yankees’ manager Joe McCarthy, center, is flanked by Joe DiMaggio, left, and Lou Gehrig. Photo: National Baseball Hall of Fame

Coach Johnny Schulte, one of the Yankees’ most-caustic bench jockeys, wasn’t nearly as kind. “Melton may have won 20 games in that Barnum and Bailey circuit,” he said, probably in violation of McCarthy’s rules, “but when he faces us, he’ll know he’s in the big leagues.”[V]

DiMaggio, Gehrig et al then had the final say. They buried Hubbell and Melton in the first two games at Yankee Stadium by identical 8-1 scores. In front of 58,000 screaming fans and amid of barrage of insults and taunts from the other dugout — “Don’t put your head down running to first, Cliff,” Dickey was heard to yell.[VI] “With those ears – you’ll soar and take off” – Melton held his own for four innings in Game 2. In the fifth, four straight hits that scored two runs sent him to the showers, and the Yankees pounded three relievers for the rest. They won the Series five days later when they beat Melton in Game 5 at the Giants’ Polo Grounds by a 4-2 score, punctuated by a long DiMaggio homer.

That World Series would be the pinnacle of Melton’s career, though he might not have pitched very well. He started the next season where he had left off, winning his first six starts, but he stumbled the rest of the way, winning only 14 games, one more than Hubbell. The Giants finished in third places.

There’s no evidence that an arm injury was the source of Melton’s underwhelming season. In fact, he started almost as many games and pitched almost as many innings as he had the year before. Contrary to Hubbell’s telling, Melton didn’t pitch on July Fourth but did start against the Bees the day before. He wasn’t, however, forced out of the game because of an injury but was lifted for a pinch hitter in the sixth inning. Teammates, coaches, and sports scribes attributed his poor season to the, so-called, sophomore jinx.

If so, bad luck stalked him. Though his coaches each spring predicted a comeback, Melton won only 22 games over the next two seasons, giving up almost five runs a game in 1941.

He started fooling with the screwball the following season, he remembered, probably in a desperate attempt to resuscitate his career. “There wasn’t a time . . . this spring that I wasn’t experimenting, but I didn’t say a word about it,” Melton told the press that May 1942. “The main thing I had to learn was Hubbell’s screwball, which I practiced day after day. I think I have it under control now. It is an easy pitch for me to throw and I use it quite a bit.”[VII]

He went 11-5 through the first half of the season and made the All-Star team for the first time. The long-awaited comeback had finally arrived. His left arm, though, started swelling badly after starts later that summer. Melton had surgery in late August to remove bone chips in his elbow. He was out for the season.

The Giants tumbled into the basement of the National League in 1943, almost 50 games out of first place. Their lefty stars had faded. Hubbell, at age 40 and in his last season, won four games. Melton won only nine. He spent the next season at Class AA Jersey City pitching sporadically. The Giants offered him a contract for 1945 that included a hefty salary cut, but Melton decided to sit out the season instead of signing it. The team, which almost always got the last word in financial dealings with players, sold his contract in December to the Class AAA San Francisco Seals for $7,500 ($115,000).

Melton staged a revival on the West Coast. He won 17 games in 1946 and helped the Seals win a Pacific Coast League pennant. He won 33 more over the next two seasons.

His last years as a player were spent back in the Yankees’ farm system, where he teamed with 19-year-old Mickey Mantle in Kansas City. He retired in 1952 and was a pitching coach and co-manager in the low minors for a couple of seasons.

He returned to Baltimore and drove a truck for a lumber company that a former teammate founded. He retired for good in 1976 and died a decade later of cancer.

“He was not a braggart. He was a tough ballplayer, but in that era that’s how they played ball,” said his son Cliff Jr. in 2010. “He had a lot of pride in the sport. He was a very fair and honest person.”[VIII]

Footnotes
[1] Beacon Manufacturing Company was once the largest maker of blankets in the country. It started migrating from New Bedford, MA, to Swannanoa in 1924. The move was complete by 1936 when Beacon built a one-million-square-foot plant that employed more than 2,000 people. The company became famous for its use of vibrant colors and a design process that added shades of the same color to blanket patterns. The plant closed in 2002 and burned down a year later. Many of the blankets made in it are now collector’s items.
[2] There have been five professional baseball teams in Baltimore named the Orioles. Four played in the major leagues. This minor-league team started in 1904, relocated to Richmond, VA, briefly 10 years later to avoid competition with the renegade and short-lived Federal League, and returned to Baltimore in 1916. It was forced out of town for good after the 1953 season by the American League’s St. Louis Browns, which relocated to become the current American League Orioles. The old Orioles moved first to Richmond again and then to Toledo, OH, where they play today as the Class AAA Mud Hens.
[3] The Hall of Famers and their years with the Orioles: Hughie Jennings, 1903-06; Wilbert Robinson, 1903-06; Frank “Home Run” Baker, 1908; Babe Ruth, 1914; Lefty Grove, 1920-24; and Albert Bender, 1923.
[4] The incomparable Hank William playing “My Bucket Has a Hole in It”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=045__ojHb_g.
[5] Karl Spooner of the Los Angeles Dodgers struck out 15 in his debut against the Giants on Sept. 22, 1954.

References
[I] Zerby, Jack. “Cliff Melton.” Society of American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/cliff-melton/.
[II] Cuddy, Jack. United Press International. “In This Corner.” Daily Independent (Elizabeth City, NC), March 4, 1937.
[III] Forbes, Harry. “The Slim Man.” Daily News (New York, NY), Sept, 24, 1937.

[IV] Smith, Jack. “Cliff Melton – ‘Key Man’ of the Big Show.” Daily News (New York, NY), Oct. 5, 1937.
[V] Ibid.
[VI] Powers, Jimmy. “The Powerhouse.” Daily News (New York, NY), Oct. 8, 1937.
[VII] Zerby.
[VIII] Berghaus, Bob.  “Ex-WNC Pitcher Shares Record With Phenom Strasburg.” Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times, June 18, 2010.