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Clarence Blethen

Clarence Blethen

Position(s):
P
Nicknames:
Climax
Born:
July 11, 1893
Bats:
Left
Throws:
Right
Height:
5' 11"
Weight:
165 lbs
Major League Debut:
9-17-1923 with BOS

Clarence Waldo Blethen was an “eternal busher” who spent 19 years pitching in the minor leagues, well into his 40s but never higher than Class A baseball, highlighted by two very brief stints in the majors – five games for the 1923 Boston Red Sox and two appearances for Brooklyn in 1929. He was a Mainer, born on July 11, 1893, in Dover, a town on the south side of the Piscataquis River in central Maine which boasted a couple of sawmills among its industries. He grew up in Foxcroft, the town on the north side of the river. The two towns merged and became Dover-Foxcroft in 1922. Blethen was a Mainer born to Mainers – his mother, Lulu, and his father, Willard, a mill mechanic. The family was of Welsh and English descent. Will Blethen later worked in one of the sawmills in 1910 and as a repairer in a woolen mill in 1920. Clarence had a sister, Clara, three years younger.

Clarence attended high school at Higgins Classical Institute and then on an athletic scholarship attended the University of Maine for a year and a half. He never graduated, due to blood poisoning in his left leg that beset him when another player stepped his foot and spiked him playing football. He had to quit school to go to work. He himself likely had a future in the mills had baseball not given him a way to see more of the world. When he registered for the draft in 1917, he was a month shy of turning 24 and he was working as a framer for the American Woolen Company in Foxcroft, married and with two children. He and Mary Pembroke had met at the mill (she worked as a spooler). The two wed in Belfast, Maine, on August 12, 1914. They raised three children, Arnold, Merle, and Raymond.

It was early on that Blethen acquired the nickname Climax. With the given names Clarence and Waldo, he needed another handle. He’d chewed tobacco since public-school days, and his usual brand was Climax. The name stuck, and that’s the way he signed his name even when cashing checks.

Blethen played semipro ball in Maine while working at American Woolen, drawing $15 a game playing third base to supplement his pay at the mill of 40 cents an hour. Advancing in semipro circles, he took a job painting railroad coaches with the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad which paid 75 cents an hour and also offered $18 a game. After a year with the railroad, American Woolen enticed him back with an offer of 90 cents an hour as a shipping clerk working with packing crates – and an even $20 a game. It wasn’t much alongside Babe Ruth’s $80,000 a year, he told Saturday Evening Post feature writer Ted Shane in 1941. “But it wasn’t peanuts either. It paid for diapers, and we needed diapers about that time.[1]

It was only at the age of 26 that Clarence became active in Organized Baseball. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t had opportunities. He was apparently spotted sometime in 1913 by Earl Pottiger of the Worcester Busters, who had brought the New England League championship team to Dover on a barnstorming tour. They were playing a doubleheader and Worcester had to lend the Dover team a player for the second game, which left them short a third baseman. Climax was in the stands, and locals coaxed him into playing in a Worcester uniform. He impressed Pottiger no end.  When others around the league heard Pottiger sing his praises, Blethen was offered salaries as high as $200 a month, by more than one Eastern League team. He chose to stay in Maine, something he later regretted, and did so until six years later, when the still-persistent Pottiger secured him a baseball job in Frederick, Maryland. This time he took the offer. There may have been marital difficulties at home. Blethen was paid $185 a month.

The 5-foot-11, 165-pound right-hander (who batted left-handed) began with the Frederick Hustlers of the Class D Blue Ridge League, in 1920, pitching and playing the outfield. Blethen also attended Blue Ridge College for a year. Pitching was something he’d done a bit back in school days, but not since. Yet the day came when manager Buck Ramsey needed a pitcher and Climax volunteered. He made the rotation, playing in the outfield on the days he wasn’t pitching. And because his breaking ball away to left-handed batters was often effective, when he was in the outfield and a left-hander came up, he and the pitcher would switch positions. After he retired the batter, he and the pitcher-turned-outfielder would switch back to their previous positions.

The year 1920 was the first of four seasons with the Hustlers that led to an association with Frederick that lasted to the end of Blethen’s life. He always hit fairly well, and averaged over .300 from 1920 through 1923 with Frederick. Twice he could boast of 5-for-5 games. His pitching saw him 9-7, 9-3, 13-7, and 8-9 those four years, giving up just 1.16 hits plus walks per inning. His standout day on the mound was winning both games of a doubleheader from Hanover, 3-1 and 3-0.[2]

It was Blethen’s 1922 season that first caught the eye of the Boston Red Sox, but it was only after his disappointing 1923 campaign that he was given his first look at major-league action. On the recommendation of scout Eddie Holly, President Robert Quinn of the Red Sox purchased Blethen from the Frederick club on August 8.[3]

Blethen joined the Red Sox and had his debut about five weeks later. On September 17, 1923, in the first game of a Fenway Park doubleheader against the ChicagoWhite Sox, Boston was losing 6-1 after eight innings. Manager Frank Chance sent Shano Collins in to pinch-hit for the second pitcher of the day; Blethen took over pitching duties in the ninth, facing four batters, and walking the first one, who he mistakenly recalled nearly 20 years later as Bibb Falk. “Bibb looked twice as big as anything I’d ever seen in my life before, so I walked him on four pitched balls,” Blethen said in the Saturday Evening Post article. “He immediately tried to rattle me by stealing, but Val Picinich, my catcher, threw him out. I took a fresh chew and got the next three [sic] men to pop out.”[4] On the basis of his description, Blethen’s memory was a little fuzzy, to say the least.

The very next day, the score was again White Sox 6, Red Sox 1 when Blethen was called in. He pitched the final three innings of the game and faced the minimum nine batters, though he was touched for his first hit.

Blethen wasn’t feeling as good about himself after his third outing. This time, on September 21 against the Detroit Tigers, he was called upon in the third inning. Starter Curt Fullerton had already been charged with seven runs and Red Sox manager Frank Chance had seen enough. But Blethen wasn’t much better. He gave up eight runs, though only five of them were earned. In 6 2/3 innings, he walked two and gave up 12 hits, mixing in a wild pitch and a balk. The Tigers won the game, 15-6. On September 25 he pitched four innings and gave up three runs to the St. Louis Browns. The last of his five games for the Red Sox, all of which were in front of the Fenway Park fans, was against the Yankees. This was the game when Chance displayed a bit of sadism, leaving in starter Howard Ehmke to suffer through an 11-run sixth inning before departing the game in a 17-3 hole. Ehmke had thrown a no-hitter just three weeks earlier. Climax threw the last three innings of the game, and allowed eight more runs – seven earned. It was a 24-4 Yankees win. New York’s 30 hits in one game set an American League record.

Blethen had pitched in only five games, but he had faced Ty Cobb, Harry Heilmann, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth. Climax asked Chance how to pitch to Ruth. “Shut your eyes and lay the ball in there,” he was told.[5] Luck won out. Ruth popped up, the only out of a 5-for-6 game.  He finished 1923 with a 7.13 earned run average in 17 2/3 innings. Climax trained with the Red Sox in the spring of 1924 at their San Antonio spring-training base. The Red Sox had a new manager and Blethen was one of four Red Sox placed on option in mid-March with the San Antonio Bears, but expected to have another tryout with the Sox in the spring of 1925.[6] Blethen began play in the Class A Texas League. Blethen threw the spitball, which had been banned by the major leagues, but it was still allowed in the Texas League. Blethen pitched for three teams, the Greenville Spinners of the Sally League and the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association being the other two. He had a combined 10-10 record.

There was a rupture in the family at some point in here. Clarence married again on September 16, 1924, the first anniversary of the eve of his debut, to Garnet Rae Bennett. They spent the rest of their lives together in Frederick until his death on April 11, 1973, did them part. Around the time of Shane’s article in the Saturday Evening Post, the couple was living at his in-laws’ tourist home. After the breakup with his first wife, she was remarried, to machinist James P. McKenney, and the three Blethen boys were taken into the McKenney home in Dexter, Maine.

In 1925, the Sox still had a string on Blethen, the Mobile Bears being a farm club of the Boston team. Again, he split the season, 1-3 with Mobile but then a 16-5 season for the Macon Peaches in the Sally League (but with an undistinguished 4.45 ERA).

In 1926 Blethen entered a stretch in which he won a lot of games, 19-13 in 1926 and 25-11 in 1927 with Macon. Even in ’27, his ERA was a far-from-spectacular 4.56. There followed six seasons with the Atlanta Crackers, which included two more 20-win years, 1929 and 1931. His best season overall was 1929, when he was 22-11 with his career-best 3.11 ERA and 313 innings of work, the most of any year of his long career. It was at the end of that year that Climax had another shot at the majors, playing for Wilbert Robinson of the Brooklyn Robins – though more than anything else Robinson assigned him as a personal batting practice pitcher for Babe Herman, who had held out and come to spring training late. When Blethen was brought up to the big leagues at the end of the season, he didn’t have a long stay, just over 24 hours of play. On September 25 he came into the second game of a doubleheader in Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, facing two batters in the bottom of the seventh inning. He walked one, then secured the last out of the inning. The next day was his last day in the majors. He closed out a game the Phillies won, 12-3, pitching the last inning and two-thirds and allowing the last two of the Phillies’ 12 runs.

Blethen signed and trained with Brooklyn in the spring of 1930, but it was with Atlanta that he spent the year. His major-league days were behind him. His statistical line for his two stints in the big leagues was 0-0, with a 7.32 earned-run average. He walked 10 and struck out two in 19 2/3 innings. He posted zeroes as a batter -- .000 in six at-bats. In the field, though, he was perfect, handling four chances without an error.

During 1933 Blethen was turned loose by the Crackers to the Knoxville Smokies and pitched for Knoxville through 1935. In the latter year Knoxville was a farm team in the Red Sox system, so Blethen was back in the Boston organization.

Climax was quite a hunter, said to be in a class by himself, until pitcher Ed Heusser showed up with the Smokies and said he’d shot 30 rabbits in one day in Utah.[7] It was on June 6, 1933, soon after he joined Knoxville, that Chattanooga came to Knoxville for a series and Blethen blundered into an anecdote that has gone down as one of the more bizarre self-inflicted injuries in the game – he was bitten on his bottom by his own teeth. “Climax carries his false molars in a hip pocket while playing and was compelled to slide into a base that day. When he slid, the teeth, in some way, became connected and did nothing else than take a bite out of Blethen in a tender spot. The bite bothered Climax for the rest of the game,” The Sporting News recounted.[8] There were stories that this had occurred in 1923 while with the Red Sox, but contemporary coverage of the games in Boston don’t support the story, while the 1933 one was reported immediately afterward. There are also different suggestions as to why Blethen had false teeth at such a relatively young age. Some said that he had his teeth removed so he would look more menacing. On the other hand, an Associated Press story in 1938 blamed the loss of his original teeth on his constant tobacco chewing.[9] Shane’s article in the Saturday Evening Post said he had them removed so he could save his pitching arm.

Wilkes-Barre was Blethen’s home for 1936, with the Barons in the New York-Penn League. In 1937 he both managed and pitched in North Carolina – his only year as manager – for the Leaksville-Draper-Spray Triplets in the Class D Bi-State League. Later in 1937, and in 1938, Blethen pitched for the Savannah Indians, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate, and for the very first time, in his very last season pitching in Organized Baseball, enjoyed being on a first-place team, as Savannah finished first in the South Atlantic League (but lost in the playoff finals). His minor-league totals were 257 wins against 193 losses, and an overall 3.42 ERA. At the plate, he was .265 in the minors. His “lifetime average” in the salary department, he told Shane, was $300.

By 1939 Blethen, at the age of 45, was back playing semipro ball on Sundays in Frederick, pitching (5-2) and playing outfield. He hit .364 in the games he was back at third base. In 1940 the M.J. Grove Lime Company offered him a job as a department foreman as long as he agreed to manage and play for the team. He was 3-2 for Grove Lime; both losses were five-hitters. He hit .376. He was 47 years old – though in his earlier years, by the time he’d reached 30 he started neglecting to add a year to his stated age to the point that he was eventually five years older than the age he gave out. Through his 30s, he also played a fair amount of semipro basketball, at $75 a week. He had given up chewing tobacco years earlier – except during games, when he found he needed that little bit of an edge.

Blethen never served in the armed forces but he took a position at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, Maryland, after leaving baseball. In his latter years he worked as an orderly in the Montevue Home for the Aged.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Blethen served as the executive vice president of the National Little League in Frederick for at least 15 years, until a day in 1965 when – at age 72 – he hurt his arm “showing the youngsters how to slide.”[10]

He died of cancer and complications thereof in Frederick on April 11, 1973.

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed the online SABR Encyclopedia, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.



[1] “Minor League Mathewson,” Saturday Evening Post, July 19, 1941. It was Shane who used the “eternal busher” phrase.

[2] Hartford Courant, February 14, 1924.

[3] Boston Globe, August 9, 1923.

[4] Saturday Evening Post, op. cit.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Boston Globe, March 13, 1924.

[7] The Sporting News, March 29, 1934.

[8] The Sporting News, July 13, 1933.

[9] Hartford Courant, March 14, 1938.

[10] The Sporting News, May 19, 1973.

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