Grave Story: Buzz Arlett (1899-1964)

Here lies Buzz Arlett, one of the greatest minor-leaguers of all-time. He set the minor-league home run record that stood for more than 50 years after his death. For all that ability, Arlett had just one season in the majors. He played for the 1931 Philadelphia Phillies.

Russell “Buzz” Arlett was born on January 3, 1899, in Elmhurst, Calif. There were a lot of Arletts playing baseball in the 1910s in California. Older brothers Al, Harry and Dick all were ballplayers; Al, known as “Pop” Arlett, played in various minor leagues from 1911-1920, ending his career with the Oakland Oaks as Buzz was starting his. Buzz Arlett pitched for various amateur teams around Oakland in the early teens; the earliest reference I could find was a box score from September 9, 1915. Buzz was the pitcher and Harry was the third baseman for Schwartz Clothiers as they whipped a team called the Carmellous 15-2. Buzz struck out 12 and hit a triple; he was 16 at the time.

Arlett continued playing in the Oakland area, getting a reputation for his hitting and pitching abilities. Part of his pitching repertoire was a spitball. An account of a game from 1917 states that he loaded the bases in the 9th inning with three singles, “but the big fellow chewed up a little more slippery elm and retired the side.” Chewing the bark of a slippery elm tree was known to create the right amount of saliva for a good spitter.

Source: Tampa Tribune, June 14, 1931.

Arlett started his 1918 season with the Oakland Oaks as Pop Arlett’s youngest brother. By the end of the season, Pop was known as Buzz Arlett’s older brother. In his first pro season, the youngest Arlett won 4 games and lost 9 with a 2.70 ERA. He shut out the San Francisco Seals on July 3, hitting a 2-run home run to provide the Oaks’ only runs. That was his only homer of the season, but it was the start of something great.

For the next four seasons, Arlett would start between 47 and 57 games for Oakland, averaging about 24 wins a season. He walked over 100 batters a season, so his control wasn’t great, but he struck out a fair number of batters and hit well enough at the plate to be dangerous. By then, the MLB teams were well aware of Arlett’s abilities and were hoping to acquire him. Arlett himself wanted to go to one of the New York or St. Louis teams, but nothing came of it. Del Howard, one of the owners, was looking for a combination of players or cash that put Arlett out of reach, so he continued to tear up the Pacific Coast League instead of the American or National League.

Injuries forced Arlett to convert from a pitcher to an outfielder in 1923. Reports varied from an unspecified arm injury to a finger injury sustained during a fishing trip, but Arlett was unable to throw his spitball effectively anymore. He made himself into a switch-hitter and took to the position change remarkably well. As his pitching in 1923 dwindled to a 4-9 record and 6.03 ERA in 28 games, he hit .330 and slugged .551 in 149 games, with 31 doubles and 19 home runs. From then on out, Arlett pitched no more than a handful of games for the Oaks per season as he became a full-time outfielder. If the major leagues lost out on a pitching phenom, they kept their eye out for this new Ruth-like hitter.

From 1924 through 1930, Arlett averaged 186 games a season, with a high of 200 games in 1929. The Pacific Coast League played extended seasons back then, due to the weather. Arlett never hit fewer than 25 home runs a season in that span, never drove in fewer than 110 runs and never hit under .328. He batted .382 for the Oaks in 1926 with 35 homers, 52 doubles and 26 stolen bases. In 1929, he had a .374 batting average to go with an amazing 70 doubles and 189 RBIs.

While he was unable to break into the majors, Arlett was at least well compensated for his efforts. That compensation was another reason he stayed so long in Oakland. The team’s owners knew what a boon he was to their attendance, and any major-league team that was interested would have had to have paid a fortune to acquire him.

“He could have been up in the majors 10 years earlier,” remarked Casey Stengel, “but the Howard brothers at Oakland paid him $6,500 to play for them, while I was making $3,000 playing in the big leagues at the same time.”

After 12 years with the Oaks, Arlett showed some impatience with his situation in 1930, as he held out for a larger contract in the Spring. Later that summer, he got into a physical altercation with umpire Chet Chadbourne and was hospitalized when the ump hit him in the face with his mask, splitting open Arlett’s face. The injury may have killed a deal that would have sent him to Brooklyn, and he filed a $10,000 suit against the PCL. Arlett still played well, with a .361 average and 31 homers, but he seemed disgruntled. The Oaks finally made it known that their most prized players, including Arlett and rookie catcher Ernie Lombardi, could be acquired by an MLB team for a reasonable price.

Arlett was originally sent to the St. Louis Browns, but that deal was canceled in December 1930. Finally his contract was sold to the Phillies in early 1931. Unfortunately for Arlett, going from the minor-league Oaks to the major-league Phillies was somewhat of a downgrade. The Phils had some great hitters, including HOFer outfielder Chuck Klein, catcher Spud Davis and third baseman Pinky Whitney. The pitching was awful, though. Check out my article on Hal Elliott for more on the team’s pitching woes. The team went 66-88 with a team batting average of .279 and a team ERA of 4.58.

Buzz Arlett was given a new car when the Oakland Oaks honored their legendary slugger on Buzz Arlett Day in 1946. Source: Oakland Tribune, August 12, 1946.

Arlett was 32 when he made his MLB debut. He proved to be as good as advertised by hitting a home run in his second MLB game. By the end of May, he was leading the NL in all triple crown categories, with a .378 batting average, 37 RBIs and 10 homers. His fielding, which had long been considered his weakness, was also as advertised. He was a slow outfielder, and an experiment to put him at first base wasn’t successful either. A slump and a broken thumb dropped his average to .314 in mid-August, and the Phillies relegated him to the bench in a pinch-hitting role for most of the rest of the season. He was traded to the minor-league Baltimore Orioles that December, ending his major-league career after a single season.

Arlett slashed .313/.387/.538 (5th in the NL) for the Phillies, with 131 hits in 121 games. He had 26 doubles, 7 triples and 18 home runs (4th in the NL), as well as 72 RBIs and 65 runs scored. He showed great patience at the plate, with 45 walks and only 39 strikeouts. He had a .954 fielding percentage in right field, well below the league average. His fielding at first base was .974, also below league average.

“After a great start with the Phillies he blew up. His name disappeared from the Phillies’ lineup,” reported The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “It was reported that he was out with injuries of one kind or another. They was just to make the ballyhoo stand up for a few additional weeks. Buzz was too awkward for big league duty.”

Arlett smacked 54 homers for the Orioles in 1932 with a .339 average. Four of those home runs came in a game against Reading on June 1. Five more came in one day during a doubleheader on July 5, including four in Game 1. He later played for the Minneapolis Millers from 1934-36, where he teamed up with another minor-league slugger, Joe Hauser, to form one of the most dangerous twosomes in minor-league history. Arlett wrapped up his 19-year minor-league career with a handful of at-bats for Syracuse in 1937, when he was 38 years old.

Arlett smashed 432 home runs in the minor leagues, a MiLB record that stood until 2015, when Mike Hessman hit his 433rd and final long ball for the Toledo Mud Hens. Arlett had a .341 lifetime batting average and a .604 slugging percentage. He hit 2,726 hits, 598 doubles and 107 triples. He stole 200 bases and drove in 1,786 runs. He also won 108 games as a pitcher, with a 3.39 ERA.

Arlett settled into the restaurant business in Minneapolis after his playing days. He still kept up with baseball, leading the Buzz Arlett All-Stars to a 5-1 win over the Chicago Giants Negro Leagues team in 1938.

In 1946, he was pulled away from his businesses and returned to Oakland for a celebration in his honor. After 10 days of feasting and celebration, Arlett returned to Oaks Park for Buzz Arlett Day. He was given a car and a standing ovation by the 12,000 fans in attendance.

Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis.

“Gosh, it’s swell to know my Oakland friends haven’t forgotten me,” he told the Oakland Tribune. “Oakland and baseball did a lot for me, and if you folks think a Buzz Arlett Day will do anything to stimulate interest in the game here you can count on me.”

Back in the Twin Cities, Arlett was a regular at any Millers alumni gathering. He ran a popular bar and grill in the city when he died on May 16, 1964 of a heart attack. He was 65 years old. He was characterized as a man who sometimes lived hard but always lived life to the fullest.

When told of his death, Stengel remarked, “He was the best man I ever saw at hitting the ball for distance, lefty and righty.”

Oakland Tribune columnist Alan Ward noted that Arlett packed a lot of living into his 65 years. “A happy fellow, to whom baseball was life and life was intended for fun and frolic, Buzz was idolized by Oakland fans, and deeply admired by opposing ball players.”

Arlett’s performance in the Pacific Coast League with the Oaks earned him an induction into the PCL Hall of Fame in 2003. He was also a part of the League’s All-Centennial Team in 2003 as an outfielder for the 1903-1957 Era.

Arlett is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

“Sing no sad songs for Buzz Arlett. They’re for people who live life only briefly of desperately. Buzz’ life was long — elapsed time is not a true measurement — exciting and festive.”

Alan Ward, Oakland Tribune, May 20, 1964
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