Obituary: Tex Clevenger (1932-2019)

R.I.P. to Truman “Tex” Clevenger, who had an eight-year career in the major leagues as a relief pitcher. He died on August 24 from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 87. Clevenger played for the Boston Red Sox (1954), Washington Senators (1956-60), Los Angeles Angels (1961) and New York Yankees (1961-62).

Truman Clevenger was born in Visalia, Calif., on July 9, 1932. He played baseball throughout his time at Visalia Union High School and became a star at Fresno State University, while working on an agriculture major. In both schools, he frequently formed a battery with his younger brother Bill, who was a catcher. In their spare time, they worked on the family citrus ranch in the San Joaquin Valley.

Washington Senators Cookie Lavagetto, left, congratulates Tex Clevenger for breaking the team’s 18-game losing streak with a shutout over the Cleveland Indians. Source: Press and Sun Bulletin, August 6, 1959.

Clevenger’s performance with the Fresno State Bulldogs from 1951-1953 got him inducted into the Fresno State Baseball Hall of Fame and the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame, reports the Fresno Bee. His 1.94 ERA is second-best in the school’s history, second only to Dick Ruthven’s 1.52, and his 158 strikeouts from 1953 are 7th-best in a Bulldogs season. He threw the first two no-hitters in school history — both against the College of the Pacific — on April 22, 1952 and March 21, 1953.

Clevenger signed with the Red Sox in 1953, fighting off stiff competition from the Cubs, Tigers and other teams who were interested in the pitcher. The transition from collegiate to pro ball went pretty well; in 1953 he won both the California Collegiate Athletic Association MVP Award with the Bulldogs and the Rookie of the Year Award with the San Jose Red Sox of the California League. He had a 16-2 record and a 1.51 ERA in San Jose, allowing just 96 hits in 155 innings pitched while striking out 157 batters.

That kind of pitching performance caught the eye of Red Sox brass. He immediately started drawing comparisons to former Boston great Tex Hughson, which helps to explain how the Californian ended up with “Tex” as a nickname instead of “Clem,” which was what he went by in college. Manager Lou Boudreau believed at the start of the 1954 Spring Training that the youngster could make the leap to the majors.

“Fundamentally, he is a major leaguer,” Boudreau told The Sporting News. “The only question is experience and I hope we can give it to him this spring.”

The Red Sox evidently felt that Clevenger was up to the task, as he broke camp as a part of the pitching staff. He was brought along slowly, appearing in just 2 games in April, throwing a couple of scoreless innings in relief. His first MLB start came on May 7 against the Senators, and he picked up the win after throwing 5-1/3 innings and allowing 4 runs. He was sensational in his next game, throwing a complete game on 5 hits and 3 strikeouts. Unfortunately, he gave up 2 unearned runs and lost 2-1. His next few starts didn’t go as well, and Clevenger spent most of the season working out of the bullpen. It was an understandable development, as he was still learning to pitch in the major leagues.

Tex Clevenger, as a rookie pitcher with the San Jose Red Sox. Source: Visalia Times, September 1, 1953.

“They don’t let you fool them very much in this league,” he told The Boston Globe. “You can’t make mistakes on these boys and get away with it. I was hanging curve balls the other night. That’s a mistake. One bad pitch like that in this league and you’re finished. In Class C ball you could get away with stuff like that.”

The Red Sox, apparently deciding that he needed more development after all, sent Clevenger to the AAA Louisville Colonels for 1955. That November, he was traded, along with Dick Brodowski, Neil Chrisley, Karl Olsen and a minor-leaguer to the Senators in a deal that brought them Mickey Vernon. It was the first deal made by Senators president Calvin Griffith after the death of his father, Clark, and kicked off a youth movement for the team. It didn’t exactly work, as the team finished in 7th place with a 59-95 record. Clevenger pitched in just 20 games, with a 5.40 ERA, before he was sent back to Louisville (which was by then a Washington affiliate), where his struggles continued.

Clevenger started delivering for Washington starting in 1957. For the next four seasons, he averaged 52 games a year, mostly in relief but with a fair number of spot starts as well. He led the AL in appearances in 1958 with 55 games. In those four seasons, he won 29 games, lost 31 and recorded 29 saves, with an ERA of 4.17. Senators manager Cookie Lavagetto called him the most useful pitcher the team had in 1957, praising his selflessness. When starter Camilo Pascual had a bad arm, Clevenger volunteered to both start and mop up. “He wanted to pitch against everybody, never picked his spots,” the manager added.

On August 5, 1959, Clevenger did something that no other Senators pitcher had been able to do in a long time: win a ballgame. The team was suffering through an 18-game losing streak when Clevenger took the mound in a spot start. He proceeded to throw his first MLB shutout against the Cleveland Indians, scattering 7 hits for a 9-0 win. Just about the only bad pitch that he threw was a fastball that broke Billy Martin’s jaw and cheekbone.

The Senators, who moved to Minnesota to become the Twins, left Clevenger unprotected in the 1961 expansion draft that welcomed the Los Angeles Angels and new Washington Senators. He was taken by the Angels and pitched in 12 games for them, putting up a 2-1 record and spectacular 1.69 ERA. He was traded to the Yankees on May 8, 1961, along with outfielder Bob Cerv in exchange for Ryne Duren and a couple of other players.

Clevenger, incidentally, is the third member of the original 1961 Los Angeles Angels to die in 2019, following Eli Grba and Jerry Casale.

“We wanted Clevenger to be a finisher on our relief staff,” said Yankees manager Ralph Houk. “Luis Arroyo has been doing all of the late-inning work and we needed someone to help him.”

It didn’t work out quite that way, as Clevenger recorded no saves in 21 appearances for the Yanks, with a 1-1 record and 4.83 ERA. He admitted that he may have been pressing too hard, as he had never pitched for a team in a pennant race. After his struggles continued in 1962, he was briefly sent to the minor leagues. He righted the ship upon his return to the Yankees and ended the season with a 2-0 record and 2.84 ERA in 21 games. That was his final year in the majors.

“Tex has better stuff than half the guys I face in this league,” said teammate Mickey Mantle. “I know I hated to hit against him, even in batting practice.”

In his eight seasons in the majors, Clevenger appeared in 307 games, with 40 starts. He had a 36-37 record and a 4.18 ERA, with 6 complete games, 2 shutouts and 30 saves. He struck out 361 batters and had a lifetime ERA+ of 94. While he never pitched in the postseasons, he won World Championships with his two Yankee teams in 1961 and 1962.

Clevenger spent 1963 pitching for the Richmond Virginians in the Yankees farm system. He was released by the team in the spring of 1964. After he retired, he bought a Ford dealership in Porterville, Calif. He owned the business until about 10 years ago, selling it after receiving his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

For further information: https://www.fresnobee.com/sports/article234361447.html

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