Grave Story: Clydell “Slick” Castleman

Here lies Clydell “Slick” Castleman, who had a couple of successful seasons as a starting pitcher in the 1930s before injuries – and a vindictive manager – ended his career at the age of 25. In his retirement, he took on the noble goal of trying to teach Tennesseans to be better drivers. Castleman pitched for the New York Giants from 1934-39.

Clydell Castleman was born on September 8, 1913, in Donelson, Tenn. He was a cousin of the father of Foster Castleman, another ballplayer who spent some time with the Giants in his career. He attended Donelson High School and was a part of the Future Farmers of Tennessee and the “D Club” – drama or debate, I can’t tell. Castleman was also a pretty talented pitcher and started playing for amateur teams at the age of 16. He made his debut in Nashville in 1930 pitching for the Eat-A-Snax team, and then he played for a Dr. Pepper amateur team in Nashville in ’31. He was called “Slick” by his friends back in Donelson, allegedly because he transformed himself from a slightly unkempt country boy to a more stylish professional baseball player.

The Nashville Vols of the Southern Association signed the “Donelson farm boy,” as the Nashville papers repeatedly called him, in 1932. He was given a 30-day tryout with the team, but he ended up sticking with the Vols for the whole season and appeared in 25 games, mostly as a reliever. He was just 18 years old and playing against competition 10 years his senior in many cases. He won his only game of the year on June 20 against the New Orleans Pelicans. He wasn’t great that day, but the Vols knocked Pels starter Sal Gliatto out of the game and went on to win 9-5. He ended the year 1-4 with a 3.69 ERA in 25 games.

Castleman’s relative youth caught up with him in 1933. Though his 1-3 record and 3.45 ERA doesn’t look bad, he was used mostly as a mop-up reliever. He was farmed out to the Class-B Durham Bulls of the Piedmont League, and he won 9 games for them.

Castleman’s success with the Bulls was noticed by others, and he was invited to training camp in 1934 with the New York Giants. Manager Bill Terry liked fastball pitchers, and Castleman could “pop” the catcher’s glove as well as any pitcher in camp. The Donelson farm boy started the season in Montreal before he was brought to the majors in May. Castleman made his debut on May 9 against St. Louis and threw 2 scoreless innings. Though he was seldom used, he threw 8-2/3 scoreless innings in his first 4 appearances and picked up his first major-league win on June 13 with 2 shutout innings against the Reds. Then Terry decided for whatever reason to feed Castleman to the wolves on June 22.

Source: New York Daily News, January 30, 1938.

The Cubs jumped on starter Watty Clark early that day and scored 4 runs in 3 innings. Terry them brought Castleman into the game and left him on the mound for the final 5 innings. The rookie didn’t have it that day and gave up a grand slam to Chuck Klein in his first inning of work. He made it through two more innings without allowing a run, but then the Cubs mugged him for 6 runs in the bottom of the seventh inning. And Terry still had him finish the game, allowing 11 runs (10 earned) on 11 hits and 5 walks.

It should be pointed out at this time that Castleman was not known for his tremendous self-confidence. He does come across as being a pretty humble farm boy, and in fact it was said that part of his struggles in Nashville came from people in the stands razzing him because they felt he had forgotten where he came from. It wrecked his confidence. So if you’re the manager of a major-league team and you leave a 20-year-old pitcher with confidence problems to get rocked for 11 runs, you’re not doing him a favor. Even though Castleman was unscored upon in 6 of his 7 appearances with the Giants in 1934, his beating at the hands of the Cubs left him with a 5.40 ERA on the year.

Terry and the Giants went into the 1935 season with a set starting rotation – and Castleman wasn’t a part of it. He was considered a bullpen arm until Freddie Fitzsimmons went down with an injury and needed elbow surgery. Terry was forced to put Castleman into the rotation, and he proceeded to win his first five starts. After a couple losses, he went on a 6-game winning streak. Unlike other pitchers of his era, Castleman wasn’t an iron man who completed every game he started. Of his 25 starts, he had 9 complete games and 1 shutout – a 4-hitter against Brooklyn after missing nearly a month of the season with a hand injury. But Castleman became a 15-game winner and helped keep the Giants in the pennant race, though they ultimately finished in third place. Castleman was voted as the rookie pitcher of the year, thanks to his 15-9 record and 4.09 ERA. He walked and struck out 64 batters apiece.

“The swift change from milking-machine supervisor to pennant-winning pitcher in the majors is one of those storybook sagas that adds luster to baseball as the game of the people,” wrote the Brooklyn Times Union. They were a little early about the pennant-winning part.

Castleman lost 6 of his first 7 decisions in 1936. Terry, determined to make the pitcher live up to his full potential, employed psychological tactics to force him to step up. Well, some would call it psychological; others would call it cruel and unusual punishment. On June 9, 1936, Castleman faced the Cincinnati Reds and fell apart pretty quickly. He sailed through the first two innings and then ran into trouble in the third, allowing 4 runs on 2 hits and 2 walks. Then he gave up 2 more runs in the next inning on a walk, a wild pitch and two more hits. Still, Terry refused to take him out of the game. The Reds pounded him for 15 runs on 18 hits, including a 3-run homer by Kiki Cuyler. Castleman’s record fell to 1-6, and his ERA blew up to 8.67.

Source: San Bernardino County Sun, February 14, 1939.

Shockingly, forcing a pitcher to slog through a complete game beatdown didn’t have the rebound effect that Terry intended. Castleman finished the year with a 4-7 record and 5.64 ERA, and he had 12 starts and 17 relief appearances. Terry was (rightfully) ripped by the New York media for his treatment of Castleman, and he was less sadistic with the pitcher’s usage for the rest of the season.

Terry didn’t ask, and Castleman didn’t volunteer the information, but he pitched in pain most of the season. Back in spring training, he stepped in a hole while chasing balls in the outfield and hurt his back. The injury would dog him for the rest of his playing career. “The pain almost drove me mad in the mornings and when I was delivering the ball, but few people knew it,” he later said.

The Giants won 92 games and claimed the NL pennant. They faced the New York Yankees in the World Series and lost in 6 games. Castleman didn’t see any action until the final game, after starter Fitzsimmons was roughed up for 5 runs in 3-2/3 innings. Castleman showed little fear in facing the mighty Yankees. He entered the game with 2 runners on base and retired Joe DiMaggio on a fly ball to get out of the inning. He then worked 4 more excellent innings, allowing just 1 run on an RBI single by Tony Lazzeri. He struck out the side in the sixth inning, getting Jake Powell, Lazzeri and Lefty Gomez. He was removed for a pinch-hitter with the Yankees ahead 6-5, but the Bombers hammers the rest of the Giants’ bullpen for 7 runs, ending the Series with a 13-5 laugher. Still, Castleman’s excellent performance gave hope that the youngster was coming into his own as a pitcher.

Terry, though, wasn’t done trying to “fix” his pitcher and questioned his work ethic in the 1937 spring training camp.

“I thought [Hank] Leiber was the laziest man on my team,” Terry declared, “but now that Hank is really hustling, I realize I never saw a fellow as lazy as Castleman – or a young pitcher with more stuff, either.” He vowed to send Castleman to the minors in New Jersey to make him earn his way back to the majors, though Castleman made the team anyway.

Without an aching back, Castleman had his finest season in ‘37, with an 11-6 record and a 3.31 ERA. He walked 33 batters in 160-1/3 innings for a strong 1.9 walks per 9 innings. He also struck out a career-best 78 batters. His back flared up again after a September 1 loss that saw him surrender 3 home runs to the Cardinals, and he ended up needing surgery for a split intervertebral disc. He missed the rest of the season as well as the postseason, where the Giants once again went down to defeat against the Yankees in the World Series.

Castleman was late in reporting to spring training in 1938, partly due to his recovering back and partly due to his mother’s health. She had suffered a nervous breakdown, and he stayed at the farm in Tennessee. Terry, naturally, didn’t believe a word of it and said Castleman’s back pain was imaginary. He threatened to fine his pitcher $25 for every day he didn’t show. “I don’t want to rush into this,” Castleman said. “I only have one back and I know it isn’t healed sufficiently for me to take part in any kind of work on the baseball field.”

Castleman eventually reported and made a few relief appearances before starting his first game of the year on May 24. He wasn’t great, but he was good enough to beat the St. Louis Cardinals 9-4. Castleman played infrequently, and he just wasn’t the same pitcher. He was never a fastball pitcher, but he had curveballs that missed plenty of bats. For 1938 though, he struck out 18 batters in 90-2/3 innings and walked 37. When his pitches were over the plate, batters were hitting them solidly. He turned in a 4-5 record and a 4.17 ERA in what was his last full season in the majors.

The feud between Castleman and Terry came to a head in 1939. The pitcher shook off a couple of rough relief outings and was in the process of turning in a decent season when he was knocked around by the Boston Bees in a July 4 doubleheader. He was the third pitcher brought into the eighth inning of the second game, and he retired one of the seven batters he faced. By the time pitcher #4 got out of the inning, the Bees had stung for 8 runs, turning a 2-2 tie into a 10-2 laugher. Terry sent Castleman to Jersey City, but the pitcher refused to report. Instead, he packed up his bags and went home to Tennessee. The only baseball he saw the rest of the season came when he and his new wife Rebecca went to a Nashville Vols game.

Lieutenant Castleman, during his time with the Tennessee Department of Safety. Source: Nashville Banner, March 14, 1945.

“I’m not going to talk about baseball either now or later,” he told the press. “I’ll be glad to talk about fishing or hunting or working anytime, but I have nothing to say about baseball.”

The Giants retaliated by putting him on the suspended list. Commissioner Kenesaw Landis reinstated Castleman at the end of the year, but the pitcher was through as a major-leaguer.

Castleman signed a contract for the 1940 season, but when his back started bothering him, he made another trip to the doctor’s office – this time accompanied by Terry. There, he was told that another surgery might help him, but it would be a gamble. The Giants placed Castleman on the voluntarily retired list. A visit to a Tennessee chiropractor gave the pitcher some relief, and he tried a comeback at Jersey City later that season. The results were decent – 9 wins – and he returned to the Giants for spring training in 1941. After some rough outings, he was demoted to Memphis but given permission to seek a new deal with another team. He was rumored to be close to joining the Cubs, but no contract was ever offered. Castleman never reported to Memphis and was declared ineligible again. He was reinstated in 1942 and released, ending his career.

“Don’t write that baseball has played an unkind trick on me,” he told The Tennessean at the time of his initial retirement. “I started playing baseball for a living when I finished high school in 1932. I’m no wealthy man, but I doubt very, very seriously if I could have earned as much money in any other profession.”

In 6 seasons, Castleman had a 36-26 record and a 4.25 ERA. He struck out 225 hitters in 586-2/3 innings and walked 223. Of his 121 games, he made 78 starts and completed 25 of them, with 4 shutouts and 1 save. Though not much of a hitter, Castleman had a .135 average with 2 home runs.

After he had ruled out any further comeback attempts, Castleman became Lieutenant Castleman, in charge of safety education at Tennessee’s Department of Safety. His primary responsibility was teaching the 16-year-old new drivers about automobile safety. He transferred to Director of Safety and Traffic for the Nashville Automobile Club and Tennessee Motor Association in 1947. He taught automotive safety classes and helped establish driver’s ed classes in Tennessee schools. Driving around Nashville today is a scary thought, with the advent of peddle bars and driving while texting, but it wasn’t easy in Castleman’s day, either.

“I’ve been at the bedside of numerous people injured in motor accidents, I’ve walked around in blood over my shoetops. And almost invariably someone says, ‘I didn’t think’ or ‘I didn’t know,’” Castleman said. “A lot of people drive like they own the highway. Nowhere in the Constitution does it mention a ‘right’ to drive. It’s a privilege.”

Castleman still made occasional forays back into baseball, teaching clinics and doing some work with the Nashville Vols. He was part of a team of Grand Ole Opry stars in 1955 that faced off against a team of Vols alumni, including Jay Partridge, Harley Boss, Red Lucas, Johnny Gill and Mickey Kreitner. Castleman’s teammates included country stars Roy Acuff, Marty Robbins, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas.

Castleman did his part in keeping Tennessee drivers safe until 1970, and then he worked as a director of sales for the King of the Road Motor Inn and, starting in 1975, a state travel representative for the Tennessee Tourism Department. In his retirement, Castleman was a source of baseball wisdom when any Tennessean columnist needed a historical perspective on the game. Though his time in the majors was relatively brief, he came into contact with many of the game’s legends and had a great memory.

Clydell Castleman died at his Nashville home on March 2, 1998, at the age of 84. He is buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Nashville. If you wish to honor his memory, drive at a reasonable speed and leave your phone alone when you get behind the wheel!

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