Jim “Rawhide” Tabor was a five-tool player before that phrase became part of the
baseball vernacular. He was 6-feet-2 and played at 175 to 185 pounds. Often
described as raw-boned and rangy, he hit from the right side for average and
with power. He had great speed, was Mercury-quick, and had a terrific throwing
arm. Tabor’s arm was the standard by which all other infielders’ arms were
measured in the 1940s. When Red Sox first baseman Jimmie Foxx was accused of
having an illegally reinforced glove, he pointed at third baseman Tabor as his
defense. “He throws the ball like a cannon shot,” Double-X asserted.
Unfortunately, cannon shot turned to scattershot all too often. Tabor wasn’t
always quite sure where the ball was going when he let loose.
Tabor earned his moniker with his hustle, his win-at-any-cost attitude, and his
toughness. “He’d slide into second and knock you on your ass,” said teammate
Tony Lupien. Catchers blocked the plate at their peril. He once collided so
violently with Detroit’s Joe Hoover that the unfortunate Tiger infielder passed
a kidney stone on the spot. Rawhide was not above upbraiding his
teammates. Early in Tabor’s career, Lefty Grove came over to third to berate
Tabor for an error the young third sacker had made. Tabor did not back down to
the veteran Grove. “You’re hired to pitch,” he said. “I’m hired to play third
base. Get out there and pitch.” Ol’ Mose went back to the hill. Tabor had to be
pulled off Minneapolis Millers teammate Ted Williams after one game in which
Williams chose not to go after balls hit to left field. Rawhide also earned his
nickname off the field. Tabor was suspended several times in his career and in
trouble countless other times. The usual reason given for suspension was
“breaking training rules.” Tabor liked the ladies, liked to smoke cigars (he
usually had the stub of a cigar in his mouth off the field), and he liked to
drink. Red Sox outfielder Doc Cramer said, “Jim Tabor was a twister. He would
drink, get drunk and be half-drunk when he came to the park.” The Red
Sox even hired two private detectives to follow Tabor in an effort to get him to
stop drinking. It didn’t work. Jim Tabor had great talent and an undeniable will
to win, but the wax melted quickly for this baseball Icarus.
James Reubin Tabor was born on a farm a mile south of Owens Cross Roads,
Alabama, on November 5, 1916, the second son of John H. and Amy Olene Tabor.
John Tabor was a schoolteacher who once had a contract to play in the Southern
League but gave it up to get married. John imparted his baseball knowledge to
all of his sons. The Tabor troupe played together on an amateur team in Owens
Cross Roads, playing surrounding town teams with “Pop” Tabor as the
manager-catcher and a Tabor boy on first, second, and third base. The third
baseman, Jim, was “the mightiest hitter ever seen down Owens Cross Roads way.”
Jim was also a standout baseball and basketball player at New Hope High School
in New Hope, Alabama. He attracted the attention of University of Alabama
basketball coach Hank Crisp. Tabor received a full four-year scholarship to play
for the Crimson Tide, the first incoming freshman to receive such an award. In
the summer of 1935, after high school graduation, Jim played for the Ozark,
Alabama, nine in the Dixie Amateur League, and soon impressed major-league
scouts. Tabor entered the university in the fall of 1935 and starred on the
freshman basketball team, but when the baseball coach learned he was an
accomplished baseball player, he made sure Tabor went out for baseball as well.
After classes were over in 1936, Tabor played in the semipro Coastal Plain
League in North Carolina. His first assignment in that league did not last long.
Tabor and his manager did not get along and Tabor was dropped from the team. His
university came through with another assignment, Ayden, in the same league.
Tabor thrived there and impressed the major-league scouts again. The
Philadelphia Athletics were first to act, and scout Ira Thomas had Tabor all but
persuaded to join his team, having Connie Mack send a contract and a $3,500
bonus check to Tabor. In the meantime, either Alabama baseball coach Happy
Campbell or football coach Frank Thomas, or both, contacted people they knew in
the Red Sox organization. The Sox promptly dispatched Billy Evans, the head of
the Red Sox farm system, to Alabama with a blank check. Evans signed Tabor with
a $4,000 bonus and was savvy enough to get dad’s signature too (something the
Athletics failed to do). Later the Athletics protested the signing but
Commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis ruled in favor of the Red Sox. The Red Sox deal
called for Jim to become a professional after he graduated from college, but
young Tabor couldn’t wait. He had difficulty focusing on his studies and by the
spring of 1937 he was on the phone with Billy Evans. Evans tried to persuade
Tabor to stay in school, but Jim would not be dissuaded. He prevailed and the
Red Sox assigned him to the Little Rock Travelers in the Southern Association.
The 1937 edition of the Little Rock club, managed by former Red Sox third
baseman Doc Prothro, was destined to finish in first place (97-55) and win the
league championship in the postseason playoffs. Tabor was a key ingredient in
the team’s success. Prothro thought the Southern Association too big a jump for
a kid with only a year of freshman ball under his belt, but Evans was sold on
Tabor, and Tabor’s enthusiasm swung Prothro around enough to get Tabor a look. Prothro
needn’t have worried. Tabor showed he belonged from the beginning. Possibly all
the questions were answered early when the Cleveland Indians came to Little Rock
for an exhibition game that spring. On the mound for the Tribe was 18-year-old
star-in-the-making Bob Feller. The first time Tabor faced Feller he struck out.
The next time, Tabor came up with the bases full. He timed one of Feller’s
storied fastballs and laced it for a home run to center field. Jim enjoyed
national publicity for his grand slam off the future Hall-of-Famer.
Tabor stayed with Little Rock all season and was hitting above .300 for most of
the year before finishing at .295. He impressed with his 94 RBIs, 93 runs, 25
doubles, 10 triples, 4 home runs, and 12 stolen bases. The once reluctant Doc
Prothro was now a true believer. He predicted major-league stardom for Tabor.
For his efforts, Tabor was invited to Red Sox spring training in 1938. Tabor
arrived late to camp and did not have much of an opportunity to show his skills.
Once he arrived and started to play a little, he pushed Red Sox third baseman
Pinky Higgins into raising his game. Though Tabor had a good spring, it was
clear he needed more experience. Tabor made the team’s decision easier by
breaking training rules. On April 1 he was optioned to Minneapolis of the top
tier American Association.
Tabor had an excellent year for the sixth-place Millers. He started off quickly,
hitting .452 in early series against Indianapolis, Louisville, Columbus, and
Toledo. He was the early league leader in triples by “combining a ground-eating
stride with a penchant for belting liners to left and right center.” He drove in
six runs in a game in the early going and by June 9, he had already hit two
When Pinky Higgins injured his knee in late July, Tabor, who was hitting .330
with 13 home runs and 72 RBIs in 103 games with the Millers, was called up to
Boston. Tabor made his major-league debut in Cleveland on August 2, going
2-for-4 with two doubles, both off Denny Galehouse. By August 8, the Red Sox
coaching staff was predicting Tabor would be better than the Indians’
sensational third baseman, Ken Keltner. Joe Cronin, who claimed he
was not that impressed with Tabor in spring training, said he couldn’t believe
how much the rookie had improved. Cronin favorably compared Tabor’s defense at
third base to that of his old Pittsburgh teammate Pie Traynor. Expectations were
high, but Tabor did not disappoint. On August 9, the Red Sox were at Shibe Park
in Philadelphia for a three-game series. Athletics starter Nels Potter was
perfect through six innings and had a 3-0 lead, but the Red Sox exploded for
seven runs in the seventh. The big blow was a grand slam by Tabor, his first
major-league home run. Higgins soon recovered from his injury and Tabor was to
be sent back to Minneapolis, but American Association rules prohibited the move.
Consequently, Tabor remained with the Red Sox through the end of the season. He
was relegated to pinch-hitting and the occasional start. His teammates voted him
a half-share of the 1938 second-place money. Overall, Tabor got into 19 games
for the Red Sox in 1938 and hit .316 with one home run and eight RBIs. He showed
well enough to cause a “problem” for Joe Cronin.
The problem was a “good” problem. The Red Sox had two good third basemen, Tabor
and Higgins. The incumbent, Higgins, 29, was coming off two successful years
with the Red Sox. He had been a consistent run producer since 1930, when he was
with the Athletics. Tabor was only 21 at the end of the 1938 season with just
two years of professional baseball on his résumé. It seemed risky to many Red
Sox fans and the media to trade Higgins, but that is exactly what the Red Sox
Citing the dire need for pitching, on December 15, 1938, the Red Sox traded
Higgins and pitcher Archie McKain to Detroit for pitchers Elden Auker and Jake
Wade and outfielder Chet Morgan.
Tabor was impressive in spring training. The confidence he gained from knowing
the third-base job was his must have been palpable. Time and again, his arm was
described as the strongest in baseball, often with the “erratic” qualifier. He
was enthusiastic about baseball regardless of the conditions. Many baseball
experts predicted Tabor would eventually take his place among the great third
basemen of the time. By the time the 1939 season started, there were few who
thought Tabor was a gamble.
The Red Sox opened the 1939 season on the road at Yankee Stadium. The game
matched future Hall of Famers Red Ruffing and Lefty Grove. Tabor, batting fifth,
went 1-for-4 with a double in his first game as the Red Sox regular third
baseman and played errorless ball as the Yankees won, 2-0. Tabor went 4-for-5 on
April 24 against Washington. On the 25th, he singled to knock in Jimmie Foxx in
the ninth to tie the game, and Foxx homered in the 11th to win it. On
May 16, Tabor went 3-for-5 with five RBIs, and three days later he had a 4-for-4
day. On May 21, he went 2-for-3 with two runs scored and an RBI. While certainly
not perfect, Tabor was more than holding his own in the early going.
By the end of June, however, Joe Cronin suspended Tabor for three days. Tabor
“foolishly broke training much after the fashion of a high school boy who wanted
to show off.” Tabor was back in the lineup against Philadelphia on June 29. On
July 1 against the Yankees, he went 2-for-3 with a run scored and two stolen
bases. He had a “mad plunge for a run in the third” and spiked Yankee catcher
Buddy Rosar, who was blocking the plate. Rosar had to leave the game and was
admitted to a hospital.
Tabor had the game of his life on July 4 in Shibe Park. The Red Sox swept the
A’s in the holiday twin bill by scores of 17-7 and 18-12. Tabor was just getting
warm in the opening game when he went 3-for-5 with a home run, a double, and two
RBIs. In the nightcap, Jim Tabor had a record-tying performance. He came up with
the bases loaded in the third facing A’s starter George Caster. Tabor, who had a
grand slam in Philadelphia the previous August, enjoyed Shibe Park one more time
with a long ball off Caster. In the sixth, the bases were full again for Tabor
and he hit an inside-the-park grand slam off Lynn Nelson. He touched Nelson
again for a solo shot in the eighth to top off his nine-RBI game. Tabor was only
the second major-league player to
hit two grand slams in a single game.
The four home runs in a doubleheader also tied a record. The next day, Tabor hit
another home run against A’s pitching for his fifth home run in three games.
Rookie Jim Tabor had a good year at the plate. He finished at .289 with 33
doubles, 8 triples, and 14 home runs in 149 games, while leading the Red Sox
with 16 stolen bases. His 95 RBIs nearly replaced the 106 produced by Pinky
Higgins the previous year. Tabor’s power/speed number was fifth in the league.
His fielding was more of a mixed bag. He had 40 errors, the most by any third
baseman in the major leagues that season, though tempered by his 338 assists,
also the most in either league. He was making more errors, mostly throwing, but
he was getting to more grounders than anyone else.
Tabor started the 1940 season slowly, but broke out of his slump after about a
dozen games. On May 3, he hit two home runs against the St. Louis Browns; the
second tied the game in the ninth. In the 10th, Tabor singled with
the bases loaded for the walk-off win. On June 1, Tabor knocked himself out in
batting practice. He hit down on a ball that bounced back and hit him in the
eye, cutting him badly enough for him to need two stitches. Rawhide missed the
game that day but he was back the next.
On Sunday, July 14, the Red Sox had a doubleheader at home against the Browns.
Tabor played in both games and went 4-for-8 with a double, three RBIs, and a
stolen base. The Sox won both games. Some time after the second game, James
Tabor married Bostonian Irene Bryan at St. Augustine’s Church in Boston.
Teammate Joe Heving was the best man. Shortly after the wedding, Tabor went on a
home-run tear, hitting four in three games between July 23 and July 26. (He hit
another on July 28.) Tabor had eight RBIs in the three games, going 6-for-12. He
had six hits in six plate appearances over the course of two games, July 25 and
While opposing pitchers couldn’t stop Tabor, his appendix did. Before a game
against Cleveland at Fenway Park on August 21, Tabor collapsed on the field and
was taken to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. He was expected to be
out a month. On September 21, precisely one month later, Tabor was back in the
lineup and went 3-for-4 with an RBI. The Red Sox were 12-16 with Tabor out of
the lineup and were eliminated from the pennant race. Tabor, part of a
power-hitting infield that hit 103 home runs, had career highs that season in
home runs (21) and slugging percentage (.510). He hit .285 in 120 games with 28
doubles, 6 triples, and 14 stolen bases. He was second only to the Yankees’ Joe
Gordon in the power/speed category. He also improved in the field. He still had
the most errors (33) in the American League, but his range factor35
was the best in the league, up from third best the previous year.
Tabor, who had no lasting effects from the appendectomy, put on 10 pounds in the
offseason and told
News he wanted to add five more (Joe Cronin had been trying to get
Tabor to put on weight for at least the last two seasons). The new, bulkier
Tabor got into trouble with Cronin early in spring training of 1941.
On March 21, 1941, the
Tribune reported that Tabor had been suspended indefinitely for
repeated violation of training rules. Tabor did not let the spring training
problems faze him, however (or maybe the suspension got his attention), because
he had a great first half of the season. By July, he was hitting 30 points
higher than any other AL third baseman. By year’s end, Tabor’s average had
dropped off to .279, but he had a career high in RBIs with 101 in just 125 games
(injuries curtailed his playing time). He also had a career-high 17 stolen
bases, fifth best in the league. Tabor had 16 homers, 29 doubles, and 3 triples
for the second-place Red Sox. After a few weeks in the South, Tabor spent the
winter in the Boston area working for the Gillette Safety Razor Company.
Though the Red Sox improved to 93 wins in 1942, Tabor’s hitting and fielding
dropped off. He was benched for a time because of a prolonged slump. He hit just
.252 in 139 games, and all his power numbers were down: 12 home runs, 18
doubles, 2 triples, and 75 RBIs. He had just six stolen bases and was caught 13
times. In the field, he had 33 errors to lead all American League third sackers;
his range, which had been a strength, was now diminishing. It appeared his hard
living was catching up to him. Tabor spent the winter in Boston again. He and
his wife purchased a home in East Milton and Jim worked as a riveter at the Fore
River Ship Yard in Quincy. Tabor was able to work out at Tufts University often
in the winter and reported early for spring training there (wartime travel
restrictions barred spring training in the South).
Tabor started the 1943 season poorly, hitting just .158 through April 29. By May
he was benched for poor hitting, and he hit just .243 through June 24. The
season proved to be difficult for the Red Sox. Jimmie Foxx had retired and
Williams, DiMaggio, and Pesky were in the military. The Red Sox finished
seventh. Tabor finished the season at .242 in 137 games, his lowest average as a
professional. His slugging average was just .299. Tabor committed 26 errors, a
career low, in 133 games at third, but still high enough to lead the league for
the fifth consecutive year.
The Red Sox held spring training at Tufts again in 1944. Manager Cronin told
players who lived in warm-weather states to stay home and train on their own.
Consequently, Tabor, who had again spent the winter in Boston working at the
shipyard, was one of only four players to attend early spring training. His
batting average and the Red Sox’ fortunes bounced back a bit in 1944. Tabor was
hitting .296 as late as July 27. On August 10, he passed his military
pre-induction exam, making him eligible for call-up to the Army at any time. He
was allowed to finish the season. Tabor finished the year with a .285 average in
116 games. He had 25 doubles, 3 triples, 13 home runs, and 72 RBIs. On October
26, Tabor got the call from Uncle Sam. He entered the Army at Fort Devens,
Massachusetts. He spent the remainder of 1944 and most of 1945 at Fort Devens,
then at Camp Croft, South Carolina.
Tabor was given a dependency discharge from the Army on December 14, 1945, and
was ready to rejoin the Red Sox for the spring of 1946. The Red Sox looked like
serious contenders for the American League pennant with Williams, DiMaggio,
Pesky, Doerr, and Tabor set to return to their lineup. The Red Sox did win the
1946 flag, but Jim Tabor was not part of the team. Joe Cronin and general
manager, Eddie Collins thought Louisville third baseman Ernie Andres was ready
for the big time and thought Tabor expendable. On January 22, 1946, after he
cleared military waivers, the Red Sox sold Tabor’s contract to the Philadelphia
Phillies for a reported $25,000. In 806 games with the Red Sox, Tabor had hit
.273 with 90 home runs and 517 RBIs. Sportswriter Burt Whitman had these parting
comments: “[H]e looked like a sure-fire big league star. He was very fast, had
power at bat and while erratic of throwing arm, appeared to be about ready to
blossom into stardom at any time. Annually, he failed to live up to this
Tabor’s health and perhaps his fitness were becoming a concern. In late October
or early November, Tabor visited the Lahey Clinic in Boston for an unspecified
ailment. There were more injuries, specified and otherwise, during the spring
and summer of 1947. He had sore ankles in spring training and was in Temple
University Hospital for X-rays and “further probing of his tonsils.” He had a
bad spine bruise between the shoulder blades caused by an overly exuberant
trainer. He injured his hip sliding into a base.
On December 11, 1947, the Phillies traded for outfielder-first baseman Bert Haas
of the Cincinnati Reds. In early January 1948, they announced Haas would be
their third baseman for the coming season. In late January it looked as though
Tabor might be dealt to another team. When he wasn’t, it appeared doubtful he
would be invited to the Phillies’ camp in Florida. In the end, Herb Pennock left
it up to manager Ben Chapman. The former Red Sox outfielder allowed Tabor to
come to camp to compete for the position. Tabor did not earn the job, however,
and was given his unconditional release on March 2.
On August 17, 1953, Tabor suffered a heart attack. He remained unconscious and
in an oxygen tent until August 22, when he succumbed to congestive heart
failure. Jim “Rawhide” Tabor was just 36 years old.