Obituary: Art Clarkson (1941-2019)

RIP to Art Clarkson, a sports legend in Birmingham, Ala. He helped rescue the Birmingham Barons from baseball oblivion and also brought the Birmingham Bulls, a minor-league hockey team, to the city. He died on October 7 at the age of 78.

The Bulls reported that Clarkson had stepped down as managing partner of the team in May 2019 due to health issues. “His legacy will remain in Birmingham with the Bulls and the Barons,” the Bulls said in a statement. “If you have ever been to a ball game in Birmingham on any day in that last 40 years, your trip to the ball park would not have been possible without Art Clarkson. If you have ever bundled up to watch a hockey game (or giant Coke Can Race) in the last 30 years in the Magic City, your night at the rink would not have happened without Art Clarkson.”

Jules Arden Clarkson was born on June 9, 1941 in Chicago, Ill., but he grew up in California. He fell in love with baseball from watching the Hollywood Stars play in the Pacific Coast League. Clarkson was a pretty good athlete in his youth and once played in the Continental Football League. He sold real estate in the Beverly Hills area before turning to the sports world. He worked for two World Football League teams before getting his first baseball job.

Clarkson’s first stint as an assistant general manager for the Memphis Blues ended after less than a season under tough circumstances. He was caught in the middle between the Blues’ former owner, Dr. Bernard Kraus, and its new owner, former Cy Young winner Denny McClain. Kraus said that McClain defaulted on a payment and tried to reclaim the team, naming Clarkson as McClain’s replacement as GM. McClain paid off his debt, and Clarkson either resigned or was asked to resign, depending on who you asked. Clarkson ended up outlasting McClain in Memphis. The Blues folded up after the season, and Clarkson was named general manager of the new Memphis Chicks in 1978.

The Chicks were the new AA franchise for the Montreal Expos, and during the two seasons Clarkson was there, he saw future stars like Tim Raines, Tim Wallach, Charlie Lea, Scott Sanderson and Bill Gullickson pass through town. As a consequence, the Chicks became a very good ballclub.

Clarkson loaded the Chicks’ home schedule with promotions to get fans to the stadium, but he never sought to take away from the baseball action. “The main thing here is not to create a carnival atmosphere, but to get people to come out and see professional baseball,” he explained.

Clarkson left the Memphis job after the 1979 season and moved to Birmingham, with an eye to bringing minor-league baseball back to that city. Those plans were delayed for a bit, as he took the job as the Wichita Aeros GM for the 1980 season. He held the job for a year but was fired on October 14 due to his interest in Birmingham. He wasn’t unemployed for very long.

Less than a week after Clarkson parted ways with Wichita, it was announced that the Montgomery Rebels had been acquired by a group of Birmingham businessmen, who would move the team to their home city and rename it the Barons. Art Clarkson was named the general manager. No longer content to just be making money for other people, Clarkson had a 20 percent interest in the team and would eventually become its principal owner.

Baseball in Birmingham goes back to the 1880s. The Birmingham Barons were one of the original teams of the Southern Association, and the Black Barons were one of the great Negro League teams of its day. Both teams played at Rickwood Field, and both ultimately shut down due to baseball’s integration. The Black Barons, like the Negro Leagues as a whole, ceased operations due to Major League Baseball teams poaching all of their best players. The Southern Association, as mentioned in the Herschel Greer Grave Story, ultimately shut down due to the financial ramifications that came from refusing to integrate until it was too late. The Barons franchise was forced to fold in 1965 because Alabama segregation laws of the time wouldn’t permit racially integrated ballclubs. The Oakland A’s later had a farm team in town for nine seasons, but the Birmingham A’s didn’t draw fans and played in a dilapidated ballpark that attracted more car thieves than wins. The A’s left town for Chattanooga in 1975, and it looked to be the end of baseball in Birmingham.

That was the situation that Clarkson inherited as the general manager, and he successfully revitalized baseball in town. The new team, a Tigers AA affiliate, took on the old Barons nickname but left behind the racism of the Southern Association. One of the team’s first stars, in fact, was Barbaro Garbey, a dark-skinned Cuban who never would have been allowed on the old Barons. Clarkson added lights and a police presence to a refurbished Rickwood Field, and the fans returned in good numbers. By 1983, more than 250,000 fans came to cheer for a team that won 91 games and the Southern League championship.

“We’re drawing from every type of group conceivable,” Clarkson told the Alabama Journal in 1981. “Our whole concept is community involvement. The key is not a big crowd but drawing every night. The main thing we want to do is to bring them out to see baseball.”

Clarkson was recognized by his peers for his work, winning the Southern League’s Executive of the Year in 1982 and 1983. “There may be a lot of things that contributed to the success of the Barons, these past two seasons, but it all comes together in one man, and that one man is Art Clarkson,” League President Jimmy Bragan said in honoring Clarkson in 1982.

His next task was to move the Barons out of baseball’s oldest operating stadium and into something new. He accomplished that in 1988, when the Barons, by then a Chicago White Sox affiliate, moved into the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. Located in suburban Hoover, the new 9,500-seat stadium featured sky boxes, a full-service restaurant and could be reconfigured to play football games and concerts. Clarkson said that the Barons averaged 4,000 fans a game in 1988 and stated proudly that they were the Number One sports team in Alabama. “I tell people you can’t count Alabama and Auburn football because those are religions,” he quipped.

“This is one of the best stadiums in the United States, bar none,” Clarkson said. “It’s a major-league stadium with stadium suites, a major-league clubhouse and press box, a family waiting room for players’ wives, picnic areas. A lot of people will tell you it looks like Busch Stadium in St. Louis or Royals Stadium in Kansas City.”

The Barons became a lucrative team, and Clarkson sold it in 1990 to Martin Kuehnert and a holding company formed by Suntory International, a subsidiary of a Japanese food, beverage and restaurant company. Clarkson stayed on as chief operating officer and general manager, but he left the Barons to establish the Birmingham Bulls, a team in the East Coast Hockey League. He stayed as the managing partner for six seasons before leaving to pursue football projects in other parts of the country. He revived the Bulls in 2017.

“I’ve been out of town since 2000,” Clarkson told the Birmingham Business Journal in 2017. “I kind of decided to just come home.”

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