Obituary: Horace Clarke (1939-2020)

RIP to Horace Clarke, a long-time second baseman and one of only 14 ballplayers to come from the U.S. Virgin Islands. He died on August 5 at the age of 81 at his home in Laurel, Md. Per the New York Times, Clarke died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Clarke played for the New York Yankees (1965-74) and San Diego Padres (1974).

Horace Meridith Clarke was born on June 2, 1939 in Frederiksted, on the island of St. Croix, USVI. He played baseball there as a youth and became a switch-hitter out of necessity. “We were poor kids in St. Croix,” he said. “We played on a field which was right on the ocean and had no fences. We couldn’t afford baseballs. So the coach made the lefthanded batters hit righthanded and the righthanded batters hit lefthanded. This was so they couldn’t hit the ball so far. It saved us from losing the baseballs in the ocean.”

Clarke attended Christiansted High School and signed an amateur contract as a shortstop with the Yankees in 1958. Clarke left the Caribbean and started his major-league journey in… Kearney, Nebraska. I can’t even imagine the kind of culture shock it must have been, and Clarke struggled to a .225 average that first year. He fared much better for the St. Petersburg Saints of the Florida State League in 1959. He hit .292, stole 34 bases and scored 115 runs. “Little” Horace Clarke, as the Florida papers referred to the 5’9″, 175-pound infielder, made the All-Star team in his first full season in baseball. His fielding, which would become a real attribute for him in the major leagues, was still a work in progress. He was used primarily as a shortstop, and he wouldn’t become a full-time second baseman until he was an established major-leaguer.

Clarke and Jim Bouton celebrate a 20-inning Yankees win over the Red Sox. Bouton was the winning pitcher, and Clarke drove in the winning run. Source: The Oshkosh Northwestern, August 30, 1967.

Clarke proceeded to hit pretty much wherever the Yankees sent him, from Fargo to Richmond. He temporarily abandoned his switch-hitting when he started struggling against righties and picked it up again later. In several of the places he played, it was still a relative novelty for a black ballplayer to be on the field, and he had to deal with segregated housing and restaurants.

Clarke reached AAA by 1963, first for the Richmond Virginians and then the Toledo Mudhens in 1965. He was leading the International League in hitting with a .361 batting average when he was brought up to the Yankees on May 11, 1965. The Yankees were dealing with a spate of injuries at the time; while most other teams were demoting players to get to the 25-man roster limit, the Yankees added Clarke to replace the injured Pedro Gonzalez.

Clarke made his MLB debut on May 13, 1965 as a pinch-hitter and hit an infield single off the Red Sox pitcher Dave Morehead. He spent most of his time with New York that season as a pinch-hitter and a utility infielder, making appearances at third base, second base and shortstop. He did rather well, batting .259 with a home run in 51 games. That home run was a grand slam off Cleveland’s Floyd Weaver on September 21.

His problem was that the Yankees’ infield was pretty well set, with Bobby Richardson at second base, Tony Kubek at shortstop and Clete Boyer at third base. Clarke didn’t have a permanent position until Richardson’s surprise retirement at the end of the 1966 season.

While playing part-time in 1966, Clarke still managed to hit a career-high 6 home runs in 96 games. His first home run of the year and second overall of his career was a grand slam against the Athletics. So Clarke’s first two home runs in the major leagues both came with the bases loaded. How many players — if any — can make that claim? Those grand slams were the only two he ever hit in his 10-year career.

Clarke moved into the starting second base role in 1967, and it was a daunting challenge. First of all, he had mainly played as a shortstop in the majors up to that point, and while he had good range, his fielding wasn’t particularly superlative. He also had Mickey Mantle playing first base after a career’s worth of leg injuries forced him out of the outfield. Clarke had to snag everything hit his way as well as everything that Mantle couldn’t reach — which was a lot.

Clarke did everything that was asked of him. He slashed .272/.321/.316 with 21 stolen bases and 74 runs scored. He committed just 8 errors on defense for a .990 fielding percentage at second base. His 3.7 Wins Above Replacement was among the best on the team. He had some timely hits, like one in the 20th inning of a Yankees-Red Sox game that gave New York a 4-3 win and made a winner out of Jim Bouton, who threw 5 scoreless innings in relief.

Clarke spent 1968 fighting off injuries that hurt his batting average and his speed, but he recovered to have a career year in ’69. He led the American League in at-bats with 641 and had 183 hits for a .285 batting average. He had career highs in doubles (26), RBIs (48), stolen bases (33) and runs scored (82). In 1970, he hit .251 but still had 172 hits. His 686 at-bats led all of baseball and left Clarke a little short of the MLB record for at-bats, which Matty Alou had set in ’69 with 698.

Clarke had another odd feat in 1970 by breaking up three no-hitters in the ninth inning within the span of a month. He singled to lead off the final inning against Kansas City’s Jim Rooker on June 4 and Boston’s Sonny Siebert on June 19. On July 2, Clarke stepped up to bat against Joe Niekro of the Detroit Tigers with two outs in the ninth and hit a hard grounder past first baseman Norm Cash. Second baseman Dick McAuliffe fielded it and threw to Niekro, who was covering first, but the throw carried Niekro past the bag, allowing Clarke to reach on the infield hit.

After a few years as a starting second baseman, Clarke joined the long list of players who found themselves under attack by the New York media. They thought that he couldn’t turn a double play and that he swung at the first pitch too frequently. He wore his batting helmet in the field, and that became a target of derision, too. After his banner 1969 season, Clarke’s batting average hovered around or below .250 for a few years, which didn’t help matters.

“I don’t care what they write about me,” he said in 1970. “I don’t mind not being recognized by the writers for what I contribute to the club as long as I’m recognized by the people who pay me. That’s good enough for me.”

The Yankees did appreciate him. Manager Ralph Houk gave him some guidance on his approach to second base during double plays that improved his pivot. The one time he and the Yankees didn’t see eye to eye was an offseason when he asked the Yankees to get him a million-dollar loan so that he could build apartments in St. Croix. The Yankees gave him a raise in his salary, but it was for $35,000 instead.

For as long as Clarke played with the Yankees, he never once reached the postseason. The Yankees were in a slump, caught between the M&M Boys and the Bronx Zoo Eras. They finished as high as second place and as low as tenth during Clarke’s tenure, but most of the time they were a .500 team. The Yankees found themselves in a rare pennant race in 1972. Clarke, though he was nearing exhaustion by the season’s end and was hitting in the low .240s, kept playing — in spite of the critics.

Clarke slides between the legs of Red Sox catcher Tom Satriano to score. Source: The Charlotte Observer, July 16, 1969.

“The last four or five years, that’s all I hear. I hear the Yankees can’t win as long as Clarke and [Felipe] Alou are in the infield,” he said. “Look where we are. I think our infield play has been good — it’s helped us get here.”

The Yankees dropped back to two games under .500 in 1973, but Clarke had his best season in several years. He hit .263 and drove in 35 runs. At the age of 34, his defense at second base and speed was in decline. Clarke was a spring training holdout in 1974, and he was infrequently used when the regular season started. The writing was on the wall, and it came as little surprise when Clarke was purchased by the San Diego Padres on May 31.

It wasn’t until Clarke has left New York that people started to appreciate his time with the team. Daily News columnist Phil Pepe pointed out that of the 1,000 or so players who have worn a Yankee uniform, “only 17 Yankees had played more than his 1,230 games, only 16 had more than his 4,724 at-bats, only 18 had more than his 1,213 hits and only five [had] more than his 151 stolen bases.”

Clarke, who had been patient with the New York media to a fault, was probably relieved to be in a new uniform. But he struggled with the new league and hit under .200 in 42 games. He was released at the end of the season, ending his baseball career.

Source: Baseball Hall of Fame

In his 10 seasons in the majors, Clarke slashed .256/.308/.313. He had 1,230 hits that included 150 doubles, 23 triples and 27 home runs. He drove in 304 runs, scored 548 times and stole 151 bases. Clarke also had a .983 fielding percentage at second base, with a range that was above league average.

Per the Virgin Islands Daily News, Clarke ran baseball clinics in the Virgin Islands as a part of the V.I. Sports, Parks and Recreation Department until 1997, and he served as an assistant scout with the Kansas City Royals during the mid-1980s. Jerry Browne and Midre Cummings graduated from them to play in the major leagues. Clarke returned to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timer’s Games and would talk about his experiences, positive and negative.

“I paid a hell of a price for being around then. It had to be somebody’s fault, I guess,” he said of the Yankees’ futility during his career

“But if people would take a little time to see what I saw when I looked back at my stats, they might think differently,” he said in a 1990 interview. “I think my stats say I wasn’t as bad as it may seem.”

For more information: New York Times

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