Jun
12

Interviewing Horace Clarke

By

Unfairly or not Horace Clarke has an era in Yankee history named after him. It was an inglorious time in Yankee history when CBS owned the team, and the Yanks, fresh off decades of dominance, faded into irrelevance. Clarke was supposed to be a part of the new guard, but instead he became known as a player who symbolized Yankee failure. For more on Clarke’s story, check out this piece from the Daily News and this extensive biography from SABR’s baseball biography project.

Recently, baseball author and New York City firefighter Kenneth Hogan caught up with Clarke at his home in the United States Virgin Islands. Hogan offered us the interview to publish, and I present now that piece.

“Your time is your time.”

Yankee fans speak about Don Mattingly, the Captain, in sympathetic terms due to his never having played in a World Series. He was a victim of bad timing. He is, however, not alone in knowing what it is to play in pinstripes for a decade timed perfectly between dynasties.

Horace Clarke was a quite, reserved second baseman who came up to New York in 1965, immediately after the team’s appearance in the World Series. The difference between Clarke and Mattingly, two men who both went about their business in a dignified way while shunning the limelight, was that while Mattingly is revered in New York Clarke still curiously bears the brunt of the blame for the Yankees poor showing. I caught up with Clarke recently while he was home in Frederiksted, St. Croix, USVI.

Growing up in St. Croix in the in the 1940’s and 50’s how did you come to be a switch-hitting baseball player in a nation of cricket players?

We didn’t have little league programs back in those times when I was 10, 11, or 12. In those days we played on a basketball court that was next to the ocean so we used to go there and pick sides and get our little teams together after school. Most of us were right-handed hitters and there was a rule, because we were so close to the ocean and we were strong enough to hit balls into the water, that right-handed hitters would hit left-handed and visa-versa in order to avoid losing baseballs which we didn’t have many of. We got to the point where we could handle the bat from the opposite of what we were.

Were you exposed to Major League Baseball at all?

Mostly on the radio when I was growing up, and I was a Yankee fan back then! I was always a Yankee fan and knew the players like Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, Jerry Coleman, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra. Phil Rizzuto was my idol because he was a small guy and he was a shortstop just like I was. It was great that when I got to the big leagues I got to meet some of the people that I used to hear on the radio. When I was a boy these were young, elite players then I caught them on their way out. That began the whole what you would call revising of the Yankees.

You wind up being signed as an amateur free agent by the Yankees in 1958. Was that intimidating?

Well, no. Not intimidating. You see, in 1953 or ’54 an amateur baseball team left from here for the first time to go play an amateur tournament in the United States in Minnesota. I don’t know if you remember the name Joe Christopher but Joe was three years older than me and I used to play against him. Joe was scouted at that tournament by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Because of him being signed some of the Major League Baseball organization people told the scouting staffs. It was then that MLB scouts from Puerto Rico started coming here. I was in my last year of high school in 1958 when I got signed by a Yankee scout.

While still a minor leaguer you started playing winter ball in Puerto Rico where you lasted nine seasons.

That was an eye-opening experience to see guys like Orlando Cepeda, Ruben Gomez, Roberto Clemente, Jose Pagan, and a number of other guys who were already playing in the Major Leagues. It was really enlightening even though I didn’t get to play much for the team, the San Juan Senators. Clemente was on that team and he was quite an inspiration to the younger guys. Puerto Rico is not really for minor league players because minor league baseball is for getting players ready to play in the big leagues. In Puerto Rico they want teams that can win so they are going to play the more veteran and experienced players. After about three years, when I was in Class A ball, I got moved to Ponce and that is when I got to play regularly for about six years, the rest of my time in Puerto Rico.

In May of 1965 you got called up to the Yankees. This was still a star-studded team. What was that like?

I was in two spring training before I made the team, so I knew some of the guys. To meet guys like Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek, Elston Howard, and Bobby Richardson was a treasure. It was a treasure to be among players who were winning pennants and series for years with the Yankees.

Every time someone asks the question, “What was the greatest thing that you can remember in baseball”, I always mention this. When I got called up I joined the team in Boston and then we went to Baltimore and after that back to New York. The first day I suited up and went out onto the field at Yankee Stadium before practice I looked around in awe. Then I went out to center field where the greats were with their plaques. That was one of my biggest thrills, just putting on the uniform and going out onto the field. There were other times over the years where I did something, something that stands out, but just walking out onto that field was special. I remembered that I used to listen to the radio broadcasts about the stadium and the great players that played there; it was really a thrill and a terribly nice feeling.

During you first couple of years with the Yankees was there a sense among the players that the dynasty was over or that the team was in trouble?

There was not a sense of that but with all the big guys who were great players and were successful in New York leaving the game we realized that most of us were there to replace them. As a matter of fact it was because Richardson told the Yankees that he would retire in a couple of years when I was down in Richmond (AAA) that I got recalled. I was a shortstop all of my minor league career and they told me they were going to convert me to a second baseman. I didn’t know at that time that Richardson had warned them about getting out of the game. It was timely that he was leaving and I got to come to the big leagues and see him play along with Kubek and Boyer and see the way that they played. It was very impressive because I never saw some those plays made in the minor leagues.

Crosetti was their old third baseman and he was a coach there for 15-20 years after he retired, he was a fixture. I always sat by him when he was on the bench between innings and he would say certain things to me about playing the infield. I took so many ground balls in practice that I had a coach in Puerto Rico say to me that I was going to give him blisters on his hands. I was always a work horse when it came to bettering myself.

Mel Stottlemyre, Roy White, and yourself came along during a downturn in the organization. Your career story is similar to Mattingly’s in that you played between the dynasties. Do you feel any frustration about that?

Well sure, it’s a disappointment but the reality is we had talent that would get better with experience but there are not too many guys that are going to come up and replace Mantle, Maris, Rizzuto, Richardson, Boyer, Ford. Not too many players could replace those guys (Laughs). We had catchers on the team during my tenure there but the one guy who came up that everybody knew once he started playing was going to be a first-class catcher was Thurman Munson. So, players like that don’t come about everyday. I didn’t play on a championship team or a pennant winning team but in 1970 we were the second winningest team in baseball. We won 93 games and the Orioles won 108. We got a $600.00 check for coming in second place and home we went (Laughs). I didn’t have an opportunity to be in the wild-card like they have now, that might have made a difference. You know how many teams have been the wild card and have become champions? Maybe four or five. I was so happy that they went to the World Series in 1976 and then again in ’77 and ’78. I left five or six guys who were able to win a championship. They won after that long stretch of not being in a series.

I believe in some respect you were a victim of baseball history. Although the Yankees didn’t have all bad teams while you were there the fans had become accustomed to being in the World Series. The Yanks were there 22 times from 1936-1964. The advancing age and injuries to the team’s stars appear to be the reasons for the organization’s drop-off. Regardless, that period is often called “the Horace Clark Era”. This unfair label fails to recognize you as the Yankees most durable player of the late 60’s and early 70’s. (Clarke led the Yankees in hits twice, at-bats four times, triples twice, runs twice, stolen bases four times, and average once, and led the AL in at-bats twice.) Do you have any thoughts on this?

You see (Laughs) every time I hear “the Horace Clarke Era” I don’t know how to take it but I think it is mostly because we were losing and I was a member of all of those teams. I could understand because fans, writers, and commentators were spoiled at being so successful for so long. I know how the fans feel about the drought that we went through, it was a let down during that losing era. But when I hear it I think, “Here we go again. The Horace Clarke Era, the Horace Clarke Years”. I’m going to tell you something, while I was there some guys (writers) always target me, I was targeted more than anybody I think because I played just about everyday. When I was traded to San Diego a writer wrote, “You know, that guy wasn’t so bad after all.” Because he had gone to the record books and saw what I had done over those years.

They said I couldn’t make the double-play but Gene Michael and I were tops in double plays a couple of years. I have looked in Yankee books and compared my stats to some of the older second basemen over the years and they didn’t do any better then me but they were among elite players that won World Series. My play was consistent over the years. I got on base and scored runs everyday. During the time I played I had the 3rd leading fielding percentage among second basemen. How could I be that bad?

Did you stay in the game at all?

After the ’74 season I didn’t get any offers from Major League teams, just offers from Mexico and Japan. I said wait a minute, I played 17 years and I’m not going back to the minor leagues in Mexico or even Japan. I came home to St. Croix and I instructed the kids in baseball for 20 years retiring in 1995. That was something I was happy to do.

I was at opening day at the new Yankee Stadium. There was about 40 of us there and they called us out onto the field. It’s also nice that when I go back to the Old Timers Game and they announce you and you get some applause from the people who remember you. I don’t think it was all bad. I’m going to tell you this; your time is your time. I wouldn’t say that I was at the wrong place at the wrong time because I got to play 17 years in baseball and 10 years in the big leagues. I am able to retire and collect a pension from Major League Baseball. That alone, playing so long and collecting a pension, is great.

Kenneth Hogan is a New York City Firefighter who lives in Rockaway, Queens. He has written four books including America’s Ballparks, The 1969 Seattle Pilots; Major League Baseball’s One-Year Team, and Batting 10th for the Yankees; Recollections of 30 Yankees You May Not Remember (due August 2010). He has appeared on NBC’s “The TODAY SHOW” and White Plains Cable’s “Beyond the Game.”

  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    (golf clap)

  • http://www.facebook.com/dougchu Doug

    MOAR interviews with lesser known old-timers, please

    Horace Clarke owns

  • kenthadley

    Clarke was comparable to Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera, Jason Bartlett type of ballplayer…..had the Yanks not decimated their minor league investments in the early 60’s, he would have been the second baseman for a competitive team….instead he became the symbol of their failures during the late 60’s……it wasn’t fun to watch, but he was always a gentleman and professional, and under-rated as a ballplayer….

    • Bob Ciaffa

      Mr. Hadley,

      I recognized your name from your years in the Yankees’ organization for several years in the late 50s and early 60s, and also from your time with the Kansas City A’s.

      Thank you for your kind words about Horace Clarke. He was always a gentleman, and to my recollection, he always hustled on the field and gave it his very best. You are absolutely right about how the team declined in the mid-to-late 60s; yes, it was difficult to watch. But those of us who were true fans supported the Yanks showed up at the ballpark anyway!

      Also, those of us who realized how hard it was to play the game well, fully understand why not everyone can be a superstar.

      I would enjoy hearing from you if you care to respond.

      Sincerely,
      Bob Ciaffa [tybalt46@hotmail.com]

  • Accent Shallow

    Totally unexpected and well done.

    I had no idea that Clarke wasn’t born in the contiguous 48.

  • nsalem

    Great Stuff. Much more interested in reading about ex-Yankees whereabouts and their sharing stories of our great Yankee history
    than people’s opinion on The Wave.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      “Great Stuff. Much more Very interested in reading about both ex-Yankees whereabouts and their sharing stories of our great Yankee history than as well as people’s opinion on The Wave on this awesome website full of great content that is provided to me totally and utterly free of charge by you three excellent gentlemen.

      Fixed.

  • pounder

    When I was overseas ‘back in the day’ I remember listening to and rooting for Horace Clarke,on Armed Forces Radio, and following my beloved Yanks through box scores(remember them?)in The Stars and Stripes.He, and Mel were all we had to root for,till Murcer and the rest came along.Believe me rooting for Andy Kosco and Buddy Barker and Dooley Womack was hard to do.Ross Moschitto,another one.

    • Sweet Dick Willie

      Thad Tillotson, Joe Verbanic, Jake Gibbs, Bobby Cox (yes, THAT Bobby Cox), Bill Burbach, the list goes on and on.

      Thank Mo Big Stein bought the team and relieved our suffering. 1965 – 1976 seemed like an eternity at the time. I can’t fathom how Cubs fans feel.

  • Evan3457

    Horace Clarke was not a good hitter, even for a second baseman, even for his era. He did not draw a lot of walks, used a ton of outs, had very little power. He stole bases, but except for his 1st full year, was not a high percentage base stealer. Toward the end, his speed declined, and a fair share of his ground balls became GIDP. In his good years, he hit in the .270-.280 range and was a league average hitter. In his worse years, he was a dignified, polite, honorable huge drain on the Yankees offense in the leadoff spot. For a man who scored runs “everyday”, his career high was 82, and he never made the league top 10.

    Defensively, he was somewhat better than his reputation remembers. He had a very high error rate for a secondbaseman, his range was good, and his work on the DP with Gene Michael was good in several seasons. He was a plus defender overall, in spite of the errors.

    It’s not fair that the whole era landed on his shoulders, but he was very emblematic of it. The Yankees in his era, with the exceptions of some truly fine players (Stottlemyre, Murcer, White, and later on, Munson and Lyle), bounced up and down around .500. If they got a little lucky, and some guys had good year, they could stay in the race for awhile. If they got some key injuries, or some guys had bad years, they were out of it by July.

    I was a kid and a Yankee fan during that era. I rooted for Horace Clarke, but my father, who had been a fan going back to the 60’s knew better.

    The Horace Clarke Yankees were almost unrelentingly mediocre, and Horace was the mediocritype for the team as a whole. He’s underrated only in the sense that everyone thought he was terrible, when he was really just about average. Nice guy; by all accounts a fine man, but not a good player by any reasonable standard. Not every good man is a good player.

    • mike

      I agree with your post, but his range / defense and inability to “stay in” on doublke-plays was a frustration to watch- and there were always whispers the pitchers couldnt stand him because he would give away outs. Think of the pitchers they had during that time – they were all ground-ball pitchers who pitched to contact- and you can imagine the frustration it was to both watch the games and see why he was deplored by most fans. I believe he could be a perfect example of where stats could be decieving, as for those watching the games he was a completely frustrating player.

    • MikeD

      Thanks for your perspective as obviously you saw Clarke play. It’s interesting because I can almost hear the fustration in your words, as well as another fan below, who also must have saw Clarke play. It reminds me of Met fans picking on Luis Castillo, making him the symbol of their problems the last few years, yet he really isn’t the problem.

      I didn’t see Clarke play, yet like many Yankee fans who often hear this period in Yankee history called “the Horace Clarke years,” when I went back and reviewed his record, I was expecting to find a .210-hitting player who sucked. He’s neither. He doesn’t fit the profile, so many fans defend Clarke now, figuring he’s been unfairly branded.

      And in truth, he really wasn’t a worse hitter than the other second baseman of that time. His 83 OPS+ says he was a below-average hitter, yet that’s when compared against *all* hitters, including power-hitting OFers, 1B, etc. As a second baseman, he actually wasn’t a bad hitter for that time. In fact, if you took at the second baseman in the late 60s and divided them in half, he’d be in the upper portion of the group. He was better than quite a few of them.

      There were three eventual HOFers. Joe Morgan, who was a hidden gem in Houston; Rod Carew, whose career was just starting; and Bill Mazeroski, whose career was coming to a close. Maz is in the Hall because he could do one thing better than any second baseman before or since — turn a double play. Yet he actually was not a better hitter than Clarke. Had more power, but a poor eye, generating more outs. The next tier of second baseman included a few solid hitters, such as Detroit’s McAuliffe, who wasn’t appreciated then and now; Ron Hunt on the Cubs and the Orioles’ Davey Johnson, who was a good hitter even if we don’t inlude his Brady Anderson-like, UFO season a few years later when he hit 40-plus homers. A good reminder that not all fluke seasons are steroid driven!

      After that, the Clarke compared quite well with all the other second baseman of the period. Better hitter than Alomar, although not as good a fielder. Compares favorably with Javier, Beckert, Sutherland, Fuller, Donaldson, etc.

      That gets back to the point many have tried to make about Clarke. He was better than most thought and he was not the reason the Yankees lost. Players like Clarke weren’t supposed to carry the Yankees. It was the rest of the team that was the problem.

  • MikeD

    Clarke was not a good hitter, as evidence by his lifetime OPS+ of 83. Although I thought it was a bit funny that Bobby Richardson, who Yankee fans loved, had a lifetime OPS+ of 77. Richardon’s reputation was based on his glove, which was also overrated. The two were similar players, with Richardson being marginally better. Bill James in his Historical Abstract had Richardson listed at #68 on his list of top 100 second baseman. He had Clarke listed at #79. Obviously, if Clarke had had the opportunity to play on teams like Richardson he’d be viewed quite differently. And if Richardson had the misfortune of playing on teams Clarke, he’d he’d be viewed differently too.

    Obviously, the Yankees didn’t lose during that period because of Clarke.

    Nice read.

    • Accent Shallow

      Funny, I was going to compare/contrast Clarke with Richardson.

  • nsalem

    We are always seems to disagree!!! Sincerely Yours Peter George Norman

  • tbord

    He should have abandoned switch hitting – Ron No-Neck Williams was my favorite. Lest us not forget the wife-swapping Pitcher Fritz Peterson.

  • wilcymoore27

    I’ll tell you what I remember about Horace Clarke, and one thing for which he ought to be remembered. On at least three occasions in the period 1968-1970, when Clarke was the Yankees’ second baseman, the Yankees entered the eighth or ninth inning of a game with no hits. Each time it was Horace Clarke who got the hit that saved the Yanks from the ignominy of a no-hitter.

    From the 1950’s until Houston no-hit the Yanks a few years ago using seven pitchers, no team was able to no-hit the Yankees. That the Yankees went 50 years without being no-hit was thanks, in large part, to Horace Clarke.

    • tbord

      Security by obscurity – For me, he sucked.