Interviewing Horace ClarkeBy
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.”