Name: Horace Clarke
Position: Second baseman
Born: June 2, 1940 (Frederiksted, St. Croix, U. S. Virgin Islands)
Yankee Years: 1965-74
Primary number: 20
Yankee statistics: 1,230 G, .257/.309/.315, 149 2B, 23 3B, 27 HR, 151 SB, 72.2% SB%, 84 wRC+, 15.8 rWAR, 13.5 fWAR
The "Horace Clarke Era" is understandably viewed disdainfully as one of the worst in Yankees history. The once-dominant Yankees fell from American League powerhouse to also-rans who rarely stayed in contention. Clark himself was quite mediocre, but the Yankees' farm system was so dry that they could not find a better option at second base and they were unable to trade for any superior second basemen either. That was how Clarke ended up playing more games at second base than all but four players in franchise history. For his flaws though, Clarke was a decent player who played fine defense and stayed healthy. He is remembered jeeringly, but he should earn some credit as possibly the finest player in history to hail from the Virgin Islands.
Baseball, not cricket
Clarke was the son of Dennis Clarke, a great fan of cricket who never took much interest in baseball during Clarke's childhood. There were no Little Leagues for Clarke to play on in St. Croix, but they did play softball. As he grew older, Clarke joined the local St. Croix baseball team, which played exhibitions against Navy ship teams at Paul E. Joseph Stadium in Frederiksted. Clarke learned to switch-hit on the beaches by the stadium, where he had to abandon his natural righthanded swing to avoid losing the ball in the water.
Clarke played on his local team for five years, facing teams that featured other future big leaguers like Orioles catcher Elrod Hendricks and Pirates pitcher Al McBean. In 1957, he turned pro at age 17, and Yankees scout Jose Seda, known to many as Pepe, signed him in January 1958. Clarke traveled 2,500 miles to distant Kearney, Nebraska, where he played on his first minor league team. He demonstrated speed, but the adjustment to night baseball gave the young second baseman problems at the plate. As the Yankees won more championships, Clarke slowly moved up the minor league ranks, earning a Northern League All-Star team selection in 1960 with the Fargo-Moorhead Twins. Clarke also played winter ball in Puerto Rico for several years, never spending much time away from his baseball education even when the minor league season ended; it was during the '60-'61 winter league season when Clarke became a full-time switch-hitter. The Puerto Rican league was stacked with future talent like Bob Gibson and Denny McClain, and such skilled pitcher improved Clarke's abilities at bat. To top it all off, Clarke met his future wife in Puerto Rico as well, Hilda Robles.
Thanks to his hard work, Clarke earned promotions to higher leagues in five consecutive seasons, a streak that ended in '64 when he repeated Triple-A Richmond since veteran second baseman Bobby Richardson was still active on the Yankees. While he did hit a commendable .299/.357/.371 with 20 steals in his '64 campaign, Richardson stayed in front of him on the depth chart at the beginning of '65. Undeterred, Clarke hit .301 with a .368 OBP in 89 games at Triple-A Toledo in '65, earning him promotions to the majors at various points of '65. In his MLB debut, he pinch-hit for Hal Reniff at Fenway Park and singled against Dave Morehead, the first of 1,230 hits in the majors. Clarke had become just the fourth Virgin Islander to play Major League Baseballl, but his debut unfortunately coincided with the Yankees' first season under .500 in 40 years. There were more dark days ahead.
The Horace Clarke Era
In his rookie year, Clarke struggled to a 72 wRC+ in 116 plate appearances, and with Richardson at second, most of his appearances came as a pinch-hitter or a third baseman. The Yankees struggled, but a personal highlight for him came near the end of the season, when the light-hitting Clarke surprised the Yankee Stadium crowd with his first MLB homer, a grand slam off the Indians' Floyd Weaver.
The Yankees followed their sluggish '65 with their first last-place finish in 54 years during the '66 season. Injuries plagued the team, and since Richardson was still playing, Clarke was asked by manager Ralph Houk to fill in at shortstop for Ruben Amaro (yes, the father of the current Phillies GM). Houk told Clarke that Richardson would be retiring at the end of the season and that if he hung in at shortstop, he would be Richardson's successor at second. Clarke met Houk's goal and had one of the best hitting seasons of his career, too. He hit .266/.324/.381 with a 103 wRC+ and 20 extra-base hits, a strong campaign for a middle infielder in an extremely pitcher-friendly era.
The '67 season began in a very familiar place for Clarke: back at second base in his original home park, Paul Joseph Stadium in St. Croix. It was the first MLB exhibition game to be played in the Virgin Islands, and the Yankees beat the eventual AL champion Red Sox as Clarke was honored by his countrymen. During the regular season though, the Yankees won just two games more than they did in their cellar-dwelling '66, and they ended up in ninth. Now playing his original position, Clarke showed off his excellent defense with a 1.2 dWAR/8 TZ season that complemented a 93 OPS+/wRC+ season, leading to a nice 3.6 rWAR/2.9 fWAR campaign despite the Yankees' failures. Clarke's stellar defense at second was crucial with a very limited defensive first baseman to his left in the legendary but aged Mickey Mantle. He told Clarke to take anything between them that he could reach, leading to fine range numbers from Clarke.
Clarke occasionally faced some criticism from columnists and ground-ball pitcher teammates for not frequently completing the throw to first on double plays where the baserunner slid hard into him, but it helped him stay healthy and it is quite unclear as to how many of those double plays could have been salvaged without an error on the rough slides anyway. This superb defense was a Clarke trademark throughout the majority of his career. He never had a negative dWAR season at second base, and his FanGraphs defense rating did not go negative until he turned 33, a natural declining age for defensive excellence. No second baseman in baseball had a higher dWAR and FanGraphs defense rating from 1967-73 than Clarke's 7.0 and 59.0, respectively. His bat could be awful at times, like in '68 when he plummeted to a .512 OPS and 59 wRC+, but his glove was among the best in baseball.
After a horrid season at the plate in '68, Clarke rebounded with perhaps his finest season as a big leaguer in '69. The Yankees finished far behind the overpowering Baltimore Orioles for the new AL East division title, but it was not the fault of Clarke. He hit .285/.339/.367 with a 103 wRC+ and career-highs in hits (183), steals (33), rWAR (3.9), and fWAR (3.8). In 1970, Clarke only had 11 fewer hits than he did in '69, but a decline in plate discipline from a 7.6 BB% to a 4.8 BB% led to a dip in wRC+. However he did have an unusual highlight over the course of a calendar month from June 4-July 2 of the '70 season.
During this 24-game span, Clarke set a unique major league record with three ninth inning no-hitters broken up in one season. On June 4th, the Yankees were getting no-hit by the Royals' Jim Rooker at Yankee Stadium, and Clarke led off the ninth with a single, then scored the tying run shortly thereafter on a Bobby Murcer double. The Yankees later won in 12 innings on a Clarke walk-off sacrifice fly against Rooker to score pinch-runner Jerry Kenney. A couple weeks later, Boston's Sonny Siebert carried a no-hitter into the ninth on June 19th at Fenway Park. Again, Clarke led off the ninth, and again, Clarke lined a base hit to break it up. The Yankees were down 7-0 at the time and rallied with a Kenney double, a Murcer single, and a two-run homer by Roy White to suddenly make it a three-run game before future teammate Sparky Lyle entered to save it for the Red Sox. Fast-forward two more weeks and the Yankees were two outs away from a no-hitter at the hands of knuckleballing Tigers starter Joe Niekro on July 2nd at Tigers Stadium. Clarke grounded a ball slowly toward second baseman Dick McAuliffe, and he beat it out for an infield single. Niekro completed his one-hit shutout two batters later, but Clarke's odd record remains intact to this day; in fact, only one other player has ever broken up three no-hitters in the ninth in a career: Joe Mauer.
Clarke remained a steady presence for the Yankees at second base, putting up fine fielding numbers with an 89 wRC+, good for a pair of two-win seasons by WAR. Now buoyed by a stronger core built around Murcer, White, ace Mel Stottlemyre, and young catcher Thurman Munson, the Yankees played better than they did in the late '60s, though they still hovered around .500. A 93-win season in '70 was wasted as Earl Weaver's eventual World Series champion Orioles ran roughshod over the league with 108 victories. By '73, Clarke's defense began to decline, and his bat slipped to an 82 wRC+. His critics became more outspoken than ever, and his harsh treatment from the media would eventually lead to an irritated Munson's sometimes-rocky relationship with the press.
After a slow start to the '74 season, Clarke's first without his loyal manager Ralph Houk, he was sold to the San Diego Padres on May 31st as the Yankees sought another solution at second base. For a couple years, it was Sandy Alomar, but in '76, the Yankees finally found their long-term answer in future All-Star Willie Randolph. That year, they finally made it back to the playoffs, and though Clarke's tenure officially ended in '74, the '76 AL East crown marked the symbolic end of the "Horace Clarke Era." Clarke's career did not survive the '74 campaign. His offense was worse than ever at spacious San Diego Stadium; he only managed 17 more hits in 99 plate appearances with the Padres. San Diego cut him at the end of '74 and Clarke called it a career after a complete decade in the major leagues.
Clarke later became a scout with the Royals and joined with fellow Virgin Islander Elmo Plaskett to develop Virgin Island baseball programs, which led to the emergence of future big leaguers Jerry Browne and Midre Cummings. With Clarke now in retirement, the Virgin Islands' baseball production has become dormant--only one Virgin Islander has played MLB in the past decade: Callix Crabbe, who appeared in 21 games for the Padres in 2008. Perhaps one day the Virgin Islands will produce more baseball talent, but as it stands now, they have never produced a better player than Horace Clarke. He was the symbol of a rough era of Yankees baseball, but it would be unfair to call him a talentless player.
That being said, I consider writing over 1,800 nice words about Horace Clarke among my greatest achievements.
Andrew's rank: 97
Tanya's rank: 72
Community rank: 82.33
WAR rank: 80.5
|NYY (10 yrs)||1230||5143||4723||543||1213||149||23||27||300||151||58||357||356||0.257||0.309||0.315||0.624||84||1489||15.8||13.5|
Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
MLB.com Video: Clarke breaks up three no-hitters
Costello, Rory. SABR Bio