Horace Clarke Baseball Facts and Stats by the Baseball Page
A victim of bad timing, Horace Clarke came up to the New York Yankees in 1965, one year after the team captured its fifth consecutive American League pennant. Clarke remained in New York the next 10 years, during arguably the bleakest period in team history. Steeped in mediocrity much of the time, the Yankees failed to advance to the postseason in any of those seasons, frequently finishing with a losing record. New York's leadoff hitter and starting second baseman from 1967 to 1973, Clarke bore much of the brunt of the team's failures throughout the period, which came to be known ignominiously by Yankee fans as The Horace Clarke Years. Yet, the quiet and dignified Clarke was actually one of the team's better players in several of those seasons, performing consistently both at the plate and in the field, despite drawing a considerable amount of criticism from fans and media members alike.
Born in Frederiksted, St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands on June 2, 1940, Horace Meredith Clarke grew up during the 1940s and 1950s listening to Yankee games on the radio in his homeland. A huge fan of players such as Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, and Phil Rizzuto, Clarke began aspiring to a career in professional baseball as a teenager, after learning how to switch-hit a few years earlier out of necessity. As Clarke later explained, "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 righthanded 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 righthanded hitters would hit lefthanded 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."
Clarke signed an amateur free agent contract with the Yankees while still in St. Croix's Christiansted High School in 1958, and he spent the next seven years working his way up the team's farm system primarily as a shortstop. However, he began playing second base in the minor leagues after Bobby Richardson informed the Yankees that he intended to play only another one or two seasons. Clarke made his long-awaited major-league debut with the team in May of 1965, spending the remainder of the year filling in at second base, shortstop, and third base. He saw extensive duty at shortstop the following year after Ruben Amaro, the team's Opening Day starter at the position, suffered a season-ending injury early in the campaign. Clarke acquitted himself well in a part-time role, committing only 8 errors in 63 games and hitting .266 in 312 at-bats.
Clarked assumed the starting second base job after Richardson officially announced his retirement at the end of 1966. Although not as smooth and graceful as his predecessor, Clarke had a solid season for New York, leading the team in batting average (.272), stolen bases (21), runs scored (74), and hits (160). After a sub-par 1968 campaign, he had his finest year in 1969, establishing career highs in batting average (.285), runs scored (82), hits (183), stolen bases (33), doubles (26), and triples (7). Clarke's 183 hits placed him second in the American League. He also finished among the league leaders in triples and stolen bases, while topping the circuit for the first of two
consecutive times in official at-bats.
Clarke remained the Yankees' starting second baseman another four years and, although he never again batted any higher than .263, he was a solid baserunner and a decent leadoff hitter. In his seven years as a regular in New York, he led the Yankees in stolen bases four times, and he topped the team in triples, runs scored, and base hits twice each. Although he had little power, Clarke was an extremely pesky hitter. In 1970 alone, he broke up three no-hitters in the ninth inning, thwarting bids by Joe Niekro, Sonny Siebert, and Jim Rooker.
Still, even though Clarke was generally considered to be just a mediocre offensive player, he drew far more criticism for his defense. Possessing only a moderate amount of range, Clarke was widely criticized by the New York media for his alleged inability to turn the doubleplay. It often was said that he preferred to protect himself by holding onto the ball, rather than releasing it to first base with a runner bearing down on him at second.
The numbers, though, fail to support the writers' contentions. Clarke set an A.L. record by leading league second basemen in assists six consecutive years, from 1967 to 1972. He also finished first in putouts from 1968 through 1971. While there were those who questioned his range, Clarke was one of the more surehanded second basemen in the league. In 1967, he committed only 8 errors in 140 games, leading all league second basemen with a .990 fielding average.
While it was true that Clarke's greatest strength was not in turning the doubleplay, he worked very hard on that particular aspect of his game and improved himself quite a bit in that area. In fact, with Clarke at second base and Gene Michael at shortstop, the Yankees led the league with 179 doubleplays in 1972. Yet, his critics continued to speak out against him until the Yankees finally dealt him to the Padres during the 1974 campaign. Clarke finished out his career that year, then retired unceremoniously to the Virgin Islands, where he spent the next 20 years instructing youngsters on the fundamentals of the game.
Although the quiet, humble, and sensitive Clarke rarely displayed his emotions on the field, he undoubtedly felt the sting of the criticism that so often followed him during his time in New York. Longtime Yankee outfielder Roy White came up with Clarke through the minor leagues and was one of the second baseman's closer friends on the team. White said of his former teammate, "I always thought Horace was a solid player. He hit .260 - .270 every year and stole between 20 and 30 bases. One year, he and Gene Michael led the league in doubleplays. I think he took the brunt of a lot of abuse for the bad times. I think it was mostly because he wasn't the most graceful player…he didn't look as great in a uniform as Bobby Richardson, or some of the other guys who preceded him did. I think they kinda' used Horace as a scapegoat because he had the funny stance, you know, real bow-legged guy, but he was a pretty good player."
Asked how he felt about having his name permanently linked to such an inglorious period of New York Yankee history, Clarke said, "You see, 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 those teams. I could understand 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 targeted 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."
Clarke added, "They said I couldn’t make the doubleplay 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 than 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 third leading fielding percentage among second basemen. How could I be that bad?"