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Donn Clendenon

Donn Clendenon

Position(s):
LF, OF, RF, 1B, 3B, CF
Born:
July 15, 1935
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
6' 4"
Weight:
209 lbs
Major League Debut:
9-22-1961 with PIT
Allstar Selections:
1969 WsMVP

Encouraged to develop his baseball skills as well as his mind by his mother and stepfather, Donn Clendenon  not only starred for the Pirates during the 1960’s, but became the hero of the 1969 World Series for the New York Mets.  Clendenon’s stepfather was Nish Williams, a former Negro League star, who Clendenon remembers with much affection and admiration.  “My stepfather taught a young man named Roy Campanella how to catch when they were with the Elite Giants.  He was a baseball fanatic and baseball was talked about every day at our house.  I preferred baseketball and football, but I decided to honor my stepfather by playing baseball,” the former firstbaseman recalled.
           
Williams’ connections allowed the young Clendenon to take batting practice against such greats as Satchel Paige and Sad Sam Jones, which readied his stepson for professional competition.  Clendenon’s family also stressed  academics and Donn, after finishing second in his high school class, went on to Morehouse College where he earned 12 letters in sports besides his degree and a teaching certificate.  He was working as a teacher in his hometown of Atlanta and mulling over offers to play football for the Cleveland Browns and basketball for the New York Knickerbockersand Harlem Globetrotters when he had the opportunity to speak with Branch Rickey, at the time employed by the Pirates as a vice-president.  With Rickey’s encouragement, Clendenon attended a tryout camp the following March and  signed for a $500 bonus, undoubtedly passing up more immediate money to play another sport.  He did so out of respect for Williams, who had raised Clendenon.  Clendenon’s biological father had passed away when Donn was just six months old.
    
The Pirates assigned Clendenon to Class D Jamestown and Clendenon began to feel the pressures placed on black athletes at the time.  He quickly saw the inequalities in treatment and facilities which were determined by race.  After posting good numbers in 1957 and 1958, Donn enjoyed an excellent spring training in 1959 and was sent to Wilson of the Class B Carolina League.  The Pirates had placed nine black players there, in a league which had only been integrated the year before.  This apparently was not well received locally and the Pirates were pressured into decreasing the number of blacks on the roster.  Clendenon, although he was batting .370 in his 18 games with the team, was demoted to Class C Idaho Falls.  Realizing racism was the reason behind the transfer, Clendenon quit the team, but was convinced by Williams and Branch Rickey, Jr., to reconsider.  Rickey promised Clendenon a bonus of $100for every point he hit above .300 at Idaho Falls. Turning adversity into a challenge, Clendenon  earned an extra $5,600 by batting .356.  Moved up to the Class A Sally League in 1960, Clendenon won the MVP Award by batting .335 and besting the league with 28 homeruns and 109 rbi’s while playing mostly in the outfield.  He was having such an impressive season that at one point, the New York Yankees contacted him to tell him they had just acquired him for Hector Lopez, but en route to New York, Clendenon was informed the trade had been cancelled.  He was finally called up to the Pirates at the end of 1961 after batting .290 with 22 homeruns for AAA Columbus.
   
Danny Murtaugh platooned the rookie righthanded hitter with Bob Skinner in leftfield early in 1962, but with Dick Stuart slumping at the plate and continuing to build his infamous reputation as a fielder, Clendenon began to get more playing time at firstbase late in the season.  When Stuart was traded in November, Clendenon became the team’s firstbaseman.  In his first season as a regular, Clendenon established a National League record with 136 strikeouts, but hit a respectable .275 with 15 homeruns.  The following spring, he sought out former defensive whiz Gil Hodges to help him improve his play around the bag.  An apt pupil, Clendenon’s fielding improved.  After another solid year in’64, Clendenon helped keep the Pirates in the 1965 NL pennant race by hitting .301 and knocking in 96 runs.  As a defender, Clendenon had excellent range and with the help of Bill Mazeroski and Gene Alley, led NL firstbaseman in  doubleplays with 161.  In 1966, Clendenon upped his DP total to a National League record 182 and had his best season as a Pirate, batting .299 with 28 homeruns and 99 rbi’s.  Clendenon would have easily topped 40 homeruns that year if he had been playing in a park better suited for his power, which tended to be to the power alleys.  This is easily evidenced by the fact that 25 of his homeruns came on the road.  Clendenon also was known for getting timely hits and was respected by his teammates.
   
“Donn Clendenon was a prototype athlete,” his former teammate Steve Blass remembers.  “He was powerful and tall and could hit.  He was a good fielder with good range.”
   
Clendenon’s play slipped in 1967 due to a severely torn hamstring and worry over his stepfather who was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  With Nish Williams’ death drawing closer in 1968, the assassination of Dr. MartinLuther King, a friend since Clendenon’s days at Morehouse and the taking on of added responsibility as a player rep during a season when a strike appeared a strong possibility, Clendenon’s play, while improved from 1967, did not reach its previous high.  He also set a new league record with 163 strikeouts.  He was, however, still shocked and disappointed at being left unprotected in the expansion draft following the season.
   
Selected by the Expos that fall, Clendenon was traded to the Astros, but refused to report.  Although he had not gotten along well with Harry Walker, the Houston manager, when Walker was managing in Pittsburgh, Clendenon stated Walker’s position was not the reason for his not going to Houston.  “A lot of people think I didn’t want to go to Houston because of Harry, but that was not the case.  It was more of a contract dispute.   Joe L. Brown would give me $20,000-30,000 in advance of my salary each year and amortize the rest and take the taxes out.  Everything was legal, but when I was traded to Houston I was told they had bought the balance of my contract and I couldn’t afford to take a $30,000 paycut to go down to Houston.  I had worked too hard to get where I was and so I retired from baseball.”
   
The Astros wanted the trade nullified, but the Expos insisted it stand as they had built a large marketing campaign around Rusty Staub, who they had acquired in the deal.  Acting Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had the Expos give Houston a couple of different players and cash and Clendenon reported to the Expos in May.  Although Clendenon did not relish the thought of playing for an expansion team, he agreed to do so when the Expos offered him a three year contract, correctly figuring that with salary matters out of the way, a contender might be interested in trading for him.  On June 15, the New York Mets did just that.  The trade reunited Clendenon with Gil Hodges who was managing the Mets at that time.  Donn provided a big bat down the stretch and into the post season and won the World Series MVP award by hitting .357 with three homeruns in the four games in which he appeared.  Clendenon  followed up his World Series performance by knocking in 97 runs while appearing in just 100 games in the field in 1970. His play declined in 1971 and after spending 1972 with the St. Louis Cardinals, he retired.
   
Unlike many ballplayers, Clendenon planned well for his life after baseball.  “I always worked while I was playing ball,” Clendenon stated.  In addition to teaching, Clendenon worked in management positions for Mellon Bank and Scripto, was a detective with Allegheny County, created a program to help disadvantaged kids by encouraging them to stay in school and pursued a law degree while playing for the Pirates.  While his stepfather’s illness made it  impossible to complete his law degree as Clendenon helped run the family business in the 1960’s, he returned to Duquesne University and completed his law degree in 1978.  Following a personal battle with addiction in the 1980’s, Clendenon sought treatment and worked a successful recovery program.  Inspired to help others suffering from the disease, Clendenon became a Certified Addictions Counselor and assisted others in finding recovery.  He had also owned his own nightclub as well as other businesses and had battled health problems including leukemia, which he unfortunately lost his battle to in 2005 at the age of 70.   He was most helpful in the writing of this book by providing a copy of his own work, Miracle in New York, for review.

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Tagged:
1969 World Series, Baltimore Elite Giants, Carolina League, Danny Murtaugh, Donn Clendenon, Morehouse College, New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Roy Campanella, St. Louis Cardinals, World Series Most Valuable Player Award

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