Horace Clarke, RIP: Not his fault

2020-08-11 HoraceClarke

Horace Clarke—the Yankees’ Lost Decade wasn’t even close to all his fault.

Arguably, the worst era in the history of the New York Yankees that had nothing to do with George Steinbrenner’s King-of-Hearts style of leadership was 1965-1974. Calling it the Yankees’ Lost Decade may be an understatement. Saying it proved that even the Yankees were only human, after all, doesn’t really fit comfortably, however true it was.

Calling it the Horace Clarke Era—after the good-field/no-hit second baseman who died 5 August at 81, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease—was patently unfair, too. It still is. Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio said, famously, “I thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.” There isn’t a jury on earth who’d rule Clarke out of line if he’d surrendered to the temptation to say, “Lord, you got a minute?”

The whole thing began when the Yankees, in one of baseball’s most devious double switches ever, fired manager Yogi Berra the day after they lost a thriller of a seven-game 1964 World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. Days later, they hired Johnny Keane, who’d just beaten them in that Series.

Keane’s Cardinal skids were greased deviously during the season, before the Cardinals survived to win the pennant. He stunned owner Gussie Busch by handing Busch his resignation–at the presser Busch called to announce his re-hiring. Berra was likewise a victim of back-channel backstabbing whose execution was planned no matter how the season finished. Not even a 31-12 stretch to win the pennant could save him, despite Bill Veeck’s valedictory (in The Hustler’s Handbook):

Normally, you win a pennant when all your players have a good year together. The Yankees won it with all their players having bad years together . . . With all their difficulties, the Yankees did move on with that rush down the stretch. Unless I have been sadly misinformed by all those sensation-seeking columnists, the manager during that stretch run was Yogi Berra.

By 1964’s end the Yankee farm was practically a dust bowl. Owners Dan Topping and Del Webb, looking to sell, parched it along with other cost-cuttings to pump up Yankee profits and impress a likely buyer. The buyer turned out, somewhat controversially, to be the Columbia Broadcasting System during the ’64 season.

The few prospects the Yankee farm yielded between the end of the Casey Stengel era and the end of Berra’s 1964 would prove to be journeymen (Hal Reniff, Tom Tresh, Rollie Sheldon, Phil Linz, Pete Mikkelsen), injury-ruined (Tresh, Jim Bouton), inconsistent (Steve Hamilton, Bill Stafford), or talented but troubled and troublesome. (Joe Pepitone.)

The Yankee stars showed their age and then some. Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford probably should have retired after 1964. Roger Maris’s post-1962 injuries already began sapping his formidable power. Tony Kubek’s back would finish his career after the 1965 season. His double-play partner Bobby Richardson–overrated as an early-in-the-order man because he was an impossible strikeout–called it a career on his own after 1966 . . . and after only eight seasons as a regular.

If you needed an idea of just how badly shaped the post-Berra Yankees would become, you had only to look at Mel Stottlemyre, the August 1964 callup who proved one of the two Yankee heroes down that stretch. (Early September acquisition Pedro Ramos, a journeyman starter whom Berra put in the bullpen shrewdly, proved lights out in eleven key appearances including eight saves.)

Stottlemyre earned 20 wins in 1965 and 20 losses in 1966. He was the same pitcher in both seasons–1965 fielding-independent pitching: 3.24; 1966: 3.35–but he was somewhat lucky in 1965 (2.60 ERA) and very unlucky in 1966. (3.80.) He’d have a fine career, though well short of a Hall of Fame one, until a decade plus worth of throwing his trademark hard sinkerballs claimed their price in June 1974. Rotator cuff blown. Pitching career over.

Keane wouldn’t survive past an early 1966 stretch. Trying to bring a run-and-gun style of baseball to a team built for the big inning did him no favours. Houk–whose tenure as GM is described most politely as controversial (and almost illegal, when he tried breaking the rules to fine Bouton $100 a day for a contract holdout)–fired Keane that May and returned to the dugout, perhaps deciding he was miscast in the front office. When Keane died in January 1967, after taking a scouting job with the Angels, the Yankee toll taken on him left him looking a quarter century older than his 55 years.

Ford finally surrendered to his elbow and shoulder miseries and retired after 1967. Mantle finally did what he should have done three years earlier and called it a career in 1968. Maris wasn’t allowed such dignity; the Yankees unconscionably hid a wrist fracture’s actuality from him, then traded him to the Cardinals after 1966 despite his intentions to retire. (The Cardinals allowed Maris a dignified finish, playing for back-to-back pennant teams, and then a life as a successful Anheuser-Busch distributor.)

Veteran Elston Howard, Berra’s successor behind the plate, a late bloomer largely because of the Yankees’ old trepidations about bringing black players along, was traded to the Boston Red Sox during the 1967 stretch drive at age 38 but in position to mentor the youthfully remade Red Sox toward their surprise pennant.

Most of the few bright lights the 1965-74 Yankees really produced couldn’t and wouldn’t live up to the franchise’s legend. Owned by CBS from 1964-1973, the Yankees learned the hard way that when it came to running a baseball team the Tiffany Network was more like a costume jeweler.

Bobby Murcer was burdened by too much hype comparing him to Mantle (both from Oklahoma, both signed by the same scout, both with breathtaking power, both five-tool players) to make the team his with or without Mantle lingering. Fritz Peterson was a talented pitcher who battled to win despite finishing his career with the lowest old Yankee Stadium ERA (2.52) of any pitcher–including Ford. (He also ended his Yankee days controversially following the infamous “life swap” of wives and children with pitching teammate Mike Kekich.)

Roy White was a reliable outfielder and steady bat, but the ’65-’74 Yankees needed more around him to make his Tommy Henrich-like play mean anything. (The good news: the popular, respected White managed to last long enough to play on two Yankee World Series winners after the team was remade/remodeled back to greatness.)

Thurman Munson arrived behind the plate in 1969 and, soon enough, he’d anchor the Yankees’ return to greatness in the mid-to-late 1970s before his tragic 1979 death in a plane crash. Murcer would return from tours in San Francisco and Chicago to taste of postseason play in 1980 and 1981, before becoming a popular Yankee broadcaster.

And, then, there was Clarke.

A 1965 rookie, Clarke was the fourth major leaguer to hail from the Virgin Islands. (Outfielder Joe Christopher, pitcher Al McBean, and catcher Elmo Plaskett preceded him.) He was a second baseman with good soft hands, excellent range (he was consistently above his league’s average for fielding percentage and range factors), double-play deftness, and a futile bat. The classic old good-field/no-hit middle infielder.

He was also a genuinely nice guy in the bargain who never thought he’d been cursed to be a Yankee when being a Yankee was damn near like being a 1965-68 Met, though even he admitted to having days in which it seemed the devil was having a hearty laugh at his expense.

The Original Mets of 1962-64 were funny when they lost. How could they not, with Stengel managing them and schpritzing his triple-talking wit to shield them. With Abbott pitching to Costello. With Who the Hell’s on First, What the Hell’s on Second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want to Think About It at shortstop.

Sooner or later, of course, most running gags run their course. (Fibber McGee’s closet remains an outlier.) The post-Stengel Mets of 1965-68 were as funny when they lost as a screen window on a submarine. The 1965-74 Yankees weren’t even that funny, not on the field, anyway.

Just why the Yankees’ Lost Decade came to be called “The Horace Clarke Era” escapes me, and I was there, growing up in Long Beach, on Long Island, to see it. And, hear it, since broadcast legend Red Barber was part of the Yankee team until his execution at end of 1966 and–knowing of his years as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ anchor broadcaster–the only reason any Met fan had to listen to Yankee home games if the Mets weren’t on the air.*

Why single out the Virgin Islander who played second base like a gazelle but couldn’t hit with a telephone pole? Why him and not, say, modestly endowed catcher Jake Gibbs? Peterson’s retrospective book, When the Yankees Were On the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era, offered a suggestion from no less than Clarke himself.

[E]very 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 . . . But . . . I’m going to tell you something. While I was there, [writers] always targeted me, I was targeted more than anybody I think because I played just about every day. When I was traded to San Diego [in May 1974], 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 knew his limits, at least at the plate. But he also believed he was blessed regardless. “I am happy, my friend,” Clarke told the New York Post‘s Mike Vaccaro in 2004. “I played major league baseball for parts of ten years, and I played in the magnificent city of New York, and as a child in St. Croix that was beyond dreams. Yes. I am a happy man.”

If he’d been a Cub (as Murcer eventually became for a spell), Clarke might have rivaled Hall of Famer Ernie Banks for thinking every day was beautiful enough to play two. Might.

Even a Clarke gets to stand with the immortals now and then. The second time, though, he might have chosen a little differently. On 30 September 1971, Clarke was the scheduled Yankee batter with two out and Joe Grzenda on the mound trying to save the Washington Senators’ final home game ever.

Knowing the Senators’s duplicitous owner Bob Short was about to hijack them to Texas (banners festooned with Short’s initials sometimes dominated in the stands), heartsick fans finally stormed the field, left it looking like the aftermath of a terrorist attack, and forced a forfeit before Grzenda (who died last year) got to throw even one pitch to Clarke.

Clarke made more pleasant history the previous season. Between 4 June and 2 July 1970, he busted up no-hit bids by three pitchers, Jim Rooker (Kansas City Royals), Sonny Siebert (Red Sox), and Joe Niekro (Detroit Tigers)–every one in the ninth inning. Call him “No-Hit No-Way Horace,” if you like.

In due course, Clarke became a baseball instructor for the official sports program of his native Virgin Islands and a Royals scout. “I was proud to be a Yankee,” he told Vaccaro. “I just played there at a difficult time for everyone. But I had a blast.”

Once upon a time, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver remembered managing pitcher/playboy Bo Belinsky in the Orioles’ minor league system. “Bo wasn’t no angel,” Weaver told a Belinsky biographer, “but I’ll tell you this, he wasn’t the worst guy I ever knew in baseball, either.”

Horace Clarke wasn’t a Hall of Famer on the best days of his life, but I’ll tell you this. Whatever went wrong with the Lost Decade Yankees, Clarke wasn’t even close to the main reason. May he have been shepherded to a sweet eternity in the Elysian Fields, where every soft-handed, rangy second baseman has a place with the Lord’s angels.
* On 22 September 1966, Yankee Stadium was practically empty as the Yankees faced the Chicago White Sox. Red Barber ordered a camera pan of the ballpark. When he was refused, Barber addressed his viewers: “I don’t know what the paid attendance is today, but whatever it is, it is the smallest crowd in the history of Yankee Stadium, and this crowd is the story, not the game.”

What Barber didn’t know at the moment was that one of the 413 present in the ballpark was CBS honcho Mike Burke, whom the network assigned to administer the Yankees, attending his first live Yankee game. Burke was made aware of Barber’s on-air remarks and forced the Hall of Fame broadcaster’s ouster at breakfast the following week.

The Ole Redhead retired as a full-time sportscaster after that.

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