At this writing, Thom Brennaman’s final fate isn’t known. Though Fox Sports suspended him from its team of National Football League announcers, and the Cincnnati Reds suspended him from their broadcast team, neither have determined his final outcome just yet.
But when Brennaman’s observation of “one of the great f@g capitals” went over the air thanks to a microphone he didn’t know was hot and live, it wasn’t the first time Brennaman’s mouth surrounded his foot this year.
In late July, Brennaman was calling a game between the Reds and the Detroit Tigers when he said long-retired major league slugger Jack Clark went from retired to expired. “He just passed away recently, right?” said Brennaman in the middle of an anecdote. “I thought I read that.”
It wasn’t long before Brennaman was corrected about the former San Francisco/St. Louis/New York/San Diego/Boston bombardier and compelled to apologise on the air: “[I’m] so glad that’s not the case.”
Jack the Ripper is many things at 64. Not all of them have been edifying, but more of them than you may have thought have been admirable. Brennaman’s mistake to one side, there have been times in Clark’s life all the way back to his harsh childhood when thoughts of imminent demise might have seemed sweet relief.
I’m brought to these thoughts thanks inadvertently to The Athletic‘s Joe Posnanski’s entry this morning on Jose Bautista’s 2015 American League Championship Series bat flip, in Posnanski’s series on baseball’s greatest moments. Not because Posnanski mentioned Clark (he didn’t), but because a reader did.
“Greatly admire Bautista’s handiwork . . .But I think I prefer understatement because I still think Clark’s 3 run homer against the Dodgers followed by the dismissive bat flip is the height of cool,” the reader wrote among the comments. “Then Pedro heaving his glove into the ground in disgust just finishes the moment.”
The reference is to the top of the ninth in Game Six, 1985 National League Championship Series. With Willie McGee on third, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith on second, the Los Angeles Dodgers standing one out from forcing Game Seven, Dodgers relief pitcher Tom Niedenfuer on the mound, Clark checking in at the plate, and Dodger Stadium making a racket audible as far away as Las Vegas.
If Posnanski’s reader meant “Pedro” to mean Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, he should know that—when the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda decided for whatever reason that Niedenfuer pitching to Clark with first base open and the pennant on the line was safer than a baby in a crib—Martinez was a fourteen-year-old Dominican Republic lad, looking up to older brother Ramon after their parents divorced a year earlier.
Niedenfuer had a splendid 1985 entering that postseason, with a shining 2.71 ERA and a glittering 2.21 fielding-independent pitching rate in 106.1 relief innings. He’d surrendered the Game Six tying run relieving Orel Hershiser in the seventh, but he escaped further damage with a free pass followed by back-to-back swinging strikeouts and then a spotless eighth.
With the Dodgers now leading 5-4 after Mike Marshall’s leadoff bomb in the bottom of the eighth, Niedenfuer opened the ninth by striking Cesar Cedeno out. But McGee singled and stole second, Smith walked, and Tommy Herr’s ground out to first pushed Smith to second. Now came Clark.
“I can understand it,” Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt told Sports Illustrated for a 1987 profile of Clark. “Maybe Tommy Lasorda tells Niedenfuer to pitch around Jack, not give him anything good to hit. But pitchers can feel they are better, too, just like hitters can. So he tries to throw it by Jack and . . . ”
Niedenfuer opened by throwing Clark a fastball. The husky righthander’s curtain was dropped immediately, when Jack the Ripper blasted it two-thirds of the way up the left field bleachers. Then, after Niedenfuer ended the inning by getting Andy Van Slyke to fly out, Cardinals reliever Ken Dayley rung up two prompt strikeouts and then a fly out to drop the curtain on the Dodgers’ season.
“Get Jack out and nothing’s ever said about it,” Schmidt told SI, perhaps knowing even then that what proved that pennant-winning blast would define both the hapless Niedenfuer and the bristling Clark for maybe the rest of their lives. “But pitch to him with first base open and get burned, and a manager gets second-guessed to his grave.”
“Lasorda wept in the clubhouse, went to players to apologize, then went on with his life,” wrote Thomas Boswell in 1989. “At the moment he manages the reigning world champions. Maybe Lasorda coped so well because he’d already gone to three Series and won one.”
The only thing Niedenfuer did after Clark blew his fastball to smithereens was stand on the mound looking as though he’d come home one day to see what was left after his house burned to the ground.
Clark’s playing career was pockmarked by too many injuries, and too many battles with front offices and even managers, to match his Hall of Fame talent to a Hall of Fame career. When he slumped, he often couldn’t sleep or eat and blamed himself for losses even if he’d had nothing to do with causing them directly.
He was raised with a kind of brutal indifference by a hard-working but embittered father whose harshness stained him deeper than his mother’s “soft and flowing like whipped cream” opposite. When he connected, it often seemed as though he hoped he’d drive it right down the old man’s throat, if not through his head. As a major leaguer, Clark often preferred the company of “the workaday players” to his fellow team stars. As a parent himself, he gave his own children the time, fun, and love his own father didn’t.
“This is the house that Jack built,” Rick Reilly wrote opening a 1991 SI profile. “This is 6,000 square feet of games and toys and affection that Jack Clark made for his four kids, not at all like the house he grew up in, not at all like the silent one his own father made.”
Jack the Ripper was so bent on giving his children the childhoods denied him that he was accused falsely of refusing to fly with his teams on road trips. It turned out that what he really did was fly home on team off days to spend extra time with his family, then fly back to meet the team at their next road stop.
Clark found childhood sanctuary in two passions, baseball and cars. “Clark’s friends were the low-riders, the gang members, the greasers with their customized rods and tiny front wheels,” Reilly recorded. He was also generous to a fault, whether handing a high school teammate he hadn’t seen in years $500 on the spot, or buying a Cardinals clubhouse attendant a Mercedes-Benz after leaving the Cardinals as a free agent.
As an adult, Clark’s ability to send a baseball cross country made him a fortune. But the cars he loved—including eighteen vehicles several of which were fully-restored vintages, and a drag racing team that never really succeeded—cost him that fortune.
Once in the 1980s Clark had to sue to recover some of the money out of which he and other players were swindled by a shady investor. In 1992, the bankruptcy to which he was driven by all those cars and especially his failing drag racing team exploded into embarrassing headlines. It also exploded into a harsh divorce from his first wife, Tammy.
Reconciled to his father in due course after all those decades, and remarried happily enough, Clark went to bankruptcy court a second time, in 2018, not because he hadn’t learned the first time around—the debt this time wasn’t even close to the 1992 collapse—but because medical expenses for himself and his second wife, Angela, sent them there.
The man whose glandular home runs inspired his Giants teammate Vida Blue to nickname him Jack the Ripper in the first place has been through too much, much inflicted upon him, much self-inflicted.
He needed Thom Brennaman pronouncing him dead, a month before Brennaman committed possible career suicide over pronouncing upon “the great f@g capitals,” about as much as Tommy Lasorda needed to let him swing with first base open and a pennant on the line.