SABR

Clyde King

This article was written by James Lincoln Ray.

Clyde Edward King spent more than sixty years in professional baseball as a player, scout, pitching coach, manager, and general manager with more than a dozen teams. Along the way, he played with Jackie Robinson, coached Bob Gibson, managed Willie Mays, and even fired Yogi Berra. 

King was born on May 23, 1924, in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He was one of seven children born into a family headed by his father, Claude, who worked as a foreman at a local lumberyard. Three of the seven children came with his mother Maggie (McMillan) King from a previous marriage. 

When he was five years old, the country fell into the Great Depression. Although he describes his family and origins as modest rather than poor, Clyde’s own stories about his childhood tell a very different story. Perhaps the most telling is how the King brothers made their own baseball equipment. An old abandoned leather sofa provided the leather and the stuffing needed to make a glove. A tree whose trunk was a little thicker than the barrel of a bat was cut down, stripped, whittled, and finally sanded down smoothly into a baseball bat. Baseballs were constructed out of rock, twine, and heavy tape. 

King’s first real baseball coach was Pat Crawford, a member of the world champion 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, who coached Clyde’s school team. King later said Crawford “had a profound influence on my early life because of what he taught me, the most important of which was Crawford’s motto that ‘perfect practice makes perfect.’”1 In other words, practice every day like it’s a real game and you’ll be ready when it’s time to compete.   

King was an ace pitcher in high school and also pitched in 1939 for a semiprofessional team, Borden Mills. That squad was made up of young players whose careers were on the rise, former minor-league stars, and even a handful of ex-major leaguers. But the fifteen-year old King was undaunted. “They were a bunch of grown men [but] I could hold my own with them and do fairly well,” he said in his autobiography.2

After high school, King enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he spent his first year playing baseball and basketball. In April 1944, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed the glasses-wearing, nineteen-year-old right-hander to a contract that featured a $5,000 up-front bonus. 

The six-feet-one, 175-pound King immediately joined the Dodgers; there would be no minor-league priming for the youngster. He rode the bullpen bench for a while but finally made his first appearance on June 21, 1944, in relief against the New York Giants at Ebbets Field. King came in with two on and one out in the ninth. Phil Hausmann greeted him with a single to load the bases. Mel Ott then doubled scoring two runs, and Joe Medwick singled, driving in two more. 

When King returned to the locker room, he learned that general manager Branch Rickey wanted to see him as soon as possible. The first thing Rickey asked was: “What kind of a pitcher are you? What pitches do you throw?” King responded that he threw a fastball and a curve, but his curve was much better. Rickey asked why King had chosen to throw only fastballs in his disappointing debut. King replied that catcher Mickey Owen had told him to throw all heaters. Rickey then told King: “This is your first lesson, young man. You’re in charge. You’re the pitcher. Nothing can happen until you throw the ball, so you throw the pitch you want to throw.”3 King took the advice to heart. Throwing a healthy dose of curve balls, King made fourteen appearances that season, throwing forty-three and two-thirds innings, winning two games and losing one, with a 3.09 ERA. 

His stay with the Dodgers was interrupted by a stint of almost two months with the Richmond (Virginia) Pilots of the Class B Piedmont League, the result of a deal in which the Dodgers acquired Pilots pitcher-manager and former major-league star Ben Chapman. King made his debut with Richmond on August 7, blanking league-leading Portsmouth, 1–0, on four singles. Inserted into the Richmond rotation, he won six games and lost three, as well as another game in the league playoffs. 

Recalled by the Dodgers after the playoffs, King earned his first big-league win with a complete game, 3–2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on September 27. “That was my first win, and it felt great to be a starter,” King wrote in his autobiography. “It felt even better, however, to be a reliever, and I’m so glad that [Dodgers’ manager] Leo Durocher made me a reliever. I loved coming into games that were on the line. I liked the pressure.”4 King also had his first major-league hit that day, a swinging bunt single off Cardinals pitcher Bud Byerly in the third inning.          

Unlike many of his contemporaries, King lived a very clean life; he did not smoke, drink alcohol, or chase women. He believed that “a strong faith in God has been a major force in my life since I became a Christian at age twelve.”5

After the ’44 season, King returned to the University of North Carolina, where he kept in shape by playing on a “B” basketball team. In 1945, he appeared in forty-two games, forty of them in relief, and posted a 5-5 record with a 4.09 earned run average. King was a member of a National League all-star team that toured U.S. bases in Hawaii, Manila, and elsewhere in the Pacific following the 1945 season. Upon his return, he discovered he had been classified 1-A by his local draft board. 

King spent spring training with the Dodgers, who then optioned him to the Mobile of the Class AA Southern Association just before the 1946 season began. He reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for a pre-induction physical in June, but was rejected for service and rejoined Mobile, where he finished the season with thirteen victories, nine defeats, and a 3.57 ERA. 

On November 29 King married his college sweetheart, Norma Surles, The couple settled in King’s hometown of Goldsboro. For the next fifty years, King worked in baseball as a player, coach, manager, scout and general manager for teams all over the country. But every offseason, he returned home to Goldsboro, Norma and, in time, his three daughters: Normie, Princie, and Janet. Of his beloved North Carolina home, King said, “I was born here and raised here. I know the people here and I love the pace of life. Each year when the baseball season ended, I couldn’t wait to get back here.”6

King was back in Brooklyn in 1947. He pitched in twenty-nine games, won six, lost five, and had a career-low 2.77 ERA. The Dodgers won the pennant, but King did not appear in the World Series against the Yankees. 

In 1948 Clyde developed an infection in the index finger of his pitching hand that prevented him from throwing. The team doctor lanced the finger, which may have only worsened the matter, and King spent most of the season with the Dodgers’ International League team at Montreal. On June 9, the Phillies claimed him on waivers, but he never pitched for them, and five days later Brooklyn reclaimed him. 

 King started the 1949 season in Montreal, as part of a pitching rehabilitation plan. His rehabilitation lasted two years in the minors, although he did find success with a new pitch, a slider, and won seventeen games in 1949 and thirteen in 1950. He returned to the Dodgers in 1951 and had his best season, with career-highs in games (48), wins (14), innings (121 1/3), and games finished (31). He also had six saves. 

By the end of the season, however, King was developing serious arm and shoulder troubles. Because of the injury, King was held out of the three-game playoff series between the Dodgers and the Giants to settle the National League pennant. He was sitting in the dugout when Bobby Thomson hit the pennant-winning home run off Ralph Branca. 

King struggled through the pain in 1952, when he pitched in twenty-three games. Although he had a 2-0 record, his ERA ballooned to 5.06. A week after the season ended, the Dodgers traded him to the Cincinnati Reds for catcher Homer “Dixie” Howell and cash. King played the final year of his career for the Reds, appearing in thirty-five games, all in relief. His record was just 3-6 and his ERA was an unimpressive 5.21. King’s last major-league appearance came on September 27, 1953, the nine-year anniversary of his first major-league win. In 1954 King pitched for the Triple A Indianapolis Indians and the Double A Tulsa Oilers, and in 1955 for the Double A Atlanta Crackers. He then retired from pitching at the age of thirty-one. In his career, King appeared in 200 games, won thirty-two and lost twenty-five, and posted an earned run average of 4.14. He played on two pennant winners, the 1947 and 1952 Dodgers, but never had a chance to pitch in the World Series. 

King was named manager of the Atlanta Crackers on July 23, 1955. In 1956 the Crackers won the Southern Association pennant and playoffs, but lost to Houston of the Texas League in the post-season Dixie Series. The next year he managed the Hollywood Stars to a third-place finish in the Pacific Coast League. For years the Stars had been the biggest attraction in Southern California baseball. However, when the Dodgers, announced they were moving from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, the Stars’ owners sold the team to a group in Salt Lake City, and King was out of a job. He soon found another one, managing the 1958 Columbus (Ohio) Jets to a fourth place finish in the International League.

On August 3, 1959 King, who had been working as a coach for the Cincinnati Reds, was hired to manage the Rochester Red Wings of the International League. He led them to a 21-19 record down the stretch, but the team finished a disappointing fifth. The Red Wings went to Cuba for spring training in 1960. This was before the United States embargo on travel to the country, but it was after the revolution, and Fidel Castro was the nation’s prime minister. The Red Wings played a game against the University of Havana, just as King’s Dodgers had done in spring training of 1947, when a much younger King had pitched and won against the school’s star pitcher. Prior to the 1960 game, King and the Havana manager were called to the mound as part of an opening-pitch ceremony, and it was Castro who was to throw out the pitch. Before he did, however, Castro told King that it was he who had pitched and lost for the University of Havana that day thirteen years earlier. 

King had success in 1960 and ’61, leading the Red Wings to two straight International League championship games, both of which they lost. In 1962 the team lost in the first round of the playoffs, and King was let go. He spent the 1963 and ’64 seasons as a roving pitching instructor for the St. Louis Cardinals, and in 1965, the Pittsburgh Pirates made him their pitching coach. He spent the next three seasons in Pittsburgh, where he coached such notable hurlers as Vern Law, Roy Face, and Steve Blass.

King left the Pirates after the 1967 season. In 1968 he managed the Phoenix Giants, San Francisco’s affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, and the next spring he was named skipper of the big-league club. His first season in San Francisco was a moderate success. With an offense that featured Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, and Bobby Bonds, and a pitching staff anchored by Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal, San Francisco made a run at the National League West Division title. They eventually finished second, three games behind the Atlanta Braves. Clyde was brought back to manage in 1970. But the team got off to a slow start, and on May 23, he was fired. 

King then moved on to manage the Atlanta Braves’ Triple A team in Richmond of the International League in 1971 and 1972. In 1973 he moved to Atlanta as assistant general manager. In the middle of 1974, the Braves fired manager Eddie Matthews. They replaced him with King, who led the team to a 38-25 mark over the final sixty-three games of the season. On the Braves team that year was Hank Aaron, making King the only man to have managed both Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. King began the 1975 season at the helm, but was fired in late August when the team was well out of the race for the division title. 

Thinking that his days as a manager might be over, King began looking for a front-office position with another team. That team turned out to be George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees. King’s first position with the team was as a scout. Steinbrenner often assigned King to one player for a few days or weeks, usually to help diagnose a problem with a pitcher’s motion, and then fix the problem. King called himself a troubleshooter. He served in this capacity until 1982, interrupted by stints as a pitching coach in 1978 and 1982. 

King made many decisions, and offered input on free agents, young talent, and managerial performance. He helped put together Yankees teams that won five division titles, three American League pennants, and World Series titles in 1977 and 1978. But by 1982 the team’s fortunes had begun to change. After 100 games, the team, under Bob Lemon and then Gene Michael, was just 50-50. Steinbrenner fired Michael and replaced him with King. Clyde managed the Yankees for the last sixty-two games, but Steinbrenner replaced him with Billy Martin for the 1983 season.   

King stayed with the Yankees as a scout, and in 1984 he was named general manager, a position he held for three seasons, Perhaps the most difficult thing he had to do as general manager happened on April 28, 1985. Prior to the start of the season, Steinbrenner announced that Yogi Berra, the team’s manager during the 1984 season, would remain in place for the entire 1985 campaign. However, the Yankees began the year slowly, and despite his earlier promise, Steinbrenner decided to sack Berra. He did not, however, do it face-to-face. Rather, he dispatched King to deliver the bad news. 

King stayed with the Yankees for the next twenty years, serving as a scout, a troubleshooter, a pitching coach, and in various front-office capacities. He called himself a loyal Yankee and he remained a close friend and confidant of Steinbrenner until Steinbrenner’s death in 2010. 

In 1986 King was involved in the creation of the Baseball Assistance Team, a charity that provides help to former minor league and major league players who have fallen on tough times. He remained active in BAT for nearly twenty years, an organization that has helped hundreds of former players over the past two decades. 

By his own admission, Clyde King was not a top pitcher, but he certainly had an interesting and varied career: His youth connected him to the Gashouse Gang; his playing career linked him with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella; he witnessed close up Bobby Thomson’s and Bucky Dent’s pennant-winning home runs; he managed Juan Marichal and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron; and he survived thirty years with George Steinbrenner. That sounds like a pretty rich baseball life. 

Clyde King died in Goldsboro, at age eight-six, on November 2, 2010.

 

Sources

King, Clyde, with Burton Rocks. A King’s Legacy. Lincolnwood, Illinois: Masters Press, 1999.

Rogers, Thomas. “Sports World Special, King of the Gumball,” New York Times, September 6, 1982.

Chass, Murray. “King Promoted in Yanks Shift.” New York Times, April 10, 1984.

Martinez, Michael. “Berra Fired by Steinbrenner.” New York Times, April 29, 1985.

Fletcher, Walter. “Braves Grant King Two Year Contract.” New York Times, October 1, 1974.

“King Let Go as Manager After 17-16 Loss,” New York Times, May 23, 1970.

“King Ousted as Pilot of Braves,” New York Times, August 31, 1975.

“Martin Named Twins Manager, King Takes Over as Giants’ Pilot,” New York Times, October 12, 1968.

“Reese, Branca, King Accept Terms As Dodgers Finish Signing Players,” New York Times, February 14, 1952.

“Stanky and Head Signed by Dodgers,” New York Times, January 31, 1946.

“Woodward Said to Replace King.” AP article in New York Times, October 9, 1986.

 

Notes

1. King, A King’s Legacy, pp. 6-7.

2. Ibid, p. 8.

3. Ibid, p. 38.

4. Ibid, p. 153.

5. Ibid, p. 145.

6. Ibid, p. 173.

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