SABR

Walter Clarkson

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

One of the stellar college pitchers at the turn of the 20th century, Walter Clarkson of Harvard University played parts of five seasons in major-league baseball from 1904 to 1908, and compiled an ordinary 18-16 lifetime record in 78 games pitched. Clarkson gained lasting notoriety as a symbol of amateur athletics gone awry in college sports, when he was declared ineligible to play college baseball for Harvard in 1904 after he had agreed to play professionally before he had graduated.

Walter Clarkson was born on November 3, 1879, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a Scottish-born father, Thomas Clarkson, a Boston jeweler, and an Irish-born mother, Ellen (Hackett) Clarkson. According to his birth record with the city of Cambridge, Walter was born in 1879, not in 1878 as claimed by various baseball reference works. Clarkson had six siblings: older brothers John, Arthur, and Thomas Jr. (known as Henry), sisters Isabella and Helena, and younger brother Fred. John and Arthur both preceded Walter into major-league baseball, with John having a Hall of Fame career.

Clarkson attended Cambridge High School and played on the baseball team that combined students from the city’s two public high schools, Cambridge (English) High and Cambridge Latin. In 1899 the Cambridge High & Latin baseball team won the Interscholastic Association title among Boston-area public high schools, as Clarkson’s pitching overpowered the competition. The 19-year-old Clarkson struck out 19 batters in a 5-0 victory over Brookline High to clinch the league title that spring.

In the fall of 1899 Clarkson moved on to attend classes at nearby Harvard University, following in the footsteps of his brother Henry, who had played baseball there in 1896. However, at first Clarkson was classified a “special student,” one who was not enrolled in a degree program at the college, presumably since he hadn’t yet passed all of his entrance exams (which then still included being proficient in Latin; the requirement for Greek had been dropped in 1898). Consequently, Clarkson wasn’t eligible to play varsity baseball in his first year at Harvard. For the 1900 season he played on the freshman baseball team, on which he stood out by twice defeating Yale.

During that era, the measure of a Harvard athlete was not how well he did over the course of an entire season but rather how well he performed in the games against archrival Yale. Harvard always ended its baseball season at the time with two games with Yale, one home and one away. The Yale games were so important that if the teams split those two scheduled games, a third match was played to determine a winner of the season series.

Clarkson pitched very well for Harvard against Yale. He defeated the Elis five times as a varsity pitcher, and was never defeated, in addition to his two victories for the freshman team. In the spring of 1901 Clarkson, now a regular student at the college, played on the varsity baseball team. As Harvard compiled an 18-2 record that spring, Clarkson pitched impressively in his two victories over Yale, including a one-hitter in the finale.

As a businessman already in his early 20s, Clarkson parlayed his baseball skills being honed on the playing fields of Harvard into lucrative under-the-table payments to play baseball during the summer for resort-hotel teams in New Hampshire and Maine. The compensation was usually paid under the guise of a no-show menial job or in exchange for room and board with a payment for “other accessories.” Ostensibly, these payments made Clarkson a professional baseball player, so that he’d forfeit his amateur status needed to play college baseball. But playing summer baseball for pay was an open secret among many college athletes of that era, and generally went unpunished.

In 1902 Clarkson again had many strong outings in the pitcher’s box as Harvard racked up a 21-3 record, but it was his heroics in the Harvard-Yale games that capped the season. Yale defeated Harvard in the first game, when Stillman pitched for Harvard. Clarkson then defeated Yale in the second game to set up a rubber game at the Polo Grounds in New York City, where Clarkson pitched Harvard to victory over Yale, 6-5. After the game, Clarkson was voted by his teammates to be captain of the 1903 team.

Clarkson was so feared as a pitcher in 1902 that Yale investigated his amateur standing prior to the Harvard-Yale series, with an eye toward having him declared ineligible. However, Yale never did lodge an official complaint, since it couldn’t muster sufficient evidence. The problem, as Ronald Smith wrote in his book Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics, was that even though Clarkson had been paid to play summer baseball, no one would sign an affidavit attesting to that fact.

During the winter of 1903 two New York Highlanders ballplayers, outfielder Willie Keeler and pitcher Jack Chesbro, helped out with the preseason conditioning of the Harvard ballplayers. Chesbro helped Clarkson develop an “in drop” pitch to complement his overpowering fastball. Keeler and Chesbro no doubt reported their observations of Clarkson to New York manager Clark Griffith, who began to pursue the acquisition of Clarkson effective after his expected graduation from Harvard in June 1903.

In the Harvard-Yale series in 1903, Clarkson won his fifth victory over Yale in the first game, but he did not pitch in the second game because it was raining that day. Coburn instead pitched Harvard to victory. Because Clarkson was a few classes short of the graduation requirements, and would be returning for the 1903-1904 academic year, he was re-elected captain for the 1904 team. Thus, Clarkson played five seasons of baseball at Harvard.

During the spring of 1904, there were persistent rumors that Clarkson would turn professional after the Harvard season concluded. The Highlanders were still interested in Clarkson, after Chesbro had once again coached Harvard during the winter of 1904. However, New York was in competition with several clubs that wanted Clarkson’s services, including the hometown Boston Americans.

Although Clarkson had earlier dodged the allegations over playing for pay in the summer to retain his amateur status at Harvard, he had a more difficult time beating the allegations of overtly signing a contract to play professional baseball that hounded him in 1904. According to the mores of the day, Clarkson could most safely retain his amateur status by signing a contract to play professional baseball after his graduation. If he received any money from a ballclub while still in school, he would definitely forfeit his amateur status. Anything in the middle, such as signing a contract before graduation but not taking any money, was a big gray area. There were no universal rules in 1904, since each school operated under its own principles; the advent of the NCAA, with its broad-based rules that applied to all schools, was still two years away.

If Clarkson had simply signed a contract and taken no advance money, the Harvard Athletic Committee, despite its distaste for professionalism, probably would have let him retain his amateur status and pitch in the Harvard-Yale series in 1904. However, Clarkson admitted to accepting $500 from the New York Highlanders, which became public knowledge on June 8 when newspapers in Boston and New York reported that he had signed a contract to play for New York. On June 13 the Harvard Athletic Committee ruled that Clarkson was a professional and therefore ineligible to play sports for the university, so he had to watch the 1904 Harvard-Yale games from the stands. He was also stripped of his title as captain. To this day, the Harvard athletic records recognize Clarkson as captain of the baseball team only in 1903, with Proctor Carr as the captain of the 1904 team, even though Clarkson was captain for the majority of the season and Carr the captain for just four games.

Why did Clarkson jump the gun on becoming a professional ballplayer? Likely to maximize his economic value. Clarkson was intent on becoming a businessman, like his father the jeweler, so he couldn’t resist the offer by New York to pay him $4,000 a year to play baseball to provide seed money for his future business ventures. He was able to get the two clubs battling for the American League pennant, New York and Boston, to bid for his services, getting one to outspend the other to prevent him from pitching for the other team. It is conceivable that he even leaked the newspaper story himself, to purposely be declared ineligible, since his negotiation value would have been tarnished had he lost to Yale in the culminating games of the 1904 season.

Clarkson, as it turned out, wasn’t a great prospect for major-league baseball. His slight build (the Harvard Crimson described him as being 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighing 144 pounds) and his reliance on a fastball didn’t prepare him well for professional competition.

On July 2, 1904, Clarkson made his major-league debut at the Polo Grounds, where the Highlanders lost to Washington, 3-2. Manager Clark Griffith used Clarkson sparingly that season as the Highlanders stayed in the race for the American League pennant. Chesbro was the New York workhorse, as he won 41 games to establish a still-standing league record. Clarkson started four games for New York and relieved in nine others, to post a 1-2 record in his rookie season. He relieved a foundering Chesbro to mop up in the first game of an October 8 doubleheader in Boston, but otherwise watched helplessly from the bench as Boston defeated New York in three of their last five games to take the American League title.

To work on his pitching motion and bulk up his body, Clarkson spent the fall of 1904 and the early winter at Griffith’s ranch in Montana. The extra work didn’t seem to pay dividends, though. He began the 1905 season with New York, but in mid-May Griffith farmed him out to Jersey City of the Eastern league for more seasoning. After Clarkson compiled a 17-12 record for Jersey City and led the Eastern League with 195 strikeouts, he returned to the New York team, where he finished with a 3-3 record in nine games.

Midway through the 1905 season, on July 24, Clarkson married Frances Gillis in a quiet ceremony in his Cambridge hometown. After pitching in Montreal on July 22, he hopped a train to Boston to get married, while the rest of the team returned to New Jersey. Then he headed back to Jersey City to pitch on July 26. During the 1906 baseball season, on August 15, Clarkson’s only child, Ruth, was born in Cambridge.

The 1906 season was Clarkson’s best in the big leagues. He was 9-4 in 32 games as a spot starter and regular reliever for the Highlanders. After going 1-1 in five games in the 1907 season, he and outfielder Frank Delahanty were traded to the Cleveland Naps on May 16 for pitcher Earl Moore. Clarkson compiled a 4-6 record in 17 games for the Naps in 1907.

After pitching just two games for Cleveland in the 1908 season, though, Clarkson left baseball. After a game on May 4 in Chicago, Clarkson left the team to return to Cleveland to work in the Chisholm Boot Shop. “I had been considering a proposition to go into business for two weeks past,” Sporting Life quoted him as saying. “I am through with base ball and do not intend even to pitch semi-professional ball. I will devote my entire time to business here after.” Shoes and boots were to be the source of Clarkson’s livelihood for the next two decades.

Clarkson stayed in the Cleveland area until 1915, when he moved his family to Lowell, Massachusetts, about 30 miles northwest of Boston. Clarkson owned and operated the Walk-Over Boot Shop at 54 Central Street in downtown Lowell, and lived in the fashionable Belvidere neighborhood. (Walk-Over shoes, one of the earliest brands in the shoe industry, were made by the George E. Keith Company of Brockton, Massachusetts. Mr. Keith was a renowned supporter of minor-league baseball in Brockton.)

Shortly after leaving Harvard, Clarkson began to attain a measure of national infamy as an amateur athlete gone wrong. In a 1905 expose on college athletics, McClure’s Magazine derisively labeled Clarkson as an “amateur,” in quotation marks, “who now openly plays professional ball,” with the emphasis on “openly.” By 1914 “Clarkson’s fate” was a well known syndrome. When Yale shortstop Harry LeGore considered leaving college to sign with the New York Giants, newspapers cautioned him to recall what had happened to Clarkson, writing: “Clarkson’s fate has been a lesson to every college player … to keep his decision [to turn pro] to himself till he had played his last college game and received his diploma.” While LeGore did avoid “Clarkson’s fate,” ironically Yale declared him ineligible in 1915 for being paid to play summer baseball, a transgression for which Clarkson had managed to escape punishment.

When the NCAA was formed in 1906, the organization did little to create enforceable blanket rules about the amateur status of college baseball players who were paid to play summer baseball. After the LeGore incident, in 1916 the NCAA granted an exception for players to retain their amateur status for paid summer baseball provided his college approved of the situation. In 1963 the NCAA finally resolved the summer-baseball conundrum of amateurism through the certification of summer-baseball leagues.

Perhaps due to his notoriety as an amateur gone astray in baseball, Clarkson became a purely amateur golfer. He played in numerous golf club events, winning Lowell’s Vesper Club championship in 1916 and 1923. Other than his amateur golfing exploits, Clarkson remained out of the public spotlight, except for one event. On June 13, 1929, on the exact date of the 25th anniversary of his being declared ineligible to play athletics at Harvard, Clarkson returned to the baseball diamond to pitch in a Harvard alumni-varsity baseball game. He yielded nine runs in the first inning to the varsity team, which thumped the alumni team, 18-7.

Walter Clarkson died on October 10, 1946, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is buried in the Cambridge City Cemetery.

More than 100 years after being declared ineligible to play athletics at Harvard for violating its code of amateurism, Clarkson remains a prominent historical footnote in the current scholarship about the nature of amateur athletics in college sports, as cited in a number of academic papers and books on the topic.

 

Sources

Ronald Smith, Sports and Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 64-65.

Mark Yost, Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2010), 34.

Scott McQuilkin, “Summer Baseball and the NCAA: The Second ‘Vexation,’ ” Journal of Sport History, Spring 1988.

Henry Needham, “The College Athlete: His Amateur Code: Its Evasion and Administration,” McClure’s Magazine, July 1905.

Boston Globe, 1899-1908, 1929.

“Capt. Clarkson Stands Disqualified,” Boston Globe, June 14, 1904.

“Clarkson Done,” Sporting Life, May 16, 1908.

“Clarkson Joins the Highlanders,” New York Herald, June 8, 1904.

Harvard Crimson, 1900-1904.

“Two Yale Stars May Join Giants,” Milwaukee Journal, November 15, 1914.

“Walter Clarkson Wins Vesper Club Championship,” Lowell Sun, October 13, 1923.

“Walter H. Clarkson, Former Major Leaguer, Harvard Athlete, Was 68,” Boston Globe, October 11, 1946.

Baseball-Reference.com, Walter Clarkson playing record.

GoCrimson.com, Harvard University baseball records.

Lowell Public Library, Lowell City Directory, 1915-1928.

Massachusetts State Archives, birth, death, and marriage records prior to 1910.

US Census Bureau, federal censuses of 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930.

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