Most baseball careers are filled with a number of ups and downs, but few players experienced the extreme highs and lows of nineteenth-century pitcher Dad Clarke. In a professional career spanning more than 20 years with at least 17 teams in more than a dozen leagues, he twice won 30 games in a season in the minors, and twice failed in trials in the major leagues. Considered washed up and old while still in his late twenties (he picked up the nickname “Dad” early in his career because he always looked older than his chronological age), he made good in his third chance in the big leagues, winning 35 games over two seasons for the New York Giants. He faded out of sight just as quickly, and was dead by age 46.
The diminutive 5-foot-7, 160-pound right-hander was described in many ways. He was a consummate bench jockey, constantly offering wisecracks and insults from the mound, dugout, or as a base coach. Clarke was a headache for his managers and the opposition, but was loved by his teammates and fans. On the mound, he was known as a confident, tough competitor with a good fastball and what he described as a “raise ball” in his repertoire. Later in his career, after overwork had taken a toll on his arm, Clarke developed a change of pace, a “slow ball” that was an effective pitch for him for many years.
Clarke also had a reputation as a scientific pitcher, studying opposing batter’s weaknesses. A story was told of the time Clarke, while pitching for New York, was found sitting in front of his hotel in Louisville after getting beaten badly by the Colonels. A passerby asked him what he was doing and he replied he was “thinking up a new system of slants,” which he then used to beat Louisville in the last game of their series.1 Late in his career, Washington Senators Hall of Famer Walter Johnson changed his pitching delivery, partly, he said, by studying Clarke’s “new system of slants.”2
He was often called eccentric and “a character; a witty, blunt spoken Irishman.”3 One example of Clarke’s odd behavior was that, despite a career .217 batting average and just ten extra base hits in nearly 400 major league plate appearances, he switch-hit throughout his career. Maybe the most apt description of Clarke came shortly before his death when it was said he was “always a fan favorite on account of his original comments and good-natured disposition.”4
William H. Clarke was born January 7, 1865, in Oswego in upstate New York. Detail about his family and genealogical history was difficult to obtain because the family’s surname was often spelled “Clark” in census rolls and other historical documents. In addition, in the 1870 US Census, he was referred to only as “Wm.” The best information available indicated he was born to John and Bridget Clarke (both natives of Ireland), and he had an older brother Thomas, an older sister Mary, and a younger sister Elizabeth.
It was noted that Clarke left his team briefly in 18915 due to the death of his father. No death record for John Clarke could be located, but he is absent from state and federal census rolls beginning in 1892. During his playing career, it was also noted that Dad was responsible for the sole support of his mother and sister living in Oswego.6 Census rolls after his father’s death indicated a household composed only of his mother Bridget and youngest sister Elizabeth, the two older siblings assumed to have left home.
Clarke’s first year as a professional was in 1886 with the Norwich club in the Central New York State League. That season he reportedly performed the rare feat of hurling a nine-inning no-hit game while officially only retiring 26 batters. He accomplished this by walking one man, who he subsequently picked off first base.7 He finished the season with his hometown Oswego club of the International Association.
In 1887 Clarke signed with the Sandusky Suds of the Ohio State League. He won 21 games, and before the end of the season was purchased, reportedly for $1,000, by the Des Moines Hawkeyes of the Northwestern League. His pitching attracted the attention of several National League clubs and that off-season was said to have fielded many offers before signing with the Chicago White Stockings.
He made his major league debut on April 23, 1888, but appeared in just two games before being released. His short-lived time in the National League may have been prompted by an incident with Chicago captain Adrian “Cap” Anson on the team’s spring training trip. While pitching in an exhibition game, Anson began to criticize Clarke from the bench. The temperamental pitcher hurled the ball at Anson, striking him in the stomach. Anson picked up a bat and began chasing Clarke, who escaped by scaling the ballpark fence.8
The two men had an ongoing feud over the years, and several years later Anson got his revenge. In 1895 the White Stockings were playing in New York and Clarke was on the mound for the Giants. Anson was coaching first base and insisted the ball was damaged, demanding Clarke turn it over to the home-plate umpire for inspection. Clarke refused and finally angrily tossed the ball over to Anson and said, “Here, look for yourself.” Anson stepped aside and let the ball roll away while the White Stocking baserunners advanced. 9
On another occasion, Clarke had been jeering Anson all game long. Cap was able to ignore the insults, but Anson’s father-in-law, John Fiegel, who working security at the ballpark, took exception and waited for Clarke under the grandstand after the game. Reportedly, the 65-year-old Fiegel pummeled Clarke repeatedly before Dad was able to escape.10
After being released by Chicago, he signed on with the Omaha Omahogs of the Western League, where he went 22-13 the rest of 1888. The club was led by future major league manager Frank Selee. The next year, 1889, Clarke was joined on the Omaha pitching staff by future Hall of Famer Kid Nichols, and they led Omaha to the Western League championship. Nichols went 39-8 in 438 innings and Clarke had a 35-15 record in 462 innings. Later that fall, Clarke pitched briefly in San Francisco.
The next season, Selee went east to manage the Boston Beaneaters in the National League, and for a time there was debate about which of his star pitchers he would take with him. The Omaha World Herald printed comparative statistics, extolling the credentials of each pitcher, and Selee eventually chose Nichols. While the two began what would be a decade-long run of success in Boston, Clarke was left behind and returned to Omaha in 1890.
Early in the season it was reported Clarke was “in fine shape and as the mainstay of the club will undoubtedly do some fine work this season.” However, Frank Leonard had replaced Selee as manager and as the season wore on, disharmony on the club came to a head in July. As usual, whenever some sort of controversy arose, Clarke was usually in the middle of it.
While the club was playing in St. Paul, there was a quarrel among the players, and Clarke was fined. He refused to accompany the club to Milwaukee and was suspended for insubordination. He briefly quit the team but rejoined the club when they returned home, and for the rest of the season “finally got down to business and is pitching ball.”11
He was back with Omaha in 1891 and had an 11-6 record, despite running into more problems. In June, he was suspended for assaulting a fan in a game in Lincoln, Nebraska, and in July jumped the club to join the Columbus (Ohio) Senators of the American Association, then considered a major league. His second attempt at the majors lasted just five games before he was released on August 14.
In 1892 he was back in the Western League, but this season pitching for the Toledo Black Pirates. He went 14-8 in 24 games before moving to the Jacksonville Lunatics of the Illinois-Iowa League in August. In 1893, he signed on with the Erie Blackbirds of the Eastern League and had an outstanding season that would serve as a springboard for another trial in the major leagues. He won 31 games, including 18 in a row in one stretch. He won both games of a season-ending doubleheader to clinch the league championship. That November he was purchased by the New York Giants for $500.
Clarke’s reputation as an eccentric was further reinforced in a game in which he was going for his nineteenth straight win with Erie. The game was scoreless, with two men out in the bottom of the ninth in Buffalo. The next batter hit a home run over the centerfield fence, and Clarke left the mound and began chasing the runner as he circled the bases. He caught up to him near second base and tackled him, reasoning that if the runner failed to touch home plate the run would be disallowed. The umpire disagreed and Clarke lost the game 1-0.12
In 1894, Clarke was with New York all season but appeared in just 15 games, as Amos Rusie and Jouett Meekin logged most of the innings for the Giants. He got six starts and went 3-4 in 84 innings. The Giants had an 88-44 record but finished second in the league, three games behind the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles. He became frustrated at the inactivity and asked for his release at the end of the season.
In 1895, Meekin was injured for part of the year, and Clarke stepped into the New York rotation alongside Rusie and Les German. Dad had his best major league season, winning 18 games and throwing 27 complete games in 30 starts while logging 281.2 innings. However, the Giants were just a .500 team that season and fell into the second division in the National League.
Rusie held out all of 1896 in a salary dispute with Giants owner Andrew Freedman. Clarke stepped in and led the club in games and innings pitched, but lost 24 games against only 17 wins. Clarke returned to New York in 1897, and early in the season it was reported he was “not in condition now but will be in form later on when most needed.”13 With Rusie back, Meekin healthy, and the emergence of left-handed pitcher Cy Seymour, Clarke found little playing time, appearing in just six games. In early June he was rumored for release. League leaders Boston and Baltimore, with Orioles manager Ned Hanlon offering first baseman Jack Doyle in trade, had interest in Clarke, but New York refused to trade him to teams they were battling for the pennant. Finally, on August 4, the Giants traded him, with cash, to the last-place Louisville Colonels for outfielder Tom McCreery.
One reason given for Clarke’s lack of playing time was that he was an expert poker player and had won considerable money from almost every member of the team. Giants manager Bill Joyce feared that the players would provide poor defensive support as a way of evening things up with Clarke.14 His eventual departure from New York was said to be due to the fact that Joyce, who also was the team’s regular third baseman, had an injured throwing arm that season. At this point in his career, Clarke was primarily a slow ball pitcher, and right-handed batters had a tendency to pull his off-speed deliveries to the left side of the infield, in the direction of Joyce. The manager felt opposing teams would take advantage of that with Clarke on the mound.15
Although still in the major leagues, Clarke considered Louisville bush league and made it known he did not want to be there. A couple weeks after his arrival, he was fined by team president Harry Pulliam for “drinking the stuff that cheers”16 and went 2-4 in seven games for the Colonels in 1897. He returned to Louisville the next season but didn’t last long. Clarke threatened to fight team secretary Barney Dreyfuss over the dispute of yet another fine, and was eventually released by Pulliam on May 15 after pitching in just three games.
After being released by Louisville, he began a pattern that he would literally continue until the end of his life. Although his opportunity with New York was primarily due to Rusie’s holdout and injuries to other members of the Giants pitching staff, Clarke’s ego was such that he thought a return to the major leagues was sure to come, so he spent the winters in Oswego writing to various teams asking for another chance to pitch. By June, it was reported that he “has several offers, but the salaries offered do not meet his ideas of what he is worth.” Two weeks later, it was reported Clarke was “vainly applying to league clubs for a trial, and it looks as if Dad has at last closed himself out of fast company.”17
At one point, he even took out an ad in the Oswego paper saying “Wanted—a job by a baseball pitcher,” but received no replies. Maintaining his sense of humor, the ad went on to say, “if you hear of any pitching snaps (sic) in the legit show in the big league, just address me at Oswego care of the Mayor, the Chief of Police, or the dog pound. They all know Dad here.”18
Early in the spring of 1899, Clarke had offers from Milwaukee, managed by Connie Mack, and other Western League teams, but he held out, thinking he could catch on with a major league team or at least a club nearer his home in the east. Milwaukee finally gave up on signing him, “his terms being excessive,” and when no other offers were forthcoming, he eventually signed with the Worcester (Massachusetts) Farmers in the Eastern League. His stay there was brief, and he was released in mid-June after a 2-5 record in seven games.
He spent the winter at his home in Oswego, still holding out hope that a major league team would come calling. He hooked on briefly with the Buffalo Bisons of the American League (still a minor circuit) early in 1900, and after refusing to go as far west as Milwaukee the previous year, signed with Butte of the Montana State League in July. He got off to an inauspicious beginning, getting arrested, jailed, and fined for drunkenness within a few days of arriving in Butte. He pitched in just one game, but remained in the area, spending his time umpiring games in Montana until September.
Clarke moved to the West Coast, pitching briefly for Spokane in the Pacific Northwest League early in 1901, before returning to the Western League with the Minneapolis Millers in June. He spent the winter in Minneapolis working in a brickyard, and signed with the Millers for the 1902 season, but was released in June. The next stop along his baseball odyssey was a brief stop in Devils Lake, North Dakota in the independent Northern League.
Approaching 40 years old and with a lame arm, Clarke spent the next several years writing managers of various teams across the country asking for tryouts and accepting any offer that was made. His whereabouts in 1903 are unknown, other than a report that he had a tryout in the Texas League. In 1904, he caught on briefly again with Butte, Montana, but by May was with Springfield, Illinois in the 3-I League. By June he had “cut too many capers,” and begun to wear out his welcome. He was eventually suspended for the season by the team in July for intemperance.
The 1905 and 1906 seasons were a microcosm of Clarke’s career in baseball and life in general. In April 1905, he was back in Erie, Pennsylvania, and by June had been cut loose by a team in Osklaloosa, Iowa. That summer he also signed with Calumet, Michigan in the Northern Copper Country League, but whether or not he played with this club is unknown. February 1906 found him working in a stove factory back in Erie, and by March he was employed as a stenographer in a livery stable in his hometown of Oswego. Still not done with baseball, he was briefly hired as an umpire in the Western League, and later that summer signed with an independent team in Lorain, Ohio. He had now come full circle, winning a game against Sandusky, Ohio, where he first pitched twenty years earlier.
He remained in Lorain over the next few years and was employed as a bartender at a local café, but could not completely retire from baseball. He joined an all-female team in 1909 and participated in an alumni game in Cleveland in 1910. In late May 1911, while walking down the street, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage (stroke) and lapsed into unconsciousness. A few days later, on June 3, he died at St. Joseph’s Hospital at the age of 46. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Lorain. No record could be found of Clarke ever marrying or having children. His obituary only mentions a brother and sister in Oswego as survivors.19
Clippings from Clarke’s file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY
1 Washington (DC) Evening Star, August 12, 1908
2 Springfield (MA) Daily News, August 11, 1913
3 Providence (RI) Evening News, February 3, 1916
4 Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, January 2, 1911
5 Sporting Life, May 16, 1891
6 Sporting Life, March 2, 1891
7 Sporting Life, August 23, 1893
8 The Sporting News, February 20, 1892
9 Washington (DC) Evening Star, July 18, 1895
10 Duluth (MN) News Tribune, May 13, 1906
11 Sporting Life, August 2, 1890
12 Washington (DC) Evening Star, March 1, 1907
13 Sporting Life, April 17, 1897
14 Boston Daily Globe, July 25, 1897
15 Philadelphia Inquirer, August 22, 1897
16 Sporting Life, August 22, 1897
17 Sporting Life, June 4 and June 18, 1898 issues
18 Pawtucket (RI) Times, July 11, 1899
19 Sandusky (OH) Register, June 5, 1911