SABR

Bill Clark

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

This is a man who keeps busy. In 36 years as a major-league scout, he conducted over 1,000 tryouts. As an international scout, he’s visited more than 40 countries, sometimes on multiple occasions – for instance, Australia at least 25 times – while flying something like 100 different airlines. He’s signed at least one player from each of more than 20 countries, and held tryouts in unlikely locations such as Mali and Peru. And he’s done a lot more in his life than evaluate talent on the baseball field.

Bill Clark was born in Clinton, Missouri, on August 18, 1932, and graduated from Clinton High in 1949. He received a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1958, having taken a few side trips along the way. It’s tempting just to list his varied accomplishments in bullet-point format; even that would take up a few pages.

Bill’s father was a radio repairman until rationing hit during World War II and he could no longer obtain the parts he needed. Bill’s mother was a housewife. Bill was an only child. The family struggled economically. Bill’s father kept his shop open during the war, cannibalizing other parts, but found it increasingly difficult to provide. He sold his Model A Ford and took the job of janitor at the post office, riding his bicycle year-round to get to work. Bill traveled on two wheels as well, not learning how to drive until he got into the Army.

Baseball really arrived in Bill’s life only after the war, the year he turned 13. “I had no contact with sports except boxing. My dad loved to listen to Joe Louis fight. We’d gather ’round the radio and listen to Joe Louis, and boxing. There was no baseball in Clinton during the Second World War.” [1] There wasn’t even sandlot ball. He recalled the first baseball game he ever saw, in the city park, in September 1945, the month after the war ended. It was a game between those who had not been in the service (the Rejects) and those who had just returned home from the war (the Go-Devils).

The next year an American Legion team was formed in Clinton and he made the club as an outfielder “mainly because I showed up. I was a right-handed swinger, and never a hitter.” He could hit the occasional curveball, but couldn’t catch up with fastballs. Nonetheless, he did play on the Legion team for three seasons. There was no high-school baseball in the area until into the 1970s; Clark played high-school football for three years; “they gave me a suit that was too big for me.”

He’d begun doing the announcing for the local semipro team, the Clinton Chicks (Clinton had 16 chicken hatcheries in town), which played against touring teams that came through the area like the House of David, and one of the Kansas City Monarchs teams. In 1948 he went to a baseball tryout camp himself – a three-day camp. He was cut the first day. On the spot, he decided he would become a big-league umpire – and started telling everyone about it. So when the Monarchs came to town and the regular umpire was ill, Clark was handed some catcher’s gear – no cup – and umpired a game when the Chicks took on Buck O’Neil and the Monarchs.

After graduating from high school in 1949 Clark worked all summer cleaning incubators in the chicken hatcheries for ten hours a day and saved enough money to enroll in George Barr’s Umpire School in Sanford, Florida, beginning in January 1950. He’d begun working in the hatcheries when he was 12. “By the time I was 13, I was drawing a man’s salary.”

After Barr’s six-week program, Clark was ready for work as an umpire but first had to address the matter of his military service obligation. Almost everyone else in the umpire school was 35 or 40, mostly ex-military men. Clark was 17. He started college on a scholarship but flunked out because of high blood pressure; he’d passed out on the football field. He thought his high blood pressure might excuse him from the service. He enlisted, failed his first physical, but was kept overnight and a second officer passed him. Private William Clark arrived in Korea at the tail end of the Korean War, working on an Army airstrip and becoming a truck driver transporting gasoline from the port at Inchon to the airstrip. For the last two of his 36 months, he was a corporal.

There had been some baseball in the service, starting during basic training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, when a colonel called Clark out of artillery training; it turned out that he was the only trained umpire on the post and the post championship game was on that evening. In Korea he umpired a fair amount of softball. After being mustered out, he worked semipro and Legion ball almost every day. With the help of the GI Bill, he was able to go to college.

Clark chose journalism, encouraged by the fact that his hometown newspaper had published something on the order of 50 letters he’d written from Korea. “I had the calling to write,” he says. “Every person has in them a gene that demands they write. Some overcome it and some succumb to it.”

He went out for football at Missouri, but when they learned he’d been paid as a baseball umpire, he was disqualified as an amateur and unable to play. “So I turned to weightlifting.” He still worked baseball games, umpiring as many as five doubleheaders a week – always behind the plate.

The University of Missouri School of Journalism had always been considered one of the best programs of its sort. The morning paper in Columbia is the Missourian, published by the journalism school and honed in competition with the Columbia Tribune. Clark chose the sports-writing sequence at school. As a veteran he could have claimed the college-football beat, but instead he elected to cover the biggest high school in town. “I wanted the grassroots level in sports. It was a situation where you just became friends with everybody in the community and in central Missouri.” Already, Clark was thinking like a scout, digging down to the grassroots. He also began a bowling column, which he kept writing for 20 years. He was active and ambitious, and by the time he was a senior in college, he was the president of the Missouri Sportswriters Association, a statewide organization that included writers from the major St. Louis and Kansas City papers. “I guess they couldn’t find anybody else,” he said with a laugh.

Clark took a job at the Lexington Leader in Kentucky, but just three months later he returned to Columbia for good, offered the opportunity to manage the newspaper distribution agency for the Kansas City Star at double what he’d been making in Lexington. On top of everything else, he’d been a Star delivery boy for three years while in college, twice a day six days a week – a 4 A.M. and a 4 P.M. route – but only once on Sundays. He had started a family by this time, marrying Dolores Denny Clark in 1955. The couple eventually had five children, the first born in 1957 – and the work was important.

In 1958, the year he graduated from journalism school, Bill wrote his first book, a yearbook and a history of the Central Missouri Racing Association. It was modified stock-car racing, and Clark became a familiar guy in the pits.

It was in 1956, two years earlier, when Clark first began scouting baseball. He’d been umpiring Legion games, small-college games, and some high-school ball in Columbia. (He also worked that spring in the Central Mexican League, his first foray into international work other than the Army.) He told interviewer Dave Paulson, “The first thing they handed me when I got there was a list of about 15 phrases. They said, if you hear one of these phrases, the guy’s gone.” [Interview with Bill Clark by Dave Paulson, June 28, 2003]

Working at the Missouri Legion tournament in Jefferson City that summer, he was approached by a Milwaukee Braves scout named Dick Keeley. He said, “Boy, every time I go to see a prospect, you’re behind home plate. You work a lot, don’t you?” About 125 to 150 games a year, Clark told him. “Want to make you a bird dog,” Keeley said. They shook hands on it. For the next seven Christmases, Clark got a $50 bill in the mail. He and Keeley would talk every time the scout was in the area, and he ended up signing a couple of players Clark had recommended. In the process, he learned what Keeley was looking for. Later that year, he finished out the season umpiring in the Nebraska State League – Bill Clark rarely stayed still.

“Between innings I would write down notes on the back of the lineup cards, and I would just give him the lineup cards.” He worked with Keeley until 1962, when he felt a “burning desire to go back into pro ball as an umpire.” After a month in Florida and the Pioneer League, he was down to his last $95 and owed $125 in rent – “it was one of the biggest mistakes I ever made.” Fortunately, he found a couple of jobs, working overnight in an all-night eatery, “slinging hash and beating drunks on the head,” and a position as assistant recreation director in Columbia, essentially in charge of the recreation part of the parks and recreation department. And he took a staff position at the newspaper, sports writing. In his spare time, he refereed basketball and football. He claims he’s officiated at one level or another in some 22 different sports.

Then a Pirates scout named Chet Montgomery turned up, planning to run a tryout camp in Columbia. He needed a field, and Clark supplied him one in exchange for being made a bird dog for Pittsburgh. “I got paid nothing. I didn’t even get my $50 at Christmas, but it really developed. I took what vacation time I had and he took me with him to work tryout camps.” It was the summer of 1963 and Clark worked as a recommending scout for three years, gaining more experience while traveling to Omaha and throughout Kansas with Montgomery. Clark soon was upgraded, earning a stipend of $500 a year, before Montgomery left to join the Cincinnati Reds. The Pirates needed a full-time supervisor for 1968 and offered Bill $8,000 – more than the $6,000 to 6,500 he was making with the city.

The Pirates job was to serve as an area scout in several states, looking over his own network of bird dogs. It was Clark’s first full-time work as a scout and he covered Missouri, Kansas, half of Iowa, Illinois south of Interstate 74, western Kentucky, western Tennessee, and Nebraska. After just one year, he took a similar job with the Seattle Pilots in 1969, covering all of 11 states, West Virginia, Indiana, and Minnesota among them. When the Pilots moved to Milwaukee, he found himself with a financially strapped organization but with two years left on a three-year contract. He had business cards from four organizations over a four-year period.

Chet Montgomery, now with the Cincinnati Reds, requested permission to talk to him and Clark ended up scouting for Cincinnati for 18 years. He joined them as the team’s Midwest scout.

The first player Bill Clark signed who made it to the major leagues was Jerry Bell, whom he signed for the Seattle Pilots. Clark drove to work him out, but got lost around Nashville and by the time they finally linked up, Bell was back home. Bell called over a friend as his catcher, and Clark worked him out under the streetlights in his neighborhood. “I signed him from under a streetlight workout. I think I gave him $500.” Even though some other teams were after Bell, the way it worked out in the February 1969 draft, he became Pilots property.

There were others he recommended but the team didn’t sign – such as Eric Rasmussen, who pitched in the majors for eight seasons. Rasmussen was from Wisconsin but Milwaukee’s scouting director passed on him. Clark hasn’t always taken credit for signings, in part because it’s a collegial process, but he’s also been credited with signing players he never saw. It cuts both ways. “There are a bunch of guys who played after I became an international supervisor. I had to approve everybody. Whether I signed them or not, I still approved their contract. It goes with the territory.” Roland Hemond has remarked that Clark was always determined to give primary credit to the scouts who worked at ground level; in a note to SABR’s Rod Nelson in 2001, Hemond wrote, “Bill was always giving the territorial or area scouts credit, even though some of the players would have not been signed without Bill’s judgment and decision. Andruw Jones may be a prime example.”

With the Reds, Clark had three or four part-time guys under him and, over the 18 years, as many as 100 bird dogs at one time or another. These recommending scouts, or associate scouts, would typically get $100 if a player they’d pushed was signed. If he made Double-A for 60 days, the scout got another $500, and if he was in the big leagues for 60 days, there’d be another $1,000. It doesn’t seem like much, but it wasn’t bad money in those days.

Clark worked under Cincinnati scouting director Joe Bowen, whose brother Rex was the special-assignment man for GM Bob Howsam. In the late winter and very early spring, he would “snowbird” – head south to work with the Southern scouts before the weather permitted baseball in the Midwest or North.

The job lasted until owner Marge Schott asked the question about her team’s scouts: “Why should I pay all these guys money – big money – when all they do is watch games?” Six to eight scouts were let go. Clark had been approached a year earlier by Paul Snyder of the Atlanta Braves, but was proud of the Reds’ scouting crew and didn’t want to see it broken up. Schott eliminated that concern, so Clark was free to call Snyder, and was hired almost overnight. The only thing he needed to negotiate for was a company car – he was putting on at least 50,000 miles a year, away from home at least 250 nights a year.

He’d gotten his feet wet in international scouting with Cincinnati. Manitoba and Saskatchewan were part of his territory. The Latin coordinator for the Reds didn’t like going to Central America, so he asked Clark to do so, setting up a tryout camp in Guatemala, where there were a number of Nicaraguans active in baseball – and where Bill had a son in the Peace Corps. He also went to Nicaragua when the Sandinistas were at their strongest. Bill found the work “a lot of fun.” He got in a little time in Mexico, too.

When Clark joined the Braves, he was hampered physically with joint problems – both knees and one of his hips. He’d run hundreds of tryout camps, hitting all the fungoes himself, work he truly loved. He dealt with public relations: “Coming out of the media world, I spent a lot of time with the media. I never saw a television camera that I didn’t enjoy being in front of.” There was a lot of administrative paperwork, too, from insurance certificates to liability waivers, but it was all part of the package.

Hitting was never high on his list of what he looked for. Following what Clark called the Branch Rickey school of scouting, thanks to both Howsam and Rex Bowen, who had worked under Rickey, Reds scouts looked for prospects who could run and throw and were athletic. Bill kept all his prospect data on registration cards, and still has 10,000 of them on a shelf in his home. With the Braves, hobbled by joint pain, he could not be active on the field. The Braves told him that a few other clubs were killing them in international scouting and they wanted to compete. “So they made me the international scouting director. And I had no idea what to do.”

After two years in which he did both domestic and international work, starting in 1992, he began to work internationally full time. He had to create a department almost from scratch. At the time the Braves had only one scout who had worked the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and the rest of the Caribbean. Bill’s first assignment was in Curaçao. It was the beginning of a successful run.

Clark made his first forays into each country by telephone, simply calling blind to the baseball federation in each country and asking to speak with anyone who knew English. “Little by little, I would piece [things] together. By the end of that first year, I had a full-time man in Australia, and I had a full-time man in Canada. The Braves had never had anybody in Canada. I had two well-paid part-time men in Europe. I had pretty good phone bills. That’s the way we got started. The second year I was out, we hit on Andruw Jones and we hit on Bruce Chen.”

After laying the groundwork, Clark started to rack up the miles. As soon as he got a man in Venezuela, he headed there to hold a tryout. There was a shortstop Clark wanted to follow, but as soon as he got back home, he learned the shortstop had signed with someone else. In international scouting, there was no draft. If you saw someone you liked, you had to head to his house right away. “You learned to pull the trigger immediately. You carried contracts to the ballpark with you every day. Every day.” There was an excitement to the hunt that one doesn’t often find in contemporary scouting. There was rarely a lawyer involved, but “when I first went to the Dominican, you paid the coach who was the buscon – the local agent, so to speak – you paid him a few hundred bucks for each player. And when you signed a player, about the first thing you did was take him to the doctor and have him wormed. And the next time you saw him six months after, he’s grown two inches and put on 20 pounds because he’s got no more worms. Before I left the game down there, there were a couple of ballclubs that paid up to $30,000 to the buscon for a player.”

Needless to say, some of the ballfields Clark visited were crude and rough. And one or two of the places he’s visited weren’t truly likely to produce any talent – Mali, for instance, where soccer was king. What took Clark to Mali was his daughter in the Peace Corps. But while visiting, he held a little workout. “I gave them these baseballs, and in a little while they gave them back and said, ‘We don’t want them. They’re too hard to kick.’ ” They had some really magnificent-looking athletes. Basketball is a fairly big sport in Mali. If I were a college basketball coach, I think I’d go to Mali and take a look.” But at least Bill got to ride a camel in Timbuktu.

After Bill had spent ten seasons with the Braves, Paul Snyder was replaced as the team’s scouting director. His replacement was too much of a micromanager for Clark. Bill had built for the Braves one of the best international operations around; perhaps their goal was to run it for themselves. He was fired.

The San Diego Padres called. They had a small program in the Dominican Republic, but almost nothing else, so Clark was back in his element, building up another international scouting program. After four years (2000-2003), the Padres let him go, too. He was 71 years old. The Padres were smart enough not to mention his age. But Clark was thinking union, and that may have been part of the picture.

It wasn’t the first time. In the early 1980s, he’d been thinking along those lines but when Bob Howsam returned as club president, he put that on hold. By the time he was in San Diego, his outspoken reputation may have hurt him. “I was known around the business by that time as a person who had made no bones about the fact that the scouts needed representation. I had gotten to the point before I got canned, I had contacted 900 scouts in the country, and had made no bones about the fact that I would be your leader in organizing, but not as your director. It was not going to be me. I did not want that.”

He did visit the National Labor Relations Board office in Atlanta with four other scouts, and learned what would be involved in petitioning for recognition as a bargaining unit. Talking with other scouts, he said, “I found all kinds of interest. I found all kinds of fear. People would say, ‘I’ve got a family. …’ It didn’t work. Fear overcame common sense.”

He’s got his opinions. Clark told Dave Paulson, “Owners couldn’t care less about scouts. They have no feeling for scouts. They are simply no different than corn fed to hogs. General managers vary. The Robert Howsams of the world lived and died with their scouts. They were as much a part of the organization as the big-league players. Other general managers couldn’t care less and they … I could name a few … but some of them are atrocious in their relationship with the personnel under them. New people come into the front office and their only interest is to bring their friends in. The security is brutal.”

The Padres move may well have been more of a case of simply bringing in a friend, than an anti-organizing effort, but Bill Clark’s baseball career as a scout had come to an end. Being an unrepentant dinosaur of sorts didn’t help, either. He refused to use a computer, and refused to have a cell phone. But he remained productive in other realms. Clark continued to write a four-times-a-week bylined column for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Contacted late in 2009, Bill mentioned some recent columns, often about baseball. He had written about scout Herb Raybourn, the value of the fungo bat over the computer, and DNA testing of players and parents in the Dominican Republic. He also wrote about how he had once almost illegally signed Albert Pujols. He has also reviewed a number of books by other authors.

Clark has three books to his credit, beginning with Saga of the Joints (1996), about the replacement of both hips and knees. In 2001 he wrote A 100-Year History of the Audubon Society of Missouri and in 2009 The History of the Show-Me State Games. Asked what might be next, he responded in late 2009, “I do plan to get things together to write about a life in scouting. At 77, I should not procrastinate.”

Along the way, Bill has enjoyed watching the birds in many countries he has visited. He has recorded some 2,000 species in his world list. “Not much of a list for a veteran birder, but better by far than any scout I’ve met,” he boasted.

Clark remained involved in officiating in amateur boxing, weightlifting, race walking, and cross-country, adding to his rėsumė of 38 years of high-school basketball officiating and 36 years in football. He was a founder of the Columbia Track Club, one of the Midwest’s oldest such organizations, and a founder of the fourth oldest marathon in the United States, the Heart of America Marathon. Much of his work has been in weightlifting and power lifting. In 1962 he started a prison lifting program inside the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, and four years later founded the National Correctional Recreation Association. He also founded the National Masters Program in lifting, a program that serves lifters 40 and older in some 50 countries today. He held the first all-women’s sanctioned competition in Columbia in 1976, over the objection of lifting leadership in the United States. Women now compete in Olympics lifting programs. A competitor himself, he held over 200 age-group records, and is a member of seven lifting halls of fame.

Clark was instrumental in reviving the Scouts Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), serving as chair and co-chair for several years. In 2007, after turning the post over to Jim Sandoval and Rod Nelson, Bill Clark was honored with SABR’s Roland Hemond Award, an award he originated as the chairman of SABR’s Scouts Committee to recognize major-league executives for their contribution to research and to scouting. “I didn’t qualify, but I happily accepted,” Bill said.

 

SIDEBAR

Not all owners prize scouts highly, and not all scouts admire ownership. Bill was asked to recount a story about Cincinnati owner Marge Schott:

When she took over, 1984 or whatever it was, every year we had fall meetings at the time of the last home series. We’d go in for the last three home fgames of the year and then we’d have meetings. So we’re in these meetings and in comes Marge. She gave us this song and dance: “This is going to be a hands-on operation. I believe in … I’m going to be in touch with every one of you.” On and on about how she’s going to run the operation. Then she says, “I need for you to come down to my office and meet a very important part of the administration of this ballclub.”

We all get up and we start down the hall, and Tony Rebello and I are dragging along toward the end. Tony looks at me and I look at him, and I said, “She’s going to take us down there to see that damn dog, I know good and well.” He said, “I’ve gotta piss.” And in we went. About five minutes later, everybody come back down the hall with this bad look on their face, and we just fell in on the tail end of the line and we went on back to lunch.

You’re gonna look at the damn dog. And she meant it.

You knew things weren’t good because they’d had a press conference the day before. She’d had doughnuts and they didn’t eat all the doughnuts. We came into our meetings the next morning and she was selling them for 25 cents apiece. Day-old doughnuts. To her own staff.

One of the reporters for one of the papers there wrote along these lines: “A year ago, when Marge Schott came here, we had the fear. … She introduced us to the dog and we had the fear that this dog was going to have something to do with running the ballclub. After a year of Marge Schott, we wished she would turn it over to the dog.” She barred him. She told the publisher, “He can’t come back into this stadium.” The publisher said, “Well, that’s all right. He’s our reporter. So if he can’t come back, nobody’s coming back.” She said, “You can’t do that.” He said, “You wanta bet?” So they let him back in.

 

Sources

Unless otherwise attributed, all quotations by Bill Clark are from an extensive interview done by Bill Nowlin on July 17 and July 19, 2007.

 

Appendix

An “X” indicates that Clark signed at least one player from each territory marked X.

A “T” indicates Bill held one or more tryouts in the country marked T.

  • Canada – 50 times T, X - he held tryouts in Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.
  • Mexico – 30 times T, X – about 10 of the 31 states with emphasis on Sinaloa, Sonora, Nayarit, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Campeche, Yucatan, and Tabasco.
  • Venezuela – 30 times T, X
  • Dominican Republic – 30 times T, X
  • Australia – 25-30 times T, X – every state and territory, and the Torres Straits Islands as well
  • Panama – 20 times T, X
  • Nicaragua – 15 times T, X
  • Netherlands – 10 times T, X
  • El Salvador – 8 times T, X
  • Japan – 8 times T, X
  • Taiwan – 8 times
  • Korea – 6 times T, X
  • New Zealand – 6 times T, X
  • Honduras – 5 times T, X
  • Costa Rica – T, X
  • Argentina – T, X
  • Colombia -- 7 times T, X
  • Aruba – 6 times T
  • Curacao – 10 times T, X
  • Brazil – 4 times X
  • Puerto Rico X (if you consider Puerto Rico as a country)
  • South Africa – 3 times X
  • Barbados -- T
  • Chile – T
  • Mali – T
  • Peru -- T
  • St. Maarten – T
  • St. Vincent -- T
  • Bequia -- T (part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines)
  • Sweden -- T
  • Trinidad – T
  • Bahamas -- T
  • Hong Kong – T
  • Guatemala
  • Italy
  • China (PRC)
  • Czech Republic
  • St. Croix
  • Ecuador – T
  • San Marino
  • Belize – T

There are markings next to both Bahamas and Hong Kong that indicate Clark held a tryout in each.

He has also observed teams from the following countries play in international ball:

  • Finland
  • Norway
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Poland
  • Russia X
  • Lithuania
  • Estonia
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Ukraine
  • Zambia
  • Namibia
  • Nigeria
  • Zimbabwe
  • Croatia
  • Slovenia
  • Hungary
  • Mongolia
  • Indonesia
  • Philippines
  • Cuba (20 tournaments)
  • Marshall Islands
  • Northern Mariana Islands
  • Chuuk (island group in the southwestern Pacific)
  • Kosrae (island in the South Pacific)
  • Palau (island nation east of the Philippines)
  • Anguilla (softball)
  • Malaysia (softball)
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