Imagine that Ben Affleck was pressed into emergency duty during a Red Sox game in the heat of a pennant race … and then gunned down two base runners who figured they could take liberties on him. That is essentially a summary of the major league career of Harry Corson Clarke.
Clarke was born into a show business family in New York City on January 13, 1861. His paternal grandfather, Corson W. Clarke, had been a well known comedian, while his father, Henry G. Clarke, worked as a stage manager for P. T. Barnum. His mother Adele was a celebrated actress who had appeared with the likes of Edwin Forrest and Edwin Booth. Harry was trained for an acting career from a young age and spent almost his entire life on the stage.
In the 1880s, however, Clarke developed a passion for the national pastime. He became captain of a New York City nine known as the Actors’ Amateur Athletic Association of America – or the A.A.A.A.A. team, for short. Naturally, the celebrity status of the members meant that this club received more attention than their activities would have otherwise warranted. (New York Sun, April 5, 1890) Still, it must have come as quite a shock to fans at the Polo Grounds to find him playing right field for Washington in the second game of an August 28, 1889 doubleheader.
The visitors had arrived in town already banged up, and matters got worse in the first game of the day. First baseman John Carney wrenched his knee but gamely tried to continue. Finally, he was replaced by Connie Mack, but the first ball hit to him took a bad hop and struck him square in the left eye. So Carney “limped into the field and resumed his old position.”
With Carney still in obvious pain, right fielder Ed Beecher was brought in to play first base in the second game and his position in the outfield was taken by a recruit from the stands — actor Harry Corson Clarke. On the first ball hit his way, Clarke “covered himself with glory” by “making a really fine catch of a foul fly.” Still, New York base runners were well aware that an actor was stationed in right field and intended to take advantage. In the second inning, Arthur Whitney drove a ball off the right field wall and figured he had an easy double. Instead, Clarke fielded the carom cleanly and rifled it to second baseman Sam Wise to cut Whitney down.
Clarke’s next chance came in the sixth inning when, with Giant runners on first and second, a single to right field looked as though it would produce a New York run. But Clarke fielded the ball smoothly and made another strong throw to nail his second base runner of the game. Those three plays were his only fielding chances that afternoon. (New York Sun and New York World, August 29, 1889)
Some might doubt the legitimacy of a major league game in which an actor threw out two major league runners, but there is no reason to doubt the legitimacy of his accomplishment. The Giants were in the thick of a pennant race and with the game close throughout — New York ended up winning 7 to 5 — they certainly would not have been giving anything but their best effort.
After this one glorious moment on a major league field, Harry Corson Clarke stuck to acting. He eventually relocated to Los Angeles and appeared in such well-known plays as Charley’s Aunt and My Friend from India. But he became best known for leading an acting troupe that traveled far and wide, including several successful tours of the Orient. (Oakland Tribune, April 1, 1923)
Indeed, he appears to have spent so much time touring overseas that some sources became confused about his nationality. One summary of his career claimed that he was of English birth and training. (Oakland Tribune, April 1, 1923) And a book about the unsolved murder of famed Hollywood producer William Desmond Taylor — who performed in Clarke’s troupes in Hawaii and Australia — refers to Clarke as an “Australian producer.” (Giroux, 72)
Harry Corson Clarke had an early marriage that ended in divorce in 1904. (Washington Post, July 10, 1904) Subsequently he remarried Margaret Dale Owen, one of his leading ladies, and this marriage lasted until his death in 1923.
Clarke died in Los Angeles on March 3, 1923, but accounts of the cause of his death are wildly contradictory. He was only sixty-two and in apparent good health, having already made plans for several engagements and another tour of the Orient. Obituaries variously attributed his death to a fall during a performance in Los Angeles, an illness he contracted while in a show in Detroit, and a fall in the dressing room of a Cincinnati theatre. Meanwhile, Bill Lee’s The Baseball Necrology claims that he died of liver cancer.
Robert Giroux, A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990); obituaries of Harry Corson Clarke in the New York World (March 7, 1923), Variety (March 4, 1923), Oakland Tribune (March 6, 1923); obituary of Clarke’s (long-lived) mother in the New York Times, March 27, 1931; profiles of his career in the Anaconda (Montana) Standard, January 6, 1901 and Oakland Tribune, April 1, 1923; Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003); contemporary censuses and newspapers, as noted.