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Farewell to Horace Clarke

by Lincoln Mitchell

Horace Clarke died last week at 81 years old. I never saw Clarke play because he was just a little before my time. When I first became aware of baseball and the Yankees, their second baseman was Sandy Alomar. That winter the Yankees traded for a prospect named Willie Randolph who stayed at the position for a decade and was a great and likable player.

I first became aware of Clarke as a boy learning about Yankees history when I stared hearing the phrase the “Horace Clarke years,” referring to the years between the end of the great Yankees dynasty of Mantle, Ford and Berra and emergence of the great teams of the middle and late 1970s. Even today, Clarke is the only Yankees player for whom an entire era is named. Although that is an honor of some kind, it also contains more than a hint of derision, suggesting that Clarke was a symbol of the ineptitude of the era.

That is not fair to Clarke who was a very solid ballplayer and, by all accounts, a very decent and well-respected man. Clarke was also a trailblazer of sorts as only the fifth big leaguer, and the first Yankee from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clarke was also a much better player than his place in Yankees lore suggests. While never great, he was a slightly better than average player for a relatively long time, accumulating 15.6 WAR over a ten year career. His skill set was essentially strong defense, and some offensive value. He was not a power hitter, managing only 27 home runs in more than 5,000 trips to the plate, but Clarke was fast enough to steal 151 bases. His career OBP of .308 was not good even in the low offense era in which Clarke spent most of his career. Players like that have real value. If the ten years of Clarke’s career had been from 1960-1970, or 1955-1965, he would be much better remembered today and would probably would have been understood to be a key player on several great teams. Clarke was a better player than Bobby Richardson, Billy Martin or Jerry Coleman, but Clarke’s Yankees teams were much worse than those on which those other second basemen played. Fittingly, no Yankee ever played in more games than Clarke without a single postseason appearance with the team.

Clarke was more than a collection of statistics. He was a trailblazer who signed his first contract with the Yankees organization when he was 17 and remained with the organization 17 years. He was a relatively quiet man who did a more than workmanlike job during what may have been the nadir of Yankees history, but he was also a teammate of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris after their great teams and of Graig Nettles, Thurman Munson, Roy White, Lou Piniella and Chris Chambliss before they started winning championships. That is an unusual Yankees career, and one that can be easily forgotten.

But we shouldn’t forget Horace Clarke quite so quickly. While the teams he played on have a less than stellar place in Yankees history, Clarke himself was a fine player about whom it is very difficult to find anything negative that was written or said. He may not have quite been a baseball lifer, but he was around the game for decades and contributed a lot to the game in the Bronx, and even more so in the Virgin Islands. Clarke’s death is a loss for the Yankees family and a reminder that there is more to Yankees history than championships and controversies.

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