September 14, 2010

Great Pirates In History: Fred Clarke

Most casual Pirates fans know about Honus Wagner, but I suspect not many have heard of his contemporary Fred Clarke. While Wagner was the league's brightest star during his career, Clarke was not far behind. Clarke hit for power and average, stole bases and walked often throughout his career. In addition to playing the outfield, he also managed four of the nine Pirates pennant winners including three in a row from 1901-1903.

By the turn of the century, Clarke was an established a superstar. He had been one of the league's finest hitters for years with the Louisville Colonels, who he also managed since the age of 24. Clarke had career numbers of .334/.398/.448 with Lousville, scoring 607 runs in five and a half seasons.

Coming to Pittsburgh
After the 1899 season, the National League contracted from 12 to 8 teams. Colonels owner Barney Dreyfuss purchased the Pirates and consolidated those teams into one. A talented group of 14 Colonels including Wagner, Rube Waddell and Clarke joined the Pirates, instantly transforming a mediocre team into a contender. Clarke also was installed as manager of the new squad for 1900.

Clarke struggled with illness in 1900 and hit only .276/.368/.386, by far his worst season to date. He got into a fistfight after a game in May and had bottles thrown at him from the Pittsburgh stands in June. He got on base enough to score 84 runs in 110 games, but the 33 games he missed were costly as the Pirates finished second, 4.5 games behind Brooklyn.

After the bottle incident, Clarke calmly cleaned up the glass shards. But another time Clarke fought back, firing the ball at a fan after catching the third out. The problem was it was the second out and there was a man on base. The ball bounced out of the stands and Clarke was able to get it in before the runner scored.

Championship Years
Clarke returned to his customary hitting level with a .324/.395/.461 campaign in 1901, scoring 118 runs. His pitching staff once again led the league in ERA. Backed this time by the league's second highest scoring offense, Pittsburgh easily took the pennant with a 90-49 record.

It was more of the same for Clarke in '02 as he hit .316/.401/.449, scoring 103 runs. That year's Pirates went 103-36 and finished first by 27.5 games.

Clarke had his finest Pirates season in 1903, hitting .351/.414/.532. He led the league in slugging percentage and doubles but still batted out of his customary #2 hole. The Pirates finished first again and played in the first ever World Series after the season, which they lost 5-3 to the Boston Americans.

Overall, for the three pennant years of 1901-03, Clarke hit .330/.403/.478 and scored 309 runs while driving in 183. Wagner hit .346/.408/.491 and scored 303 runs while driving in 318. Apart from Wagner's RBI totals due to hitting cleanup, it's hard to say either was the superior hitter during those seasons. At worst Wagner was a top ten player in baseball history; it's saying a lot that Clarke was his equal when Wagner was in prime career, championship form. Wagner was the team's superstar but Clarke's lefthanded bat was crucial.

Unlike today's left fielders, Clarke possessed the strongest arm in his team's outfields. Taking the extra base was even more important in those low scoring days, and opponents feared Clarke's arm more than almost anyone in the league.

Later Career
Now in his thirties, Clarke started to decline somewhat as a player starting in 1904. He always got on base and collected extra base hits - leading the league in triples in 1906 - but by this time he was more Will Clark than Albert Pujols. The Pirates finished with a winning record every year from 1904-08 but were unable to take another pennant.

Clarke's bunch got together in 1909 for one last hurrah, playing for the first time at Forbes Field - the first ever modern concrete and steel stadium. The fiery player-manager, now batting third in the lineup, hit .287/.384/.373 and walked a league-leading 80 times while scoring 97 runs. If those numbers don't jump out at you, consider that the 36-year-old Clarke was the second-oldest regular in the league, which as a whole hit a Ronny Cedenoesque .244/.310/.314. Wagner, for his part, hit .339/.420/.489 and drove in 100, while Tommy Leach scored a league leading 126 times. With a pitching staff that had a 2.07 ERA, that was another pennant winning formula.

This time the Pirates would not be denied in the World Series. Clarke hit the Pirates' only two home runs of the Series and walked four times in the deciding Game 7, helping the Pirates to their first ever World Series title. It was the crowning achievement on a Hall of Fame career.

Clarke slumped in 1910 but hit .324/.407/.492 in 1911, his last season as a regular player. He stayed on as manager until 1915, piloting his last great team in 1912 when the Pirates went 93-58.

A Pirate Great
Overall Fred Clarke hit .312/.386/.429 for his career. Those would be great numbers for a #2 hitter now but were outstanding in the dead ball era. There was no MVP award at the time but Clarke would have won it in 1897 and had a strong case in 1903. He stole 509 bases and hit 220 triples, still seventh in baseball history. He also went an astounding 1602-1181 as a manager. Clarke was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945.

He died in August 1960 prompting the Pittsburgh Press to opine: "The death of former Pirate Manager Fred Clarke recalls that wonderful era in the early 1900's when our Pittsburgh ball club was winning consistently...Old time baseball fans recall him as a fiery manager and born leader of a crew of stars headed by the incomparable Honus Wagner."

Fred Clarke was a great hitter and a great leader of men. He was instrumental in four pennants and Pittsburgh's first World Series title, and for that he is truly a great Pirate in history.

No comments:

Post a Comment