An Ugly Story

John Clarkson in the 1880s

Sport is about heroes, not tragedy. At least that’s the way most of us want it. Unfortunately, this is not a pretty tale. It’s an awful ending to the life of a great ballplayer. You watch a man play, you read about his life, you root for him, but you want everything to end well. In the case of John Clarkson, it doesn’t.

John Clarkson was born in July 1861 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He grew up with two advantages. First, his father was a watchmaker and jeweller who made decent money for the era. Second, the father had a co-worker named Harry Wright (yep, that Harry Wright). There’s no direct evidence about the matter, but it’s likely that Wright made at least a small impression on Clarkson when it came to baseball. Whether Wright did or didn’t influence the kid, Clarkson played for his local high school team (both catcher and pitcher), then joined the family business while attending a local trade school. There’s a common rumor that Clarkson attended Harvard. Although the family lived in Cambridge and both brothers attended the university, John Clarkson didn’t.

He did play amateur baseball and played it well. In 1882 he pitched well enough against the Worcester Ruby Legs of the National League that the team offered him a contract. Don’t you just love both the nickname and the idea that Worcester, Massachusetts could have a Major League team in 1882? It shows you just how much Major League Baseball was in its infancy in the 1880s.

Now a professional, Clarkson was another of those players who wasn’t an instant success. He went 1-2 with an ERA of 4.50, but did hit .364 with two doubles in three games. He was released early in the season complaining of a sore arm. The next season he played in the Northwestern League. He did well enough to make it back to the National League in 1884, this time with Chicago.

This is as good a point as any to discuss the pitching changes that were to dominate Clarkson’s career. He began his career pitching at 45 feet and throwing underhand. The rules were changed to move him back to 50 feet and allow him to throw sidearm. Then came the change to throwing overhand. Finally the powers that be moved the pitcher back to 60′ 6″ and put in a mound. Clarkson pitched through all of those changes and did well until the final change. It’s something of a testament to his abilities that he managed to survive as many changes as he did before finally reaching a point where he was ineffective.

He did well enough in 1884, but his career took off in 1885. For the next five years he was utterly dominant. And for the following three seasons he was really good. He won 53 games in 1885 (second all time and  still the Cubs record), led the NL with 308 strikeouts (his career high) and 10 shutouts (also a career high).  Chicago finished first and participated in the postseason championship round against the winner of the American Association (St. Louis). He started two games, one ended in a tie and he lost the other. The Colts (now the Cubs) repeated in 1886 and Clarkson was 36-17, but this time Chicago won the postseason clash with Clarkson picking up two wins. He again led the NL in wins and strikeouts in 1887.

The next year was a watershed for Clarkson. Not only did he win 33 games in 1888,  but he changed teams. Dissatisfied with Chicago and an early member of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the first sports union in the US, he jumped to Boston (now Atlanta) for the enormous sum (for the era) of $25,000 for three years and $10,000 up front. Boston finished fourth. Clarkson stayed with the team through 1891, meaning that although a member of the Brotherhood, he didn’t jump to the Player’s League in 1890. It cost him friends and worsened an already developing drinking problem.

He had one last great season with Boston. In 1889 Clarkson won 49 games and lost 19. He led the NL in wins, ERA (2.73), winning percentage, shutouts (8), walks (203), and had 284 strikeouts to give him the pitching Triple Crown. His modern numbers show a WHIP of 1.277 and an ERA+ of 150. Both also led the National League.  

In 1892 he was traded to Cleveland where he joined a new pitcher named Cy Young as the mainstays of the Spiders. It was the year of the split season and Cleveland won a part of the pennant. They faced Boston, Clarkson’s old team, in the postseason and lost. Clarkson pitched in two games, losing both.

In 1893 came the move to a mound for the pitcher. Clarkson didn’t adjust well. His record was mediocre (16-17) and his ERA soared to 4.45. His previous high in a season in which he pitched more than three games was 3.27. He was even worse in 1894 and was traded to Baltimore. He refused to report and was through at age 32.

So what have we got at this point? Clarkson retired with 328 wins (an NL record at the time), 178 losses (.648 winning percentage), 1978 strikeouts, 1191 walks, a 2.81 ERA (ERA+133), 4295 hits, and 1417 earned runs in 4536 innings pitched. Most people ignore his hitting, but he was also a very good hitter for a pitcher (you knew that caveat was coming, didn’t you?). He hit .219 but had 24 home runs (a record at the time), 232 RBIs, and never struck out 20 times in a season. He also played 27 games in the outfield (and a handful at both first and third) and was an adequate fielder.

So far not too bad, right? But now comes the ugly stuff. He ran a minor league club, opened a cigar store (actually a chain of them) and was moderately successful. In 1905 his mind snapped. Something was wrong and the sources can’t seem to agree on exactly what went wrong. Some say he suffered paranoia, others depression, others come up with different theories. Whatever it was there is universal agreement that Clarkson was a heavy drinker and this added to his problems and to his instability. One story indicates he killed his wife; however, she survived him by several years so this tale can be discounted. Other versions of the story say he stabbed her but there is no record of an arrest nor any statement from her saying it occurred. Whatever happened, Clarkson was institutionalized. He spent much of the rest of his life in the McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Massachusetts with occasional home visits allowed. By the end he was getting longer visits home, often lasting weeks, so apparently things were improving at least a little. In January 1909 he developed pneumonia and died in February. He is buried in Massachusetts in the same cemetery as longtime rival Tim Keefe. In 1963 the Hall of Fame enshrined Clarkson at Cooperstown.

I hate finding out things like this. You want your heroes to not only shine while playing, but also to have happy endings. Clarkson had a terrible end (except for the Hall of Fame, which he never knew about) and that’s a great shame. I prefer to dwell on the baseball hero, not the mental patient. Unfortunately, both are part of his legacy.

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One Response to “An Ugly Story”

  1. William Miller Says:

    If he was in his early 30’s when his mental breakdown occurred, it could have been schizophrenia. There may have been signs of it even earlier, but given the times and the general lack of understanding of mental illness, they probably would have gone unnoticed.
    On the other hand, the #1 place you’ll find the mentally ill today is in our nation’s prisons, so I guess we’re still in the dark ages as far as this is concerned.
    Interesting post,
    Bill

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