The voice on the telephone had a pleasing lilt to it, a melodic “Hellooooo!” dripping out of the receiver. One thing Horace Clarke wanted you to know before you ever asked the only question he ever seemed to hear was this:
“I am happy, my friend,” he said that afternoon, winter of 2004. “I played major league baseball for parts of 10 years, and I played in the magnificent city of New York, and as a child in St. Croix that was beyond dreams. Yes. I am a happy man.”
Clarke died Wednesday at 81, and for as long as there are Yankees fans who remember the dog-day era spanning 1965-75 his name will, fairly or no, be attached to it. And this wasn’t just a product of time, either. On the day after Clarke was traded to the Padres on May 31, 1974, the back page of The Post announced it thusly:
“Yanks Can Lose Without Clarke”
“In New York I was attacked and ridiculed,” Clarke told The Post’s Joseph Valerio a few months later. “You don’t get used to it. No. Never. You try to retaliate. To block it out. But as long as you’re a mediocre player like myself, you’ve got to get used to it.”
That was Clarke in a nutshell: He knew well his own limitations. In a bitter spasm of irony, that self-evaluation was made hours before he booted a routine two-out Rusty Staub groundball that led to four unearned runs in a 4-2 Mets win.
Clarke would often wear his batting helmet in the field, which only added to the derision. Mostly, he was a victim of terrible timing. The Yankees won 29 pennants in the 44 seasons connecting 1921 and 1964. They would finish first five times in six years between 1976 and 1981.
But Clarke came up on May 11, 1965. The Dynasty was fraying. He was being groomed to replace a popular cornerstone, Bobby Richardson. There were others in it with him just as long; but Mel Stottlemyre had gotten a taste of ’64, Roy White stuck it out long enough to see success in the ’70s, Bobby Murcer returned for a postseason swig in 1980 and ’81. Stick Michael had a second life as a legendary front-office man.
“I was proud to be a Yankee,” Clarke said. “I just played there at a difficult time for everyone. But I had a blast.”
He hit .285 in 1969. The next year, between June 4 and July 2, he broke up no-hitters by KC’s Jim Rooker, Boston’s Sonny Siebert and Detroit’s Joe Niekro, all in the ninth inning. And he was the hitter on the last day of the 1971 season when crowds took over RFK Stadium, forcing the Senators to forfeit their last-ever game in Washington. He was the last Yankee to live out of the Grand Concourse Hotel, a three-block walk to work.
A few days before he was traded Clarke, ever the team man, volunteered to warm up pitchers during the Mayor’s Trophy Game with the Mets. On the day he was traded his best friend, White, asked: “What 10-year veteran does that?”
“I have my memories,” Clarke said.
So do Yankees fans of a certain vintage. Not all of them are pleasant. But, then, it is perhaps time to finally concede: They weren’t all due to Horace Clarke, either.
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