Horace Clarke: Patron Saint of Unfairly Maligned Athletes?

New York baseball fans my age and older almost always remember 2nd baseman Horace Clarke, and he’s usually been treated as a punch line. In some circles, all you have to do is mention Horace Clarke’s name, and older Yankee fans will either burst out laughing, make some comical “clank” sounds, or groan in recognition of the name. Now, I’m old enough to have seen him play MANY times when I was a kid, and never personally saw him make a serious boo-boo in the field… in fact, he always seemed to be a perfectly decent infielder. But I took it for granted that my elders knew what they were talking about, and assumed that he was absolutely terrible.

Why bring this up? Well, a few weeks ago, I was talking about baseball with a friend (a lifelong Red Sox fan, poor guy) and we were discussing players we remembered from the 1970s. I made a crack about Horace Clarke, which prompted him to ask, “What was so terrible about Horace Clarke? I never understood why you Yankee fans ridiculed him the way you did.” Well, thinking I’d show him, I looked up the stats on line. ANd to my horror, I found that…

  1. His career fielding percentage was .981, which is quite respectable (though not quite Gold Glove caliber). It’s as good as those of contemporaries like Joe Morgan, Dave Johnson and Manny Trillo, and higher than that of Glenn Beckert. And yet none of those guys ever endured the ridicule Horace Clarke received.

  2. “Well,” I said to myself, “fielding percentage isn’t everything. Lots of terible fielders have high percentages, because they don’t get to as many balls or make as many plays as superior fielders.” But it just so happens that Horace Clarke led American League second basemen in assists six seasons in a row. So… he WASN’T one of those guys whose limited range gave him an inflated fielding percentage.

It SEEMS pretty clear that we Yankee fans spent a lot of years mocking a guy who not only wasn’t terrible, but was actually better than average at his position.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting Horace was a Hall of Famer, merely wondering now why his name became synonymous with ineptitude for so long. Might it be simply because he had the misfortune to come along in the late 1960s, when the New York Yankee dynasty had collapsed? That people who’d gotten used to winning pennants every year with Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford looked at the hapless Yanks of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and started using poor Horace as shorthand for everything that had gone wrong with the team since 1964?

While we’re at it, let’s have some other names. Can you think of other players in other sports who were unfairly maligned and ridiculed by fans and the media? They don’t have to be superstars- just good, solid players who took an unfair amount of undeserved abuse and mockery.