Mickey Mantle and Horace Clarke usually aren’t mentioned in the same breath.
August 13th marked the 25th anniversary of Mantle’s death in 1995, again reminding Yankees’ fans of his greatness in pinstripes. From 1952 to 1969, he was one of America’s heroes, being a 20-time All-Star and three-time MVP among a laundry list of honors.
Just over a week earlier, Clarke passed away at the age of 81 in Maryland on Aug. 5.
Clarke is often remembered as having the end of the Yankees’ dynasty and a following mediocre period referred to as “The Horace Clarke Years.” During that time from 1967 to 1974, the Yankees highest finish was fourth.
In Clarke’s case, he should never be remembered as a mediocre second baseman. He had to live in the shadow of legendary second sacker Bobby Richardson, who retired after the 1966 season. For two previous seasons, Clarke played both second and short in a backup role.
For my memory, Clarke was one of the first players I remember wearing glasses and a batting helmet in the field that typified his persona as a blue-collar, lunch-pail player. Unbeknownst to me in my youth, Clarke was the fifth of 10 players from the Virgin Islands.
His production as a seven-year Yankee helped develop his appeal with fans that also created a legendary status. He was a picture of hustle and determination with the usual dirt stains to prove his point.
Clarke was the quintessential leadoff hitter, as he could switch –hit and run. He holds the distinction of being the only player to have grand slams be his first two career homeruns, and he stole a career-high 33 stolen bases in 1969 when he had his best season overall (career-high. 285 average, .339 on-base percentage, and second in the league with 183 hits).
During his Yankee stint from 1965 to 1974, Clarke was one of just 11 players who swiped 150 or more stolen bases and wrapped 1,200 or more hits
Along with a steady bat, Clarke was slick with his glove as he led all American League second baseman in assists for six straight years and putouts four years in a row. He had the knack for turning the double play.
In addition, he led the American League in at-bats in both 1969 and 1970, and in singles in 1967 and 1971, and had the lowest at-bat/strikeout ratio in 1970, one for every 19 at-bats.
His consistent level of play shouldn’t be remembered as a part of the Yankees “Dark Years” that included the likes of Ron Bloomberg, Jerry Kenney, Celerino Sanchez, and an aging Gene Michael and Roy White.
Clarke was dealt in 1974 to San Diego as part of the Yankees’ forthcoming revival in the mid-to late-70s. It was his final season and finished with a .256 average 27 homers, and 151 stolen bases.
Like many players whose relevance slipped under the radar during their playing days, Clarke’s contributions were suddenly recalled with his recent passing.
There aren’t many Yankees’ fans who didn’t know the popular number 20 in his prime, and those and many others should always remember him in Yankee lore.