This annotated week in baseball history: Jan. 31 – Feb. 6, 1909

On Feb. 4, 1909, John Clarkson died in a Massachusetts psychiatric hospital. It was an unfortunate and inglorious end to the life of a man who is still one of the five winningest right-handed pitchers in National League history. Richard looks back on his life.

In a column I wrote around this time last year, I characterized John Clarkson as “arguably the most obscure 300-game winner in history,” which is true. Unfortunately for Clarkson, the reason he is not the unquestioned king of obscure 300-game winners is the presence of fellow mystery man Mickey Welch, rather than any popularity, however slight.

But Clarkson deserves better than to be forgotten. Doing all of his pitching before the turn of the century did him no favors in regard to the historical memory, but he led the National League in wins and strikeouts three times, won the 1889 pitching Triple Crown and ranked in the top five in ERA+ seven times.

Owing in no small part to the era in which he played, Clarkson is both second and third in single-season victories in the National League, and he was the winningest pitcher in National League history—328 victories—at the time of his retirement. That achievement is made all the more remarkable given that Clarkson pitched just 12 seasons in the National League. Clarkson was, simply put, the greatest pitcher during the pre-1893 period before the mound was moved to its current distance of 60 feet, 6 inches.

No one pitched more innings than Livan Hernandez last decade, but he was no Clarkson. (Icon/SMI)

Clarkson made his debut in 1882 as a 20-year-old with the Worchester Ruby Legs, still one of the best team names in baseball history. He started three games, losing two of them, and was thereafter a Ruby Leg no more: The team released him in May.

Clarkson spent the next season pitching for the East Saginaw Greys of the Northwestern League, and much of 1884 until his contract was bought by Chicago’s National League franchise in August of that year. (That franchise is the modern-day Cubs; at the time they were known as the White Stockings.)

Supposedly scouted by Cap Anson himself, Clarkson impressed during his limited first season in Chicago, going 10-3 while leading the league in strikeouts per nine innings. But that was just a preview of what was to come in 1885.

That season, Clarkson had maybe the greatest pitcher season ever, even considering the profound differences from the game today. He went 53-16, winning more than 60% of the team’s games. He pitched 623 innings, a gigantic total even by the standards of the time; the gap from Clarkson to second-place Mickey Welch was greater than the gap between Welch and 10th-place Henry Boyle.

Clarkson recoded 68 complete games, and he had a 1.85 ERA, good for third in the league. Not surprisingly, given the enormous number of innings he pitched, he also led the league in shutouts and strikeouts.

Clarkson’s ’85 form was not repeated the next year, as he won “only” 36 games and threw fewer than 425 innings. 1887 would be his last year in Chicago; his 38 wins, 523 innings and 237 strikeouts all paced the NL.

Purchased by Boston for $10,000—quite a lot of money in those days—Clarkson again led the league in innings, but his form seemed to be slipping, posting the worst ERA+ of his career (105) since his days in Worchester.

But he rebounded spectacularly in 1889. Clarkson won 49 games to lead the NL. He also led the league in winning percentage, innings, ERA+, complete games and shutouts. For good measure, he also led in strikeouts and ERA, becoming just the fifth man to win the pitching Triple Crown.

Clarkson was never quite that good again—though he won as many as 33 games in a season, and he left baseball after the 1894 season. His total of more than 4,500 inning still ranks him in the top 25 all-time, and looks extremely unlikely to be challenged in the near future. (The closest active player is Jamie Moyer, more than 600 innings behind.) His 328 victories over a 12-year career gave him an average seasonal win total of more than 27, unimaginable by today’s standards.

Exact accounts for how Clarkson came to such a victory total vary. General consensus is that while Clarkson at one point in his career had a strong fastball, he achieved most of his success featuring an assortment of curveballs, relying more on trickery than pure speed to retire batters. Sometimes this trickery went beyond a mere selection of different pitches.

Reports indicate that on at least one occasion—and possibly multiple ones; like virtually all baseball history from the era, there is more than one version of the story—Clarkson bought a gigantic belt buckle, polished it to a high shine and wore it on the mound in an attempt to blind batters. Some tellings of the story even go so far as to claim that Clarkson would shimmy before he pitched, trying to find the perfect angle to reflect light into the batter’s eyes.

Part of Clarkson’s eventual obscurity arose from the circumstances of his death. After his playing career ended, he retired to Michigan and ran a store there. Sometime in the middle part of the Aughts, Clarkson suffered a mental breakdown and was institutionalized. He would spend much of the rest of his life in and out of—mostly in—mental hospitals.

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Although pneumonia was Clarkson’s official cause of death, it is telling that when he fell ill during a visit with family in Massachusetts, they took him to a mental hospital.

Maybe unfairly, Clarkson’s mental problems are reflected in the comments of those who played with him. Cap Anson, his manager during the glory days in Chicago, noted that Clarkson required a great “amount of encouragement . . . to keep him going.” Anson claimed that Clarkson would pitch brilliantly when given praise, but would refuse to take his turn if given any criticism.

Winning more than 325 games in a career lasting less than 12 years is no small trick, and there can be little doubt that Clarkson—even given the different environment in which he pitched—deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame. That his glories are virtually unknown is an unfortunate consequence of his early death and the time in which he played.

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