Will Clark and the Hall of Fame

DMZ · January 31, 2006 at 8:15 am · Filed Under General baseball 

I picked at this post for a long time and never really felt like it was done until the vote happened and Clark only got 4.4% of the vote (23 votes out of 520 cast). That means he’s not eligible again until he goes up for Veteran’s Committee consideration, and I don’t see that he’ll get much support there either. Of course, Albert Belle only got 40 votes, and… unless this is a first-ballot punishment thing, I don’t understand that, either. But that’s another post.

This is about me and Will Clark.

In the eighties, I had to go to San Francisco to see a good team play at home. I enjoyed outdoor baseball in the summer for the first time in Candlestick. They had interesting young players, like Bob Melvin (yes, Bob Melvin) and starting with Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell, they kept pulling guys out of the farm system who were good and interesting, or at least interesting: Matt Williams, Royce Clayton, Robby Thompson, and they were great to watch, especially for me, as until then, the highlight of my Kingdome experiences were Alvin Davis-led teams. I know Candlestick wasn’t a great place to see a game, but even that kind of bad outdoor experience was special to me.

He had an excellent eight seasons for the Giants, both offensively and defensively (I wrote a long article about this for BP when he retired). He was, for three years from 1987-1989, one of the most dominant hitters in baseball. He had a huge reputation as a clutch hitter who could almost aim his hits, a guy pitchers hated to face, self-sure with the talent and production to back it. He’d chew gum and blow bubbles at first, and I saw him once leap to spear a drive close to the line, snag it, pop the bubble, and then get the runner. I was stunned.

Defensively he was fearsome, known for his ability to position himself for the hitter and situation. Tony Gwynn, pursuing .400, scorched a sure double down the first-base line only to find Clark standing right there, ready, and the ball went right into his glove. Clark shrugged it off, but Gwynn kept laughing about it in post-game interviews because it was so ridiculous that “Will Nuschler Clark” kept robbing him like that.

After the 1993 season, he left for Texas, as the team was only willing to give him a three-year deal and he wanted five. They went with minor league slugger J.R. Phillips, who stunk.

Then for a long time I was a fan of a player who wasn’t that good. In his five years with Texas, he was generally good for 120 games and a decent line, but he couldn’t terrorize pitchers for a whole year, and as injuries dogged him, sometimes he didn’t scare them that much at all.

That was painful to watch. Being able to see the same swing, that recognizable form and swagger, but without the success that should follow it didn’t seem real. I couldn’t believe that he wasn’t still hitting .300 with blistering power. I kept thinking that he’d be healthy and show everyone, or maybe that it was about the environment, and that there was some magic in being a Giant for him that he’d never recapture.

I saw it again, when he got traded to the Cardinals to serve as an emergency stop-gap replacement for an injured Mark McGwire. He utterly tore it up, and looked for all the world like the Thrill of old. And that wasn’t some small sample, either: in 79 games, he hit .345/.426/.655 and that’s not easy. He helped get the Cardinals into the playoffs, where he was still hot, and after the Cards lost to the Mets, he walked away, retiring while teams wanted another piece of the resurgent 36-year old.

It was as if he’d hung around, grinding it out, hoping (as I did) that he’d have a chance to be fully healthy and try and touch his former greatness. And then when he did, he didn’t want to face the constant wear anymore, and walked off. I missed him, but I understood.

You can look at peak value, and his years with the Giants are great support. For career, he doesn’t do as well, but then he did retire at 36 rather than ring up a couple years of modest results to pad out the totals. I don’t see that you punish him for that, but I understand where the totals are lacking, especially when you compare him to his peers like Jeff Bagwell.

Jay Jaffe wrote a great article this year on the 2006 hitters on the ballot, and found Will Clark had a good case, and compared well to the average guys already there:

As it is, Clark fares quite well when compared to the average Hall of Fame first baseman; his JAWS score of 82.9 is comfortably above the position’s standards and would rank him eighth among inducted 1Bs. He tops the likes of Tony Perez (79.8), Willie McCovey (79.2), Hank Greenberg (78.3), Harmon Killebrew (78.0), and seven other Hall first basemen, and is just behind Dan Brouthers (84.4) and Johnny Mize (84.2). He may not get in–it would be a surprise to see him outpoll Mattingly or Garvey, both of whom won MVP awards–but he is certainly no slouch.

One of my friends has a theory of what constitutes a Hall of Famer: did any team ever sign or trade for that player to get them a pennant? Two teams did for Clark.

I’ve always been conflicted about Will Clark the person, though — I know that he did a huge amount of charity over his career, doing things like building fields for kids in Texas. And I always loved that he was prone to saying all kinds of blunt things to reporters and was honest when he was struggling. But he’d also throw teammates in front of a bus sometimes. But then in St. Loius, he told Garret Stephenson, in pain in a crucial game, that he should take himself out rather than risk his career, and got him to walk off the mound instead of being a gamer about it.

The thing that prickles me, and I don’t know that this is ever going to be resolved, is the issue of whether or not he’s a racist. Profiles of him tend to show him as a down-South redneck who enjoys his hunting, which is fine, and doesn’t make him racist. But there are a couple possible incidents, told in a couple different ways, which dogged him from his San Francisco days: Barry Bonds said something about Clark being a racist, there may have been a fight with Jeffrey Leonard in which Clark said something racist to Jeffries. He may have clashed with Chris Brown. He may have said something involving another player’s nephew. So if he’s racist, it’s against people with dark skin, and of African descent as opposed to South American. Some of the specifics are odd, and in my own experience, rumors once floated tend to hang around and dog someone, whether or not they’re true: even if Kevin Mitchell came forward and said “Clark never called me anything” and Jeffrey Leonard was there and said the same thing — even if all his teammates came out and said “I never heard Clark say a racist thing in his life” it wouldn’t settle it now.

I don’t know what to make of it. And yet the accusations have eaten away at my admiration. I despise racism, it’s a scourge that hurts everyone, no matter what their color, and I don’t have much respect for people who hold racist views. I try to weigh what I know against the allegations and I don’t know.

Right now I regard Clark as a kind of bobblehead, where I know almost everything about his career, and admire his abilities, his exploits, his approach, but the inside’s hollow — I don’t really know what’s in there. I’m not sure I want to know, and if finding out conclusively that he differs with me on one of my most important beliefs would taint my view of what he did and what that meant for me growing up a baseball fan. I wonder if the lack of support he found in the vote tells me something, since I see his on-field accomplishments as worthy of much wider recognition and so the absence must mean there are personal issues.

Which brings me back to the central question: did Will Clark deserve to be enshrined?

When I was in the Hall of Fame, reading the plaques, I came around to a different view, which doesn’t have a good formula to compare. It’s this: if I had to explain to someone who knew very little about baseball why a player was in there, how would I put the case in a couple of sentences?

For most of the guys, it’s pretty easy:
“Changed how pitchers throw”
“Pioneered modern umpiring”
“Was really good for really long, even if he was never dominant” (Tim Raines, or a bunch of pitchers)
“Possibly the best player ever, certainly one of the best of the modern era” (like Rickey, for instance)
and so on.

So here’s what I would have said for Clark: “He came up, hit a home run off Nolan Ryan with his first swing, and went on to be one of the dominant players for a couple of years, after which he was generally pretty good for about ten years, then had a great year to help another team to a pennant, after which he retired.”

I understand that’s not a no-brainer case, and I understand why he didn’t get a lot of support. It still makes me sad. I wish his career had been more widely recognized.


21 Responses to “Will Clark and the Hall of Fame”

  1. Adam S on January 31st, 2006 2:44 pm

    To me Clark is clearly not a Hall of Famer. Your comment that “he was generally pretty good for about ten years” sums it up for me — pretty good, not great. Much of his JAWS score comes from defensive value and I’m not sure to what degree to trust those numbers.

    That said, I’m incredibly disappointed to see him not get more support. He seems to be in the range of Dawson, Morris, John and Rice; given that you can make a case for him in the Hall, you’d hope he wouldn’t be lumped in with Willie McGee and Hal Morris as players who fall off after one year. I suspect some of this goes back to what I said on his JAWS score — voters don’t really value defense except at premium defensive positions (SS, 2B, C, CF).

    I won’t touch the racism thing, which I was I suspect comments were originally closed. I suspect that cost him a hanful of votes, if any.

  2. Evan on January 31st, 2006 2:47 pm

    Jaffe’s JAWS score might not be the best measure. It also marks John Olerud as a HoFer, but I don’t know anyone who honestly thinks Johnny O’s looking at enshrinement, or even comes close enough to warrant a vigourous argument.

    Since JAWS is based on WARP, a lower WARP might be more ‘immortalisable’ in earlier eras if the distribution of performance was less linear then. Decrease the standard deviation, and guys like Killebrew become less common, but no more valuable, and WARP is measuring their value. If more guys appear to fill in the gap between average players and amazing players (Bonds, Rickey, Clemens), then they cease belonging in the hall. If there was a time when a lower-tier greeat player like Clark or Olerud was less common, but no less valuable, he’d more warrant being enshrined.

    That wasn’t clear at all, was it?

    Basically, I’m saying that the performance of other guys relative to the average affects the HoF worthiness of guys like Will Clark, even though his performance relative to the average is as good or better than some of the guys already enshrined.

  3. David A. on January 31st, 2006 3:12 pm

    We had a lot of discussion about this over at mccoveychronicles.com, and someone made a statement that I had also made a few years ago and that confirmed I wasn’t the only one thinking it: Will Clark is The Line. A Hall of Famer is a player who was better than Will Clark. If a guy wasn’t as good as Clark, he’s not a Hall of Famer. Obviously, that’s way too simple, but it makes me feel better about the ridiculously low vote total.

  4. Jim Thomsen on January 31st, 2006 5:12 pm

    You know, the overriding impression I had of Will Clark is that he somehow had the bearing of greatness. He had “the good face,” “the good body,” and looked utterly poised and confident. He looks like what you want a ballplayer to look like, so much so that he should be the model for a trophy. He stood straight and tall, had that great Dobbsian swing and simply commanded the image of respect. He looked like a recruiting poster for The American Way.

    I remember when he was young, a lot of sportswriters set up an artifical Clark vs. Grace comparison, and always found Grace wanting because he didn’t hit home runs, was always a little pudgy or puffy and simply didn’t carry himself with the stiff, regal bearing of a Will Clark or a John Smoltz.

    Career numbers:

    Clark: .303/.384/.497
    Grace: .303/.383/.442

    Despite lower career counting stats, I’d vote for Clark ahead of Grace, though neither should be anywhere close to the Hall of Fame.

    It’s funny, though, how images cloud the judgment of even the best of us. We all have our irrational ballplayer prejudices … ones that even not the cold logic of statistical analysis can always fully overcome.


  5. Rusty on January 31st, 2006 5:26 pm

    Some pundits, like Neyer, are making the point that not only are there already too many 1st basemen in the Hall, but that with a bunch of them on the doorstep that the Hall will simply be too overcrowded with 1st basemen. I don’t know exactly how I feel about this argument. The 1st base position does attract many of the best sluggers. But with sluggers popping up at other positions like shortstop, I believe it is changing how people feel about sluggers in general. You’re not exactly putting a quota on sluggers if you raise the bar on 1st basemen these days.

    With Clark’s defensive skills, I think he would have been much better off at 2nd or 3rd base. By the time Clark came up, Ryne Sandberg had already redefined the 2nd base position and obviously Clark’s numbers are far superior to Sandberg’s. I’m not sure where Clark started off on the diamond in his minor league career but if he was moved to 1st base it was a tough blow to his HOF chances.

    You have to wonder about the position switch for Teixeira from 3rd to 1st base. Sixteen years from now will we be having the same conversation about him as we are about Clark?

  6. CSG on January 31st, 2006 6:04 pm

    Will Clark was a 1st baseman from college on, probably earlier than that. He threw left-handed and wasn’t athletic enough to play outfield.

  7. Mock on January 31st, 2006 6:29 pm

    Did anyone else find it ironic, that in his career Will “the Thrill” seemed to play the game more stoically than anyone else on the field. I never saw him crack a smile, nor seem to really actually enjoy the game. He was a very good player. He was also not particularly thrilling.

  8. DMZ on January 31st, 2006 6:44 pm

    If you didn’t see the thrilling version of Clark, I would suggest that you perhaps you didn’t watch the right games.

  9. eponymous coward on January 31st, 2006 7:02 pm

    HOF Standards and Monitor on Baseball Reference peg Clark at around 40th percentile for HOF’ers. So he wouldn’t be dramatically lowering the standards for 1B

    Also…Edgar comes in as a close comp to Olerud and Clark (maybe a smidge better). Take that for what it’s worth.

  10. JMB on January 31st, 2006 8:57 pm

    You have to wonder about the position switch for Teixeira from 3rd to 1st base. Sixteen years from now will we be having the same conversation about him as we are about Clark?

    The Rangers would love to move Teixeira back to 3B. You might recall they were dangling Blalock to the Marlins for Beckett this off-season.

  11. pensive on January 31st, 2006 9:38 pm

    I hope that anyone that accuses the authors of USSM of being all about the stats reads this post by DMZ. Well done. Clark’s swing much prittier than Dobb’s and much more effective.

  12. Celtic_Bandit on February 1st, 2006 6:01 am

    A quick query about Barry Bonds saying someone is racist: Doesn’t Bonds refuse to sign autographs for white fans?

  13. Adam S on February 1st, 2006 8:31 am

    On Bonds, Ron Kittle claim Bonds said that a book Kittle wrote. Bonds denies ever saying that and no one else has ever claimed that about Bonds. Bonds was married to a white woman, fwiw.

    Googling Will Clark and racist, there are a few incidents that pop up where Clark was certainly out of line, and perhaps the incidents were even racist, but that doesn’t make him a racist (or prove he isn’t). Just like calling with 72o is stupid, but doesn’t mean the person doing so is stupid.

  14. Mat on February 1st, 2006 9:18 am

    It seems to me that to put Clark in the Hall, you have to value his defense pretty highly. There seems to be confusion that because first base requires the fewest tools to field adequately, that somehow defense there isn’t very important. Considering that first basemen are involved in the majority of plays in the infield, I would think that even small differences in ability would tend to add up to sizeable differences in value by the end of the season.

    It also seems like this is going to be really difficult to measure statistically. For other positions, we can tell how well they fielded their positions by getting better batted ball data to see what they can field and what they can’t. But with a first baseman, you need something like data on how easy/difficult it was to field the throws from his infielders. And unless an infield plays with a bunch of different first basemen, it’s going to be really hard to adjust for this without some kind of really detailed play-by-play data.

    So, since I tend to value defense from first basemen, I think I’d put Clark in the Hall.

  15. Mat on February 1st, 2006 9:21 am

    A seperate point–did it hurt Clark’s chances that his peak seasons were very early in his career? Blyleven is somewhat similar to Clark in this regard, as his best two seasons were at ages 22 and 23.

  16. Dave in Palo Alto on February 1st, 2006 10:29 am

    My iconic Will Clark moment was when, in a live locker room interview by Gary Radnich after the Gints clinched the pennant in ’89, Thrill let loose a barrage of happy F-Bombs, resulting in days of, no doubt management coerced, humble remorse by Will.

  17. Russ on February 1st, 2006 10:56 am

    I think one should consider the times if we are going to discuss a person’s behavior today. Was it the culture of baseball (sports in general) for the players to be a bit rough around the edges? I say that it was consistent with athletes at that time.

    Trying to judge his behavior then based on our “enlightenment” of today is simply unrealistic and patently unfair. He lived in a culture vastly different from today. If you spoke to him today, is he the same man he was then? I sincerely doubt it, I would think he has grown and changed as all of us do as society retells us what is acceptable or not.

    I also fear the word racist. It is such an easy word to dump on a person as the word takes on a life of it’s own. To my way of thinking using the word racist is alot like assumed guilt. To the American in me who relishes the intentions of our founder’s words, casting that word about is unfair. If one is going to use that word with regards to another person, have your evidence ready to offer. Don’t use the word and then say, it may or may not be true. By using that word in relation to another person, you have condemmed them without givng the reader a chance to know for themselves. It also doesn’t give the accused any credit for a possible change in belief or understanding.

    Today you and I we can’t say the N word without being branded racist nor should we. In some circles, this was an acceptable, albeit offensive, slam. While I don’t condone name calling, some people have insults coming and sports being emotional endeavors, things will be said. If you were a black athlete and a A-hole during the period in which the Thrill played, you may have earned yourself a little name calling. Today, we don’t get to judge that time and place as we are out of context and a day late.

    I’m not condoning racist behavoir or name calling, I’m only asking that we try to see it in context so that we don’t retroactively and permanently brand a person whom none of us know today.

  18. BelaXadux on February 1st, 2006 9:07 pm

    Yeah . . . Will Clark. I lived in the Bay Area when he came up, and he was a pure hitter, beautiful to watch. Tough out and played to win. I liked him more than anyone in the area except Rickey Henderson, an entirely different guy. I never understood what happened to Will after he left SF, either. Yes, Clark had nagging injuries, but they didn’t seem to be the kind that should have affected his swing particularly, either. Yet his contact and power both dropped and stayed dropped. I would have said that he simply got old young—except his burst in St. Lou showed he still had something somehow. I still don’t get it.

    I’ve never understood the rational of ‘who should be in the Hall,’ from the time I first read Bill James’ arguments to this, and truly I don’t care. I think that the assessments of who is a great player and why are best made out of statistical analyses and historical comparisons of the kind which frequent this board and similar environs, and the loyalties, affections, and disaffections of a clique of sportswriters whose _personal_ connections to both the players of their time and to some presumed ‘ideal player’ just offer too much noise for reliable judgment, to me. That said, I find DavidA’s line about Will Clark surprisingly fitting to me as well: players better than Will make fair comparables to the best players ever, and so are in the Hall, whereas those worse never are plausible comparables, statistically or observationally. If Clark had had even a single, further dominant season, I think he’d be above the cut, and I don’t doubt that his long spell as just another good player took him off most ballots; to casual assessments, such a period only confirms that ‘he really wasn’t that good,’ or whatever. Clark is truly the borderline all-time great. If Olerud and Edgar fall near Clark in the same way, I would tend to say that of the three Edgar should make the Hall because he sustained a superior performance level at the plate throughout the duration of his career, even though his offensive focus changed in mid-career in such a way that the sportswriter community will never figure him out.

    Regarding Will Clark, racist/non-racist . . . I remember most of those incidents, and I think that it’s important to take things in context, here. Clark was and is a pure Georgia Cracker, and very confident of his place in the world; I’m not saying either a redneck or a racist in so many words, I don’t know, but a product of his place and time, yes that. He was not the man to back down in a personal confrontation with anyone, regardless of color or nominal status; in addition, Clark could be quite abrasive and tactless himself, especially if he didn’t like someone, and didn’t give much a damn if he rubbed you the wrong way. Kevin Mitchell, Jeffrey Leonard, Chris Brown, and Barry Bonds are among the most abrasive and in your face teammates of their time; every one carried an ‘attitude rap,’ and expept for Chris Brown certainly deserved and deserves that rap. Put that attitude in Clark’s face, and there are going to be words, and should no one step in between, blows. That’s not to excuse anyone anything, or to call anyone’s actions or allegations right or wrong, on either side of those incidents. If Clark dropped the N word in the middle of any such confrontation cum argument, it would be entirely in character for _all_ of the ‘difficult characters’ involved in all those situations. It makes Clark something other than a diplomat, but it’s not proof positive of racism. [For the record, I’ll say that I think anyone who uses the N word in an argument in the present context is in the wrong, regardless of anyone else’s behavior, and that I personally threw a guy off a bus several years ago for going off with it. One must fight fair, regardless of who the other guy is.] If someone has the goods on Clark, or in this case the bads, then there it is and that’s on him, but none of the incidents I heard seemed to put him fully in such context as a rascist. Later in his career, he learned to keep his mouth shut, so likely we’ll never know, and I’m fine with that: it’s not something I need to know more about than I do now.

  19. leetinsleyfanclub on February 2nd, 2006 4:20 pm

    I also grew up in the Bay Area and saw Will come up with the Giants. Although he was somewhat stiff and unathletic looking when you just saw him standing there, he was intense, 100% total ballplayer. At the plate, he was simply dynamic, with one of the most gorgeous, sweeping swings I’ve ever seen. He was one of those rare players who made you sit on the edge of your seat when he was at the plate. You had the feeling he was going to hit a vicious line drive on every pitch (he often did) and when he got hot he was just stupid hot. No one could get him out.

    My favorite Will Clark memory: The Giants were a few games behind the Dodgers late in a season. In a critical game with LA, someone behind Clark homers with Clark on first and as Clark is approaching second base he gets up in Lenny Harris’s face with a crazed look on his face and pushes him with his chest as if to say “we’re gonna beat you”. It was an awesome show of intimidation and showed how competitive and passionate he was about the game.

  20. dgizzle on March 9th, 2006 4:57 pm

    I live here in the Bay Area and watched Will for his entire career and he still has the sweetest stroke I’ve seen. And should have at least gotten enough votes to be on the ballot again. Will is one player who surely was not on the juice, and I think

    [snipped, see coment guidelines]

    One word describing Will, CLUTCH!

  21. msdawg on January 9th, 2007 1:33 pm

    I followed Will since his college days at Mississippi State where he one the Golden Spikes award. I went to State with his brother and we became good friends. I have since gotten to know Will as well. Will isn’t a racist. Most the run ins he had with guys were the result of them not giving there all. Will was completely focused on the game and played hard. He expected the same from his teammates. I think people got the wrong idea about him because he was so serious about the game. He wanted to win and gave his all for his team.

    I think if things had been different and steroids (or other performance enhancers) weren’t being used during Will’s playing time we would be looking at his career much differently. I think Will is a hall of famer and you won’t convince me otherwise.

    Will retired on his on terms, sure I would have loved to have seen him play one more year, but he was ready to spend to time with his family. He is still involved with many charities. He even has a golf tournament to raise many for a local children’s organization and to help raise money for autism research (his son is autistic).

    In the end Will may have been brash and cocky, but he backed it up on the diamond.

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