Will Clark and the Hall of Fame
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.