Monday, September 28, 2015

Old as Moses Monday - John Clarkson

*I bet you can figure out the concept of this feature; it shines the spotlight on Cubs players from baseball's ancient history that have found their way into my CATRC. We're talking pre-WWI here!*

I'm resurrecting a feature that I haven't used here on Wrigley Roster Jenga that I haven't used in almost a year.   Honestly, inspiration is lacking lately and this sort of thing makes for a nice, easy jumping off point. Plus, I get to show off some cool cards that I needed an excuse to feature.
It's a win all the way around... that is, if you all enjoy reading it anyway.

Without further ado, let's talk about a Hall of Fame pitcher who grew up in the shadow of the Civil War that Jake Arrieta is doing his best to emulate:

John Clarkson may have had a relatively short career peak, but for a time, there was no better pitcher in the 19th century National League.  As a White Stocking from 1884 to 1887, John posted a 137-57 record with a 2.39 ERA while twice pacing the circuit in complete games, strikeouts and appearances.

Now, of course this was way back when the pitching mound was actually a pitching box and much closer to the plate than it is today; but these numbers were still tops for his day.  We can really only compare him to his peers... and Jake Arrieta.

What a beast!

The Massachusetts native first found his way to the Big Leagues in 1882 with the Worcester Ruby Legs (God, I love the old-timey team names), after playing semi-pro for a few years in the northeast.  Unfortunately, he only got into three games before the floundering club folded in the off-season and he found himself back in the minors.

It was here that he was re-discovered by Chicago's Cap Anson and brought to the White Stockings roster for the 1884 season.  Mid-season, he hit his stride, going 10-3 with a 2.14 ERA and earning the designation as the team's number one starter.  He was only just beginning.

In a remarkable feat of durability, Clarkson appeared in 70 games that year, pitched 623 innings and threw 68 complete games. He also posted an ERA of 1.85 as The White Stockings won the 1885 NL pennant with 83 wins, a mind-boggling 53 of which came from Clarkson.  For good measure, he tossed a no-hitter that July against Providence too.

Hmmm, so a sort-of reclamation project who debuted with a promising half-season's worth of performance quickly emerged to sheer and total dominance as the staff ace in the next season with a late-summer no-no... who does that remind you of?

There's that guy again

He followed up that otherworldly campaign with 36 wins in '86 (what a bum) and 38 in '87 with an ERA topping out a 3.08 - pretty damn good numbers, but not nearly as dominant as that first full season.

On top of that, his battery mate, the much-heralded King Kelly was famously sold to the Boston Red Stockings going into 1887, which did not sit well with Clarkson.  Already known for his fragile psyche (he was said to be unable to take any criticism, constructive or not), this major change made him even harder to deal with.  Along with the emergence of Mark Baldwin, it was for this reason that White Stockings sold Clarkson to Boston as well.

Clarkson's price was $10,000 - the same massive (for the time) sum that the Red Stockings had coughed up for Kelly the year before.  Thus, the two became known as the "$20,000 Battery" - a pretty prestigious moniker.

The other half of the "$20K Battery"

Clarkson pitched five great seasons for Boston. He was 33-20 in 1888, starting 54 games and pitching 53 complete games with an ERA of 2.76.  That said, his best moment in Beantown had nothing to do with his prowess on the mound.

During a game that carried late into dusk, John pitched a lemon to the plate in order to convince the umpire it was too dark to play.  The ump initially called the lemon a strike, and when the Boston catcher revealed that the pitch was actually a piece of fruit, he called the game and, likely, felt a great deal of embarrassment.

Jake could make it work
Original image courtesy of; hack-job editing by me

Honestly, I think I'd pay $10,000 just to see a pitcher try that move today.

John finished the last few years of his career with the old Cleveland Spiders, as a sort of mentor for a young hurler by the name of Cy Young.  No longer the ace of the staff, his performance regressed accordingly, suffering his first losing season in 1893 (16-17, 4.45 ERA).

Already near the end of his rope, a tragic incident that off-season really sealed his baseball fate.  On their way to hunting retreat with a friend and former teammate by the name of Charlie Bennett, John watched as Bennett slipped off of the rail car they were travelling in and fall under the wheels of the train, severing his legs.

It was Charlie's misfortune that irreversibly scarred Clarkson
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

It was this incident that was said to really mess with Clarkson's mind and he was only able to last another mediocre season in the Majors before he retired.

Unfortunately, his mental state never did improve after he left the game.  Sometime in 1905 or '06 Clarkson suffered a total breakdown and was declared insane. He was then committed to an insane asylum and spent much of the next three years in various mental hospitals. John died of pneumonia in psychiatric clinic a few years later in 1909 at the age of just 47.

An inglorious and unfortunate end for a man who had once been the best pitcher in the National League.

Clarkson in his later days (1905)
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

His dominance went largely ignored until 1963, when he was finally elected to the Hall of Fame by the old-timer's committee. John's run of dominance from 1884-89 produced six 30-win seasons, two 300 strikeout seasons and an NL pitching Triple Crown in '89, all with remarkable durability.

It's this induction that you see was commemorated by the card at the top of the post, which was a part of the Baseball Immortals checklist produced annually by SSPC from 1980-87.  This seems to be an all-time favorite oddball collection for most of the blogosphere and I am certainly no exception.  The not oft-featured subjects, the colorful sketches and two tone borders... what's not to love?

Thanks to SSPC, I was able to cross Clarkson off of my CATRC needs list a few years ago for a reasonable price.  I mean, outside of this gem, John doesn't have a lot of cards that aren't original Goodwins.

Here's hoping that, with the similarities between their emergences, that Jake Arrieta can become half as good as Clarkson was in his prime.  After all, he'll never be quite as good statistically as a 19th century hurler (unless he somehow finds the strength to pitch every single day).  But, then again, his minuscule 1.82 ERA this year looks an awful lot like a Deadball Era mark to me!


  1. hahaha. That lemon story was great. I think the Pirates just need to argue the count to each batter so it has to be reviewed. That way Arrieta arm gets cold and they have to take him out. Gamesmanship!

    1. I think maybe a little ex-lax in Gerrit Cole's Gatorade sounds like a good plan too. In all seriousness though, this is going to be a helluva game!

  2. Nice post. I didn't know about the lemon. Pretty cool.

    1. The early days of baseball were such a colorful time, to put it mildly.

  3. I would love it if we got a players of the 1800s set in the style of Allen & Ginter. That would be pretty damn cool.

    1. I've been crossing my fingers for such a set for years. This is what UD should do with their currently pointless Goodwin Champions sets.