Horace Clarke, a second baseman from the U.S. Virgin Islands who had a solid 10-year playing career but unwittingly became the face of the Yankees' fall from grace from the mid-1960s to mid-'70s, died Wednesday at age 81.
Clarke played for the Yankees from 1965-74, almost precisely the period of time when the team did not win anything -- the longest stretch that the Yankees did not reach the postseason since their rise to prominence in the '20s. But while Clarke wound up playing for a lot of losing and mediocre teams, he became the face of the team's decline that began the very season he arrived.
"The Horace Clarke Era" is something many might have heard about. It's the punch line that's repeatedly been used by a certain generation to describe the Yankees' period between Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and Whitey Ford to that of Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles and Ron Guidry -- the dark period during which the Yankees lost more games than they won, lost more fans than they drew, the Bronx began to burn and baseball's greatest franchise became mostly faceless.
But it shouldn't be forgotten that Clarke, signed out of Saint Croix in 1958 and having spent parts of eight years total in the Minors, led the American League in at-bats in '69 and '70, hit .285 in '69 and walked more often than he struck out throughout his career, 365-362. The numbers weren't great, but Clarke twice led the AL in singles ('67 and '69), and though he was criticized by some for bailing out on double-play pivots, he turned more than 100 of them in three seasons and had a .983 career fielding percentage.
His numbers were fine for the time in which he played, and they kept him a starter for more than seven seasons. He played in the field with his batting helmet on, and he finished his 10-year career with a .256 average and 151 stolen bases.
Clarke was the fifth U.S. Virgin Islander to play in the Major Leagues, according to the St. John Source, succeeding Bobby Richardson as the Yankees' second baseman in 1967. He is one of just five Major Leaguers in the Modern Era whose first two career homers went for grand slams. And in 1970, he broke up three no-hit bids in the ninth inning, against Jim Rooker of the Royals on June 4, Sonny Siebert of the Red Sox on June 19, and Joe Niekro of the Tigers on July 2.
“I know I got a lot of criticism for playing Horace Clarke as much as I did, but he was a lot better ballplayer than anyone gave him credit for,” late Yankees manager Ralph Houk once said, as quoted in numerous outlets.