John Clarkson pitched only three full seasons, and part of a fourth, for the "Cubs" of the 1880s. His brilliance was such that he was arguably the greatest pitcher in team history over such a span. That said, he is also an object lesson in the impossibility of directly comparing 19th century baseball to the modern game, and of the pitfalls inherent in comparing eras in general.
John Gibson Clarkson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 1, 1861, one of five sons of a prosperous jeweler. It was a privileged upbringing, and the naturally athletic brothers indulged professional sport as a young gentleman's pastime. Two of John's siblings, both Harvard educated, also pitched in the majors. Arthur (called "Dad"), five years younger, pitched for four teams, 1891-96; Walter, seventeen years younger, pitched for two teams, 1904-08.
John attended business school while playing for semipro teams in the area. His professional debut was at the major-league level, he was signed by Worcester in 1882, and started three games, finishing with a 1-2 record. Worcester was a small town, and hoped a well-known local boy would be a boost at the gate. That a town the size of Worcester could possess a major-league franchise was one of the curiosities of the National League in its earliest days. It had already become an anachronism, however, and the team folded after that season. Clarkson pitched in the minors the following two years.
In 1884, while pitching for the Saginaw, Michigan team in the Northwest League, Clarkson was scouted by Anson, and signed on the spot. He joined the White Stockings in mid-August. Clarkson started 14 games for Chicago, finished 13, with a record of 10-3. Anson quickly recognized the special care Clarkson's personality required, and acted accordingly, contrary to his usual martinet's style.
A "few" words about 19th century pitching are in order. A surprising stability has existed in most of the physical and mechanical aspects of baseball. But during the first two decades of major-league ball, pitching was in constant flux, substantive rules changes were made almost every year, striving for proper balance. Not until 1893 did the dimensions and mechanics of pitching begin to reasonably resemble those of today.
In 1882, Clarkson's first season, the pitcher threw from a box, dimensions 4ft x 6ft, front line 50ft from home. Sometimes the box was on raised ground, sometimes not, such standards were arbitrary until after 1900. Only underhand deliveries, with a wrist snap, were allowed. In 1885 the box's dimensions changed to 4ft x 7ft, in 1887 to 4ft x 5ft6in. Fully overhand deliveries were allowed in 1885, until 1887 the batter had the privilege of demanding a high or low pitch. Pitchers had freedom of movement within the box until 1887, when they were required to keep one foot on the back line during delivery.
In 1882 seven balls were a walk, three strikes an out. Walks were six balls in 1884, five balls in 1886, four balls in 1889. An out was four strikes in 1887 only.
In 1893 the push-off slab was introduced, set five feet back from the rear line of the old box. This is the source of the seemingly odd 60 foot, 6 inch distance; it was not, as often claimed, a draftsman's error (an old favorite of Jack Brickhouse). Clarkson adjusted to all these changes during his major-league tenure.
Clarkson's repertoire consisted of an overhand fastball (after 1884), a drop curve, and a changeup. The latter two remained sidearm throughout his career. His curve was considered spectacular, with a rotation not seen before. Clarkson often demonstrated his ability to impart a hand and wrist spin to a billiard ball that enabled it to describe a complete circle around the surface of a pool table.
Pitcher usage was also constantly changing, in keeping with the alterations in the rules. Most teams in the early 1880s used only two pitchers, a primary man who threw roughly two-thirds of the schedule, and a secondary man for the remainder. The shorter schedules and less taxing deliveries made this possible. It also made possible single-season stats that approach the surreal. After overhand deliveries became standard, pitchers were used much less frequently, and three- or four-man staffs became the norm.
The overall workload was still too great, even during the less taxing underhand era, and this took a while to be recognized. Of the six 19th century pitchers to amass 300 victories, only one (Galvin) had a major-league career of fifteen seasons. Clarkson won 328 games in only ten full seasons, and parts of two others. Numbers could be accumulated in a hurry, but at a great physical price.
Clarkson started the 1885 season as the secondary pitcher to Larry Corcoran. But Corcoran broke down in May, a typical victim of overwork. Clarkson started nearly every game from that point until late July, when Jim McCormick was acquired as backup.
On June 6, the White Stockings played their first home game of the year, having spent the first five weeks of the season on the road (typical of the times). They debuted a new park that day, the first West Side Grounds, at Congress and Loomis Streets (site now a grade school). Clarkson pitched a complete-game victory over St. Louis, 7-2. By June 24, Clarkson had completed a 13-game personal winning streak; and the team an 18-game winning streak. Both streaks ended the following day.
On July 27, Clarkson threw a no-hitter (fourth in club history), against Providence on its home grounds. His 50th win of the season occurred September 19, in Chicago, a 10-3 victory over Boston. The White Stockings won the `85 pennant by two games over the Giants, in a 112-game schedule.
In the pre-1893 era, only Charles Radbourn's 1884 season for the Providence Grays is considered superior to Clarkson's 1885 for the White Stockings. Clarkson's numbers:
Complete games: 68
Innings pitched: 683
ERA: 1.85 (unofficial)
A World Series (called by that name) had been begun the previous year, featuring the National League and American Association champions. The White Stockings faced the St. Louis Browns in 1885, but the series was marred by bad blood and disputes over format and sharing of gate receipts. The Series was inconclusive, three wins apiece and one tie. Clarkson started three games, record 1-1.
In 1886 Clarkson was the primary pitcher of a three-man staff, and his workload was less than in `85. His won-loss was 36-17, and he completed 50 of his 55 starts. On August 8, he struck out a team-record 16 batters against Kansas City. The White Stockings again won the NL pennant, by 2.5 games over the Detroit Wolverines.
The 1886 World Series, also against the Browns, was played to a format (first team to four wins), and a revenue-sharing (winner take all), agreed upon in advance, and was the most competitive and most famous of the pre-1903 postseasons. Clarkson won the first and third games, lost the fourth.
The sixth game, at St. Louis (Browns up 3-2), was considered one of the greatest games ever played to that time. Clarkson started, and held a 3-0 lead into the eighth inning, when the Browns tied the score. The game remained tied into the tenth. An attempted steal of home by Browns outfielder Curt Welch was caught, but Clarkson's pitchout to catcher Mike Kelly went wild, and Welch scored the Series-ending run (the "$15,000 Slide").
1887 was Clarkson's last season for Chicago, another stellar performance, 38-21, 59 starts, 56 complete games. But Mike Kelly, the great catcher, had been sold to Boston after the 1886 season for the astounding price of $10,000, and the team began a decline, in performance and attitude. Having won five pennants in the `80s, there would be none for nearly twenty years. Clarkson, always a touchy temperament, became more difficult to handle after Kelly's departure. Though still in his prime, the White Stockings sold Clarkson to Boston after the 1887 season, also for $10,000. Reunited with Kelly, they formed the "$20,000 Battery".
Clarkson pitched five great seasons for Boston, winning 49 games in 1889. He became heavily involved in the players' rebellion the next year, at first participating fully, then declaring his renewed loyalty to the NL, apparently after receiving a large sum to insure his fealty. The bitterness left over from these events and the ultimate collapse of the Players League made Clarkson's last seasons difficult.
A famous story survives from Clarkson's Boston years, an example of disdain or comedy, depending on one's view. Late one game, in a gathering darkness, Clarkson pitched a lemon to the plate, called a strike by umpire Jack Kerins. When shown, by the catcher, that he had declared a citrus a strike, Kerins called the game.
Arm trouble led to Clarkson's release by Boston in 1892. He then signed with the Cleveland Spiders and finished his career with them, becoming a teammate of the up-and-coming Cy Young. His last season was 1894. His final record was 328-178, 485 complete games, 37 shutouts. He was still tenth on the all-time wins list when Greg Maddux, then a Cub, passed him on August 19, 2006.
In 1893, Clarkson's close friend, catcher Charlie Barrett, lost parts of both legs in a railroad accident during a trip the two men were making. Clarkson witnessed the incident, and it was said to have severely affected his already unstable nature. His physical and mental health suffered in his years after baseball. He ran a cigar store in Michigan for a time, and briefly coached college baseball. But in 1905 he was committed to an asylum, with brief furloughs allowed for special occasions. John was not the only member of his family so afflicted, his brother Arthur also exhibited dangerously eccentric behavior.
During a visit with family in 1909, John Clarkson fell seriously ill, and was admitted to the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, a well-known psychiatric clinic. He died there, of pneumonia, February 4, 1909, aged 47. Two years later, almost to the day, Arthur Clarkson died at the same facility.
Clarkson, like many 19th century stars, had a long wait for entry into the Hall of Fame. He was elected by the Veterans Commitee in 1963.